The Brayings of an Ass
It all started with that damn book by Ron Sider Rich Christians in a World of Hunger. He makes a convincing argument that vegetarianism could help people in poverty in third world countries. He did this by decreasing the demand for grain for cattle in those countries that were being raised for first world country. This would lead to more grain staying in the third world countries and being available for human consumption in that country. It was a simple argument among many he offered and by the last page this young seminarian with knowledge of how the animals were treated and other arguments took the dive.
Evening meals because we (my wife who was coming along for the ride) did not know how to cook vegetarian and we were poor consisted of three can vegetables and a box of cornbread. If we were upscaling we ate boxed macaroni and cheese. At first no one knew of this change but the dinner invitations came and we said we would bring a dish and that we were vegetarian. The friends did not know what to do with this. ’I do not know how to cook vegetarian’ they proclaimed. We laugh to ourselves we do not either but we are learning.
People as they got to know about the vegetarianism began to throw out challenges to the concept. Which was a little offensive because I had become to view it as a religious practice the more along the road I went. Others used ridicule teasing me with their meat dishes when the restaurant only had a side salad for me to eat. It was odd to me when people challenged me and I offered them a multitude of reasons to become vegetarian and asked them in return why were they carnivores and no one was prepared for that question. Simply saying I like the taste of meat as though that was enough of a reason to kill an animal
Everyone took it as a personal affront instead of my personal choice. Everyone would tell me why I should eat meat. Protein was usually the reason. Which I always thought peculiar as they looked up at me from their shorten status and proclaim I was in need of more protein. You know vegetarianism might stunt my growth.
I once asked a leading ethicist at a seminar on Christianity and environmentalism about vegetarianism and environmentalism. He had drank the same poison I had and parroted all the arguments I had come to know. When he was finished I asked if he was a vegetarian. He said no and proceeded to go on an apology tour explaining that he was not because he wanted to be taken seriously by his colleagues who would have thought he was a left wing wacko if he became one. The explanation might have made him feel better but it left me wondering do you not take me seriously.
My vegetarianism was not even safe on communes. Once in an unusual sidestep from his sustainable garden and farming ways the gardener decided that he wanted turkey for Thanksgiving. But of course that meant feeding a whole commune of carnivores turkey too. So to make it all look ‘sustainably’ he bought the turkeys a month ahead of time. So he could fatten them and he would slaughter them on the premises. Now the few vegetarians on the commune were offended by the ideal of this slaughter and the pseudo sustainable nature of ‘raising’ these turkeys. But in the end we lost the debate the slaughter happened. The vegetarians the day after the slaughter wore black bands around our arms to silently protest. This of course sent the carnivores in a tizzy. While I was not the plotter and was not really into the bands but wore one to be in solidarity with my fellow vegetarians was accused of being the ringleader. Which developed into a conversation of why I was a vegetarian but I protested I was a silent majority vegetarian who would convert people by example if at all.
This led to them thinking I was trying to convert the commune to vegetarianism. And they asked a series of questions that damned me. Do you think the commune should be vegetarian? Yes I answered but I believe everyone should live to their own conscience. So do you think your conscience is right on the issue of vegetarianism? Yes I replied or I would not be a vegetarian. So they concluded you think our consciences our inferior? NO I replied. But you think we are misguided on this issue. I grimaced I guess you could say that but I am sure there are things I do that you would consider misguided. They replied,’ Yes your vegetarianism’. I was beginning to get in full giggle mode as I often do when people are so intense over simple differences of opinions.
‘I am sorry we offended you. We believe that we have the best commune family one could ask for and upon close introspection and prayer God has revealed to me that everyone has superior consciences to me. But remember God even used Balaam’s Ass to deliver his word before. And on occasion this ass may be wrong but he will bray as if he knew anything about God’s word.’ I replied whimsically. At this point everyone was close to giggles except for a few who took themselves too serious. One of the carnivores said with a friendly smile, ‘He was satisfied with leaving off the conversation with the comparison of me with an ass.’ The other carnivores and by now vegetarians all with smiles agreed to comparing me with an ass. It was left there and we all lived happily ever after. And on occasion if you were to listen real careful you can still hear the ass braying.
