Friday, August 13, 2010

We will miss Anne Rice

"We moderate and polish the world's thinking, and name it Christian. The church embodies the upside-down kingdom. Whatever the world admires is probaby not good, according to kingdom values. The church is always anti-empire.

What the church does is provide a place where pain can be touched and where the vision for a new world can be lifted up and held before people."
   --Gordon Cosby

Anne Rice, writer of many books came back to her Catholic Church after many years of estrangement. That was ten years ago. On her Facebook page this week she writes: “Today I quit being a Christian, I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but no to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years I’ve tried. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else…In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay…anti-feminist…anti-birth control…anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

After more than 50 years as Pastor of churches all over the South—I could tell Anne Rice some stories that would curl her hair. If she had stood on the other side of the altar as we ministers have—she could add a whole lot more to that list of complaints. There have been days—I should say—more than days—when I have been tempted to throw in the towel. I have seen the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science side of the faith. I have also wanted to run into hiding by the hypocrisy of some mega Church pastors caught with male prostitutes, anti-gay proclaimers secretly running off (they think) with some RentBoy. I have been amazed by those who proclaim every word of the Bible is literally true when they know better. I have wept at the churches that have hounded their ministers out of their pulpits on the most minor of changes. I have been heartsick at all those gays and straights that wouldn‘t enter a church again for anything—they’ve been stamped “Not OK” much too long. And yes, I have been ashamed of the many times we have wrapped the American flag around the Bible and taken it into foreign lands as if they were the same. So, Anne—I concur with you on most of your complaints.

And yet—I have stayed in this business. Not just for a paycheck—for it never was enough. Not even for the accolades—even though they did help. From earliest days my mother dragged me off to a little predictable deep-South Church. We were racist, I would imagine. We ran off preachers that didn’t suit. We had terrible business meetings. We thought our Catholic neighbors were unsaved. And yet—I felt affirmation from that little cadre of Christ’s followers. I found acceptance there during my growing-up years. And when I went away to school they passed the hat—these cotton-mill workers with so little—and helped me though school. They gathered around when I came home and wanted to know how I was. They cared and this is one of the reasons I have stayed. Because I have seen that caring extended out to others a zillion times in these years. As Lyndon Johnson once explained why he was moving back to Johnson, Texas after leaving the White House. “Because,” he said, “they ask about you when you’re sick and they come and cry when you die.”

The relational quality has been one of the main reasons I have stayed in church. I don’t want to romanticize this—because there is that other quality of mean-spiritedness and cruelty but these have been in the minority.
On my office desk behind glass are pictures of the first Habitat House our church built in the county in South Carolina. That house, because of those all-too-human Christians changed a family’s life. Under that same glass there is a picture of Dora and her family in Memphis. Our church led in the building of her house and I don’t know how many other Habitat houses. I remember one old woman on the Dedication Day of her house, holding up the keys and saying in a voice that cracked, “I been waitin’ for this day all my life. I got close so many times, but I got sick and didn’t have the money fore the down payment or the children got sick and I thought it would never happen.” But that time we were all crying as she yelled out, “Today’s the day.” The church, with all its flaws, did that.

Oh, I could go on and on. The little girl in my first church who had so little. We sent her off to college with all the money we could collect, we cheered her on. We watched this little girl turn, miraculously into a beautiful, cultured young woman who went overseas as a missionary. The church did that.

I have watched, through the years those main-line churches that had Ushers to stand at the door and keep blacks out, slowly open their arms to everybody. Their dark chapters remain but they have changed. I remember watching our church take in its first member with AIDS. It was early when people were afraid they would catch it just by being around someone. But I watched little old ladies with pin curls and Mamas and Daddies come around to love and accept gay folk. They never voted on being welcoming and affirming—they just did it. And still do.I think of all the Mother Theresa’s around the world. Baptists had our own Lottie Moon who was told she had to come home to Virginia since Baptists in the 1800’s didn’t allow women to preach or baptize. She fired a letter back: “When you send a man to do this job, I’ll come home.” They never did. She died of starvation on a Christmas Eve after she had given all she had for her beloved Christ and the Chinese.Take the Children’s homes and the hospitals and the Nursing Homes that the Church has established and supported and the picture would be a great more dismal.

Paul once said, “We have this treasure in an earthen vessel to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” The old Apostle was right: the treasure and the vessel are not one and the same. Anne Rice has forgotten that the vessel is always flawed and always will be. But many, many of us have found in that pock-marked, flawed vessel enough grace and love to keep us going and help somebody else also.

I’ve have confused the treasure and the vessel  again and again. But come Sunday I will back in my church. I will look around at many empty pews. But my heart will stir when the old hymns are sung. Looking around at the old woman who can hardly read but puts the hymn book close to her nose warms my heart. And behind me is a tall black man in dread-locks. In the middle section is a little boy adopted from Russia with his parents and on the next row a pregnant lesbian couple. And along with them there are the straights and a few couples with 2.5 children and people impeccably dressed and a few in flip-flops. And I am very glad to be in that company. Never enough money. Never enough help. Someone often leaving in a snit. And yet—I find the treasure even though the vessel could still use a little cleaning and shining.

We will miss Anne from our company—but I think, too she will miss more than she ever knew. And that is a judgment on the church and on the Christ that we say we follow.