An Encounter with the Church Lady

At lunch the other day, I struggled through yet another challenging conversation with my good friend, the Church Lady. She doesn’t really look like Dana Carvey, and I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate being satirized on Saturday Night Live. But she knows I’m writing this essay about her because I warned her that I would. I’m protecting her identity by calling her “the Church Lady” – not that she’s never going to read this, because she won’t read anything (gasp!) written for a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender audience. But she knows who she is. And, thanks be to God, “He” does, too.

My own Church Lady, a lesbian who belongs to an ultra-hetero, conservative evangelical church where nobody knows her secret, is not out to very many people in her life. Her own family can’t be trusted with her special secret. And she truly is special. Not merely because she is the Church Lady, but because, in God’s eyes, every one of us is special, indeed.

Over lunch, she related to me a story told by one of the ultra-hetero members of her Bible study class. This woman recently attended a funeral, at which a European (instantly recognizable, to those of this crowd, as morally-suspect simply because she isn’t a red-blooded, God-fearing American) said she found the preacher’s assurances about the Resurrection ridiculous. Nobody, she asserted to the others at this funeral, need waste time waiting around to be raised from the grave. Well of course, both Bible Study Lady and Church Lady were indignant. They have come to a comfortable agreement that European Funeral Lady must have “some secret sin” that keeps her from accepting Jesus.

The Church Lady couldn’t understand why I questioned this easy-as-pie assessment. She knows I belong to one of those “librul” churches that accept all sorts of shocking ideas (for example, that gay people are loved by God and don’t need to treat our orientation like a dirty little secret). So, I suppose, she simply chalked up my skepticism about her conclusion to my general waywardness. She can’t fathom why I worry as much about her as she does about me. But conservative Evangelicals, it honestly seems to me, live in such a cozy little fiction world that they are genuinely unable to deal with reality.

Because everything has to gratify their egos – so accustomed are they to being flattered – they have totally lost the ability to relate to those they wish to bring to Christ. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when they “preach the gospel,” they’re preaching to the choir.

A “secret sin” – enabling Christians to feel superior – or a history of bad experiences, with so-called Christians who’ve made fools of themselves and disgraced the gospel? I am nowhere near as sure as the Church Lady what the answer to this question might be.

We must be interested in other people in order to interest them in God. After all, God is very interested in them. Why is it that so many of “God’s people” seem interested in nobody but themselves?

Why do so many street-corner evangelists sound so disappointed when you tell them you already know Christ? Had you never had the good fortune of bumping into them and ended up taking an eternal swim in the lake of fire, would they have been okay with it? It’s hard to escape the impression that they would have found it preferable to your having somehow stumbled onto Jesus without them getting the credit for it.

I don’t tend to figure those who don’t know Christ, in this day and age, have never heard of Him. Unless they’ve lived their lives on the moon, how could they have avoided it? I’m more inclined to think they just haven’t been properly introduced. They may very well have heard too many of the wrong things about Him.

To know God in Jesus Christ, I am firmly convinced, is to love “Him.”

Must we “accept” Christ to be saved? To tell you the truth, I have long wrestled with the answer to that question. Nor can I blame “the gay lifestyle” for my uncertainty, as I was already grappling with it in college – more than a decade before I was ready to come out. I know that Jesus meant what He said on the issue, and I know that I believe Him. Any indecision, on my part, is not over whether His words can be trusted, but whether we believers have properly understood what He was trying to say.

Did He mean we had to buy into Him, as if He were some sort of insurance policy (“own a piece of the Rock”)? Or did He mean that God – as He and the Jewish tradition from which He came described God – is a merciful, loving and personally-knowable Being? Did He mean we must let go of our judgmentalism and love one another – that it is our mercy toward others that opens the door to God’s mercy toward us? I tend to believe that the latter is the truth, as every human being in the history of the planet has had the opportunity to do that, whereas most of those who have ever lived on this earth never even had the opportunity to know who Jesus is.

That answer doesn’t flatter us; it does nothing to boost our egos. It gives the glory not to us, but to God. Which is why I believe it’s much more likely to be the right one.

Idolatry isn’t merely carving a scary face on a hollow tree and bowing down to it. Idolatry is worshiping the created in place of the Creator. Religion that gives the glory to ourselves is always idolatry, whether scary faces on hollow trees are involved or not. Modern Right-Wing Christianity is idolatry of the slickest – and sickest – sort.

We who follow Jesus are called to be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Jesus came to glorify God, and His followers are to do the same. People see God, primarily, in the light of those who reflect God’s glory. That means that we must reflect God’s love. Those around us who don’t know that God loves them are always watching us; they watch us much more closely than we might think.

Our only opportunity, to help those who don’t believe in God’s love to see it, comes when we share it with them by showing it forth. If we’re always on some sort of an ego-trip (and I know lots of GLBT Christians who are like this, too), absorbed in ourselves and impressed with our own holiness, we are showing forth nothing but darkness.

“Learn of me,” said Jesus, “Who am meek and humble of heart.”

The beefsteak-eating, beer-can-crushing, Hummer-driving, football-watching, war-mongering Jesus of the Religious Right is only a fiction. He’s a reflection of their own insecurities and fears. Most people aren’t stupid. They can spot this phony Jesus, and His phony followers, from a mile away. That they so often run as fast as they can in the opposite direction speaks poorly not of the escapees, but of the “followers” themselves.

Did European Funeral Lady have some dark and secret sin that made her too crummy a human being to seek out Jesus? Or did she simply need to meet somebody who really knows Him? The Church Lady’s Bible-studying friend lost the only opportunity she will ever have to find out. And as for “secret sins,” well, who’d know more about them than the Church Lady? As for where she might have learned that some “sins” need to be kept secret in the first place, it isn’t hard to guess.

You can bring God all your questions and doubts. God knows you have them anyway. God loves and accepts you even with those doubts. We must never demonize those who disagree with us or bother us with tough questions. Nor should we ever blithely dismiss those who challenge us as morally inferior cases who “must” be encumbered by “secret sins” or by failings any worse than our own.

Why are the egos of so many conservative Christians so chronically itchy that they need such incessant scratching? Could it be that, for all their loud protestations of great faith, their very concept of salvation merely makes them even more insecure? The whole notion that God doesn’t know us, even better than we know ourselves – that God doesn’t accept us (even though “He” made us), or that there are certain aspects of ourselves that we can’t share with “godly” people or with God, has been shown, by the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be a lie. Instead of trying to sell “a piece of the Rock,” all we really have to do is pay it forward.