Under the Surface of Life: Just As I Am

For Sunday May 29, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Genesis 6:9–22, 7:24, 8:14–19
           Psalm 46 or 31:1–5, 19–24
           Romans 1:16–17, 3:22b–31
           Matthew 7:21–29

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

           It's a shame that pastor John Ames is only a fictional narrator in Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead, a book that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the New York Times heralded as the #1 book of fiction for 2004. Ames might be a fourth generation minister in the insignificant town of Gilead, Iowa, but he is the sort of clergy you would wish for your church. He is wise to the world, understands people, loves life itself more than he can express, and recognizes that his vocation as a cleric is a strange life, even if it has its own pleasures. One day, for example, he met two garage workers on the street as they enjoyed a crude joke, but when he passed by they hushed their banter. He felt ostracized even as he wanted to join them, for he enjoyed a joke as much as anyone. Then, hardly a day or two later, these same sorts of people would find their way to his office to share their deepest intimacies and most private thoughts:

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect to find it, either.

           Nor is Ames unaware of his own demons; to his credit he knows them and names them. He experiences sleepless nights, "helplessly subject to my own anxieties." Instead of composing a letter to his son, he reads what he has written and sees that he has only "worried to himself." He admits that he often finds it impossible to untangle the relationship between every day reality and ultimate reality, "for when things take their ordinary course it is hard to remember what matters." Perhaps he inherited a genetic component from his eccentric grandfather, also a pastor, a man he describes as "the most unreposeful human being I ever knew." He writes these reflections to his young son, as an old man, and he only hopes that all the "oddnesses" that life has carved into him will not alienate him from his son.1

           Malice and dread, guilt and loneliness, sleeplessness and anxieties. I think Pastor Ames is right when he observes that "everyone knows there is a lot under the surface of life." And when we compare our "insides" with other people's "outsides," as Anne Lamott put it, thinking our interior geography is an exception rather than a common rule for much of humanity, we exacerbate our condition. Charlotte Elliott (1789–1871), a little known writer who penned what might be the best-known Christian hymn ever, "Just As I Am," describes in the third verse of that song how people can be "tossed about/ With many a conflict, many a doubt/ Fightings and fears/ within, without."

Cain murders Abel, 15th century
Cain murders Abel, 15th century.

           One place you might not expect to find such brokenness is in the "holy" Bible, but it is full of unsavory, unholy and afflicted people. In the Genesis narrative for this week, just a few pages after last week's creation story that seven times christened everything good, we read about a world teeming with violence and corruption. Adam scape-goats Eve, Cain kills Abel in humanity's first fratricide, then Lamech boasts how he out did even Cain by murdering someone for the slightest of insults. In a dire diagnosis of our human condition, the Genesis chronicler records how God lamented that "every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time" (Genesis 6:5). This does not describe the depths to which we always fall, but it accurately portrays the breadth of our condition which leaves no dimension of life uncompromised.

           The Psalmist for this week provides another case in point. I wonder whether a therapist today might diagnose him as suffering from hypochondria, so paranoid and obsessed is he with his health and relationships. He fears enemies are trying to trap him. He suffers affliction and anguish, then complains about psychosomatic symptoms in which his eyes grow weak, his body is grieved, his bones weaken. He thinks that his friends and neighbors alternately ignore, conspire against, lie about, slander and ostracize him. Given his intrigues, neuroses and compulsions, real or imagined (which would be worse?), no wonder he describes his life as "like broken pottery" (Psalm 31).

           Mind you, these struggles "under the surface of life" are not the weaknesses of slackers who are careless or casual about the Christian life. Eugene Peterson, who has spent the better part of fifty years as a pastor and professor, empathizes with the so-called "experts" of the Christian life:

Leaders who are looked up to constantly, who give out answers competently, who everyone assumes are living what they are saying, often have acute experiences of dissonance: "Who I am and what people think I am aren't anywhere close to being the same thing. The better I get as a rabbi and the more my reputation grows, the more I feel like a fraud. I know so much more than I live. The longer I live, the more knowledge I acquire, the wider the gap between what I know and what I live. I'm getting worse by the day..."2

Peterson was describing the humility of Nicodemus in this passage, but he might just as well have been describing how I feel sometimes. There is, I think, a certain paradox to the Christian life in which the older you get and the more you mature, the more you realize how far short you fall.

Luther preaching
Luther preaching.

           Which brings us, thank God, to the epistle for this week, and what might be the ten most important verses in the Bible (Romans 3:21–31). The right relationship we long for with God, the "rightness" of it and any "righteousness" we experience, are of a special sort. In the powerful Pauline notion of "justification by faith alone" that Protestants have celebrated to describe this life with God, so succinctly preached in Martin Luther's sermon "Two Types of Righteousness" (1519), we make some important distinctions. This righteousness is alien to us, rather than natural to us, for it comes from Jesus and not from us. It is a righteousness declared by God rather than demonstrated by us. It is thus a passive righteouness for which we render nothing, but instead receive as a free gift, not an active righteousness that we earn through effort. This righteousness is imputed by God to us from the outside rather than realized by us on the inside. In short, God offers us this righteousness out of sheer mercy rather than as our earned merit. Thus the "marvelous exchange" (Luther): everything that Christ is and has is freely credited to me, and all that I am He assumes.

           Rather than earning a relationship with God through trying to justify myself, a hopeless task doomed to fail, God welcomes me whoever I am, wherever I am, no matter what I am, and as Charlotte Elliott so beautifully insisted in her famous hymn, just as I am. As a consequence, the sorts of people described by Pastor Ames, professor Peterson and the Psalmist might just be, at one and the same time, the worst of sinners and the best of saints

[1] See Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004).
[2] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 14.