Ugly Love

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Cheryl Strayed used to write an advice column at The Rumpus called “Dear Sugar.” Her readers knew her simply as Sugar.

Those who wrote to Sugar usually identified themselves with aliases. Sometimes the alias was a single letter like “M.” Other pseudonyms expressed the challenge, the heartache, or the chaos about which the writer was seeking counsel. “Mourning and Raging” stands out as an example.

Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things gathers together some especially poignant and vivid exchanges in her column. Most of them touch me and move me (and sometimes bewilder me and even unsettle me).

One writer’s story—and the response that Strayed gave him—has stayed lodged in my head and my heart. The author called himself Beast with a Limp.

Born with a blood disorder, Beast’s body is visibly lopsided. One side appears normal while the other is withered and contorted.

Honestly assessing his pronounced deformities and obvious disfigurements, he calls himself an ugly, broken man. His words convey no hint of self-loathing or self-pity. Just realistic acceptance.

While Beast with a Limp has many friends, the special intimacy of romance has evaded him. He writes Sugar with a simple, blunt question.

Should he cling to the hope of finding that special kind of love with someone else, or should he set aside that hope as a fruitless, demoralizing fantasy? Who, after all, would want to be embraced by, to be kissed by, to be caressed by his repulsive form?

Most of us inhabit bodies that fall into the normal range of appearance.

We might not like how our butts look in jeans or wish our abs looked more like a washboard than a washtub. Our noses may seem to us big and our lips thin. Maybe the first word that comes to mind when we stand naked in front of the mirror is sagging, not tight.

No matter, we’re in the broad part of the bell curve when it comes to our looks. And for many of us, that still doesn’t quiet our fears.

Most of us have some story about ourselves or a hidden desire or a favorite fantasy that we keep caged in the darkest recesses of our hearts. It’s our Beast. We’re sure that exposing the Beast would bring humiliation and rejection. And so we keep the Beast out of sight.

Frequently, we keep the Beast hidden from ourselves. And when we spot the beast in somebody else, we are quick to call for its annihilation or its expulsion or its immediate transformation.

Jesus has the uncanny, disconcerting ability to see through appearances. To see what we take to be our repulsive Beast.

When some people talk about the holiness of God, they say that sin is so repugnant to holiness that it cannot even approach the divine. God would never tolerate a sinner’s embrace, or kiss, or caress. In other words, most of us are out of luck if we’re looking for intimacy with God in the lumpy stew that is our daily lives.

And yet, Luke tells us the story of Jesus and the sinful woman at the Pharisee’s dinner party.

All the guests have reclined at the host’s table. Don’t think about your own dinner table. Diners back then lay on the floor with their heads propped on an elbow facing a low table. Their feet were stretched away from the table.

That’s why the nameless sinful woman could kneel easily at Jesus’ feet. She washed and caressed and kissed and anointed his feet and even dried them with her hair. Now, that seems more than a little intimate to me.

In disdain for Jesus and the woman, the Pharisee thought, “If he knew what a low life this woman was, Jesus wouldn’t put up with this. Street walker! Some prophet!”

The irony is that Jesus reads people in a way that only God can. We linger on appearances. Make assumptions about what we see on the surface. Draw conclusions from only brief observations. Jesus sees the whole picture of our lives and the deepest chambers of our hearts. And he welcomes this sinful woman’s embrace.

Jesus knows this woman better than she knows herself. And he knows the Pharisee. He sees the contempt and the spiritual condescension and the political animosity. And yet he breaks bread with a man who despises him and dishonors him by withholding even the most basic gestures of hospitality.

The Pharisee thinks himself too morally put together to suffer this woman’s touch. Her very presence—to say nothing of her kiss and her caress—threatens to undo him. He withholds himself from her to prevent his own disintegration.

Paradoxically, by keeping this woman at a safe distance, the Pharisee erects a barrier between himself and the God who showed up at his very own dinner table.

The Pharisee lives under the delusion that his moral rectitude has made him presentable to God. His only challenge in this life is to retain the moral integrity he has already achieved and to point out to others how far short of the mark they still are.

The sinful woman has no such illusion. She realizes that we all fall. All of us. And we cannot rise on our own. Only God can bring us to our feet again. And in so doing, God makes us more than we were before we fell.

Jesus puts it like this. “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” She recognizes that she has fallen, that she will likely fall again, and that God is there to raise her up anew. She has compassion for everyone else who falls. She’s been there.

She will not withhold her embrace from any of the fallen people she meets in the streets and the alleys and the bars and the dives of her life. For that is where she will embrace the living God. God’s love for her liberates her to love as best she can, even while she’s still coming to terms with the beast that rattles around in her soul.

By contrast, the Pharisee’s obsession with his own integrity incarcerates him in a loveless cell of self-righteous judgment.

Cheryl Strayed’s advice to Beast with a Limp was simple and harrowing. The problem isn’t that other people might not love you. Of course some people will reject you or be indifferent to you.

The problem is your fear of being hurt. Love means being vulnerable. And being vulnerable takes courage. Never give up on being loved.

And for those of us who have encountered Christ in some guise or other, we can say this. Never forget that you are loved. That is why you can love much.

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