My clerical collar, black shirt, and black suit were drawing discrete glances. I had slipped away from the church office to get some cold medicine at a nearby drug store. The checkout line turned out to be unexpectedly long.
A man standing in front of me looked over his shoulder, took a double take, and then whirled on me. Without the slightest hint of irony and sounding remarkably like a homicide detective interrogating a likely suspect, he asked, “Are you saved?”
Stunned that my outfit hadn’t clued this guy in to my vocation, all I could think to say was, “What?”
“Are you saved?” he repeated. “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
“What?” No longer stunned, now I’m on guard against a cross-denominational assault.
He went on to ask me if I knew where I would be going when I die. We’re all sinners. If sinners don’t repent they go to hell. And you never know when the Grim Reaper will show up. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Accept Jesus now so you know you’re going to heaven.
He went on like that without seeming to take a breath. The line slowly inched forward. Finally, he stopped when the cashier said, “Is that all sir?” She took the words right out of my mouth.
After paying, he shoved a small comic-book-like tract into my hand with the admonition, “You better read this before it’s too late!”
That’s the sort of thing I’ve come to expect when I hear people ask me if I’m saved. And I never ask anybody that question myself, because I think that it tends to get in the way of authentic God-talk.
Mind you, authentic God-talk involves salvation talk. If we’re really honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that something is killing us. Maybe it’s our need for control or our addiction to acceptance, our loneliness or our fear, our anger or our over-functioning, our attachment to possessions or our lack of adequate food and medical care. Something is killing is.
So real God-talk involves admitting what’s killing us and looking for how Christ is insinuating himself into the messy life that we are actually living. In her memoir Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor taught me to put it this way: What is saving your life now?
“Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.” (p. 225)
To put this another way, God-talk—and real conversation with God—starts with vulnerability. We admit that something is killing us. And we admit that we yearn for God to care. To care about this specific tight place we find ourselves in.
Jesus tells us as much in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. (Luke 18:9-14)
The Pharisee thanks God that he’s the kind of person with a stellar spiritual and moral resume and that he’s nothing like those despicable sinners all around him. Strictly speaking, he’s bragging to God about his religious accomplishments expecting divine applause. Then again, maybe he’s just talking to himself. Singing “How Great I Art.”
By contrast, the Tax Collector says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Some readers assume that he means, “I’ve done wrong. Please don’t punish me like I deserve.” But I think we get to Jesus’ point more clearly if we hear him saying, “Have compassion on me, God. My life is killing me!” Or, to use one of Anne Lamott’s favorite prayers, “Help! Help! Help!”
God’s compassion saves us. Heals us. Sustains us. Liberates us. And God is always pouring out that compassion because that is just who God is. God’s compassion is not a reward for or a reaction to something we do or say. Compassion is God’s unchanging way of being.
The divine compassion comes in many forms: a phone call when we’re lonely, a hike in the woods, a casserole when we’re grieving, or a dog’s relentless love. That compassion begins making us whole once we admit that we need it.
Friends I’m on vacation in October, so I’ll be posting previously published essays each Friday based on the Lectionary for the coming Sunday. A version of this one first appeared October 25, 2019. A portion was later included in Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope. Click here to learn more and get a copy. I’ll be posting new stuff again in November (and maybe even some sneak peeks of my next book). As always, you can click the contact page of my site to schedule an event with me in-person or via Zoom.