“Of course,” said Pastor Bill Allen. “I’m planning a sermon about the wonderful ladies in my life this Sunday.” His smile was beatific, expressing his confidence in “having this one covered.” Maggie imagined he practiced that smile in the mirror.
“But …” Maggie started to respond.
Bill knew when to keep control of a conversation, and he figured this was such a time. “I’ll begin,” he interrupted, “with my sainted mother, who gave her life so that I could be in ministry. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”
“But,” Maggie began again, and then plowed forward, using her experience as an Emergency Room physician in keeping control of the conversation in turn. “Your mother never worked a day outside of her home.”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Pastor Bill. Maggie suspected the expression of shocked disappointment, about a four on a five point scale, was also the result of practice.
Maggie got up to leave. As she reached the door, she said, “I imagine that to you International Women’s day is a day for men to talk about the women in their lives.
She didn’t see the entirely genuine look of surprise, consideration, and then visceral rejection she left behind.
Sam (short for Samson, not Samuel), picked up the stein of beer he had just paid for, gave it an initial taste to savor the taste, and then followed with a gulp. He enjoyed his beer in the evening after a hard day of work.
He took a quick look around the bar, searching for faces he knew. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he loved to sit with friends and just be there.
Today, however, he saw a man he didn’t know sitting alone at one of the high tables, an empty stein in front of him. The only conclusion one could come to—and as usual, Sam came to it quickly—was that the man was wearing high quality clothes, but had been wearing the same ones for at least a couple of days. He was alone at the table, and he looked alone, absolutely alone.
Sam walked over to the table. “Hi. I’m Sam. Can I buy you a refill?” he asked.
The man looked back blankly, like he didn’t understand the question. Sam just stood there. He figured the man would figure it out in his own time.
After what seemed like a couple of minutes, the man nodded and kind of pushed the stein over. It didn’t look very polite, but Sam didn’t care. Without knowing why, he sensed that was about all the man could do.
He went to the bar, got the man’s drink refilled, paid, and went back to the table. As he sat down, he remembered what his pastor had said in church the past Sunday. He’d talked about being a witness, introducing people to Jesus. “Witness” didn’t make much sense to Sam. He understood introducing people to Jesus, but he could never figure out how you did it. If Jesus was one of his normal friends, he’d take him to one of his friends and say, “Hey Bob, meet Jesus.” Then he’d just sit there quietly and people would talk. He just couldn’t quite get to those intellectual things people kept saying about Jesus.
Sam wasn’t stupid. In fact, the pastor reminded him regularly that he wasn’t. He’d talk about different skills, different ways minds worked, and how he, the pastor, couldn’t build a house the way Sam could. “I’d be a real fool on a building site,” he’d say. Then he’d bring up some complex topic that Sam couldn’t understand (and didn’t want to), and Sam would smile and move on. Trouble was, he thought, the pastor was never on a building site where Sam could talk studs, joists, fasteners and such-like, while Sam was in church every Sunday where he heard about long words that never meant anything to him.
Jesus was his friend. In fact, Jesus was his best friend. Jesus didn’t talk to him and he didn’t talk to Jesus. They just sat together. Sam liked it that way.
He sat down and shoved the beer across the table. Then he thought, I should ask a blessing or something. He couldn’t imagine why. Bless the beer (and pretzels) in a bar? He’d never heard of such a thing. Besides, he didn’t know how one said a blessing. If it was one of his friends …
“Hey Jesus,” he said, looking slightly upward, “thanks for the beer!” He paused a moment as he grabbed a pretzel. “And for the pretzels too,” he added. For some reason, Sam handed the pretzel to the man across the table. Neither of them offered another word.
“May I join you?” said someone.
Both men looked to the side. Between them was a man, probably a construction worker, they thought. His hands were calloused. His clothes were the sort you wore on a building site, and they showed signs of wear and the dirt and dust of a work site.
“Sure,” said Sam. The other man just nodded at the newcomer.
“Get you a beer?” asked Sam.
“Sure, thanks,” he responded. His voice was the voice of the construction site as well.
With the beer delivered, they all three sat in silence for several minutes, nursing their beers slowly.
Finally, the newcomer looked at the man across from Sam and spoke. “It’s OK to run away from evil,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the only thing to do.”
The man jerked, startled. Then he just stared.
“When you ran, you should have taken your family.”
His stare got more intense, as though he was in a state of shock.
“You need to go get them.”
“I can’t.” The man spoke for the first time. “I used my last money on my first beer. I only have this one because Sam here bought it for me. I have nothing left.” His tone indicated that by “nothing” he was talking about more than money.
“If you try, I think you’ll find you have the resources,” said the stranger. Then he got up.
As he left he turned to Sam and said, “Hey, Sam. Thanks for the beer.”
