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The Sinner’s Prayer

Familiarity can turn even beautiful things, like the sinner’s prayer, into trite cliché.
Praying

Conventional wisdom holds that, if you want become a Christian, you need to pray something known as the “sinner’s prayer.” There’s no one set version of the prayer, but they all follow the same basic pattern: you acknowledge you’ve sinned against God; you acknowledge that Jesus is the only hope for salvation; you ask Jesus to come into your heart; and you promise to begin living a righteous life with God’s help — which necessarily includes reading the Bible, going to church, praying more often, etc.

It’s a convenient little formula and it gets the job done (so to speak). But unless you’ve been a part of the Church for a significant amount of time — or, like me, have been raised in the Church from birth — there’s a lot of language in the prayer that is fairly bizarre. Indeed, the entire concept might seem rather foreign.

My college pastor was fond of using the term “Christianese” to describe things such as the sinner’s prayer. “Christianese” refers to words, concepts, habits, etc. that have been around us in the Church for so long that we simply assume everyone else understands them.

But that leads to several problems.

Our language often becomes confusing, and even intimidating to those around us. Here’s a little experiment: start throwing out terms like “justification,” “sanctification,” and “atonement” in the break-room and see how many people’s eyes begin glazing over, or who starts looking furtively for the nearest exit.

Also, we begin to take things that fall under the umbrella of “Christianese” for granted. And so something familiar like the so-called sinner’s prayer, which is a beautiful and powerful thing, begins to lose its meaning for us, the ones for whom it really had any meaning in the first place.

But perhaps worst of all, we begin to assume that the “Christianese” way of doing and saying things is the only way of doing and saying things — that the only way someone can be saved is by reciting some form of the “sinner’s prayer” that toes the standard party line and hits all of the major points. And so we become stuck in how we live out the Christian life. The ways in which we think, speak, and interact with others becomes rigid and mechanical, influenced and determined more by tradition than anything else.

I love Anne Lamott’s conversion story simply because it so thoroughly breaks from convention, from tradition. It doesn’t contain the usual “Christianese,” the usual ultra-spiritual jargon. It’s rough, crude, funny, touching, and above all else, intensely human and honest.

I did not mean to be a Christian. I have been very clear about that. My first words upon encountering the presence of Jesus for the first time 12 years ago, were, I swear to God, “I would rather die.” I really would have rather died at that point than to have my wonderful brilliant left-wing non-believer friends know that I had begun to love Jesus. I think they would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond. At least there is some reason to believe that Strom Thurmond is a real person. You know, more or less.

But I never felt like I had much choice with Jesus; he was relentless. I didn’t experience him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, as the alley cat of heaven, who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up, mewling outside your door, you’d eventually open up and give him a bowl of milk. Of course, as soon as you do, you are fucked, and the next thing you know, he’s sleeping on your bed every night, and stepping on your chest at dawn to play a little push-push.

I resisted as long as I could, like Sam-I-Am in “Green Eggs and Ham” — I would not, could not in a boat! I could not would not with a goat! I do not want to follow Jesus, I just want expensive cheeses. Or something. Anyway, he wore me out. He won.

I was tired and vulnerable and he won. I let him in. This is what I said at the moment of my conversion: I said, “Fuck it. Come in. I quit.” He started sleeping on my bed that night. It was not so bad. It was even pretty nice. He loved me, he didn’t shed or need to have his claws trimmed, and he never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a savior, right? Then, when I was dozing, tiny kitten that I was, he picked me up like a mother cat, by the scruff of my neck, and deposited me in a little church across from the flea market in Marin’s black ghetto. That’s where I was when I came to. And then I came to believe.

You can read Lamott’s beautiful Salon article in its entirety here or pick up Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts On Faith, which I highly recommend.

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