Flunking sainthood

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This week I turned 57.

I thought by this age I’d get the hang of the whole sainthood thing. The Protestant definition of a saint is simply a follower of Jesus.

However, that doesn’t seem enough. There should be more to it than that. For instance, by now I should have at least the beginning buds of a halo or be able to say no to temptation eight out of 10 times — or two out of 10!

But the truth is, I still struggle.

Recently, I read about two books that intrigued me. One is “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs. He spent an entire year attempting to live the ultimate biblical life by following the Bible as literally as possible.

That included obeying the Ten Commandments, being fruitful and multiplying, loving his neighbor as much as he loved himself and giving away 10 percent of his income. It also included following some odd and obscure passages — playing a 10-stringed harp, not wearing clothing of mixed fibers, leaving his beard unshaven and untrimmed — and stoning adulterers and/or Sabbath breakers.

He said he was in New York’s Central Park, picked up some pebbles and decided to start with a guy he knew who worked both Saturdays and Sundays. He planned to walk by him and chuck the pebbles at the small of his back.

“After a couple of failed passes, I realized it was a bad idea,” he said. “A chucked pebble, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed. My revised plan: I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebbles on his shoe. So I did.”

He said it was probably the most polite stoning in history, and highly unsatisfying.

Since I only read an excerpt from the book, I don’t know if Jacobs was able to live biblically 24/7 for 365 days, but I’m guessing no.

The other book I read about is called “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor” by Jana Riess.

Actually, she started her year the way Jacobs had, with a vow to live biblically. She narrowed her quest down to specific spiritual practices that she hoped would make her more saintly, including fasting, fixed-hour prayer, gratitude, keeping the Sabbath and practicing hospitality and generosity.

She said she did it because she and Jesus had become like an old married couple — she being naggy and he being distant. She wanted to bring some zing back into their relationship.

“Really, how hard could it be?” she asked at the beginning of her saint-making year, only to find out that the only thing she could succeed at was failure.

As I see it, the problem with setting out on a quest to live righteously, to live holy (as we think of holiness), to live obediently and victoriously and as biblically as we can is that we usually judge success or failure by our performance. Did I put 10 percent of my paycheck (gross not net amount) in the offering this week? Did I spend at least 30 minutes in prayer in the morning and read my Bible for at least that long? Did I say grace before meals? Did I give thanks in all things?

If I did all that (and more — much, much more), then I’m worthy to be called a saint. God will like me. He won’t flick me behind my ears or squish me like a stink bug.

But even if I do all that, if I can’t maintain it, then what? I flunk sainthood.

Or do I?

There’s a song by Christian artist Andrew Peterson that haunts me, but in a good way. He sings about a lifelong fear, of “thistles and vines (that) ensnare and entwine,” of a fear that he’ll fall one too many times. He sings, “it’s the fear that (Christ’s) love is no better than mine.”

Then Jesus comes. He has planted seeds in Peterson’s life and now has come for the harvest. However, the plants that have grown, the evidence of being rooted to Christ, are few and puny, and he’s afraid of what Jesus will say. He’s afraid he’ll be rejected, ridiculed, cast aside.

But it’s not like that, he realizes as he sings, “The best that I’ve got isn’t nearly enough. He’s glad for the crop, but it’s me that he loves.”

When it comes to achieving sainthood, at least for Protestants, it’s not our obedience that counts, but Christ’s obedience on our behalf. The best that we’ve got isn’t nearly enough. That’s why he gave his best for us.

If we know that, there’s no such thing as flunking sainthood.

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 email at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.