For no reason he could imagine, Sam reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty. He put it on the table in front of his new friend. Almost as if by magic several other bills joined it as people from around the room stepped up to contribute.
None of them knew why they did it either. They just knew that Sam was solid. If he thought the man needed the money, the man needed the money.
“I disagree with that. Rather, I allow my LGBTQ members full participation without making a scene about it. They know, I know, and my church council knows what’s going on. I don’t perform same-sex weddings because it’s contrary to the rules of the church. Yes, I’m ignoring the position of my church that homosexual activity is contrary to scripture, but it’s not quite clear what one is supposed to do about that anyhow.”
“And what do you do with the clear teaching of scripture?” asked Jerry.
“Clear teaching of scripture? It is to laugh. I do the same thing about that as you do about the command not to eat shell fish or pig. I see you eating a hamburger every so often.”
“But Paul took a clear stance against homosexuality.”
“I don’t think it’s so clear as all that. Paul didn’t have a concept of someone being homosexual by nature. He spoke of doing things against nature. And few such relationships at the time could be considered consensual. So no, I don’t think the teaching of scripture is any clear than, say, the teaching of scripture on the ordination of women.” As he said the last, he looked Justine right in the eyes. “Yes,” he added, “I’m acquainted with Romans 1[:24-32], Jude around verse 7, 1 Timothy 1[:8-11], and 1 Corinthians 6[:9-11]. I just don’t think those refer to consenting relationships between people who are naturally attracted to persons of the same sex.”
Jerry looked back and forth between them. He couldn’t seem to figure out who to address. His problem was not confusion. He was stunned by this sweeping dismissal of clear scripture.
Justine responded first. “I understand how one might dismiss the Old Testament passages as part of the ceremonial law, though I think there are principles from us to learn from just about any of those laws. But I don’t think we can so easily dismiss the New Testament. And with Paul’s restatement of the prohibition, I think we draw the Old Testament passages back into the discussion.”
“I find it difficult to see how you draw in passages from the Torah into a modern discussion when the penalty involved was death. If the one part applies, why not the other? I mean, I sincerely hope there is nobody here who supports the death penalty for being gay.” Mandy again looked more serious than usual, and sounded more tense.
Nobody volunteered to support the death penalty.
Bob Norman took up the conversation. “There are people in the world, Christians, in fact, who do believe the death penalty should still apply. We’ve seen such laws proposed and some even passed in various African nations. We even have churches here in America who have ties to those who advocate those laws.”
“Yes,” said Mac. “Who here has condemned those laws and taken action against them?”
Both Mandy and Justine raised their hands, an act that seemed a bit ludicrous in the informal group.
Ellen broke in. “I’m wondering if Justine wouldn’t rather be talking about something else right now. I imagine she’s spent the last month or so talking about nothing else!”
“Oh, I want to talk about it. I wanted to talk about it in a group that was less inhibited. I like to really tear a subject apart. There’s no other way I can be sure I’m doing the best I can to understand and do the right thing.” Justine actually did look more relaxed than when she had arrived.
“OK,” said Mark. “I want to know what the two of you have done about these anti-gay laws in Africa.”
“I’ve written letters to church leaders supporting these moves, and contributed money to groups working to oppose them,” said Mandy.
“I’ve stuck to letter writing and I’ve condemned that attitude from the pulpit,” said Justine.
“But how can you?” asked Bob. “As I see it, those folks in Africa have the courage of your convictions and you don’t.”
“No, I have the courage of my convictions. They have the courage of theirs. I believe we no longer live in a theocracy. I believe we no longer live under the law. So I don’t have to apply a legal penalty to these actions. I opposed them because I believe they are destructive of a good and proper life in this world and they are destructive of people’s souls in the next.”
“Amen!” said Jerry again.
“What’s destructive is hate,” said Mandy.
“Hate? Do you really believe I hate gay people?” asked Justine.
“I don’t actually believe you hate, though it’s hard for me not to think so. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d mistake your attitude for hatred. The problem is that you enable people to hate by telling them that other people are less than you and I are.”
“But I say that everyone is a child of God. We are all the same before God.”
“But some of us can stand on the stage and play a guitar and others can’t.”
“My guitarist agreed to those rules.”
“He agreed to pretend.”
“You seem to think it was impossible for him to refrain from sexual activity. Did you not teach your own teenagers that they didn’t have to engage in sexual activity before marriage?” Justine and Mandy were now focused directly on one another.
“I did. But you keep missing the point. You require that a gay person deny who he is in order to fit into your world of what is permissible. It’s not that my children’s desires were evil in themselves, and I could point them to the legitimate time and manner in which they could be fulfilled. It’s not good to be alone—that comes from Genesis 2. But one of my children, my oldest daughter, is a lesbian. And I didn’t tell her that she was somehow less than a person, that she should be less fulfilled than the others when she came out to me.”
