lenten journal: thin skinned


    It’s been almost a year since I stepped out of a professional kitchen to return to teaching. Though I still cook daily at home and for friends, I’m not doing quite the volume I once was. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is in my hands. Because of the prep work – dicing onions, carrots, and celery for soups, for example – I built up two huge calluses on the index finger on my right hand because of the way I held up my knife. The calluses built up to protect me from pain. The skin became thick and tough in places where I once developed blisters, where the wear and pressure came everyday, where I had to get stronger to survive.

    One year later, they are mostly gone.

    One of my favorite Bill Mallonee songs from his Vigilantes of Love days is called “Skin” and is written about Vincent Van Gogh, who was too tender to take the pain of his life. The chorus sings,

    now look if you’re gonna come around here
    and say those sort of things
    you gotta take a few on the chin
    you’re talking about love and all that stuff
    you better bring your thickest skin

    We have calluses; we become callous. Both words can be traced back to the same Latin word, which means “hard skinned” or “thick skinned.” Callus described my finger; callous we use to talk about what happens to our hearts and minds as we face life’s persistent pain. In her sermon on Sunday, Ginger quoted a line from the novel, The Help (which I’m next in line to read), whose story centers around race issues in a domestic context in the South. One of the narrators, an African-American housekeeper, talks about how the pain affects the younger ones “who ain’t built up a callus to it yet.” The callousness of the privileged called for calluses among the help.

    The disappearance of my calluses seems like a worthy Lenten metaphor: let the protection dissolve, drop my guard, and feel those things to which I had allowed myself to become numb, or at least unfeeling, for whatever reason. The disciplines of silence and focus, of laying aside and attending, allow our vulnerability to flourish. The point of life is not so much to toughen up but to stay woundable, if we follow Jesus’ example. When Thomas was unsure they were telling him the truth about Jesus’ resurrection, he asked to see the wounds. The callous and endless news cycle in which we live calluses our hearts and minds to the pain around the world because the presentation is as perfunctory as it is painful. Images of Japan are sandwiched between sports scores and celebrity craziness as if they all held equal weight. Each cycle builds another layer of separation; the news becomes white noise that we no longer hear.

    The intentional repetition of faithful ritual runs counter to eh callusing motion of much of life. Perhaps one way to understand the bread and the wine as Broken Body and Blood is the meal is an act of compassion, of opening the wounds, of de-callusing and de-callousing our hearts that we might feel the weight of the world as we come to terms with the gravity of grace.

    “Awake, my soul,” sing Mumford and Sons, channeling the Psalmist:

    in these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
    where you invest your love, you invest your life
    in these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
    where you invest your love, you invest your life
    awake my soul

    To be awake means to do the prep work everyday without developing the calluses. Nicodemus looked puzzled when Jesus told him he had to be born again. Jesus wasn’t talking in slogans any more than I think he was speaking of one experience. Following Christ means being born again and again and again. We need our hearts scrubbed clean of calluses, brought fresh into the world over and over, that we might see with open eyes and feel with tender skin all those who need to know they are really, really loved. We need to be born again and again to see the promise that lies in our lives where we have settled for routine or expediency, where we have been beaten down by failure, where we give in to despair. We need to be born again and again to pick one another up, to hope for one another, to feel the pricks and aches of what it means to love. I think my friend Bill will allow the paraphrase of his lyric because I know his heart:

    you’re talking about love and all that stuff
    you better bring your thinnest skin

    Let us love the world unflinchingly, setting our hearts to be born again and again.



    1. Oh Milton, I just love this post. I have been feeling so overwhelmed the past few days about all the news (important sandwiched, like you said, in between more frivolous…it’s hard to stay focused). This post made me feel I wasn’t alone. Also, your referencing communion is so true for me. Even when I was a little girl, until now, when I receive communion I feel scrubbed clean, more awake. I love your de-callous-ing description of it. I remember thinking when I was younger how hungry I was during church (I’d often sleep in ’till the very last minute before we had to leave :), but then we’d have communion and I felt full. Thanks for reminding me of this feeling!

    2. “…being born again and again and again…”

      I need this reminder that God makes all things new. Each new day. Each new experience. Each new struggle. All of it He uses to make me new – again and again and again.

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