So often the greatest truths come from the simplest observations. One of my favorite writers is Maya Angelou. Even when she wrote prose, the poetry of a great soul would shine through her work. She was a woman of much experience and considerable faith. When I read her writings, I have a sense that I am being immersed in a reality that is nevertheless tinged with authentic glory.
In one of her works, she says that she is amazed when people come up to her and tell her, “I am a Christian.” Her reply is always, “Already? I thought it took a lifetime to become a Christian.”
Ms. Angelou’s reply should not be understood in legalistic terms. She certainly understood the grace of God and that we are accepted and loved by God just as we are. I think what she is speaking to is the arrogance of those who think they have already arrived. It is one thing to accept with humble joy the grace of God that calls us God’s very own and assures us that we are loved unconditionally for all time and eternity. It’s quite another thing to announce with such absolute certainty that we are already followers of Jesus (which is what the term “Christian” means).
When I ponder the life, example, and teachings of Jesus, I am keenly aware of how far I am from being able to call myself a Christian. Sometimes in my discipleship, I feel he is so far ahead of me that I can’t even see where he has trod. I know he loves me, but I also know he calls me to follow him. And so I find myself experiencing, sometimes with anguish, that paradox whereby I am already God’s precious child and am at the same time so far from being a Christian. But the older I become, the more I find that authentic faith is most often found in living such paradoxes. Somewhere within the tension of those two truths of being both loved unconditionally and called to radical discipleship is where the miracles of our transformation occur.
I thank God I am God’s child and loved without any qualification. But I also know that even with a long life I will never be a Christian if I am to measure my life by the example of Jesus. For the sake of my spiritual health I hope I will never be foolish enough to say, “I’m already a Christian.” Too much pain and division have resulted in church history from such arrogance, not to mention the presumption that flawed humans have the right and ability to judge the lives and destiny of others. A healthy humility regarding our identities as Christians will serve us and the world well as we deal with our own discipleship, our relationships with others, and all the pluralism of the global community.