Jerry Simonson lowered himself gingerly into the overstuffed chair. He was wondering whether it was safe or sanitary. He shouldn’t have. The decor of The Roadside Cafe may have looked like a cross between accidental and tornado aftermath, but it was a decor that was carefully maintained. It was more likely that the owner had purchased a new chair and carefully made it look scruffy, without damaging it in any important way, than that he would put in anything dangerous.
And here was the new manager, Ellen, who had been a waitress here since the first time Jerry had been in the place. One of his great sorrows was that she remained a loyal member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints despite his best efforts to witness to her about the gospel in the orthodox form in which he knew it. She personally handed him his drink. She didn’t have to do that now that she managed the place. The owner only checked on her every few weeks. Ellen ran the cafe, and business was booming.
“Hi Jerry,” she said with her usual cheerful smile. She’d gotten married about six months before, and married life clearly agreed with her.
“Hello, Ellen. Still keeping busy around here?”
“Busy?” Ellen laughed. “This place practically runs itself.”
“I doubt that,” said Jerry.
“I’m very good at my job, so it looks that way,” said Ellen, grinning.
“How do you manage to keep this place looking so, ummm, accidental?”
“Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”
“Perhaps. I miss the old gang. Everyone moved away bit by bit.”
“Well, not everyone. Justine is still in town, but I think she got too busy. And, I think, afraid to be seen in public. Too many people want to talk to her. But I have news!”
“You’re going to see her tonight!” Ellen looked delighted. She had probably forgotten how hard a time Jerry had dealing with Justine, now Dr. Justine Reeder with a brand new diploma from the seminary testifying to the fact that she had earned a Doctor of Ministry degree. And while she had worked her way through the seminary, first earning her MDiv and now this DMin, she had been growing the tiny, independent, charismatic congregation she pastored into one of the largest churches in the city. In fact, the church had moved into a new facility less than a year before.
“How do you know that?”
“She called me. She wanted to get out of the pressure cooker. She wondered if the atmosphere was still the same. I assured her it was.” She paused. “Now don’t you go attacking her because she’s a woman preacher. She’s a godly woman even if she is somewhat misguided.”
Jerry didn’t know exactly how to handle that. To him Ellen was more misguided than Justine, even though he actually found himself more offended by Justine, since, with that Doctor of Ministry degree and at least a passable knowledge of scripture, she should have known better. “It will be nice to see her,” he said after a pause.
“You don’t know what’s been going on?” asked Ellen.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“It was Justine’s church that fired that gay guitarist.”
The story came back. In fact, his pastor had talked about it from the pulpit, but he hadn’t identified the church. So that was Justine Reeder. Well, at least she hadn’t compromised completely on the issue of homosexuality. He remembered his pastor’s statement. By allowing openly gay people to be members of the church, the door had been opened to more problems. The lesson his pastor had drawn from this was that any compromise just led to more compromise. Jerry was trying to remember precisely what had happened, but he couldn’t recall the details. He didn’t want to ask Ellen. Despite his disagreement with Justine on the issue of women in ministry and the gifts of the Spirit in the modern church, she was an orthodox Christian on the major doctrines—Trinity, Incarnation, bodily resurrection, the inerrancy of scripture, and salvation by grace even if she did put an Arminian twist on it. So he didn’t ask.
“Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t realized it was her church.”
Ellen just looked at him. Sometimes Jerry could be so … so closed and narrow in his vision. Despite their differences in doctrine, Ellen genuinely liked Justine and was disappointed that she had come to the cafe less and less as her church had grown.
“And how’s my favorite killjoy?” Jerry barely had time to recognize the voice before he felt an arm go around his neck and hug him as much as it was possible in that position. Then the woman herself bounced over to a nearby hassock and perched on it cross-legged.
“I’m doing fine,” said Jerry. A woman in her 40s had no business looking that good. Definitely no business perching cross-legged on a hassock. Where should he put his eyes? Staring her in the face seemed to be the only option.
“Ah, ‘fine’ he grates out, not at all happy to see me.”
“I am happy to see you.”
