Read Part 2 — “Only Humans” here.
It is February of 2006. I’m living in Juneau, Alaska – and I sit in anxious anticipation of the conversation that I’m about to have with Earl, my friend and pastor of the last few years. He’s currently on the phone in the other room, and our chat will commence as soon as he returns.
I shouldn’t be this nervous sitting in the fellowship hall of Emmanuel Baptist Church. I attended and served as the (unpaid) youth pastor here since 2003 up until a few months ago. When I’d left that position, it wasn’t over any ill will, but because I’d felt God calling me to start a college-age church of my own. In 2004, I’d even served as an interim pastor at Emmanuel while Earl recovered from a stroke. All this to say, they love me here; this is a church filled with folks whom I’ve come to see as my people and my tribe.
Yet as I sit here on this crisp but sunny Alaskan day, taking in the mountain range outside the window, my hands are nervous fists in my pockets.
It’s only been a week since I’ve visited this church, and it was as a guest pastor on a Sunday morning. Earl had asked me to come and give them all an update on how the little house church was going that Emmanuel Baptist has been supporting with prayer, resources, and a little money. So last Sunday, I stood behind Emmanuel’s pulpit and launched into a sermon inspired by the kinds of conversations we’ve been having at the little church in my apartment, which I’d named “The Bridge.”
I know that the content of that sermon is why I’m currently sitting in Emmanuel’s fellowship hall, waiting for Earl to get off the phone.
It’s amazing the difference a week can make; when I rolled into Emmanuel last Sunday morning, my old friends in the church looked happy to see me and eager to hear about God’s work at the Bridge over past several months. Emmanuel’s congregation had been the first people I’d told when I thought I felt God calling me to start new church in Juneau, catered for college-age kids like me who are looking for a more intellectual approach to talking about faith. It’s a niche that Juneau, an increasingly flowering liberal arts college city, simply had yet to offer.
I call my church the Bridge because it has become the forum that I’ve hoped it would be – where students from all walks of life are welcome to enter, feel safe, and have a platform to share their own views and ask questions. The idea is that I listen to their perspectives and opinions, so long as they also agree to listen to my platform and hear my perspectives. I started this enterprise convinced that the Gospel message that I’ve been taught since childhood is the only One True Way, and I’ve grown strong enough in my faith now that I’m not afraid of listening to alternate perspectives. By having everyone come to share their “truths,” I’m convinced that the singular “Truth” of the Gospel will overwhelm all other perspectives and eventually break through to them.
Our attendance hasn’t been huge, but it’s drawn in all sorts of folks from different walks of life. We’ve had different protestant denominations take a peak – plus Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and even non-believers coming in to have a look around. On one hand, we’ve become a gathering place for some pretty satisfying discourses about faith traditions – openly discussing what we have in common and, more importantly, our differences. But in regards to leading everyone to a singular, all-encompassing and soul-saving “Truth,” the Bridge has not had the effect that I intended. I’ve found that instead of opening my little congregation’s mind, they’ve done a far more effective job opening mine – and that has come with a few consequences.
Through intense Bible-study and discussion with folks from outside the walls of my own congregation, it has started to occur to me that some of the traditional principles on which I’ve always stood may not be the most accurate way to interpret many of the passages that have been foundational to my conservative Christian worldview. I’m thus starting to realize that the “truths” that had been so prioritized in my Southern Baptist upbringing – and by the many church leaders who had groomed me to be a pastor – seemingly ignore the larger picture found both in the Bible and in Christianity’s troubling history. Because I was so certain that I have the only truth, I did not expect this twist.
Despite my new found questions, I remain very outspoken and bold about my faith – never expressing doubts or anxiety about these challenges out loud. I’ve been trained since I was young to rarely show that doubt, because doing so it is a form of weakness. If I seem unhappy or uncertain, people may get the impression that the Peace that Passes All Understanding found in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not sufficient to fill the God-shaped hole that we all have in our hearts. On the other hand, some of these doubts are starting to fester and and gnaw at my soul – because their implications suggest that I’ve been wrong about many things that I’ve preached to many people as irrevocable truth. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these doubts are really starting to bother me; in fact, they’re even starting to keep me up at night.
