I read a book in a day. If I were to write a review on it, I actually don’t think I’d say it was a good book. Seems contradictory, since I read it’s 400 something pages in just a few hours.
The book’s first chapters drew me in. And while, I didn’t love the characters that much I still felt compelled to see how their story would resolve. Spoiler alert: Their story didn’t resolve. But I’ll tell you a bit about it anyway.
There’s a flood in Tennessee. I don’t even really get puddles in my yard when it rains, so it’s hard to read about houses in this valley literally rushing down a river. One time, I was on a bridge outside of New Orleans during a hurricane Katrina flash flood. I breathed into a paper bag and called to tell my mom goodbye. But I was in a vehicle, not a house. So I can’t relate.
This southern preacher finds himself in a rescue mission with two other gentlemen. The three of them work together and successfully pull a man and his daughter from their house turned boat that just crashed into a bridge. They all head back for refuge from the raging storm and waters to the pastor’s house.
In the aftermath, we learn the two other rescuers are gay men… newly engaged lovers, in fact. They remind preacher man of his brother he’d disowned for the same reason. Now, however many years removed, he sees them for what they are. People. His [monster of a] wife doesn’t feel the same. Ultimately, the couple overhears her tell her husband they can’t stay. She says things like “what would the church say?” or “I can’t have my son around that.” He doesn’t have the guts to stand up to her and the men don’t want to be where they aren’t wanted—so in an active storm, they head out into the dark and pouring rain, walking up the road with the hope of finding less religious help.
I closed the book and sat in silence. I wanted to vomit. I kept telling myself it wasn’t a true story, but honestly that didn’t help because I know this isn’t so far fetched. I could actually see people I know, professing Christians, doing the same—or something kind of the same. In many ways, I’m sure I’ve lacked the grace or empathy to love people different than me. So sure, I wanted to punch his wife. But honestly, I was scared to look too deep into myself, because I might need a good punching in the face, too.
I want to be so mad at this made up wife in Tennessee but I’m part of the problem. Every misfit in Judea flocked to Jesus while he lived on earth. Yet, somehow, the notoriously and visibly “imperfect” of our time no longer feel welcome among his present day followers.
CS Lewis says, “Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.“
When I was little, my parents used to play coed softball. Most of the time, I’d run around the ball field chasing boys and buying fireballs for a nickel. I have two memories from coed softball. One is standing under a pavilion with a few other kids, competing to see who could keep the candy ball of fire on their tongue the longest. The other is when a young guy on my parents’ team went for a high fly ball. The ball zoomed right around his glove and smacked him in the face. I think he had braces and I remember everything was bloody.
That’s how I picture the face of Christianity. Jesus hits this high fly ball, “Love one another as I have loved you”. Here’s a glove, or my life as a witness, for you to use. Life and opportunity come our way and instead of handling it well, catching it securely in our leathered and weathered palm, we let it zoom right around and smack us in the face. Now there is injury and mangled teeth and Coach God has to pull us from the game.
Well, actually, I wish God could pull us from the game when we get loving people wrong. I think Christians would have a better reputation and maybe win a World Series. But he leaves us to make mistakes. We stay in the game and we mess it up.
We fight for laws that back our beliefs. We shout out that the world shouldn’t act like that! There are rules, after all. And sure, this behavior is Biblical, as in, it’s in the Bible. But it’s not modeled by Jesus. It’s straight out of ‘how to be a hypocritical Pharisee 101’.
The gay men start attending this preacher man’s church. Their first visit, they sit in a pew and the family next to them get up in a huff and leave for a further away pew. My heart wants to believe this is an exaggerated and fabricated scene that would never actually happen. My head knows the unfortunate truth. And I want you to be careful not to make this about homosexuality. I want to put all “noticeable” differences or levels of “holiness” or prejudices in the fore front of your mind.
I’ve not moved from a person in church, but I have judged a woman for wearing a skirt that I thought was entirely too short to be worn in God’s house. And I wonder how comfortable a person with a past and a face tattoo would feel walking into my suburban upper to middle class place of worship.
