Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts of Faith by Anne Lamott was required reading back in my seminary days. I remember sinking into the cream and pink love seat my aunt Marie found at a garage sale in Omaha, grateful not to be reading Philip Melanchthon (a 16th century systematic theologian). Lamott was hilarious! Philip Melanchthon, not so much.
I tore through her book with a kind of spiritual fervor. If only I could find a way to talk about Jesus the way she did, then maybe I'd enter parish ministry with a fighting chance. Her writing was raw and beautiful. Her theology was refreshingly progressive. Which, at the time, meant Jesus suffered with us, loved us despite our shitty-ass selves, and called us to go into the world to care for the poor. Over the next eleven years I lived and breathed this theology.
Until one day, it stopped being enough.
Which is why I was heartbroken to read Lamott's most recent book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. She's still an expert at her craft. No one can write about suffering with as much eloquence and candor as Lamott does. And she's still hilarious. She's somehow managed to weave her humor with prose that is even more poetic than before. But her theology remains unchanged: Jesus still suffers with us and we're still a bunch of shitty-ass people called to care for the poor. Personally, I like the part about a God who suffers with us and I agree about our call to care for the poor. It's the part about us being failures that feels old and stale. More than that, if left unchecked, it can become a toxic theology.
The good news, according to Lamott, is God has such low standards that God is capable of loving us loathsome folk. She likens herself to the Apostle Paul, saying that he had what she has, "something awful and broken and stained inside." And rejoices that God gives Paul a thorn in his side, and with it, an awareness of his smallness. She lifts up words like submission and servitude, while decrying a life that is lived in bondage to the self. Finally, she concludes by saying the two paths to awakening/mercy/gratitude are 1) get cancer or 2) get a teacher. If her writing wasn't so beautiful I might have given up long before the closing chapter.
It's not that I believe humans are perfect. A quick scan of the day's news will prove this. And I have found power and compassion in being able to name unhealthy impulses in myself. But surely there's a limit? Seventeen years after Traveling Mercies--and 2000 years after the Apostle Paul--and we're still ruminating on how awful we are? When do we get to be something other than "gigantically flawed?" When do we get to talk about the infinite wisdom that dwells within us?
After years of telling people in the pews the same old story about how all roads lead to us on our knees begging for forgiveness, I started telling a new story. In this new story we are infinitely lovable. We do get it right, and even achieve the impossible (which turns out to be possible once we stop thinking so little of ourselves).
I watched as our spirits grew brighter, our sense of ourselves more expansive. Not because grace covered a multitude of our sins, but because we had discovered a multitude of our gifts. Ours was a different kind of awakening, not born out of suffering or a thorn in our sides, but out of hearing actual good news: the riches of the universe are contained within our flesh and bones. This isn't self-centered. It's the God's honest truth.