“Ah, I see. ‘By faith Jerry Simonson received Mandy Kelly without insulting her’,” Mandy paraphrased.
Ellen had never figured out whether Mandy knew how much she bothered Jerry. Mandy tended, despite her years, to seem young and innocent. She hardly could be, considering she had four children herself and an apparently happy home. She hadn’t been in the cafe for a couple of years, however.
“So what’s been keeping you away?” asked Jerry.
“Doctoral studies. I’ve been writing a dissertation. I successfully defended it last month.”
“What was the subject?”
“Technology education. I’ve been doing consulting with several companies.”
“Still homeschooling your children?”
“Absolutely! Well, except for Emma who is 19 now, and pretty much on her own. She has already completed a degree with a double major in information technology and psychology.”
“Congratulations!” Jerry was truly impressed.
“Wow! That’s wonderful!” said Ellen. “I’ve always so admired you and the way you raise your family.”
“It works for me,” said Mandy. She was aware that homeschooling didn’t work for everyone, but she had been 100% successful by just about any measure of success she could think of.
“So what brings you here tonight?” asked Jerry after a pause.
“I’m planning to annoy Justine,” said Mandy with a grin.
“Oh please!” said Ellen. “Justine needs some peace.”
“On the contrary,” said Mandy. “Justine is spoiling for a fight. She just wants to do it with folks who are straightforward and friendly, even when they disagree. I’m guessing you’ll be on Justine’s side this time, Jerry.”
“You mean about homosexuality?”
“Yes, the gay guitarist.” Mandy rolled her eyes a bit.
“The gay guitarist?” asked someone new. It was another of the old regulars, Mark Morton. Mark had completed his MDiv, and then, with exceptions made to all the rules, his DMin from the seminary. Then he’d left to take up his first pastoral position.
“Yes,” said Mandy. “Justine fired a gay guitarist from her praise band. Oh, and welcome back. I guess you’re now the Rev. Dr. Mark Morton.”
“Mark will do fine,” said the Reverend Doctor. But one could tell he was pleased at the acknowledgment of his accomplishments.
“Let’s be accurate,” said Ellen. “Since Justine’s church doesn’t hire musicians, Justine didn’t actually fire the guitarist. She said he could no longer play in the band until he was in compliance with the moral standards of the church.”
“So he can return whenever he’s no longer gay?” It was another newcomer, though Ellen still saw Bob Norman frequently. He just hadn’t been part of their group discussions for some time.
“Actually,” said Ellen again, “it seems none of you have really followed this. Justine’s church does not say that being gay is contrary to the church standards. Sex outside of marriage is. The guitarist admitted he was sexually active and living with his same-sex partner.”
“But of course he can’t get married, so, unlike heterosexual couples, his only option is celibacy. Besides, I wonder if people would have been so quick to gossip about his situation if he had been straight and living with his girlfriend. Would they have even noticed?” This was Mandy.
“Which shows that your religious rules are nonsense.” Bob’s tone was that of one giving the final conclusion. “Why you religious people feel you have to regulate people’s sex lives so much is beyond me. Jerry here probably thinks the kid should be stoned too, and I mean with rocks, not the good stuff.” He laughed at his own joke, but he was the only one.
“Stoning?” It was a slight drawl, and it announced the arrival of Rev. Justine Reeder. “I reserve that punishment for true infidels!”
There were a few more chuckles this time. “Well, with your outdated and unenlightened view of human sexuality, it’s only a small step further.” It was typical of the group that Justine’s gibe about stoning infidels was ignored.
“On the contrary, I think it’s a huge step, and considering there are people who actually advocate taking that step, I think it’s appropriate for me to distinguish myself from them. I asked one young man not to participate in the band at church because he was not living up to the moral standards of our congregation. I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t take away his right to free speech, and I definitely did not in any way threaten his life.”
“And if he now spirals into depression because he has been rejected, what then?” asked Mandy.