“Oh Mandy!” exclaimed Justine.
“Oh no you don’t!” exclaimed Mandy. “Don’t even think of being sympathetic, as though I was grieving about something! Not only do I love my oldest daughter unconditionally, I am proud of her in each and every way and I wish her and her future partner—she’s not in a major hurry, but I think there’s someone on the horizon—the very best. I will love them both in the same way. I’m incredibly blessed.”
There was another moment of silence.
Mandy grinned without much humor. “Afraid to continue the discussion considering someone has skin in the game, so to speak?”
“No,” said Jerry. “I still believe what I did. But I didn’t realize we were talking personally.”
“But that’s precisely the problem!” said Mandy. “You don’t talk personally, but people hear personally. We’re talking about real people. I’ve just made it more personal by revealing my daughter’s sexual orientation. And incidentally, I have permission to do so. She’s extremely open.”
“No idea where she gets that from,” said Mac to chuckles all around.
“OK, I’ll do what you suggest,” said Jerry. “I want to know what you do about the plain teaching of scripture. And despite the usual dismissal from Mark, I think scripture is rather clear.”
“I see it a bit differently than Mark does,” said Mandy. “I think the passages of scripture that are normally quoted are actually speaking against gays. What I believe is that those statements were not the end of the matter. God is still speaking. I think some church uses that as a motto, in fact [The United Church of Christ].”
“So God is now saying something completely different than he ever said before?” Jerry was very wary of the idea of God speaking in modern times. It was, in fact, one of his major issues with Justine.
“Of course God can say something different than he ever has before. Consider Isaiah 56:3-5 vs. Deuteronomy 23:1. In Deuteronomy a eunuch would be excluded from the congregation, but according to Isaiah, the day was coming when such would be welcomed.”
“Being a eunuch is not the same as homosexuality. The homosexual has a choice.”
“I’m not trying to compare the two. What I’m saying is that God can say one thing and then another. God may be unchanging but humanity and human circumstances are not. So God’s commands to us can change with our circumstances. I think that today the applicable scriptures dealing with LGBTQ persons are those that talk about supporting the downtrodden and proclaiming freedom. Contrary to you, and even Mark, I think it’s my duty to make it easier for my gay brothers and sisters to become a full part of the community. I would not be satisfied with pretending that ‘the problem’ doesn’t exist. It’s not a problem; it’s people. We, as Christians, should be all about proclaiming liberty to these captives. I don’t need to explain every scripture that applied to a particular time. The ethical teachings of Jesus lead this way inevitably.”
“I understand that this is an emotional issue for you, Mandy. It’s your daughter.”
“So first I’m inhibiting conversation because it’s personal, and now you inform me that the reason I believe what I believe is that I have a daughter who is a lesbian. How condescending! Have you asked yourself why my daughter was able to come to me and say, ‘Mom, I find that I’m attracted to other women.’ That was because she knew I would still treat her as my daughter and as an important human being.”
“I’m glad there are parents like you,” said Bob. “I have a student who was thrown out of his house after he came out. The things his parents said about him were terrible. He’s living with an uncle and aunt who are somewhat supportive.”
Justine looked back directly at Mandy. “So to you the only response is support. What would you say if your daughter came to you and said, ‘Mom, I find I just have to have cocaine in order to live.’?”
“That would be different, and I think you know it. She was not born a drug addict.”
“But that brings it back to the fundamental issue. I don’t think either Justine or I believe that this is either something someone is born with, nor do we believe it’s harmless,” said Jerry.
Justine nodded. “I know how everyone reacts, but in the end I have to go with what scripture teaches. I don’t think this is something we’re born with any more than any other tendency to sin. I believe it must be overcome in the same way. While I risk making people feel rejected when I reject their sin, I would be doing something even worse if I condone something that is harmful to them and to their immortal soul.”
“I agree,” said Jerry. “It sounds easier to go along with what society is doing. Face it, that’s what’s happening. Society accepts homosexuals, so we in the church decide we have to do it. But it’s not the right thing to do. It’s not the loving thing to do. Even though others proclaim their love for this guitarist in Justine’s church, Justine is the one who really does love him. She loves him enough to rebuke his sin.”
“And this is why,” said Bob, “that I oppose religion so strongly. Even when Mandy comes to a very good conclusion from a human point of view, there’s plenty of scripture to support the much more dangerous attitudes of Justine and Jerry. I just don’t think religion is safe.”
“Even I don’t think religion is safe,” said Mandy. “I think it’s important. I think there really is a God. But ‘safe’ is not a word I’d use for it. Then again, I don’t think atheism is ‘safe’ either. In fact, Bob Norman, you live in a dangerous world!”
“OK,” said Mac. “Let’s not go down that road any further. We’ve already torn up one subject for the day.”