When I visited Emmanuel Baptist last Sunday morning to preach, I hid all of my mounting apprehension about my current struggles with lifelong beliefs. But I also felt safe among Earl and all my friends who had done so much to support the Bridge, even while they’d never attended. So I decided to be candid with them about some of the perspectives we’ve been considering at the Bridge – and to provide sound scripture references to these ideas. I wanted to challenge them, like I’d been challenged – because if the Bible makes anything clear, it is that being a disciple of Christ should be fundamentally challenging.
Last Sunday, my old congregation had been mostly quiet when I preached a sermon referencing many of Jesus’s direct teachings while talking about new ways the Spirit has been moving me to consider the Bible’s truths. I provided an overview about how, by creating a forum for people of all walks of faith, I am being consistently challenged to look at the faith of my upbringing with an entirely new lens. My old congregation eyed each other a little blankly when I’d pointed out that according to the Sermon on the Mount and the Sheep and the Goats parable, maybe we needed to rethink our approach to the War on Terror – that instead of launching missiles, Jesus would have us open food banks. I made many references to the Bible calling us to help the poor and needy, over and over again – and how this is the overwhelming message of the Bible.
I concluded this sermon with a story told that had been told to us by an Alaskan Native activist named “Tara,” who came as a special guest to the Bridge. I’d invited her to speak to us after hearing her lecture in my Alaskan literature course at the local university. Tara’s activism focused on the Catholic residential schools for Alaskan Native children. Her late grandmother had been one of those countless kids torn from their family in the 1950s. The Southern Baptists quietly supported those schools for many years, because they provided a way to quickly and efficiently convert Native children from every isolated tribe in Alaska. At the Bridge, Tara spoke about how the instructors at these residential schools tortured these kids when they spoke in their tribal languages instead of in English – because English was the “Christian” language, and their native languages were Satanic. As a child, Tara’s grandmother so adamantly refused to speak English that the white Christians running the school eventually cut her tongue out, because it was better not to speak at all then to let her speak the pagan language of her tribe. Tara wept as she recalled her Grandmother’s trauma – we all did.
“This happened in the name of Jesus, and Alaskan Christians knew it was happening,” I told my friends at Emmanuel Baptist. “How, then, can we judge Tara or whole generations of her family for hating Jesus? How have we lost sight of the Gospel so profoundly that we simply refuse to talk about the atrocities that have been committed in this very state in our Savior’s name? When we stand before Jesus one day, who will He hold accountable for the damnation of Tara and her family? How do we fix this, so that those traumatized in the name of Jesus can come to realize that He weeps alongside them?”
As I spoke, it was clear that my old friends at Emmanuel Baptist found some of this uncomfortable, but I saw that as a sign from God that I was doing the right thing. After all, Jesus Himself made his listeners uncomfortable. I prayed that some of the lessons I’d passed onto them would convict them to reconsider our scriptures in new ways themselves. All the while, Earl sat in the front row rather stiffly, looking at me with this thoughtful gaze that I simply could not read.
Folks at Emmanuel had thanked me awkwardly after the sermon; we didn’t talk much, but I drove home that day feeling pretty good about what I’d preached. But a call from Earl later on in the week, in which he said he wanted to discuss some “concerns” he had about my sermon, made something in the pit of my stomach instantly freeze. It finally occurred to me that maybe I’d offended some of my old friends. The more I thought about it throughout the week, the more it bothered me – and now, the Friday meeting has finally come, and I can’t stop feeling anxious. With all sincerity, I’d clearly done something wrong; mostly, I’m now feeling embarrassed that I’d made such a fool out of myself.
Earl is more than simply my pastor, making these stakes feel even bigger. He’s an old friend of my Grandfather’s, who founded that Alaska Baptist Convention in the 1940s. Earl, in fact, had been one of the earliest Southern Baptist preachers to come up and aid my Grandfather in his mission to save lost Alaskan souls. I’d first met Earl many years prior on a mission trip I took with my Father to Russia, and he’d been delighted to hear that I was coming up to Alaska to go to college. He’s encouraged my ministry here in Juneau, and he’s always been very kind to me. So any manner of rebuke from a man who goes this far back with my own family history is going to sting with a little more potency.
