Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Just As I Am: A Bad Christian's Confessions on Faith

I am Pavlov’s Fundamentalist. I grew in a very theologically conservative Quaker congregation where altar calls were more prominent than the Friends peace testimony. To this day if I hear more than one verse of “Just As I Am” (“with every head bowed and every eye closed, as the organist plays softly through just one more time … just in case, just in case the Spirit is working on some soul’s heart. Let’s tarry here for that poor sinner.”), I have this almost uncontrollable urge to go forward and get re-saved. Or is that re-re-re-re-saved? I told you, I heard lots of altar calls as kid and teenager. Feelings of guilt and unworthiness sweep through and over me.

I don’t. Go forward that is. But “Just As I Am” (and other altar call songs such as “There’s Room at the Cross,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” and the like) still send a shiver of sin through me. Literally. I tend to shiver, like a cold wind just blew through the room. And, in light of my upbringing, I’m happy it’s a cold wind and not the hot breath of Hell-fire.

Which is not a bad thing, I guess. I need to be reminded from time to time that, in spite of feeling like the character in Todd Snider’s song “I’m An Alright Guy,” that I am not an alright guy. True, like the fellow in the song, I don’t have a “lotta bodies in my trunk,” but I still know in my soul that there are plenty of times that I don’t live up to the faith I profess.

Too much of my life is like the chorus from the song, too –
“I know I aint perfect but God knows I try
I think I'm an alright guy
I think I'm alright”

Yep, I try to be an alright guy – but I rely too much on my own efforts in doing so. And the harder I try, sometimes, the more I realize that being an alright guy is difficult work that is best done when empowered by the Spirit. It is a surrender – as in “I Surrender All.”

So I am thankful when I hear those old songs. They remind me to cast myself upon the ocean of light and life (as George Fox says) that covers the ocean of darkness and death. To remember, that as we used to mis-sing, “There’s a wildness in God’s mercy/ like the wildness of the sea.”

“Just As I Am” – indeed. A not alright guy who is loved by God more than I can imagine. Thank you, Jesus.

-- Brent


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hey Brent,
Thanks for the honest, spiritual, yet funny reflection.

Some of the wording is priceless--"still send a shiver of sin..I tend to shiver.."

Does that make you a Shiverer,rather than a bad Quaker?;-)

Are you sure those were altar calls or alter calls?

And are you sure you were Quaker? The song titles sound like my tiny village Baptist church in Nebraska.

In the Light,


Brent Bill said...

Hi Daniel --

Well, looking back I wonder sometimes if we were Quakers or Nazarenes, but we were the only kind of Quakers I knew about at the time (other than those LIBERALS in Pennsylvania!). I like the "alter" call line -- indeed we were altered -- perahps not the way the revivalist expected/hoped.

Your friend,

Colleen said...

Enjoyed your post. Just as I Am - I like that too. Blessings.

The Gyrovague said...

Sounded pretty Baptist to me too. I grew up in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist Church and a week did not go by where I did not hear that, or "Draw me nearer blessed lord". After leaving that church I could not listen to them for a few years. Odly enough I feel myself pinning for them more and more now.

No matter how hard we try to jettison the things of old, they quitely call us back.

Tom Smith said...

My memories are full of the same songs from my childhood in Indiana Yearly Meeting. My father, a Friends pastor, even spoke at evangelistic services where those songs were played and I remember a few times I "went forward" only to "backslide." However, my father also taught me that the only real "alter" (I am ada/opting that word because I like it) call that meant something was the call we experienced "24/7" in a living relationship with a present Spirit/Word.

I also like what, I believe it was Tom Mullen said in response to the "I'm OK, You're OK" book. He said he preferred, "I'm not OK, You're not OK, but that's OK."

Thomas R. Markham said...

Thanks for sharing this experience with us, Brent. For a time, as a child I was in a Baptist Sunday school where my parent's attended church after a conversion experience through a televised Billy Graham crusade, until they "backslid" a couple of years later. I remember well those hymns and alter calls and going through the baptism class at age 5 and being "dunked" in the large pool behind the pulpit of the church.

I can recall the awful feelings of guilt and shame generated by those sermons and alter calls, not, I soon realized, by Divine Spirit. By the time I was a teenager I had figured out for myself that "original sin" wasn't even in the Bible and that the Bible had been cobbled together by a bunch of "control freak" men with their own socio-political agenda in the third century and while I still read it for inspiration (mostly symbolically, metaphorically and anecdotally), I am personally incredulous that so many folks try to interpret it literally as the inerrant, infallible "Word of God."

But, to each his own: I don't see myself or the rest of humanity as "bad" or "not okay", merely imperfect. I continuously evolve, grow, and am transformed by “the renewing of my mind” through my relationship with and in the Divine. Jesus was an avatar and fully human template for who I believe we are created to be as fully integrated, enlightened and evolved human/Divine beings and that is what I am on my way to, whether in communion/collaboration with G_d, or all too often, kicking and screaming (my choice).

When I refer to myself as a "bad" Christian or “bad” Quaker it is more "tongue in cheek" for me. I am only "bad" in relation to the all too un-Divine human tendency toward prescribed standards and morality (with either a self-righteousness or burden of guilt & shame that often results), which for me seems to be a cheap substitute for a truly Spirit-led life.

By those kinds of standards I'm not even a "good" Liberal Quaker most of the time. But what's in a name?

I don't take myself all that seriously. I like the "Laughing Buddha" energy and perspective on life. I do take "Love” seriously, though, and for me the only commandment (as Jesus pointed out) that I strive to live by is to love God with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength and to love everyone else as I am loving myself; all three are the exact same thing for me (a dialectic relationship, not division of labor). The Bible does say that "Love" covers a multitude of sins". Well, I say that it covers all sin and that there is no need for "morality" when the "reality” of Divine Love through us is at work.

"Above all, keep your love for each other at full strength, because love cancels innumerable sins." I Peter 4:8 (The New English Bible)

Brent Bill said...

"Well, I say that it covers all sin and that there is no need for "morality" when the "reality” of Divine Love through us is at work." -- Indeed. Thanks for sharing!!!