Dvar Torah – Just as we are

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 23 February 2018

At first glance, it seems that I have very little in common with the evangelical preacher, Billy Graham, who died this week.
I have, in my rabbinic career, had the privilege of speaking to congregations of a couple of thousand. But, I am yet to sell out Wembley stadium.
And I am certainly nowhere near to the over 200 million people it is estimated that he addressed during his career.

Unlike Graham, I’ve never been consulted by the queen on her religious life. Though there’s still time.

More importantly, I do believe in climate change (graham did not) and I do believe in the importance of state action and legislation – I believe it, rather than religious conversion, is the way to change society and the world.  Indeed, much of Graham’s message – and certainly his politics – is utterly anathema to me.

But reading about his life this week, there is one thing that he and I have in common.
It is a religious ideal.
It is represented by the hymn that became his anthem, which played a part in his own conversion in 1934, was his altar call song in each one of his meetings, and which he used as the title of his autobiography.
It’s called “Just as I am”, and though there is a fine version by Johnny Cash, it was actually written in the mid nineteenth century by an English woman. Her name was Charlotte Eliott, and the story goes that she had convinced herself that her physical challenges made her unworthy, until she met a preacher. The hymn expresses her sense that while she felt inadequate, that she had nothing to offer, nonetheless she found acceptance and a place in religious life.

Hers was a deeply Christian belief, very much grounded in her belief in salvation through Christianity. This is reflected in the refrain at the end of each verse of the hymn – “Oh lamb of God, I come”.

But strip away the Christian theology and what you have is a powerful idea – the acknowledgement of our own imperfection, and the assertion that this does not and must not, present a block to our communal lives, to our religious lives. As it says in, for me, the most powerful verse: “Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt; fightings and fears within, without, Oh lamb of God, I come.”

This is part of our religious tradition too. The modern Jewish songwriter, Dan Nichols, expresses a similar idea in his version of the morning prayer “asher yatzar” that we sing in some of our parallel services. He adds in English, “I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too”.

Our lives may be demanding – we are asked for more at work, better at school, A*s, always excellence. Here we can be ourselves: mistakes are allowed, we are allowed to be uncertain, to be scared, to be sad, to laugh inappropriately, to cry as much as we need, to embarrass ourselves. To be tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt.

Here we can be a little broken, and are still perfect the way we are. Here we can be human beings, invited to come – just as we are.