Aug. 10, 2016: Carrot Sunscreen and the Mercy of God
About 15 years ago Elena and I took Katie and Isabel on vacation to the Greek island of Crete. The sun shone upon us and, by English standards (you don’t typically see a tremendous amount of sunshine in a British summer), we were feeling tanned and gorgeous. On the very last night of the holiday we went out to a little restaurant on the harbor front. Feeling especially tanned and gorgeous, I had saved my best white shirt for this last evening out… to show off my golden gorgeousness. The waitress came bounding over to our table. (Drawn to the beautiful people like a moth to a flame, I thought.) She said, “So, you have all just arrived in Crete? Yes?” I said no, we had actually been on the island for two weeks and we were flying back to the UK tomorrow. She said, “But you look so pale! You stayed in the shade? Yes?” I said no. I think that she could see that she had burst my tanned bubble. She was keen to make amends. “My brother,” she said in a conspiratorial tone, “also has the very pasty-pale skin.” She leaned into the table and told us in a low voice, “What you need is the sun cream with the carrot in it. This make even pasty pale skin like-a-yours go brown!” We finished our meal, flew home the very next day and never spoke of this conversation.
The next year we returned to Crete and, although I am ashamed to admit this, our waitress’ advice was clearly still ringing in my pale and pasty ears. One morning, while shopping (on my own) in a little Cretan supermarket, I spied the carrot sun cream! (I don’t want you to imagine that my Greek is that good. The product had a picture of a large carrot on the lid.) I returned to the family and proudly showed Elena my purchase whereupon she strongly cautioned me against the quality and reliability of this product. The opaque substance that floated around me like a milky oil slick every time I went into the sea also made the same point. I was literally toasted.
That night when we turned off the lights, I lit up the room like a ginger lava lamp. I didn’t know what to do with myself and the sound of Elena desperately trying to restrain her “I told you so!” was deafening. I got up (very, very carefully) and, by the light of my own radioactivity, I sat on the veranda in embarrassed, painful silence.
Suddenly, there was the gentlest breeze and I felt to look up at the heavens and to the sky that was crowded with stars. It was spectacular. And for no reason that I deserved, I knew that God was present. Until that moment I had been too ashamed and too embarrassed to even pray, overwhelmed with my own stupidity. Now I was overwhelmed with His love. David knew this experience. He wrote, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. ... He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm103: 8, 10)
Our brokenness, our propensity for all manner of foolishness, does not make God love us less. It does not close off God’s love. Rather, it can open us up to more of His love. To acknowledge my sinfulness before Him will always be to open me anew to the fresh flow of His love and mercy.
I wish I could tell you that the foolhardy application of dubious sunscreen was the worst thing I ever did. To this day, what I can say is that nothing has the power to undo me like the power of His mercy — His undeserved, unmerited grace and mercy. It never ceases to bring me to my knees and change me. Pope Francis writes, “Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord's most powerful message: mercy.”