“I want to know what’s been happening in Mark’s life. We haven’t heard from him in two years!” This was Ellen, diverting hostility as she often did.
“Well, I was sent for a year and a half to be an associate in a large church, and then just a month ago, the pastor of a church about 20 miles north of here died, and I was called to take his place. So I’ll be in the area for some time.”
“Excellent!” said Ellen. “Then we can see one another more regularly!”
“Always provided Justine and Jerry want to get beat up,” said Bob darkly.
“You think we got beat up?” asked Justine. “I think it depends on your point of view. Jerry and I have stood for what we believe, based on the Bible, which is the source of our beliefs. So I, at least, am fine with the discussion.”
“And,” said Mark, “that means Justine thinks Mandy and I are ignoring scripture. Each in our own way, of course!”
“You are,” said Jerry, but in the tone of someone who knew the subject had run its course for the evening.
“Same time, same channel?” asked Ellen.
“I’m game,” said Mandy.
And so the revival of the God-Talk Club was accomplished.
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.”
Victor sized up the man across the table from him. He could see the young man’s eyes flicker around the room, noting the watching prison guards and the other signs that said, “This is a jail.” It was a county jail, but still definitely a jail. Victor saw an odd mix of defiance and serenity, determination and fear in the young man’s expression.
“The Sheriff said you wanted to see a pastor. What can I do for you?”
“What church are you from?” asked Carl.
Victor was surprised. When someone asked for a pastor and didn’t specify which, they normally went straight to their problem. It might be help with their bail, contact with loved ones, or some kind of spiritual counseling.
“My church is called the 10th Street Gospel Fellowship. It’s non-denominational. But why don’t we discuss your problem here.”
“I need to know who you are. Are you born again?”
Victor paused. He was surprised by the question, but he had asked it of many who called themselves Christians himself. Every Christian should be born again and willing to say it. “Yes, he said. I’m a born again Christian. What about you?”
“I am too,” said Carl, looking neither surprised nor offended. It appeared he expected to be asked as well. Then he added, “And do you believe the Bible? The whole Bible?”
“Yes, I’m a Bible believing Christian.”
“Good,” said Carl, and then he paused a moment, as though he found it harder to ask his next question. “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Do you believe God can speak to us today?”
Victor was still puzzled. But again it was a question he had asked many times himself. “Yes,” he said, “I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe He will speak to you. But we will only be allowed a limited time for this visit. Perhaps you need to tell me what you need.”
“I need to talk to a born again, Bible believing, Spirit filled pastor. What did you think I needed?” It could have been belligerent, but it just sounded puzzled, as though there was only one possible reason for this visit.
“Well, I’m used to being called here by people who need bail money …”
“I don’t plan to post bail.”
“… or need me to contact their loved ones …”
“I have nobody who would be interested.”
“… or perhaps have other financial needs …
“I think they provide my needs here.”
“… or who want spiritual counsel.”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s ‘spiritual counsel’ I want. I just wanted to talk to someone who would understand. Then maybe you can pray with me.”
“Well, how can I help you then? Would you like to explain why you’re here?”
“I’m being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
Victor couldn’t keep just a bit of tension from his voice. He was unaware of any outbreak of persecution in his Christian community. Apathy, false doctrine, worldly living, yes. Persecution, other than a bit of ridicule for those who were truly committed Christians, no. “What particular form of righteousness are you being persecuted for?” he asked.
Carl didn’t seem to notice any veiled sarcasm. “I’ve been arrested for witnessing,” he said.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“I would have thought you’d have some idea, if you are truly born again, Bible believing, and Spirit filled. If you are being a true witness for God in this place, you will likely be arrested.”
“But what specifically happened to you?”
“Well, I came into town, and I heard the Lord saying to me, ‘Chamber of Commerce’. I knew that meant that I was to witness to the business people of the town. I had already seen several shops involved with pornography, so the business community here is certainly corrupt, or they wouldn’t allow such things. When I got to the Chamber of Commerce I found that the parking lot was filled. There was a meeting going on. The Lord had gathered people together to hear from me.”
Victor was listening with ever increasing horror. He was afraid he knew where this was going. Carl continued.
“I went into the meeting and waved for attention. They ignored me. Then I shouted. Finally I went up on the platform and grabbed the microphone. I told them that they needed to repent for the sins of this city and invite Jesus to come in and rule in the businesses, the school, and the government.”
“And then you were arrested.”
“Yes. There were deputies right there in the room. Apparently the meeting was about businesses working with law enforcement. So I was arrested for disturbing the peace and brought here.”
“Are you surprised they arrested you?” asked Victor.
“I was just doing what God told me to do. I even told them that God had called me to speak to them. But they still arrested me.”
“You can hardly be surprised. You could have chosen a better time.”