Waiting for Earl to get off the phone with my clenched fists in my pockets, the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m sitting in exactly the same spot at this table where the initial idea of the Bridge came to me. It had been one of the most poignant swells of panic that I’d ever felt, which meant it had to have come from either Satan or the Holy Spirit. It had also been a moment that, up until now, I’ve kept to myself. Still, I can’t help but chuckle and roll my eyes a little – this sort of feels like full-circle. Now I just need to take Earl’s rebuke, sincerely and humbly apologize to him for anything offensive that I may have said, and promise to spend more time in the Word. And that’s fine – I can totally make that concession, if it means that I can just end this conversation quickly and go home to privately feel embarrassed for baring a little too much of my soul in front of my old Emmanuel friends. I’m already thinking about all the humble and repentant replies I’m going to make when Earl confronts me about my message. If I word it correctly, hopefully none of it will get back to my father.
As I sit at this table in Emmanuel Baptist’s fellowship hall and try to hold back my anxiety’s swell, my mind clears long enough to actually hear what Earl is talking about on the phone. He’s having a conversation with another one of Juneau’s Baptist pastors, and they’re discussing whether or not to take their congregations to go see a new Christian-produced movie that’s just opened at our local cinema. I’ve no plans to see it – I generally avoid those movies because they’re so terrible, even as I pray that souls will be saved by their Gospel presentation. It seems like a no-brainer that Juneau’s pastors will rally their flock to attend – but Earl seems to be in doubt, and he’s explaining why.
“Well, yes – we’ve heard wonderful things about the movie, but we’ve got one big concern.” Earl’s usually friendly voice lowers. “It seems that one of the lead actors is gay. He’s open and outspoken about it. Isn’t that a shame? Yeah, some of us are worried that paying money to see it would send a message that we’re supporting his lifestyle. So we’re praying about it and spending some time in the Word before we commit. Alright, I’ll let you know what the Lord tells me. God bless – goodbye, now.”
By the time Earl has returned the phone to the receiver, my hands are no longer fists. I think of my sleepless nights, the frailty within me that has become increasingly hard to hide. I think about my old high school friend Michael, who’d once asked me if it was better to be gay or dead – about whose suicide I’d heard while preparing a sermon for this very church. I think constantly about that question he’d once asked me, and the answer I’d given after praying, searching the Word, and seeking counsel. That shame always seems to perpetually lingers these days, the intensity of it comings and going in waves. It’s back again now as I reflect on the conversation I just heard, and I realize that this thing freezing in the pit of my stomach has started to feel more like a burn.
I realize that I’m so tired of fighting against this shame, and I just as quickly comprehend that admitting my exhaustion is the first time I’ve accepted it tangibly. As Earl enters the room smiling, something inside of me suddenly feels a little more free. It’s something new – some whisper in my ear from a voice that I’ve never before heard, even as it utters the very words my father spoke to me that one day in California – words I’ve carried with me ever since: “Sometimes following the Lord comes at a cost.”
I thought I’d come here to grovel. But something about overhearing Earl’s phone call has given me a different directive. Whether or not it is God’s spirit or my own, I don’t know – because I’m finally starting to realize that I’ve NEVER really known the difference. I just know that I’m tired of hiding, and I’m tired of no one in any church I’ve ever attended ever speaking up for gay people as if they are actually human beings. And after the time I’ve spent pouring over the Bible looking for answers, the more exasperated I feel being that person.
I’m suddenly resolved.
Earl is a very old-school Baptist preacher, with thick glasses and thinning white hair – the sort of guy you’d immediately assume is a pastor, just because of the pious way he carries himself. Though he’s in his mid-70s now, he’s also quite animated for his age; his sermons tend to ramble, but they are always impassioned. “Sorry, that was Doug over at First Baptist,” he says, sitting down beside me at the table. “We’re talking about that new movie, ‘End of the Spear.’ Have you seen it?”
“I have not,” I say.
Earl shrugs. “Well, there are concerns about the main actor being gay,” he says, as we we position our chairs across from each other and lean our elbows against the table. We’ve sat this way many times to meet for prayer.
I say, “And you think that’s maybe grounds to not see it?”
He nods glumly. “Yeah, we can’t support sin. I may go see it privately. I don’t know yet – I’ll pray on it.”
“Well, we can certainly be sure about one thing,” I say. “That actor isn’t the only person who worked on that movie that has ever sinned.”
Earl chuckles and leans back in his chair. “Yeah, that’s true.”
“It seems to me that if we’re going to ban the movie for a gay actor, maybe we ought to also ban it for anyone working on the movie who’s ever been divorced, or who is committing adultery, any wife who isn’t submitting to their husbands.”
