A few weeks ago a man brought his son to the hospital. His son had cleft lip, and needed a surgical correction. At the CURE hospital, we treat a lot of patients with cleft lip and cleft palate. Most of them are children, and most of them face severe ostracization from their communities, and even from their own families. This man understood what his son was going through, and the persecution he faced because he was also born with a cleft lip. His condition he was forced to leave home at a very early age. His family didn’t want him around. He left his village and made his way to the nearest town, where he survived by selling cola nuts on the street. Many people refused to buy from him because of his cleft lip. He has been married more than once, and each time his wife left him because of his lips. He knew what it is like to be treated like a freak, to be rejected and forced to live on the fringe of society. He wanted something better for his son, so he brought him to the hospital.
But even in his own home this man has not been able to fully protect his son from stigmatization. He told us that his wife, (the boy’s step-mother) wouldn’t allow him to eat from the same plate or drink for the same cup as the rest of the family. She didn’t want him contaminating her utensils. She said his mouth was dirty.
“‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’” (Isa. 6:5 NIV).
What does it mean to have unclean lips? In this passage the prophet Isaiah seems to be saying that he is unworthy of speaking to God, and unworthy of saying what God wants him to say to his people. In a similar vein, Moses told God that he had “uncircumcised lips,” and so he couldn’t go and speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the children of Israel (see Ex. 6:12; 6:30). But God sent him anyway, and out of those uncircumcised lips came one of the most powerful statements of all time: “Let my people go.”
In fact, it seems like many of the prophets had the same problem. They were unsure of themselves, and didn’t know what to say. They lacked confidence in their own lips. The prophet Jeremiah told God that he was too young to be a prophet, and God answered him with a simple, yet powerful gesture: “Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘I have put my words in your mouth’” (Jer. 1:9 NIV).
I love that image, but Jeremiah and the others were right to be kind of afraid. Speaking the truth is a dangerous task, and when God gave the prophets words to speak, he was calling on them to challenge the structures of authority, both religious and political. Lips are symbolic of communication – they are the portal of words, the tools of speech, and in Isaiah 11:3-5 they are literally a weapon-wielding menace to the wicked:
“He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked” (Isa. 11:3-5 NIV).
Notice that it is not the ears or the eyes, but the lips and mouth that are used, as they say, to speak the truth to power.
Jeremiah decided that he didn’t want to speak God’s word anymore – the price was too high. He said, “I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.” But that did not work, for “His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not” (Jer. 20:9 NKJV).
Even when he tried, Jeremiah couldn’t keep it in. There was a message inside of him that was burning to get out. There were words that had to be expressed – the words of God. Only prophets and poets speak like this. And rappers. It reminds me of Rakim, in the song Microphone Fiend, where he compares rapping to being addicted to drugs. “Soon as the bass kicks, I need a fix. Give me a stage a mic and a mix.” He can’t help himself. Since he was young (like Jeremiah) he has had the irresistible urge to spit ill rhymes – he couldn’t stop if he wanted to. There are words inside of him that need to come out, and he cannot hold them back. Instead of lips, however, Rakim uses another potent symbol, one which in our day and age has come to have the same meaning as lips in the Bible: the microphone.
“I was a fiend, before I became a teen.
I melted microphones instead of cones of ice cream.”
Healing is not easy. The surgery for cleft lip or cleft palate is just the beginning. Often the children wake up in the recovery room and find that their arms are bound up in splints. This is to keep them from playing with their stitches, pulling them out or causing an infection. They can still use their hands, but they can’t bend their elbows and have to be fed by hand. I understand the necessity of this, but it is still hard to see, and (understandably) the children don’t usually like it very much. The first time I saw this (a child with a bandaged lip and two bandaged arms), I misunderstood and thought that they had preformed a lip surgery and two arm surgeries at once! “That’s a bit excessive isn’t it?” I thought. “We could at least spread them out a bit!”
The recovery from surgery is difficult; it is painful, eating is a problem and there can be a lot of swelling. Immediately after some surgeries, the face looks worse than it did before. One girl came in a few weeks ago with a cleft palate, and after her surgery her face looked like she had been in a barroom brawl. She had a black eye that was so swollen she couldn’t see out of it for a week and a half. She couldn’t talk for about two weeks, and it was a long time before she could eat anything solid.
I can see how it would have been very easy for her to be discouraged. She could have been thinking, “Why did I come all the way here so that they can make my face look even worse than it did before?” The nurses told her that her wounds would heal and that the swelling would go down, but it must have been hard for her to believe. But then her wounds did begin to heal, the swelling did go down, and her face (and life) was transformed. She was given a smile and a reason to use it. It was beautiful to watch.
“Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’” (Isa. 6:6-7 NIV).
When your lips have been purified, you can speak the truth and proclaim justice. But it is a painful process. Isaiah’s lips were burned with coal, something that would disfigure and deform them. For many people, this would have made his lips “unclean.” No one would want to drink from his cup. But his lips were purified because of what was to come out of them, not because of their appearance. Truth is what makes our lips clean or unclean, and by speaking the truth our lips are purified. God chose to speak through Moses even though he was not a great speaker, and through Jeremiah even though he was a youth, because God knows something that we all know but often forget: the truth can come from anyone’s lips.
 Emphasis mine. But I am sure Isaiah wouldn’t mind.