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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When I Pray & Fight About Lighthouses

My wife and I spent last weekend up the coast in Maine. We had some spare time on the trip home, so I took a detour to a lighthouse that she hadn’t seen yet. It just so happens that it’s one of my favorites.

The lighthouse is unique in that it consists of a building with a short tower topped by the light on its southern side. Because it sits at the end of a rock pier stretched out into the bay, the lighthouse itself isn’t very tall. From the start of the pier it doesn’t look as though there’s anything at the end other than a desolate shed; the building blocks the rest from view.

My wife noticed as much when we began walking towards it.

“Isn’t this beautiful?” I asked.

“I don’t see a lighthouse,” she replied, like the fading wa-wa of a trumpet in a comedy routine.

“It’s right there.”

“No it’s not.”

“I’m pointing right at it.”

“That just looks like a shed,” she informed me.

I shot back with Pharasitical rebuke: “The lighthouse is behind it.”

She accepted this, though not without noting: “Huh, that’s pretty short. I’ve seen lots of lighthouses out in Wisconsin. That’s not what they look like. But its cool. I guess.”

My wife is possibly the sweetest person in the Milky Way. But in that moment I could have tossed her into the ocean like she was Jonah in the storm. The audacity of her comparing my beloved lighthouse to a mere Midwestern replica felt like being told that my favorite dog was really, for all intents and purposes, a cat.

When I pray, my thoughts are scarce and sporadic, like fireflies igniting on an early summer’s eve. They swing on the pendulum between “Lord, please save the kidnapped children in Nigeria” to “Lord, forgive me for being so angry about my phone dropping calls.”

Sometimes my prayers spring forth simply in walking and breathing. They arise when I am heading up the hill to class or perhaps finishing a run in the early morning. I step tentatively, attempting to wrap my head around the object of my prayer, firing off conscientious brain waves in every imaginable direction. Sometimes I think of acquaintances and pray for them. Even then I am not quiet sure what to say. “Lord, I pray for so-and-so today” is the common go-to, which seems to be a statement with similar sentiment to the thesis of a history paper being “the thesis of this paper concerns history.”

I try to pray for myself, for the world, for everything. I really do. But I want to know that I am actually praying when I pray, that my words and thoughts are actually going somewhere, into some ear, rather than just floating around and zapping through the neurons in my own skull. It isn’t the possibility of God’s nonexistence that concerns me, but the arrangement of my proposals. What mortal is there that hasn’t worried about the format of their submissions, wondering (at least secretly) if they’re all being sent back as rejects into the spam box of our hearts that we’re too afraid to open?

Luther is quoted as saying: “I have so much to do that if I don’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it done.”  It is not so much his dedication that I admire, but the faith behind his focus.

I want to act in faith, but I also want to know that the direction of my mind is to a lighthouse on the coast with the sun setting behind the clouds, not just an empty shed. But sometimes such assurance eludes me and I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m even aiming for.

What if the main object in prayer, George MacDonald asked, is the supplying of our great, our endless need- the need of God himself?

Eventually, as we walked further out, my wife conceded that the entire scene was, in fact, beautiful to behold. Unaware that I was scanning the scene in search of a plank for her to walk, she approached me and took my hand as we continued towards the end. As we got closer, she saw the weather vane on the tower lift itself above the roof like a shy child from under the covers.

“Ah, there’s the lighthouse,” she said. And I kissed her on the forehead, despite myself. So we continued walking, like amateur artists approaching a famous painting in a museum, thus bringing it into focus.

And so I keep praying. I walk, I breathe, I think. I formulate requests and praises, allowing them to float heavenward as mist on a mid-spring morning.

Because I know its there. And someday I’ll see the lighthouse.

Someday. I’m sure.