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On a Deadline

Long ago, after a five-year stint in an evangelical Christian college, I was having a conversation with my grandmother. She was urging me to heed the call of urban ministry. I was having difficulty articulating my plans to become something or other, and it seemed to her that I was searching for excuses to avoid my obvious callings: to marry, to sire children, and to become pastor of a south-side Chicago church. Why else would I have spent so much time studying the Bible?

When speaking about such things, my grandmother had only one vocabulary: the language of her Holy Bible. For her, as with many Christians, scripture quotations are sometimes disjointed, severed from their original context, tailored to fit the need of the debate at hand. The debate at this moment was about my indecision, and my grandmother's quotation went roughly like this:

"Remember in the book of Revelation where God is talking to the church at Ephesus?" my grandmother asked. "When he tells them, 'Because ye are neither hot nor cold, I will spew ye from my mouth'? God don't like vacillation, he don't like lukewarm behavior. Hot or cold, here or there, decide something and get to it!"

On this point my grandmother and I were in complete agreement.

For Christians, there's a host of things that God don't like, areas not covered by the rudimentary Ten Commandments and just as dangerous as the Seven Deadly Sins. Judgment is one example. Jesus hisself warns that the standards we use to judge other people are the ones that will be used in judgment against us. We have so much work to do cleaning out our own garbage, we don't have time to fiddle with the trash of others. Yet the things we complain most about in others are those which we find most repugnant in ourselves. It is no wonder that in recent times those Christians who have complained loudest about sexual sin (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, our own Bob Moorehead) have ended up failing in precisely these areas, and in the most public of ways.

If it is true, as the country saints say, that God don't like ugly, it's also true that She hates banal. Life, as even Jesus of the Bible indicates, is about risk and chance, about how one navigates between the gray areas--and even Christians have to admit there are many gray areas. There is little doubt as to the major things one should not do: stealing, killing, heroin--and even pre-schoolers know that dad shouldn't be getting blowjobs in Mommy's house from some lady who works for him. Just because stupidity ain't on the list of sins don't mean God thinks stupidity's okay.

For myself, two areas of my youth were clouded in stupidity and doubt, and both had to do with identity. The first was racial. When I was growing up, being black was considered not a sacred gift but a liability, an ugliness even. Even as the fight for civil rights was waged by Southern clergy, many black churches taught that people were black 'cause God cursed them. Even my wise grandmother believed that in God's favorite world everyone was white. I had a Color Purple relationship with God back then, spending long adolescent hours in confused prayer about the wisdom of a loving God who cursed black people and allowed us to suffer. Those prayers were one-sided, silent entreaties to a non-responding sky.

Then one day I tried to look at the skin I was in with love. Immediately, miraculously, the clouds of self-doubt and denigration rolled away. I remember holding my arms up to catch a caress from the burning orange of a Chicago sunset; I can still picture the cocoa hue of my body set against the aqua pallor in a bathtub filled with city water. There were no Biblical directions for this change, save the reversal of the dictum to love others as I love myself. Self love spread to the other parts of myself I held in low regard, until finally I took a look at the other skin that I was born in, a skin beneath the skin of my race, that skin of desire.

That day I hurled a thousand stones against my own self: regret, guilt condemnation, shame, and cowardice. Of those, I think cowardice was the worst; a sordid inability to tell the truth about myself. But as long as I was alive, so was that second skin. I considered the commandment to sin boldly and dared to stand before God herself, as naked as I could be. I could feel Her smile at me, and I enter her mouth naked still, happy and hot.