It was to be the Easter service to end all services. Ever since I had come to Louisville people had spoken of the great Easter service at the church. I was a bit skeptical. The church was very conservative and was actually one of the voices against our having a woman minister.
But my friend (who did not go to our church) were insistent. If you ever get a chance you should go. Which of course left me enough leeway not to go. After all they were not the best references; they did not go to Church except for extravaganzas such as an Easter Service. But a few years went by and I never got a chance. One of my excuses was the tickets were so hard to obtain. All of their eight Easter extravaganza performances were always sold out. So I told my friends one of those white lies we tell friends that I tried but could not get tickets. Well, as life will teach you white lies can eventually bite you in the ass.
Dale called me up excitedly; guess what he had? Now a while back we had talked about getting tickets to a concert of a group we both liked. No he said not that group. I told him I had no clue. He, with pure joy and triumphant voice said, “I got tickets to the church’s Easter Service.” I grimaced; really, I said. ‘Oh yes,’ he continued, ‘I was in line and they would not let me have more than my usual two. But I told them about you and your church and how you were always trying to go but could never get tickets and the next thing I knew they gave me two more free tickets.’ I was taken aback, “They charge for an Easter Service?” He said, ‘Ten dollars apiece’. ‘Oh’, I said. ‘The dates are such and such’, he continued. ‘Does that work for your schedule? , he asked. I prayed fervently that my calendar would be full that day. Curse God, he denied my prayers. I was free.
We discussed how he would get the tickets to me. I was going to an Easter Service of a church that was trying to kill my church. Whoopee, I thought. I could not explain to Dale, an unchurched man, the politics of how they were always voting against our bloc of more liberal churches. No one but the churched can understand the poison politics of the church. But I thought how bad could it be? It is an Easter service after all.
I would not be going the same night as he would. But he wanted to get together after the service for dinner to discuss, I assume, from his viewpoint how wonderful the service was. I was wondering how many white lies I would be telling that night.
The night of the Easter service had finally arrived. Finding parking was difficult as cars were everywhere. Finally, I parked and headed to the door. There a member of the church who volunteered for my homeless work saw me and greeted me. I had not realized he went to this church. And church politics being as they were I did not imagine they knew of his church’s attacks on ours. It was a war more among pastors than congregants.
I went and sat; it was packed. Eventually the minister came out and did the customary greetings and directions to the bathroom gig. After he spoke the musical extravaganza started. The music was the usual pop church music of the period. The choir had wonderful voices. The set was good. But the musical had a problem; it was an Easter service so the theme was to be upbeat and yet they were starting before the crucifixion. The crucifixion is not exactly upbeat. Then the problems started
Jesus was in Gethsemane sweating blood, the scripture said. He was struggling whether he really would commit himself to the Cross. The choir came on with the most beautiful cheery Mr. Rogers song you could imagine. It was jarring and confusing. Was it a hard decision or just a beautiful day in the neighborhood? But I was willing to forgive this even if it was a pet peeve of mine that American Christians had trouble with the suffering part of their faith. What Deitrich Bonhoffer would call “Cheap Grace.”
Then came the scene with the lashing of Jesus with the cat of nine tails whip. A scrim screen came down. The centurion who was to administer the lashings was a stout muscular man. I thought this would be interesting. Until the whipping started. The stout muscular man developed the worst case of limp wrist I had ever seen. He placed the whip on Jesus’ back as if it was some soothing massage. And Jesus took the lashing like a man; he did not scream and when it was over he sprung up like a gymnast from the floor. This was no Passion of Christ movie. There were many more interesting parts that I could fill pages with, but will spare you.
But the part that blew my mind was after Jesus was raised. Scripture says he ascended into the heavens. So in the big Ascension scene Jesus started rising from the ground. But as we all knew this was Jesus’ first Ascension so the apparently tiny box he stood on to ascend was a bit shaky. Jesus wavered back and forth and you wondered if he was about to fall flat on his face. This was most worrisome as his eyes widened and his stance wobbled at the two story level. No one wanted a dead Jesus during an Easter service. But Jesus was the son of God after all so he did complete the Ascension.
After the musical, the pastor came out and gave an altar call. The altar call was long. Maybe thirteen verses long with intermittent pleas from the pastor for someone to come forward. The reason the altar call was so long was not a soul in that packed house came forward. The minister was convinced that he could coax or cajole at least one person to answer the call of the Lord. Finally, he left off the song and started to bring our time together to a close.
