I Wanna Be A Sinner

So here’s the thing: I wanna be a sinner.

“Uhhhh…..are you sure about that?”

I wanna be a dirty, rotten, stinking, filthy, out-on-the-streets, down on my luck, despicable, nasty sinner. I wanna be the type of person that people look at and have no doubt, not one ounce in their mind, of where I stand on the totem pole of morality: I’m at the bottom. There’s no hope for me. Uh-uh. Not an ounce.

Of course you don’t. And how could you? Everything in our church culture screams for perfectionism. Though we Protestants love (and I do mean love) to point the fingers at ‘dem ‘works by faith Catholics’ we’re just as guilty:

We attend church on Sunday where we’re inundated by sermons that end with practical applications reading like the how-to section of Christian bookstores. Then we await the offering plate where we distribute our 10% tithe. During the week we wake up early to pray and read devotions through blurry eyes while the coffee brews. After a long day at work, we rush home, throw leftovers in the microwave then sprint out the door to attend Bible studies where we read books about holiness and personal purity. On Saturday morning we roll out of bed  to begrudgingly attend breakfast with our accountability group where we sit around stale bagels at Panera and bashfully confess how many times we’ve lusted, dropped the f-bomb or failed to take a stand for the true meaning of Christmas to our non-Christian co-workers.

Day in, day out: we work, we pray, we sin, we repent, we try harder. We read books to help us break our old habits, and find blog posts that tell us of new sins we should be avoiding. We read the Bible daily, we pray to be better people. All in the attempt to be more Christ-like, all in the attempt to be a better Christian.

But where- please tell me- where in all of this, is grace?

The reality is that there’s a stark inconsistency between our professed belief in the grace of Christ which obliterates sin from our midst and our lifestyle that’s obsessed with the idea of removing the sin ourselves.

And the irony is cruel.

I read the gospel narratives and find the story of a God who became human: a lowly, destitute, nasty man: with acne, blisters and every temptation we’ve ever known. And I read how Jesus, God Incarnate, trod right past the determined and the religious, right past the people who were known for their dedication to purity and righteousness, right past everyone who knew what holiness was and sought after it with a fervor. Instead he went and dwelt among the outcast, the prisoners, the swindlers, the prostitutes, the despicable.

The religious people referred to this group of society as “scum” because they’d simply stopped trying, they’d given up on being good.

They were ready for Jesus. But everyone else was still trying to make it on their own.

I look in the mirror each morning and I have to ask myself: into which category do I fall?

I look into the mirror and I have to ask myself, as Martin Luther once put it:

“Have you finally become sick and tired of your own righteousness and taken a deep breath of the righteousness of Christ and learned to trust in it?”

I want to say “YES! Yes, of course!” I want to dwell in the grace of Christ, to collapse at the foot of the cross in one miserable, hopeless heap and never leave, to be ravished by my sin to the point that there’s nothing holding me back from admitting that in Christ alone, and nowhere else, my hope really is found.

But let’s be honest: it’s not.

Because I avoid lust (for the most part). I stay sober (except if Scotch is involved). Gluttony is a grey area, but I conceal my obsession for greedy portions and Chips Ahoy with a youthful metabolism and a workout regime that borders on self-absorption. And yes I get angry, and yes, I might call down curses upon other humans during rush hour, but for heavensakes I’m not ISIS. There’s worst sinners out there; I can’t really look in the mirror and (honestly) say:

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.”- 1 Timothy 1:15

But I want too. I need to. Because:

“Christ dwells only in sinners.”- Luther (again)

And if I’m trying hard to be perfect on my own accord, then the only snapshot I get of Christ is of his sandals as he walks by. I didn’t see him because I was too busy reading by Bible; I didn’t see him because I was too busy calculating my tithe, signing up for another church committee, reading a book about the seven habits of highly-effective Christians that I should be developing. I didn’t see Jesus walking by because I was too busy becoming my own jesus.

And so I want to stop trying. I want to just accept that I’m lost, accept that I can’t try, work, pray or will myself hard enough.

I wanna be a sinner.

Does this mean that I should just dwell in sin- just go about getting krunk, steal from charities, indulge in debaucheries, then parade through the streets naked, screaming profanities and kicking puppies?

Well, to paraphrase Paul in the first two verses of Romans 6:

The abandonment of my own personal righteousness does not mean realigning my efforts towards sin and thus abusing the grace of Christ all the more. That’s the other side of the pendulum. And there is a sense in which the Christian hope should encourage the believer to sin less; our lives should be marked by a lack of sinful behavior, by a change in our outward characteristics.

But let us not forget that Christ never asked us to be perfect. Nor did he ask us to become better, to try harder. Never. Not once.

Instead he asked us to visit prisoners, give clothes and food to the poor (Matthew 25:36). He asked us to be peacemakers and meek (Matthew 5). He asked us to take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24).

Instead of trying to be righteous, Christ gave us a simple invitation:

“Come to me all you who are weary…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

He asked us to give up and follow him.

But still we keep trying. We somehow believe that we can remove sin from our lives, that we can work ourselves to becoming “more like Christ”.

And yet we at the same time we consistently find that anytime humans attempt to remove sin from the world, they don’t remove sin but they remove what little hope we actually have, for:

“Where there is no sin, there is no mercy. Where there is no mercy, there is no hope. Where there is no hope, there is no salvation.” -yep…still Luther

The human attempt at removing sin is like using a nuclear bomb to end a small riot. For instead of sin, what is often removed is every sense of the Divine.