“But God told me to do that. When Peter and James wanted to preach in the temple they just went ahead and did it. They said they had to obey God rather than men.”
“But they didn’t go and interrupt a meeting of the Sanhedrin in order to witness. They preached to people in the courtyard. You went into someone else’s building, someone else’s conference room, and interrupted their activities.”
Carl looked surprised and puzzled. “I thought you were a Bible believing Christian,” he said. “Surely you remember Paul preaching on Mars Hill. That wasn’t a church. Or in cities like Lystra and Derbe, where he was persecuted. He didn’t ask permission.”
“But Paul was invited to speak on Mars Hill, and when he spoke in the Synagogues, he was invited to do so.”
“But God told me to do this. You said you believed God speaks to people today. He spoke to me. He told me where to go to preach.”
“Are you sure he didn’t mean you should start a business, join the Chamber of Commerce, and reform them from inside?” asked Victor.
“You’re mocking me. Get thee behind me Satan! Quit tempting me to doubt!” Carl was standing up and shouting. Two guards were running over.
As Carl was being led away, he heard the words “apostate” and “persecutor” amongst the many thrown at him. “But I was just witnessing!” was the last thing Carl shouted. What a fool! thought Victor. No common sense at all.
It wasn’t until he was halfway back to his church that he began to wonder. What in the way I teach the Bible and listening to the Holy Spirit would prevent someone from doing what Carl did? Have I taught them any discernment? Any good sense?
“Our church is shrinking,” said the head elder, “and it’s your fault.”
Zeb didn’t respond immediately. He’d been summoned to the church board meeting, though when he’d used the word “summoned” the head elder had objected. “We just want to talk to you,” he had said. But it felt like a summons, and this felt like a trial, only less organized.
“Well,” said the head elder after the silence had grown uncomfortable. “Do you have anything to say?”
“I’m not sure what makes you believe it’s my fault the church is shrinking.”
“It seems obvious to me. We hired you to make this church grow, and now a year has passed, and we’ve lost more members this year than ever before, and of those that have joined the church not one—not one!—has stayed.”
“But this church has been shrinking for more than a decade, and shrinking faster each year. How does it become my fault?” Zeb looked truly puzzled.
“A year ago we took a big risk,” said another man, a businessman who also acted as church business manager. “We decided that we could afford to hire a pastor of outreach to stop the bleeding. But spending all that money on your salary has proven a bad investment.”
“Yes,” said another, “and you missed our last planning meeting as well.”
“I did send an e-mail to let you and the pastor know I wouldn’t be available.”
“Yes, an e-mail! I didn’t get it until after the meeting. But that meeting was important! Even critical! You had known about it for weeks. You shouldn’t have missed it.”
Zeb really couldn’t argue here. He’d chosen to drive a homeless man to the shelter. He’d sent an e-mail because he knew they wouldn’t get it in time and so they wouldn’t be able to order him to attend the meeting. He really could have gotten someone else to drive the man to the shelter. But he just couldn’t face that meeting.
“So you see,” said another, “we gambled on you and it looks like we lost.”
“I see,” said Zeb. Then he paused for more than a minute. People started shifting in their seats in discomfort as the time extended, but it did look like Zeb was gathering his thoughts.
“I’m afraid I’ve been operating under false pretenses,” he said finally. “The only excuse I can give is that I didn’t know it. But I should have. I should have known what you were doing.”
“What do you mean ‘what we were doing?'” asked the head elder. “We’re talking about you.”
“I’m wondering if you have the letter you sent describing this job.”
“I can’t say that I have a copy,” said the head elder. “Why?”
“Well, I can’t recall anything in there that said I was supposed to make this church grow. If I had seen anything like that, I wouldn’t have applied for the job. If I’d suspected anything like that was in your mind, I would have never taken it when it was offered.”
“But we hired you as outreach pastor!” The head elder was somewhere between shock and anger.
“And if you expect an outreach pastor to ‘grow your church,’ then you’re badly mistaken. I can’t grow your church and neither can any other person you might hire.”
“Don’t pretend that everyone is as incompetent as you are,” said the businessman.
“Incompetent? I suppose I deserve that. I should have realized just what you were up to long ago and done something about it. But I was so happy to be doing outreach and getting paid for it, I didn’t realize.”
“You keep saying things like, ‘what we’re up to,'” said the head elder. We’re not “up to” anything, except that we expect you to do your job.
“But you didn’t include ‘make our church grow’ in your job description.”
“I’d think it was obvious.”
“Oh, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s obviously wrong!” There was a gasp in the room. One didn’t tell the head elder he was wrong in that direct a way.
“So what do you think your job is?” asked the head elder after he’d recovered enough. He was sure they were going to fire this guy before the meeting was over.
