“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
– Lewis Carroll
Allow me to introduce you to the Big Three.
The Big Three are the three moments, crystallized in my memory, that define my life as a minister. They are not good moments; they are not happy memories. They are a reproach, constant and unflagging, a chip I cannot dislodge from my shoulder, however hard I try. In many ways, they have brought me to this place, made me who I am today–a better man, I hope–but whatever good they have produced, I wear them, my albatross, with shame and regret.
I share them with you, and in sharing them, I share myself. They are my monsters, this is my closet. My cabbages, my kings.
1) Christmas, 2002 — Halfway through rehearsals for our annual “cantata,” we received news that the Methodist minister’s daughter had come out as a lesbian. And all hell broke loose. (Keep in mind that this wasn’t even our church.) We hatched a plan: what a perfect opportunity to share that Good News! By the next weekend, we had taken it upon ourselves to blanket the three surrounding counties–two in Missouri and one in Kansas–with a completely unsolicited mass mailing detailing the evils of homosexuality. We redefined “going on the offensive.” Now, I was just a lowly part-time youth and music minister at the time; I didn’t have a whole lot of say. Which works out well, because I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. And what’s worse–I wrote part of the horrible thing. Only the love part, mind you, only the plan of salvation. Only the part that explains how the only hope for all the evil gays and lesbians out there is to reject themselves as people and put on my name tag of choice. No harm, no foul, right? Come to Jesus, who loves you for who you are. But be sure to bathe first…
2) Winter, 2004 — I am now a full-fledged pastor in Robinson, Texas. I have been on the job for a total of four months. And I’m faced with a “fractious member.” I would like to tell you that I reached out to this person, helped him through a hard time, opened up a dialogue between him and the church at large. You know, all the stuff I go on about now. I would love to tell you that, but I can’t, because I didn’t. Instead, I dragged him out to the woodshed and “churched” him. Why? Because he believed a Christian could lose his or her salvation. And that’s not what I wanted my church to believe. For this piddly, sad little reason, I cast him into the proverbial outer darkness. A man who had emotional (and possibly mental) problems, a man who needed help. I had to protect my flock. From nothing at all. So I refused to protect him. From anything. And the cherry on top? When informed of what I had done, a local associational missionary summed up my actions in these words: “What a brave thing for a minister to do. That boy’s going places.”
3) Fall, 2006 — I’ve just performed my first funeral. A member of my congregation, not too much older than myself, had lost his wife to cancer. It was, as it always is, a traumatic experience for all involved. I thought of the man as a friend; we often talked, had heart to heart conversations; I felt that, of all the people in the church, he understood me best. When I, the poor part-timer, had a need, he stood up and filled it–a replacement for a busted thermostat in our rental house, a new laptop, whatever. He was a friend, a brother. And then…three months after his wife died, he came to me and told me he had met someone new, and asked me to marry them. Now, I had reservations about the timing–there were teenage daughters involved, the wound was still fresh, etc. But my real reservation was nothing so reasonable. This woman was a Mormon, see. And that, as I was taught, was a deal breaker. It was a clear-cut case of “unequal yoking.” So I said no. After everything he had done for me, I said no. But wait–that’s not all. Naturally, his whole family promptly left the church, leaving me to lick my principled wounds and spout pompous. I recently, in cleaning out my e-mail folders, came across a message I wrote to them, and the measure of my arrogance is hard to express. I was a giant prick. They were hurting the church; they turned their backs on me. I played the role of sacrificial lamb to the cotton-picking hilt. Oh my children–why hast thou forsaken me? Without batting an eyelid.
These memories are all bloody bullet holes in my heart, and they’ve never quite healed over. I am hopeful that at some point during my ministry “career” I did something good, but in the crunch of it all I folded like a cheap suit. And here’s the damnedest thing of all: as the minister’s handbook has it, I wasn’t folding at all. I was Taking A Stand. I was a flippin’ hero of the faith.
If I had to put into a nutshell the reason I left the church behind, well, there you have it. I hurt people; I turned them away from the one place supposedly defined by unconditional love; and in doing so, I Stood for What I Believed. The Lord is my shepherd. Now get the hell out!
It took me years to figure this out, but now I know. I see myself for who I was and what I was doing. I had this “treasure,” see, in a jar of clay. And it was nothing but cabbage. In the words of “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Don’t you understand, man? You’ve struck coleslaw!”
And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get the taste out of my mouth…