We remove laughter, poetry, love-making and music. We remove hope, beauty and grace; ultimately we remove Christ and, in his place, install a disinfected, white-washed version of self-righteousness. And quickly we find that obedience to Christ is the best way to avoid Christ himself:

 “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” -Flannery O’Connor; Wise Blood

So it is (oh the irony!) that our sinless societies, our sinless lives, quickly become godless as well.

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Look, I get it. I’m a perfectionist (but I’m working on it).

But at the end of the day, I want to accept my fate as a sinner saved by Christ. I want to wake, breathe and live every moment of every day knowing that the only hope I have is that God will have mercy on me.

I don’t want to live in the illusion of my own self-righteousness, I want my sin to be evident and real, a present reminder of my faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in spite of me. I don’t want a false sense of security in my own abilities or righteousness, I want a grasping, flailing, beating of my chest, bewailing, desperate plea for compassion from a God who never should never grant it and yet already has.

When alls said and done, I don’t want self-righteousness and white-washed morality, but instead I side with the sentiments expressed by the main character in in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“I don’t want comfort… I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin…

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I want God.”

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I wanna be a sinner. And, as a sinner, I hope, I pray, to be found and saved by Christ.

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A Mild Revolution

There’s a small bird that’s taken up residence beneath our apartment’s open window. I became aware of its existence slowly, the way one becomes aware of the sun setting. I was sitting at my desk and heard it chirping, not even a few feet away from me. The sound didn’t register at first though. But then something like annoyance started to creep into my head, as the noise distracted me from my thoughts. I finally looked up and went to close the window, almost angrily. But then I saw it’s tiny body, a red head flowing into brown wings. It looked back for a moment, but then turned and with a chirp was gone. So I kept the window open, waiting to hear it again.

I had been thinking about death, a random and grotesque admission but I’d cooked dinner that night so it warranted contemplation. Of all the worlds’ wonders, Annie Dillard writes, quoting the Mahabharata, the most wonderful is how no mane believes that he himself will die. But I try to believe it, to embrace the wonder of my own mortality. But then I am angry to be distracted by life, even as it greets me with cheer.

Sometimes it is hard for me, as I imagine it is with most people, to feel like anything more than a traveler in this world, a lone figure with a briefcase waiting for a train to arrive and carry me to the next life. Others will come and stand by me for periods of time, my friends, family, and wife. But one by one, at separate moments, they too will depart. And if the scene flashes forward 30, 40 maybe even 70 years it will show me, standing alone, patiently awaiting my departure. And that is when I ask myself: What do I now bring? What do I have to show for my efforts?

For some time in my youth, I wanted to be a soldier. I read of wars afar, tales of heroes conquering villains and believed that the pull of a trigger would bring finality to some sort of accomplishment I might call my own. Today I sit down by my window and I put my fingers to another task of self-deception; I will never change anything. Not, at least, anything that wouldn’t have been changed without me.

An artist steps back from his painting and declares, “I have created something beautiful.” But a tree was destroyed to make his canvas, and in the springtime the forest is denied the beauty of its blossoms.

Unless the Lord builds the house, the Jewish poet stated, the builders build in vain. My finger strikes the key and I cannot listen above the clicking of my own efforts.

The highlight of my recent days has been in the early hours. I awaken before my wife and go sit on the couch in our family room, the overstuffed one we found cheap online. I posture myself against the armrest, in a position of just enough discomfort so as not to fall back asleep. Then I read my Bible for a little while but mostly I just sit. I don’t even pray. I just sit.

This is the most productive part of my day, when I rest in the presence of eternal beauty.

“I want a revolution now,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal. Then she qualified: “a mild revolution.”

I want a revolution, too, sincerely and desperately with every ounce of my being. I want something for my briefcase as I pace about the train station, something beyond a pass to the next stop. I want to hear the simplicity of a bird chirping on my windowsill and know that this too shall pass into something marvelous something worthy of seeing. I want to know that wonder.

“Wherever you turn your eyes,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “the world can shine like transfiguration.”

And so I try, I turn my head from the task at hand and I announce it to the world: can you not see that I’m trying? But the answer comes in the stillness of an early morning that the revolution has happened; it took place while I was asleep. It is finished. I need not try but accept; accept the wonder with stillness and a grateful heart.

For only when wonder has worked its way on the human heart is it capable of surviving the diseases of apathy and narcissism to which it is prone.

To good news, of course, is that the train is running on schedule. And when it arrives, at just the right time, I will pick up my briefcase and board. Once there I will sit with my briefcase on my lap quietly; I hope to find a window.

For then, of all times, I am certain: there will be much to see.

 

 

Why Christians need Flannery O’Connor

Like I said yesterday, I’m infatuated with O’Connor. Here’s another review of the latest publication of her musings. Like Mr. Moore it has been on my Christmas list since it was released.

CNN Belief Blog

Opinion by Russell D. Moore, special to CNN

(CNN) — On my Christmas list of gifts to buy my evangelical friends, there’s a little book of prayers.

This is less predictable than it may seem, since the prayers aren’t from a celebrity evangelical preacher, but from a morbid, quirky Catholic who spent her short life with pet peacocks and wooden-leg-stealing Bible salesman stories.

But I think Flannery O’Connor’s newly published “Prayer Journal” is exactly what Christians need, maybe especially at Christmas.

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