As he stood up front he declared that he knew many were touched by the performance tonight. If they were and they wanted to be saved all they had to do was take the envelope on the back of the pew and check the box on the card. That done, you were saved tonight. I thought of all the martyrs of the Christian faith if they had only known all you had to do was check a box on a card, the trouble it would have saved them. He dismissed us with prayer and the doors were opened and we were freed.
But not me; I had a pizza date with my friend to discuss the service. How many white lies could I tell at one dinner? What was my Christian duty to him? To Christ? Where was that card to make my mark and skip this dinner? In the end I told him the truth. It was not heresy but how Christian it was was in the eye of the beholder.
He looked at me and smiled. “You did not like it. Thank God. Everyone else I know loves it. I thought there must be something wrong with me. So I trust your opinion and knew if you liked it, there must be something wrong with me. But you hate it too.”
I was taken aback. The weight of white lies that would never have to be told were rolled off my shoulders. The pizza suddenly had flavor. The night sky was suddenly full of wonderfully bright stars. My friend was a friend indeed. All was well with my soul.
That was until I noticed at the table next to ours was a prominent member of the Easter Church. I could tell by his scowl he had heard our conversation. His church would vote even more vehemently against our work at the next district meeting. Oh if only I had that card to make my check on.
I have been given many gifts that I have loved. And a lot of strange gifts too. My daughters love to give me underwear with comic characters, dollar signs, and so on. I view it as my chastity belt. I would never let anybody see these usually over the top underwear. I have been given a box of quarters. I save quarters. I call it my mad money. So if I ever get mad I can spend my quarters to cool me off or the alternative with mad money, to commit some act of sheer nonsense.
I have been given gifts that have a tragic story. I often led meditation groups with my homeless or HIV impacted clients. A client who was also an addict told me how she had used per my guidance an image of Jesus as a meditation tool. She gave it to me in a very solemn mood one day. This was unusual and I was worried about her. My worry was justified; the next day she left her group home to return to her addictive ways. She, as I expected, had given me the picture for safe keeping until she returned to herself. She never came back.
Another gift later that is special but is sad now was a cross stitch from a teenager. I had been her youth minister and we had shared some hard times together. The cross stitch was of a wedding couple with the date of my first marriage and the words “love forever” stitched under the date. Of course that marriage ended badly. But I keep it in memory of the youth whom I once helped.
I lived with my first wife and son in two small rooms in a chapel that housed the homeless, mentally ill, and seminary students. As part of my job I supervised over twenty-five churches as they served meals to the homeless. Once when we came back after a trip, a church had filled our two small rooms with thank-you notes and presents. It is one of my favorite all time gifts.
One other gift which is my favorite is a rocking chair. Although I am a little young for the stereotypical rocker. I have enjoyed it as much as any gift I have ever received.
But probably the best gift I ever received was the biggest misnomer of a present for me. When I worked In Louisville I lived in as previously two small rooms. I lived and worked with the homeless in a church. Woody was one of the homeless residents I worked with at the church. He came to us homeless with major depression. Everyone loved him except himself. He was a devout Christian who also happened to be gay. This was in the eighties when gays were not generally accepted. He did not know what to do with himself; through many long talks he began to reconcile the two for himself. The church, which was confused and not settled yet on the issue of gayness, loved him despite themselves and this helped his self-esteem. He was happy and had completed his EMT training and was employed. He was leaving for his own apartment at the time I was realizing I too would have to leave. I was not happy that it was in the cards for me to leave.
But he had set up an appointment with me to present this gift. We met in my “expansive” home and had snacks and conversation. He was anxious to give me my present. He told me how much he had learned from me and my sermons. So he handed me the present. I could tell it was a book. I opened it. It was an autobiography of, as he told me, another great Baptist minister: Jerry Falwell (the leader of the Moral Majority).
I was sure he was joking but was holding my tongue until I was sure. He said open to the first page. I did. He had written inside the cover ‘To a minister who is as great as any minister he knew. Thanks for loving and helping me. Love, Woody.’ I looked at his face and could see he was not kidding. Tears were streaming down his eyes.
