I was talking to a group in Essex, Conn., and I asked, right off, if any one knew the words to “Just As I Am.” Two women smiled and raised their hands, and I congratulated them on their membership in the church of Christ, because that sweet song seems to be especially loved by people of my tribe.
At my home church, we would sing the umpteen (157? 156? I’ve lost count) verses softly and slowly as the invitation song — the hymn sung just after the sermon to try to ferret out the sinners and get them to walk to the front of the church to confess sins, to be baptized, to ask for help in general.
I’ve tried to explain the theology of the invitation song (and the response cards you’d fill out with those little stubby pencils normally found at miniature golf courses) to non-churched friends, who usually act horrified. Many of them grew up Catholic and so they dealt with their shotfalls in the privacy of a confessional. Their take on it is: You announced your sins to one another? Really? How detailed were you?
Very, if I remember correctly. And I don’t remember any one ever talking trash about someone who’d confessed. It was accepted as part of the deal. You are human. Therefore, you sin.
Post-baptism, I went up to the front several times, myself, usually when my conscience would get the better of me but sometimes I’d go up just because I feared I’d sinned in some big way and had somehow forgotten to ask forgiveness. My understanding was that you could take care of your own sins if they were piddly — though we were taught that every sin was awful, that gossiping was every bit as evil as murder. When Pres. Jimmy Carter said in an interview (in Playboy magazine, no less) that he’d lusted for women in his heart, we knew precisely what he was talking about. I mean, he was a Southern Baptist, but that didn’t stop us from feeling sorry for him for his lustful heart.
But mostly, it was the big sins — addiction, adultery, the stuff we saw on TV — that would bring us forward. Sometimes, if the preacher sensed that someone was holding out, he’d ask for another verse to be sung, or for it to be sung more softly. I think he must have thought that eventually, someone would crack, and eventually, someone usually did.
I love that song, but the words always struck me as a little bit ironic, especially the first part: Just as I am, without one plea. That implied that Jesus was going to take you as you are, no matter what, and that ran counter to my constant self-checking to make sure I was in the right. I sometimes wondered what life would be like if Jesus (and/or God) wasn’t sitting up there with a checklist. What if Jesus loved me outright?