I sat as far from the pulpit as possible, always darkening the door during the second stanza of the opening hymn, skulking away during the last exhalations of the liturgy. I spoke to a few of the hand-shakers, keeping it on a first name basis, leaving the guest registry blank or using a pseudonym. The bishop of this region had emailed his clerical constituency to warn them that I was living in their city, as if I were plotting to storm random pulpits and spew immorality across the sanctuary. So I wrapped myself in the mantle of anonymity. Sometimes, for some sinners, guilty of some sins, the only way it seems they'll be forgiven is by being anybody but who they are. You’d think I would have just unchurched myself. Or, at the very least, changed denominations. I did try, but failed. Like an alcoholic to his booze, a smoker to his cigarette, so I to my church did go. For the most part, I watched the people. There was a lovely blonde woman who always sat a few pews ahead of me, to my right, beside her husband. He always seemed detached, she overjoyed. I’d never have put them together. An old man to my left had just enough hairs left for me to count. Without fail, during the sermon, he would pull out a black-and-white picture from his Bible and look at the woman. He sat alone. I recall no detail from any sermon, not the pastor’s name, not even the name of the church. It all, over time, has faded into welcome obscurity.
Jesus told a story about two men, one a religious teacher and one a tax collector, the first of whom boasted of his piety and the second of whom beat his chest and prayed for mercy. I was neither of those men. I was an ex-religious teacher in need of mercy but finding little of it in the church, and not sure if God had any left for me anyway. I never beat my chest, but I did fantasize quite a bit about beating the crap out of some pastors I knew. And when I wasn’t fantasizing about that, I was daydreaming about what life would be like if I weren’t saddled with demons of guilt and anger and regret and loss and loneliness and suicide.
I discovered during this time the compassion of the pagan. I found a part-time job at Fed-Ex, loading and unloading trucks every evening for four to five hours. It was back-breaking work, but at least it diverted my mind from wandering down dark roads. No one I worked with could quote John 3:16 or tell me what “agape” meant. But, ironically, among these unbelievers I found sympathy, compassion, acceptance. None of them shunned me when I told them my story. They told me theirs. We talked about how we can screw up our lives by one bad decision. Some of them even encouraged me. Not one pagan among them treated me any differently when he found out I was a fellow sinner.
How strange would a church like that be, that treats the thief, whore, adulterer, addict, liar, child molester, murderer, like a fellow sinner in need of grace. I’m not talking about a gathering of those who applaud sin but those who embrace the sinner. I’m not even talking about a group of people who drop their stones and walk away from the woman caught in adultery. But a group that walks up to her to say, “I love you and forgive you and will do all within my power to help you from here on out. Because I want to be like my God is.”
The Gospel doesn’t need a prophylactic slid onto it lest, heaven forbid, it do what it’s created to do and generate a forgiven sinner who requires care and concern and love. Perhaps that’s what the church is afraid of. If so, let the church keep in mind that it was always those who tried to keep people away from Jesus who reaped his wrath.
Let the little children come to him. And let all those who have, in any way, warped, twisted, broken, polluted, trashed, boozed, shot up, screwed up, or—worst of all—hypocritized their lives come to him. And in Jesus they will find hope and healing. And I pray, they will also find a church (as I have) in which the Gospel is unprotected.