Superman & Faceless Creatures

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Can I be honest with you? I’m not a good person. A decent person, maybe. I don’t indulge in any illicit substance, I’ve not committed a hate crime and the only thing I’ve ever stolen was Bobby Reynolds Superman action-figure; I took out of his sandbox, one pubescent summer day after he refused to share his fruit rollup with me (which is to say that the twit had it coming). So I’m a decent person, maybe- but certainly not a good one.

For example, this past week we travelled across the country to visit some family before Christmas. My wife, ever the economical guru, managed to find us the cheapest flight possible- meaning it left at zero dark thirty.

Now a good person, a good husband, would’ve been thankful for her financial prudence. Heck, a good person might even be allowed a few grumbles at first, but certainly wouldn’t have complained the entire trip to the airport and certainly wouldn’t have used manipulative guilt (“I sure hope sleep deprivation doesn’t spark migraines… and did you hear scientists have linked it to pneumonia?”) to make her buy him a donut at the terminal. No, a good man wouldn’t even consider these things.

At times I look in the mirror. Have you- and excuse me for asking so bluntly- ever really looked at yourself in a mirror? Have you taken in your eyes, the color of the line where your iris meets the pupil, the depth of the whites around them, the twitch and twitter of countless muscles pulling them to and fro? I’ll wager you haven’t- few of us do. And the thing is when I look at my eyes, I mean really look into them, I couldn’t tell you what I see. I want to call it a face- for that is the only name I know. But what I see is beyond faceness: in a way it’s the absence of a face- it’s an intangible form but an existent one nonetheless. It’s indescribable, really. Try it, you’ll see.

I think about the afterlife a lotdon’t you? It seems logical that some day I’ll be required to give account, not for my decency, but for all the not-good I have committed: words spoken in anger, teenage-backseat rendezvous, my potty mouth, that one night with that one(ish) handle of whiskey and, of course, stealing that twit Bobby’s stupid Superman. In this regard, I have much fear and trembling. For I am not good, as we have established. And should my faith in the justice of paradise’s gatekeeper turn out to be even remotely accurate, then I’ve earned my way to an eternity of early morning flights.

It was CS Lewis who once proposed that heaven will be realness beyond our capacity, more than we can bear. And that makes sense- doesn’t it? I mean if you think about eternity- truly contemplate neverendingness, time without a clock-well it’s rather terrifying isn’t it? I’d rather think about anything: tragedy, pain, heartbreak… the notion of having to catch a flight at the butt crack of dawn- I’d rather muse over all these things than think about eternity. I just can’t bear it. Because when I look into my eyes I see no face capable of smiling upon the suns endless rays. And with no face- what hope do I really have? How can we meet the gods face to face, Lewis will later ask, until we have faces?

I suppose it brings us to faith, hope for grace and mercy. Because I have no face- I am not good enough to know one nor am I powerful enough to make it.

And If I make it to the pearly gates, if I’m there when the clouds come down and veil of beauty around us is lifted, I suppose I shall break down weeping- weeping in the simultaneous sadness and joy known only a father on his daughter’s wedding day, or a mother as her child backs down the driveway, car packed to the brim for college- a feeling known to truly loving another, perhaps for the first time. I shall weep and I will beg for a face, a face to smile, a face to laugh, a face to praise and a face to behold the beauty stretching before me into everlasting. I’ll ask for a face not because I’m good; more than ever I shall know I am hardly decent. But I’ll ask because I’m before the Good, and if I can only behold it, have the face with which to see it, then nothing shall be lacking in me. And, if He is as wonderful as I believe, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll get a face. And I shall go my way, into forever.

But not before asking that He makes sure to also give one to Bobby Reynolds. That twit.

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Sunday Quotes: True Brothers

“My true brothers are those who rejoice for me in their hearts when they find good in me and grieve for me when they find sin. They are my true brothers, because whether they see good in me or evil, they love me still. To such as these I shall reveal what I am.”

-St. Augustine; Confessions

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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