“I will offer to be there for him at any time. I have told him that I continue to love him as a person and to pray for him. I have admonished our congregation not to use derogatory terms for gays or lesbians, but to treat them as persons Jesus died to redeem. I don’t hate him. I do think he has made choices that will, ultimately, hurt him and others. Those choices are not my doing.”
“So, to summarize, if he commits suicide it’s not your fault,” said Bob.
“It’s not my fault, though it would bother me a great deal, yet that is not the most important thing I said. The most important thing I said was that I would continue to love him and treat him with respect.”
“But he can’t play his guitar, exercise his gift for music, in your congregation. If he stays there, he must remain cut off from part of who he is.” Mandy looked to Jerry more serious than he had ever known her to be. Now he knew where she stood on this issue.
“True. But there I have other responsibilities,” said Justine.
“To protect people from what this young man does in the privacy of his own home?” It was Mac Strong, meaning the whole group was back again.
“Unlike you,” said Justine, “I believe that homosexuality is a destructive behavior that is the result of sin in the world. So I do believe it is important to protect people from it.”
“You think people will be influenced to be gay?”
“I think people will be influenced to give in to impulses to sin. We all have impulses to sin. People have impulses that would lead them to sex outside of marriage. That’s a destructive behavior, I believe, and so our church standards say that sex should be reserved for marriage. Our rules say that if you want to be in a position of leadership, you agree to live up to those standards. I see no reason to treat a same-sex attraction differently.”
“Except that you require that there be no legitimate outlet for those whose attractions are same-sex.”
“Yes, if one has only same-sex attractions, then the call of God is to celibacy.”
“Amen!” said Jerry.
“I knew you’d agree, though I believe your pastor would prefer we kept gay people out of the congregation.”
“He draws the line at church membership. If you are to be a member you agree to live up to the church’s standards. He, and I also, believe that you open yourself to more trouble by allowing church membership to those who refuse to live up to biblical standards.”
“Such as gossips?” said Mandy.
“I don’t know what gossip has to do with it,” said Jerry.
“The gossip that led Justine to discover that her gay guitarist was living with a partner.”
“I don’t see it as gossip,” said Justine. “People who were concerned with the reputation of the church and the influence on the young people informed church leadership of a problem. We dealt with it.”
“Ah,” said Mac, “I think I get it. There’s reporting and then there’s gossip. When you report what someone is doing in order to get them into trouble, you’re doing a service. When you report someone just because it’s interesting, you’re a gossip.”
“I would say, rather, that when one reports things that need to be reported, and does so to the proper authorities, that person is not gossiping. When one simply talks about other people, with no real concern for the truth, then that’s gossip.” Jerry spoke slowly and deliberately, trying to catch the loopholes.
“But what I wonder,” said Mark, “is whether you allow gossips to be members of your church.”
“I know we have gossips in ours,” said Justine, “but if someone persists in such behavior while in a position of leadership, he or she would be removed.”
“And how many times has this happened?” asked Bob. “I’m just checking on your consistency.”
“I’ve had to admonish people for gossiping several times. I’ve never had someone who persisted.”
“So let me get this straight,” Bob continued. “You would have admonished your guitarist, I mean, told him that he had to cease living and/or having sexual relations with his partner, and he decided to ignore you, so he was removed. What if he said he’d stop?”
“That’s more or less it. There’s behavior that is not permitted in the leadership of our church. If anyone says that they will return to complying with our church standards, I believe them. Repeated offenses would be another matter.”
“So, Mark, what do you think about this?” asked Mac. She’d always wondered about Mark, who never seemed to be very rooted. Here he was a pastor, and she couldn’t have told you three things he believed for certain. She even had her moments of wondering whether he believed in God.
“We generally ignore it,” said Mark.
“Ignore it?” said several people at once.
“Yes. We don’t announce that we’re accepting gay people into our church’s leadership, but we go ahead and do it. Under the rules of my church I can’t perform a gay wedding, but I don’t have to take official notice of someone’s sexuality in church.”
“Amazing!” said Jerry. “You just ignore a major swath of morality and pretend it’s not a problem.”
[This is part 1 of a 2 part story. Go to part 2.]