I toss in that last one with a particularly snarky tone to see if Earl notices, and he does. His old but animated eyes shift alertly in my direction. “Well, I don’t know about all that.”
“Well, I just hate all sin, and it’s all the same in God’s eyes,” I say. “But since we’re saved by grace, it’s probably okay to share a little with the folks who made that movie. That’s what I think.”
Earl smiles curtly and nods, his eyes drifting off to the ceiling. “That’s true too,” he concedes. The way he’s postured now, purposefully avoiding eye contact, makes me wonder if he isn’t a little nervous too. One thing I know is certain: These last exchanged words were the first time I’ve ever bitten Earl back.
I sit quietly, waiting for Earl to gather his own courage. I do not intend to rebuke him the way I know he’s here to rebuke me, but I owe it to us both that I be honest. Earl’s eyes trace lines along the ceiling for a while, before he finally sighs, learns forward, and casts his eyes onto the ground between us. “So, Danél – I wanted to meet with you to talk about how your church is going.”
He’s circling to land, because he’s a nice guy with a gentle heart who has only meant well for me. But his general kindness toward me, the grandson of one his closest friends, doesn’t make me feel more compassionate. Before that phone call, maybe it would have.
I smile as widely as I can. “It’s going so well, Earl. Last week, we brought out all of these different film depictions of the Sermon on the Mount, to talk about how different people will interpret Jesus in different ways – but that they’re all valid, because our relationship with Jesus is so personal that he’ll talk to us on our own level. It was a great way to share the Gospel and to also hear how other people imagine Jesus might have preached this sermon. Getting to know our own personal Jesus and sharing Him with each other – isn’t that a blessing?”
Earl grunts thoughtfully. He seems impressed. Like my Grandfather, my Father, and me, he is always looking for new and clever ways to trick people into hearing the Gospel. “Yes, that does sound interesting. Did you use ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told?’ That one was my favorite. I took my kids to go see it in the theater when it first came out.”
“I sure did!” I beam. “Max von Sydow makes a very thoughtful Christ – we really appreciated that one.”
I also included footage from “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but I’m not going to tell Earl that.
“Well that sounds great, Danél. It really does – that’s something your grandfather would have done.” Earl’s somber eyes return, and he hesitates. “I also just wanted to make sure that you’re keeping it all in the Word.”
Here it is.
I smile again and just blaze right past it. “Oh, I’ve never spent more time in the Word than I do now, Earl. I’m pouring over the Scriptures, asking God to open my eyes and to consider His Truths with perspectives I’ve never considered before. To read the World now like I’m reading it for the first time, stripped of any per-conceived notions of what it means. I’m reading books about how the Bible was written and came together, and the way that we got our canon. I’m looking up really thoughtful Christian scholars who have really studied Greek and Hebrew and offer some enlightening clarifications of words and ideas that might have gotten a little skewed by the limitations of their English translations. I’ll loan you their books – it’s really great stuff for sermon illustrations.”
“I might be interested in seeing those,” Earl says – truthfully but skeptically.
“I love researching the historical contexts for the Bible – it’s become a passion of mine. I’m trying to getting some exegetical work in – there are so many scholars and theologians offering up different perspectives that I’m not even sure where to start most of the time. I’m taking all of this in while compulsively studying the Bible, and encouraging everyone at the Bridge to do the same. We’re having some great conversations in there – unlike any kind of Bible study I’ve ever done! It’s been really exciting. You should come one day and check it out – I think you’d really be impressed by how much time we are devoting to the deep study of the Word.”
He’s nervous in ways I’ve never before seen him nervous. He’s practically wringing his hands together while he continues to shift his eyes nervously on everything in the room but me. “Well, praise God for all of your work, Brother,” he mutters impassively. “God is good.”
I let the awkward silence linger for a little bit, before I frown and say, “Earl, is there a concern that the Bridge isn’t keeping it in the Word?”
Earl sits ups and shuffles in his seat. Still not looking at me. “I’ve heard some concerns voiced, yes,” he says matter-of-factly. “In fact, it’s been communicated to me that the sermon that you preached last Sunday really upset quite a few people.”
My mouth opens, and I place my palm against my chest. “Oh, that’s really discouraging to hear, Earl. What parts of my sermon were upsetting?”