“Well, the description you provided in your letter said things like ‘building the kingdom of God in this community’ and ‘reaching the lost for Christ,’ not to mention ‘leading the congregation in showing Christ’s love.’ I have tried to do those things with God’s help.”
“But if you had been doing all that, our church would have grown!” said the businessman. “As it is, few enough people visit, even less come back a second time, and the two families who did join left the church in a few weeks. So somewhere in there you’re not doing your job.”
Zeb tried hard to stay calm, but with that last line something broke in him. He had always wondered if there was such a thing as righteous anger, and he was in enough control to wonder if his anger right then was righteous or not.
“I think I can explain that,” he said in clipped tones.
“I’d really like to hear it, said the businessman before Zeb could continue.
“I really doubt you do,” said Zeb, and continued before he could be interrupted. “I remember each and every person I’ve brought to this house. One man came to church in jeans and a t-shirt. One of you told him he wasn’t dressed appropriately, and should make sure to wear appropriate clothing next time he was in church ‘out of respect for God,’ was the phrase, I believe.
“He didn’t own any better clothing, so he just never came back. Fortunately, I found him another church that was willing to let him attend in whatever clothing he had. Well, actually, the members got together and found him a new wardrobe. He has a job now as well.”
“But you’re supposed to be bringing people here!’ exclaimed the businessman, “You’re not hired to grow other churches.”
“I did bring him here, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’d even talked to some members and started to collect clothes for him. But you ran him off before I could finish.”
The businessman was red in the face and opened his mouth to respond, but Zeb just rolled right over him.
“Then there were the Jeffries. Their family actually joined the church, but one of you caught Mr Jeffries having a beer and told him he was misrepresenting Christ and the church by drinking. He decided he’d rather be somewhere else. But you see, nobody had told Mr. Jeffries that people at this church don’t drink beer.”
“You should have taken care of that,” said the head elder, just short of shouting.
“True, but you see, I can’t find anything in the stated beliefs and practices of this church that says one can’t have a beer. It’s just sort of something you do. Or don’t do.”
“So,” said the businessman, “you’re saying we’re running people off.” He was a practical man.
“Yes,” said Zeb, “you’re running people off.”
“I think you’re bringing in the wrong people,” said the head elder.
There was silence. Nobody wanted to put it that explicitly. The head elder had spoken without really thinking. It was something you did, but not something you named.
“I think,” said Zeb, “that the only honest thing for me to do is give you my resignation. The job you hired me to do can’t be done by someone hired. It has to be done by the whole church. And as it is, I wouldn’t want to do it. I don’t believe there are any wrong people. That you think there are”—he looked straight at the head elder—”is something I believe you should make a matter of serious prayer and seeking.”
With that, Zeb stood up and left the room. He tried to do it courteously, but he wasn’t sure he succeeded. He just knew he couldn’t waste time this way for another minute.
“Well,” said the head elder after Zeb had left, “what should we do?”
Through my company Energion Publications I publish a book by Nick May, titled Megabelt. (He has another book on the way, not with Energion, but I’ll provide news of that later.) Now Nick is a Christian young man, deeply involved in his local church. But he can get just a bit challenging to some people’s sensibilities in his writing.
Nick’s mother has struggled with some of the things he writes. She posted about this on her blog the other day. Here’s an extract:
He lives with passion. I admire him for that. He believes with all his heart in writing purely for the sake of aesthetic value, and simple, pure enjoyment of the art, and not necessarily with always Christian content. I had to struggle through this myself, and he has had to struggle too, because he is gutsy, and real and comes under fire for it. I wasn’t sure for a while, where I stood on the issue, because I always believe in glorifying God in whatever we do. Last night, I got a reality check.
I appreciate Hannah’s writing, because I too have encountered many people who question the idea of literature and art for enjoyment. They want literature that has an explicitly Christian theme or specifically aims at providing a moral or a gospel message. Because of this they’ll challenge the idea of reading fantasy and science fiction, for example.
I, on the other hand, think that this anti-creative attitude, or more precisely restrictive attitude, is what is most limiting to Christianity and Christian thinking.
The entire world belongs to God. God is the creator of everything that is. Some people think we need to stay in some sort of spiritual realm, or in some set of ideas that is bounded by religion. That attitude, in my view tends to deny that other things, such as our love lives, our sexuality, our imaginations, our inventiveness, and our creativity are truly a part of God’s world. Except, of course, for those portions that fall into those artificial religious boundaries.
But even if I am relaxing on my front porch, not thinking religious thoughts at all, and not carrying a John 3:16 sign, I am living in God’s world. Whether an artist is drawing a picture of Jesus at the last supper, an abstract impression of the skyline of a city, or yes, even a study of the human body, that artist can’t help say something about God through that observation of creation.
