My favorite joke is about the guy who gets to heaven and St. Peter is showing him around. The two of them began walking down a long hallway, and they came to a door. Peter opened the door and they heard all of these people singing hymns, and Peter said to the guy, “Oh, here are all the Methodists.” Then they walked on a little further, and came to another door, and opened it, and saw a bunch of people dressed up and the strong smell of incense, and Peter said, “Oh, here are all the Episcopalians.” They walked on, and came to another door, and opened it, and saw a bunch of people shouting and jumping up and down, and Peter said, “Oh, here are all the Pentecostals.” But then they walked near another door, only this time, instead of opening it, Peter said to the guy, “Ssshhhh, we have to be quiet. Those are the Baptists in there, and they think they’re the only ones up here!”
As a recovering Southern Baptist, that joke puts me on the floor every time I hear it, because the funniest jokes have a kernel of truth to them. It’s true, the Baptists believe only they have the key to heaven, and anyone who believes different will face the lake of fire. Visit a Baptist bookstore and you won’t find any books that will challenge your faith. You won’t find any books that will make you think about what you believe and WHY. Instead, it’s titles devoted to making you feel good as a Baptist. It’s a lot of “you got it right, now go and make all the world a Baptist” books. Their faith doesn’t need challenging, since they’re already perfect. “The Bible said it (or more often, The pastor said it), I believe it, that settles it.” Questioning the Bible, or their interpretation of it, is tantamount to heresy.
Unfortunately, the Baptists aren’t the only ones who believe they’ve gotten it right and everyone else has gotten it wrong. The Christian Coalition and other groups of their ilk also truly believe they have the right idea about God. They think God is a political animal. They think angels sing with joy every time a Republican is elected. If you’re a Democrat, then God help your soul!
The liberal churches are not exempt from this affliction. One of the most divisive issues I have personally witnessed in churches that claim to be inclusive is the debate over “inclusive language.” For the uninitiated, inclusive language postulates that referencing God as only “He” or “Father” is both offensive and ignores the female side of God. God is both mother and father, and we must acknowledge both. Often, however, a non-gendered, or female gender term of God becomes the norm, to the exclusion of ever calling God, Father. In debates, those who refuse, or those who feel more comfortable referring to God as Father have been demoralized in some congregations. One church I attended even split over the issue. Those favoring inclusive language fail to see that being inclusive means including those who want to call God Father. Instead of being inclusive, they turn on their brother or sister and exclude them because they haven’t come to that higher level of “inclusivity.” The inclusive language crowd though they had it all figured out, and the rest were just not quite as evolved in the faith as they were.
No one has the keys to heaven but God. No one swings wide the doors of the church but God. We all think we’ve found the key. Our beliefs will get us there, our actions will secure our place in heaven, and we must, at all costs, defeat and work against those who disagree with us. For many liberal Christians, the enemy is the religious right. The battle cry has become “Fight the Right!” For more conservative Christians, homosexuals have come to symbolize everything that is wrong with America today. They must work to “change ” the homosexual and unrepentant ones deserve death. By pitting one against the other, we all lose the truth sent from God.
Here is the truth: We are all God’s children. Here is another truth: We are called to love one another, not just those with similar beliefs.
Jesus said that the world would know that we are His disciples by the love that we have for one another. This is the standard that Jesus Himself had for us. In fact, there are two commands that He left with us concerning love in Matthew 22:37-40:
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
- Love your neighbour as yourself. (This encompasses two things. 1. Love yourself [if you hate yourself how can you love your neighbour?], and 2. Love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.) “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
Here is yet another truth: We all see only a small part of what God intends for us and our world. No one has it completely right.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”
Thomas Merton in his book Faith and Violence gives us more perspective on this:
… our response to the Spirit of life is itself a living and dynamic progress, a continual attunement to all the “syllables of the great song.” Our violence and destructiveness come from the fact that we cling madly to a single syllable, and thus wish the whole song to stop dead while we enjoy what we imagine is final and absolute. But the “most wise singer” is not singing for ourselves alone and we must accept the fact that some of His notes and words are for others and seemingly “against us.” We must not react destructively against the notes we do not like. We must learn to respond not to this or that syllable, but the whole song.
We are a body in Christ, none of us can say to the other that we don’t need them. That’s like the hand saying to the foot, “I don’t need you,” and vice versa. The fact is that the hand and the foot are very different things and have very different functions but they are still part of the same body. If the hand were determined to get rid of the foot it may cut it off but the consequences of that would be that the whole body would be disabled. We have no right whatsoever in telling another part of the body that we have no need of it [him/her]. The fact is, although we have very different roles to do we are all very important to the body of Christ.
As a lesbian Christian it is easy to believe that the Christian Coalition and other conservative Christians are working “against me.” They oppose everything I stand for, everything I believe God says to me. They tell me I offend God, but I hear God tell me that I glorify God. Who is right? Who knows? I can’t say I have all the answers. But we are all parts in the body of Christ.
So, I took this dilemma to God. I have meditated on it … I have prayed over it. The Bible tells us a brother (actually a sister in this case) is born in times of need. My answer came from Australia, in the form of a woman who wrote to disagree with me that you can be a sexually active gay, lesbian or bi Christian. We both had a revelation during our e-mail swapping.
Here is a portion of a letter I sent to her:
We are two people in two very different places. Anything you say will not sway me to your side, and anything I say will not sway you to my side. We have been trained to spot the company line and argue our company line against it. You say you’re happy where you are, that’s wonderful. That’s all I can ask for. Do me the same favor, be happy for me. I am in the place where I should be. God has given me a task and I am performing it. God has given you a task, do it to the best of your ability. On the face of it, it may appear we are working against one another, but neither of us knows the final results of our work, only God does. It may seem contradictory now, but all things work for good for those who love the Lord. I have no doubt you love the Lord, I can tell by your enthusiasm. I love God equally, and the zeal I have for my work for God is just as strong. We will not change each others minds. I pray we continue our work, and God will direct the fruit of our labors! Can we agree on that?
Here is a portion of her response:
You are most effective in your ministry for God in the place where you are now… your heart is very soft toward the Lord and you’ll do anything that He asks of you [please correct me if I’m wrong]. From the place you are at now… you have the potential of winning many souls to Christ and building them up in the Lord. The Lord wants us all to feel accepted by Him… hence He is using your ministry for this, as He is mine … just in two very different ways!!! He also wants us to LOVE one another… we need to demonstrate this to each other as the Lord reveals His LOVE more fully to each of us!!!
I believe this best illustrates my point. We are all working for God. At times our work appears to be contradictory, but only God sees the big picture, we see “in a mirror dimly.” Only God knows the whole truth. We cannot judge anyone else’s walk with God, that is between the individual and God. We must love one another, with the unconditional love of Christ. That means loving those we perceive to be our enemies. (Yes, even Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell!) If anyone means to do wrong, God will deal with them. But all things work for the good for those who love the Lord! If we honestly seek God’s path for our lives, and give our hearts completely to God, then we cannot be wrong, we can all be right!
Note: I give deep thanks to Dorothy Currie and my partner Amanda whose guidance, contributions, and criticism of this piece made it that much better. Love to you both! — Candace
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.