“Well, your illustration at the end about the residential school was powerful, but it may have been too graphic for our church. You might have wanted to play that down a little.”
“I think it’s a good thing that they were upset,” I say. “They need to be upset about that. It’s upsetting.”
“You know that the Alaska Baptist Convention was fighting against that stuff in the 60s,” Earl says defensively. “We helped shut some of those schools down.”
“Only because it was a politically convenient time to do so, ” I say. “Once people figured out what was going on in those schools, the Convention feigned shock and horror like everyone else. But the truth is, we knew about what was happening in those schools for twenty years before we did anything. We even did our share of working with the Catholics and referring kids to those schools. We’ve never openly repented for any of that. Believe me – I’ve checked.”
“Well, I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Earl says, “but alright – you have a point there. But there were a few other things you said that upset them too.”
He somehow manages to smile and grimace at the same time. “There were a couple of times that you said that Jesus would want us to forgive Bin Laden and Saddam.” He sits up and waves his arms around me; when he does, he finally looks me sharply in the eye. “Now, I get what you’re saying, Danél – I really do. But you have to ease into that sort of thinking when you’re talking to people in a little old church like this one. They’re just not ready to hear it.”
“All I did was read Jesus’s words and offer my interpretation of them, which I drew from my own quiet time with God,” I say. “It’s the same thing that you do, every Sunday morning. Everything I said had a basis in the Word.”
“Yes, maybe, but it’s not the sort of message that the people of Emmanuel Baptist are ready to hear,” Earl says. “Most of them are very conservative and support the war. We have to steer them carefully.”
“You mean we have to give them what they want to hear? Is that really the calling of a pastor? I thought prophets were these screaming voices in the wilderness, dodging stones for speaking truths that made people uncomfortable.”
“But we’re not the prophets. We’re pastors, and we are leading flocks. Flocks are delicate.”
“We’re not so delicate at the Bridge, I guess. But I get it – these are hard truths to swallow. I don’t even know if I want to hear them most of the time – but I can’t deny that it appears to be what Jesus is saying. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ ‘Overcome evil with good.’ ‘By this, men you will know that you are my disciples – by your love for one another.’ ‘When you have done so to the least of these my brethren, you have done so unto me.’ It seems that Jesus talks about mercy far more than he does about judgment – and when he does talk about punishment, it’s reserved for the unmerciful. There’s no other way to read Matthew 28 – and all of my exegetical research has confirmed it.”
“Yes, but you have to read Matthew 28 in context with the rest of the New Testament. Paul is very clear in Romans what someone must do to be saved.”
“Yeah, and I end every service at the Bridge with some variation of the Romans Road,” I say. “I make sure everyone knows that salvation is found in nowhere else.” I shrug. “But I don’t see how anything that I’m saying here has to do with supporting the war. What does the war have to do with sharing the Gospel? Aren’t we allowed to have different opinions about that?”
“Of course we are,” he admits quietly. “And I get what you’re saying – I really do. But you have to talk about these things at a pace that they’ll understand. Otherwise, they’ll tune you out. Do you understand what I’m talking about? I’m sure it’s great stuff for the people you’re trying to reach – but here, it’s going to be a hard sell.”
“I’m just challenging myself and other people to think about their Bible in ways that we haven’t thought about it before, beyond the simple ways we’ve always presented it,” I say.
“Well, people don’t want that new view. They need the simple view. Most of them do, anyway. And if that’s all they need to be saved, then we ought to let them have it. Maybe your college kids need more – and God bless you for doing the work. But here – it’s simpler, and you made it hard for them.” He hesitates. “The truth is, I don’t know if we can invite you back to preach here. Not for a while, anyway.”
My stomach legitimately starts to sink. I do not expect a rebuke of this magnitude – not among my friends. “Why? They all know me. We’re all friends. We’ve all broken bread in each others’ homes. If they have a problem with what I said, let’s all just get together and talk about it.”
Earl’s eyes go a little wide. “No, it’s better you and I just talk first. I wanted to make sure that we are on the same page before you apologized to them.”
“Apologize?” I stammer. “For what?”
“They’re afraid that you might be leading a cult, and we can’t support one of those.” Earl tosses up his palms and waves them sternly at me. “We want to make sure that you’re actually preaching the Word. If you’re not, we are going to have to rethink our support of your ministry. I’m sorry, brother – but it is what it is.”