And whether a writer intends a moral when writing a story or not, there is again a reflection of God’s universe in the writing, and one can hardly prevent the reader from learning. More importantly, one can permit the reader the experience of fun and joy through the reflection.
Whether we eat or drink, and whether we draw, write, or act, God’s glory is going to shine through somewhere, because the whole world, not just defined portions of it, belongs to God.
Welcome to the Christian Carnival for July 27, 2011. We have a number of interesting posts and I will doubtless yield to the temptation to add my own commentary, thus demonstrating that there are some certainties in life. I will also invent any number of awards and bestow them on various posts.
Aoide-Melete-Mneme(my error corrected-HN) Jennifer Vaughn presents A Lament for Chivalry posted at à la mode de les Muses. She tells us that chivalry is dead, but second-wave feminism didn’t kill it. Who’s to blame? Many of us, it would seem.
Jeremy Pierce dips into one of my favorite subjects, translation theory, as he presents Formal Translation in Aquinas posted at Parableman, a look at a translation issue in Aquinas to shed light on one factor in the Bible translation debates. Jeremy proposes alternate translations, and they are well worth noting. I’ve starred this one for a comment post of my own, so I won’t discuss it here.
Maryann Spikes presents Can Richard Dawkins Handle Propositions? posted at YouTube, saying, “For those unfamiliar w/ the backstory: Dr. Dawkins is afraid to debate Dr. Craig, and just got in trouble for calling a feminist a whiner for blogging against being propositioned in an elevator. There are ‘those’ sorts of propositions, then there are propositions in logical arguments. Hence–the title. :-D” OK – first time I’ve included a YouTube video in a carnival that wasn’t embedded in someone’s post, but hey, it’s the social media age! This gets the “doing a new thing” award.
Luke Nix presents Can Religion Be Tested for Truth? posted at Faithful Thinkers, thus heading into some of the deepest waters in Christian apologetics. I want a lot more definitions, but this will start a good discussion, hopefully between people who do think propositions can be true and false!
Edgar Andrews presents God, science and evolution Part 1 posted at Who Made God?. This post connects to the previous one in that both are dealing with epistemology, with how we know things. Words like “reality,” “testing,” and “humanistic methodology.” Few seem to have patience to work through these issues, but they will continue to bedevil you whether you acknowledge them or not.
Stephen McAndrew presents Finale? posted at Songs of a Semi-Free Man, saying, “This post exams the tension between our quest for meaning and our physical death – an existentialist apologetic. This is the latest essay post on my blog ‘Songs of a Semi-Free Man’, which focuses on dismantling post-modern and modernist myths through essays and poetry.” This presents a very different approach to asking about reality, and yet it connects with the previous ones. If we sense an emptiness, is there something missing?
J.W. Wartick presents Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, A Christian’s thoughts posted at J.W. Wartick -“Always Have a Reason”, a commentary on the Harry Potter phenomenon from a Christian perspective. A focus on incorporating Potter to teach about Jesus. OK, I confess that I have neither read any of the books nor seen any of the movies, nor bothered to listen to much commentary. In this post I read more about Harry Potter than I have read in the entire time since the books were released. But there is a great tradition of using fiction to illustrate religious themes, and this post is a good example. It gets the “made me read about something I’d avoided” award. (And yes, I know this is a fiction blog!)
Christina Siniscalchi presents Gifts That Matter posted at Sisternotes, reminding us of the importance of gifts. I confess I wanted to know more about the poor kid in the introduction who got his note torn up!
Jane Baker presents Spiritual and Emotional Health posted at To Drivel or Not to Drivel, saying, “I’d like to have comments on this post in advance of speaking on this topic in August.” I will add that you should read the post to see the phrase “birthing Ishmaels” used in a sentence.
Isabel Anders presents A “Soul Moment” | BlogHer posted at BlogHer. Do you like to be able to see where you’re going? How far do you have to see? I confess that “one step at a time” is not far enough for me. This is an excerpt from the blog author’s book Soul Moments.
loswl presents Learning the Joy of Trusting in God posted at INSPIKS. He says: “This week the topic that has been on my heart is faith and trust. For some reason it really bothers me when people say that they can’t trust in God because of what He puts them through.” Trust is hard. ‘Nuff said? Nah. Go read the post.
Kaleb presents God Willing? posted at W2W Soul: Windows to The Woman’s Soul, saying, “When is the last time you heard someone say ‘God willing?’ When I was a child, it was a common occurrence to include the phrase ‘God willing’ when making statements about the future.” This gets the “yeah, we really ought to do that” award.
Jennifer in OR presents Sister Love, Brother Bear posted at Diary of 1. This is a story of how stitch by stitch, her children’s souls were being connected in gracious love. Great story!