I said I had wanted to read more about Falwell, and thanked Woody for sharing the gift and his life with me. We hugged although we would see each other in the next few weeks. We knew our journeys were now taking us in different directions and we were probably never to be like this again. I knew his journey was still filled with many challenges. The book in so many ways was a testimony to that. He was only beginning to reconcile his queer ways with the bad and unloving theology of the far right.
Gifts are wonderful things. Sometimes they can be totally the wrong thing but yet miraculously they have meanings that make them the totally right gift.
The Revival Standoff
It was that time of year. Revival Season. In Baptist life revivals are big things. You pay a gun for hire minister who knows how to preach and bring people to the Lord. The congregation and others get excited because someone outside is coming in to deliver the truth to us. When I was growing up churches had revivals at least once a year and a lot of planning and work went into preparing the ground.
I was ready to prepare the ground. On the last day of the revival it was going to be youth day. This was a service directed at the youth. I was one of the leaders of our church youth and I was determined to get all my football team and other friends there. We had a pizza supper and were to have an ice cream party afterwards. I worked like a fiend the week before cajoling and talking up the revival. I told them it would be fun. Come one come all.
The night of the revival almost everyone I had invited was there. They were feasting on pizza and the music was loud and people were having a genuine good time. And to my amazement they, to a person, went upstairs to attend the revival. I had done all I could do; it was in the hands of the evangelist and God.
I hand-picked the music and everyone was in the spirit. The evangelist was in rare form. He was snorting and clapping his hands all at the right time. His message was the “if you die tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?” type. I sat in the middle, up front and listened. I began to try to see the sermon through the eyes of my friends. The preacher was not cool although he was convinced he was. He could tell a story and he could hold your emotions in his hand. Finally, he came with a crescendo to the pitch. The altar call was when he invited people to come forward to show they were aligned with God. The air was electric. One of the most faithful of the altar call hymns was playing: Just As I Am.
We had sung at least twenty verses of “Just As I Am.” The evangelist was still pleading for youth to come forward. I opened my eyes from prayer and looked to the front of the chapel and there were all my friends lined across the front of the church. I was amazed and pleased. Sure most of their conversions would not last the week but a few would. I wondered who were the last holdouts the minister was trying with every ounce of his body to get to come forward. I looked around, the only youth not in the front was me. He was holding out for me! But I thought I am right with the Lord and you can coerce and sing all you want I am not coming up front. Three verses later he had me on the ropes. Everyone’s eyes appeared to be on me. Some were thinking please go down, I cannot take another verse of “Just As I Am.” I checked deep in my soul to see if it was pride that was holding me back. It was not. He was speaking the usual “do not go home tonight without ensuring you are one with the Lord, for who knows but you could die in a car wreck on the way home and miss your chance at salvation for eternity.” My friends were pleading with their eyes, please come down and make this man go away.
I looked at the evangelist and our eyes met. I gave him my best “it is not happening tonight glare.” He asked for one more verse. Now pride was a factor. I dropped the hymnal and started belting out the little known sixth verse of “Just As I Am” from memory to let him know I was well churched. I put on my most holiest of smiles and surveyed my friends up front and said ‘Praise God,’ an action I had never done before or have repeated since. And then I looked him straight in the eyes and started verse seven from memory. He finally blinked and called for a halt to the singing and glorified God for the abundance of souls that had been saved that night. He prayed to end the service and put one more plug in for my soul by saying in the prayer even if someone did not walk the aisle tonight know that Jesus always stood with his arms open wide at anytime and anyplace and he was sure that others would be received by him in the next few days. My God, I thought, he will not give in.
Afterwards I walked down front to shake the hands of my friends. I could tell the spell for many was broken and they were wondering what had happened. And yes there were a few who seemed moved and converted. Only time would tell if they had changed.
But I noticed something in me had changed. I had been converted. I began to doubt the legitimacy of revivals and walking the aisle. It became clear to me to a large degree it was a contest of wills and the ability of the evangelist to hypnotize the audience for a moment so that they would do his bidding. Sure I had had some emotional times at revivals and in fact one did lead me to a conversion experience but too much of revivals were programming. Change that happened in a moment were not usually the kind that lasted. Out of all those converts that night I am probably the only one who really remembers that night. Hmm, I guess he did convert me after all.