I’ve never heard Earl – this kind, old man who preached such a simple, gentle gospel – sound so authoritative. It leaves me so stunned that I’m not sure what to say. Suddenly, my fire doesn’t seem to roar like it did. I sink into my chair like I used to when I was a little boy, taking a stern reproof from my father.
I think of Michael, and a medium-sized wave of shame manifests as a lump forming in my throat. I lean forward, hiding under Earl’s frame, and bury my increasingly heavy eyes into the ground.
I feel Earl’s hand on my shoulder. From somewhere far away, his gentle voice says, “Brother, I don’t mean to offend. I love you, and God loves you. Let’s just pray together, brother, and find a solution to this. You’re a man of God, and we’ll seek Him together. Alright?”
I look up at him numbly. Whatever my eyes communicate, it’s enough for him to take his hand off my shoulder, sit back, and give me a little space.
I swallow away my lump, and a flush from my chest pulses through my body as ice water. I realize that my fists are back in my pockets – and that they tremble. “Earl – I didn’t just offend them. It sounds like I also offended you.”
He nervously blushes and looks away. “Well, you certainly may have done that – yes. But I forgive and God forgives. So let’s just move on from it.”
I speak with a low voice – a fragile one. As terrified as I feel, I now know that I’m going to admit to Earl something I’ve not yet said out loud. “Do you know what’s kind of funny, brother?” I say. “I was sitting at this exact spot when I got the idea to start the Bridge. I haven’t told anyone that story. Would you like to hear it?”
Earl forces a smile. “If you’d like to tell it, I’d like to hear it.”
“It was after the sermon. We were in here having a potluck,” I recollect. “That kid Alex, who I’d just led to Christ like a month before – he was talking to Duane.” Duane is a deacon in his mid-80s who has been an evangelical since he was a boy of Alex’s age – nine or ten. “They were standing right there, Earl – and I got to listening to what they were talking about. Turns out, they were talking about God. The longer I listened to them expound on the goodness of God, the more I had this bizarre epiphany: That this kid and this deacon – with literally a whole lifetime between them – believed in exactly the same thing. Duane’s perspectives on God are simple, his reading of the Bible so inside-the-box of whatever it is preachers like you and I have taught him his entire life; he’s never required anything deeper – and it made me wonder if any of us actually have. Suddenly, I’m looking at my past and my future, right there in front of me. It became a sight that I could not easily unsee.”
“Well, Jesus said to come to him like a child,” Earl retorts.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about that too,” I say. “But the thing is – kids are smart. They don’t accept things blindly. They’re curious. They want to know how the world works. They will follow up every question of ‘Why?’ with another ‘Why?’ And it seems that by giving them everything so easily and telling them what to believe so young, we’re not letting them do that. We’re not actually letting them come to Jesus like a child naturally would.”
Earl’s baffled replies are increasingly mumbled. “I suppose that’s true. Yes, I never thought about it that way.”
“And that’s the point I’m making, Earl. I love the Bible. I love Jesus. But I decided to finally start coming to Him like a child, stripped of all my preconceived notions that were taught to me and that I’ve passed down to countless teenagers and children. I asked Him to open my eyes so that I may read the Bible as if for the first time. And I believe that He’s answered my prayer. So to hear you tell me that you think I’m in a cult – I have to be honest with you, Earl… That really bothers me. It’s really discouraging.”
“Don’t be discouraged,” Earl says. “We can fix this. You’ll just apologize to our congregation, and we’ll sort it all out. You don’t have to go into any of this stuff – just tell them that you misheard the Spirit and that you’re sorry. Then give them a really simple message afterward. You’ll earn back their trust.”
Shaking my head, I lean back and sigh. “See, the thing is, Earl – I’m thinking that maybe the folks at Emmanuel Baptist Church aren’t the people I should be apologizing to. In fact, I’m even starting to think that maybe it’s all of us who owe some people an apology.”
“What do you mean by that?”
It’s too late to go back now. If I’m still shivering, I feel too numb to be sure. “Lately, I’ve been having a really hard time sleeping at night,” I confess. “Just bad old memories really getting to me. So instead of sleeping, I’ve been reading the Bible. Pouring over it with this new-found curiosity. And I started to read things – really read them, for the first time and without blinders on. Some of them bother me – like all of those mandates to kill innocent children.”