Ridge Burns presents Ken Blanchard posted at Ridge’s Blog. How often do you celebrate someone who has sown new seeds into your life and ministry?
michelle presents leaving the nest? posted at going into all the earth…, saying, “little excerpt from my life…” But it’s an excerpt that will resonate with any of us whose children have moved away. Don’t worry, Michelle, wonderful things are coming!
Joe Plemon presents Am I a Rich Fool? posted at Personal Finance By The Book, saying, “I sometimes read scripture through a filter which allows the truth to enter my brain while bypassing my heart. The story of the rich fool just may have been through that filter.”
Welcome to the April 13, 2011 edition of the Christian Carnival (#375). In addition, though I’m too tired to create a theme, I’m making editorial comments and even handing out a few awards, for what they’re worth.* The author’s comments are in quotes; mine aren’t.
loswl presents His Thoughts are Higher than our Thoughts posted at INSPIKS, saying, “The wisdom of God is so far above man, it is on a different level altogether. Our intelligence, even at its best, is so small.” He really puts you down, but only in the best sort of way. I give this one the “best downer of the week” award.
Kaleb presents The Case for the Virgin Birth posted at W2W Soul: Windows to The Woman’s Soul, saying, “Clearly depicted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the virgin birth is one of the more unambiguous accounts in the Bible yet is met with more opposition and criticism than many of the other miracles portrayed.” I think C. S. Lewis was the one who noted that we swallow the camel of the resurrection and then strain at the gnat of the virgin birth. I’ll probably regret quoting that without going and looking it up. Doubtless someone will correct me in the comments!
Nicholas Potts presents The depths of the soul and mind: Supposed Atheistic Neutrality… posted at The depths of the soul and mind, saying, “This article actually got circulated a little bit through some atheists blogs and some people got a little irritated with it.” While giving the word “worldview” a solid workout, Nick launches an all-out attack on the very concept of a neutral position, and even asks how we determine that a neutral position would be the best place to start.
Jason Price presents What is Financial Stewardship? [Christian Financial Alliance] posted at One Money Design, saying, “What is Christian financial stewardship? Learn what it means from several Christian personal finance bloggers.” Do you know what stewardship is? Some folks think it means responding to the most recent appeal for money, such that “stewardship” is a synonym for (generous) giving. You’ll get some ideas on what it really means from this post.
Philip Carlson presents A Lesson from the Qur’an posted at Science and Theology in Apposition. I’m going to suggest a provocative question that might be answered in this post: In what way might the Qur’an tend to be better than your Bible? (Hint: The Bible I carry to church is not deficient in this area.)
Tyra Ronan presents 40 Best Web Resources for Bible Study posted at A Blog of Biblical Proportions, saying, “You don’t have to be a Bible student, or planning for a career in the ministry, to benefit from the online Bible resources available. Anyone can find greater enjoyment and enlightenment from the holy scriptures when they look to using web resources. Whether you are looking for personal edification, or whether you are preparing a lesson for Sunday school, here are 40 of the best web resources for Bible study.” Who couldn’t make use of 40 links to Bible study resources? I just have to give this the “most links in one post” award for the week.
CChisholm presents Six Biblical Easter Facts You Should Know posted at The Chisholm Source, saying, “Crucifixion is primarily an extreme method of torture/punishment and is not necessarily synonymous with death. Death normally resulted from crucifixion, but in history there are cases where a crucified man survived on the cross for a few days.” Most of these are about the crucifixion. I give this the “most gruesome post” award, but it’s still edifying!
Ridge Burns presents Perspective posted at Ridge’s Blog. Different perspectives are rather helpful in coming to understand an issue. Good essay project: compare and contrast “worldview” (see above) and “perspective.” Why might one not wish to abandon elements of one’s worldview in discussion, yet value differing perspectives?
michelle presents committed? posted at going into all the earth…, saying, “the Radical Experiment…” OK, this post gets the “sneak attack” award. She starts with the “c” word and ends up on the “m” word. (Read it to find out …)
Barry Wallace presents A gifted writer examines Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” posted at who am i?, saying, “Tim Stoner, author of The God Who Smokes, has written an excellent series of posts on Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins.” … and Barry provides us with some samples. This gets the “no carnival can be without it right now” award for today.
Jeremy Pierce presents Evangelical Scholars’ Self-Esteem posted at Parableman, saying, “a look at the possible motives of evangelical scholars who leave behind evangelical convictions that are embarrassing in academic circles.” I was once told to go ahead and take a position and just not talk about those of my beliefs that didn’t accord with those of my potential employer. I think Jeremy outlines the situation with admirable clarity. I had to say ‘no’.
And just because there must be one of mine, I present A Misuse of the Word LITERAL from my Participatory Bible Study Blog. I further grant myself the “only post called ‘nonsense’ in the first comment” award. I know I ranted a bit, but nonsense? You be the judge. Not that I won’t argue with you!