Sinners at the Table: Popeye, Paul, and Me

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Of the thousands of sermons churchgoers might hear, how many do we remember for the rest of our lucid lives? For me, maybe one per decade. In the nineties a young preacher apologized for not having a tight fill-in-the-blank outline; then for twenty minutes he spontaneously enthused on the awesomeness of God. I walked out of the sanctuary refreshed like the author of Psalm 72: the whole earth, full of God’s glory.

Of the hundreds of books I’ve edited across my career, only one remains in my library solely because of a single memorable insight. In In Search of the Promised Land: The Collected Papers of Burton Blatt, the social scientist distinguishes between God’s name as revealed to Moses, I Am—indicating “there is nothing more to be said”—and the flaunted tagline of Popeye the Sailor Man, a first-generation TV-cartoon-hero: “I Am What I Am.” Contrasted to I Am, “the world’s most serious story,” Blatt calls “I am what I am” any person’s “most serious” life story. Popeye’s character comes with his imperfections and contradictions: a deal-with-it bluster tempered by good nature; muscles fueled not by beefy protein but by slimy canned spinach.

“I am what I am” hasn’t always been a boast. John Bunyan’s autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is a painful read. Nearly half the seventeenth-century book recounts his inability to imagine himself in a state of grace. I turn pages randomly. “I counted myself alone, and above the most of men unblessed” (¶87). “I was often now ashamed that I should be like such an ugly man as Judas” (¶160). I “fell into a very deep pause about the most fearful state my sin had brought me to” (¶187). Portraying the “extremes of human existence” (Holman Illustrated Bible Handbook), the Psalms include parallels to Bunyan’s story: “O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you” (69:5 NRSV).

The sands of time have worn down our cultural awareness of personal imperfection. It’s amazing that John Newton’s “saved a wretch like me” remains a recognizable lyric. A younger friend says she doesn’t need a savior. “I’m an upstanding, charitable citizen, good and faithful to my husband. I keep the Commandments.” Repentance? Pardon? For what? Not that she comes across as egotistical. She is what she is, and I like her. She’s kind and generous. Like the psalmist she prays, “Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit” (17:1). She asks me to pray for her—daily strength for daily needs; she wants a graced best-case outcome. Again, a psalm-line echoes her story: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me” (23:6).

I can’t identify any aspect of my life as being categorically extreme. On a wretch-guileless spectrum, I strive for kindly integrity. An older friend occasionally calls me a saint. I deflect her starry-eyed flattery; she knows not what she’s talking about. I grew up among difficult people who claimed they hadn’t sinned since before I was born. I, on the other hand, repeatedly knelt at an altar rail, silently swearing off disrespectful pique and asking Jesus to take me back. Now, hoary haired, I try to rest in his presence, even as I regularly confess the impatience that stifled a conversation, the fear that hobbled my faith . . . “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10).

Within a decade or two, my family and friends will gather to mark the end of my earthly story. They will seriously discount my imperfections and make light of my contradictions.

And I—meeting my awesome Maker? The first time I heard my congregation sing “Just as I Am” at a funeral, I was startled. What? This hymn calls sinners to the table, not . . . But by the last verse (the original seven are variously selected by editors), I could see the rationale. We were, after all, commemorating someone’s ultimate come-to-Jesus moment: I Am What I Am faces I Am That I Am—with nothing more to be said.

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Evelyn Bence is author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality. She grew up in a Wesleyan parsonage known for its hospitable Sunday dinners.

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