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Being spiritual doesn't mean being perfect

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By Nancy Kennedy

When somebody says, “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way,” it’s safe to say that what follows is not something you’re eager to hear.

That’s how a woman started a conversation with me during a women’s retreat where I was the speaker.

When she said that we were in the kitchen at the retreat center, picking at leftover brownies. The brownie bit I had just swallowed sank like an anchor in my stomach and I froze.

More than 1,000 miles away from home, even if I had wanted to run away just then, which I did, we were in such a tiny place in Mississippi that the airport had only two flights a day in or out and the last flight had already left — I was stuck.

Oh, and running away is for cowards. Plus, they hadn’t paid me yet and Mama needs a new pair of shoes.

So, I steeled myself for whatever was coming next.

She continued in her Mississippi drawl, “Last night after you spoke I went back to my room and said to God, ‘Lord, she’s not very spiritual.’”

I felt like I had been caught naked. I felt like a fraud and a failure. They had invited me to talk about what it means to be a Christian and somehow I had botched it up.

Obviously, I didn’t know what it means.

“I told God I didn’t think you were very spiritual,” she repeated, “but then he said, ‘I know. That’s why she’s here. She’s not pious and she doesn’t claim to be, but she’s the real deal and that’s what you’ve been wanting to see.’”

Wow. God called me the real deal!

She went on to explain that she had expected me to talk about living a standard, setting a high bar to reach, and then detailing for them how they could live it, too. She had expected to take notes on all the ways I conquered my sin and my faults, how I’ve found victory and success — by my own efforts.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” she said. “You were supposed to make us all feel guilty so we would go home and hope that one day we could reach the level of your spirituality.”

Then she said, “But instead, you gave me hope that I don’t have to be perfect, or even good for God to like me.”

The brownie anchor in my stomach softened. She wasn’t saying she was disappointed with me, although she was surprised. I wasn’t what she had expected, but the message I had brought was what she needed to hear.

Lots of teachers and preachers and writers present the gospel as a how-to. Just do A,B,3,4 and X and God will smile on you. Come to Jesus and live a victorious life by following all the steps/keys/principles in the newest Christian self-help book on the market.

But — and here’s a family secret — not even Billy Graham does everything right.

The message I brought to these women is the only message I have to give anyone: The only way to be perfect is for Jesus to give you his perfection. Then you can relax because God won’t love you any more if you do stuff for him or any less if you don’t. But the cool part is, he’ll give you the desire and the power to live a godly life and forgive you freely when you mess up, because you will.

That’s the bare bones of the gospel. There’s more, but if you just get that much, you’ll be OK.

Gospel means good news. So, I hope you won’t take this the wrong way when I say that too often Christians present a so-called gospel message that’s not good news. Instead, it’s oppressive and guilt-inducing. How sad that that’s what people expect.

The real deal is as the apostle Paul said about himself: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

And any message of personal success should be delivered with a huge amount of surprise and a large dose of gratitude and astonishment. Any goodness in me is God’s goodness in me.

That’s what it means to be a Christian. At least that’s what I think.

Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via e-mail at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.