When I was in my 20s, I managed an off campus student housing apartment complex. I invited one of my college employees to church with me on Sunday. Before service started, he looked over at me and said, “Did you notice I’m the only black person in the room?” I hadn’t noticed. I’ve never been a minority. I’ve also never had a face tattoo or worn my sin on my sleeve, if I can help it. I don’t know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in a room of my peers–those who skillfully disguise their problems under a facade of self-righteousness or social status, because I wear the same mask.
It makes me wonder, if Jesus was a pastor of a church and all the people he friended or saved or the recipients of his miracles were the ones to fill the seats, I bet it would be a startling brood of noticeable minorities. They wouldn’t be put together. There would be a woman in lingerie after a night on the town, for crying out loud!
Yet, we try to put a pretty bow on Christianity (see also: ourselves). We wear gold necklaces in the shape of cows with inscriptions on it that read, “obvious sin is way worse than secret sin”. Be more like us. Look more like us. Follow these rules. Also, I don’t want a relationship with you, in the slightest. I just need you to look like me or agree with me.
But as I read through the Gospels, instead I see a clear pattern in Jesus’ life: he brings to surface repressed sin (sending people away with a hung head like the rich man or the mob with the stones), yet freely forgives acknowledged sin.
We have to want to see people’s hearts. We have to be willingly to reveal ours. The real version, not the polished one we present to the world. Behavior, looks, statuses, sin severity–these are not the measure of one’s ability to be a child of God. So let’s stop acting like they are.
I have this friend who got engaged. When it was just us, she confessed that the center stone was fake. I didn’t care. It was gorgeous. I didn’t have a ring on my finger at the time. A fake one sounded delightful.
I was with this friend when some other friends were seeing the ring for the first time. She told a story of how her fiancé came into the ring. I forget the details, but obviously, leaving out the part about it being a cubic zirconia.
I feel like this is how we can tend to deal with becoming Christians. We believe. We repent. Jesus washes us white as snow. And it feels shameful or embarrassing to have some sort of sin after that. So we conceal it. We are justified, but not upfront about the constant work of being sanctified. Everyone wants to be justified, identified in right standing with God. Sanctification feels private and secret. Like if someone knows the diamond on our hand isn’t real, we are somehow not actually engaged. So we put on our big counterfeit diamond. We know it’s fake and Jesus knows it’s fake. But we present our hand with a polished story and we are hopeful no one will figure out that the diamond isn’t real and our sin didn’t magically go away.
I’ve heard integrity described as being the same person on the inside that we are on the outside. I’ll be the first to say I wish there was a vitamin or something I could take for this because I am most definitely integrity deficient. Good thing this condition doesn’t make us bruise easy or pass out, or I fear our congregations would be full of black and blue shins from tripping over all the passed out people piled up at the doors.
Nonetheless, even in my quest for a judgement-less people group, I’m guilty of judging. Alas, we aren’t going to save the world if we’re convinced the problem is “out there”. Or the problem is an overly religious wife of a Tennessee preacher. The problem is the needy beast of a thing inside me that minimizes my sin while maximizing other’s faults.
In Scary Close, Donald Miller writes “Those who can’t accept their imperfections can’t accept grace either.” This makes all the sense in the world to me. I am extremely hard on myself. I often slide down the slippery slope of legalism in my own life. If this is how I deal with sin hiding in the quiet corners of my heart, should I be surprised by the judgement that so easily permeates my nostrils in the presence of someone else’s obvious shortcomings?
Wilfred Peterson says it better than me here, “…for only as we have the right attitude toward ourselves can we have the right attitude toward others.” The right attitude toward ourselves should be a realization that drenched in sin, Jesus sought me out. His love continues to wash over me in spite of my filthy rag of a life. And perhaps, I would do well not to pray, “Thank you God for not making me like that person” and instead cry out, “God, I am so unworthy. Who do I think I am?”.