A long time ago I heard a pastor say, “The Christian faith begins when you realize that you are sinner in need of salvation.” I feel like that is a very sad place from which to start.
I grew up as a kid with an innate knowledge of my own sin. I had no problem seeing where I fell short. I had a clear understanding of my mistakes and shortcomings. I wasn’t a particularly bad kid, but I was a regular source of frustration for my parents, teachers, and my self. For a long stretch of my life I spent every night in bed worried about what I had forgotten during the previous day, and fearful of what trouble was awaiting in the morning.
I had no problem realizing that I was a sinner in need of salvation, but that is not where my faith began. My faith began the moment I realized I was loved by God, no matter what. My faith began when I came to understand that the love of Christ was not just offered to those who achieved. The grace of God was not offered to those that had good grades, were good at sports, remembered to do all their chores, or had in some other way earned it. When I learned that the grace of God was offered especially to those who did not deserve it, my heart was strangely warmed. My moment of conversion was no particular moment. It was the growing understanding that I was loved, and that no matter where I went nor how far I wandered, when I came home my supper would be waiting for me. And it would still be hot.
Once I learned that I was loved, I realized too that I was gifted. There were things that I could do that could be of use. My gifts might not have been the same degree or kind as others, but they were gifts nonetheless. No Pastor, my faith did not start when I realized I was a sinner in need of salvation. I begin from a very different place.
I begin from God creating all things, and calling them good. I begin from Jesus rising from the baptismal waters to hear God proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” I begin from Jesus telling the lawyers that greatest commandment is to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and to love your neighbor as yourself.” I begin from Jesus reminding people that “when you did it to the least of these, my children, you did it to me.” I begin from “God is love.”
And from there, I move outward. I still see my sin. I acknowledge the many ways that I choose to be selfish over selfless. I choose to ignore the plight of the poor, and I shrink from standing up to injustice. I understand how I participate in sin every day by reaping benefits of a system that keeps me in comfort and others in poverty. I feel the ache of disappointment when I spend my time frivolously, and spend my money unwisely. I feel the sting of pain when I turn away from my daughters, or turn toward them too harshly. I have a firm grasp on my own sin, and maybe that’s why as a pastor I don’t pay particular attention to yours.
When I started from my own sin, I was starting from fear. I was shackled by shame. I was paralyzed by my own shortcomings.
When I start from God’s love, I am opened to my own gifts. I see more clearly where God’s love is not the lived reality, and I mourn. And I act. I am motivated by love, not shackled by fear. I still fall short. I see my mistakes, but I no longer go to bed fearing them. Instead I lay my head down knowing I am loved by God, and tomorrow I will have the precious gift of loving others. Instead of fearing how I will fall short, I have hope for the love I can live into.