“Yeah, but God had to wipe out all evil. Those cities had been completely corrupted by sin, and –.”
“Could you murder children, Earl? Even if you were convinced that God told you to? Have you ever noticed how completely okay God is with killing babies? Men, women, and livestock too – but mostly children. How can we be so adamant about being pro-lifers for a God so bloodthirsty that He punishes kings and prophets who refuse to massacre babies for him? It’s a little hypocritical.”
Now Earl only listens with a mouth agape.
“But don’t worry, this has a happy ending,” I say. “You see, I stayed up for three nights in a row, reading the Bible cover-to-cover. Because I had an idea. I wanted to make a list of every command that God gives, every mandate – the reason for every praise or condemnation. I wanted to see what God expects the most out of us, what topics seem to be the most important to Him. I was surprised by what I learned. Do you know what the number one topic of the Bible is? In fact, it’s mentioned more than any other topic combined – 2,273 times, to be exact.”
“Salvation,” Earl says.
“No,” I say. “It’s helping the poor. It’s feeding the hungry. It’s taking care of the downtrodden. It’s actually pretty shocking to see how little eternal judgment is mentioned compared to God’s clear mandate to help the poor. And if we are going to claim to take the Bible literally, as we have always preached, it’s time to recognize what it actually says. Those two or three topics that we like to stress from behind the pulpit – topics like eternal damnation, our fervent position on abortion, and how we need to make sure that marriage stays defined as between one man and one woman – those barely come up. In fact, I was surprised to learn that homosexuality is only referenced six times total, in any context at all. And I’ve even been learning that some of those might be blatant and even intentional mistranslations. Did you know that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality? You wouldn’t know that from the way we preach.”
“He didn’t say anything about child molestation either,” Earl counters.
“Yeah, I thought about that too,” I say softly. God, the terrifying exhilaration to finally be speaking all of this out loud – no matter how dangerous my audience. “But sex with a child is actually condoned many times in the Bible – far more times than homosexuality is mentioned. And you know what the Bible approves of even more than pedophilia? Slavery. In fact, both child marriages and slavery are condoned more than eternal damnation is referenced. I’ll be happy to show you my notebook – it’s a mess, but only because it’s thorough.”
“I mean, we have to trust God about all of that,” Earl says, now a little defensive. “The Bible is clear about homosexuality. That starts with Sodom and the fire from Heaven that destroyed it.”
“Actually, that’s not true,” I say. “God spells out exactly what the sins of Sodom were, in Ezekial 16: 49. It reads, and I quote: ‘She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned, they did not help the poor and needy.’ How many people who go to church every week did God just call a Sodomite there?”
Earl blinks a few times, shuffles nervously, and finally attempts to redirect this with a chuckle. “Well, I wouldn’t say that.”
“There it is in the Bible,” I say. “The infallible word of God.”
“Yes, but you have to get the context right.”
“That would be the context that we were raised in, correct? That’s the context that’s true. That’s the context that would lament that an actor is gay based on six verses in the Bible before they ask if anyone on that film set gave their salary to the poor.”
“Well, I certainly hope they did that too,” he says. “And you’re right – we ought to do more to help the poor in spirit, the oppressed, the hungry. And we do. The Alaska Baptist Convention donates thousands every month to food banks and charities.”
“No they don’t,” I say. “And you know it. The Alaska Baptist Convention doesn’t prioritize poor people. We’re the ones lobbying to define marriage in the state of Alaska between one man and one woman. We’re the ones protesting planned parenthood with signs we bought with tithe money. We’re the ones obsessed with those six verses about homosexuality that we drill into our congregation’s heads, as if fighting for the traditional family is the primary reason God put us this on the earth, while we ignore so many truths that the Bible contains.”
“It sounds like you’re condoning sin,” Earl says. “Homosexuality is an abomination — the Word is clear about this.”
“You know what else is called an abomination in the Bible? Charging interest on loans. Ezekiel 18:13,” I cannot help but smile a little smugly. “Once again, God seems clearly more concerned about whether or not we help the poor more than whether or not people are gay.”
“All sins are the same in God’s eyes, brother.”
“Then why do we only ever seem to preach about one or two of them? Why do we let registered sex offenders attend our churches, but not gay people? Why do we consider boycotting anything that’s been touched by gayness? I can’t even think of a single reason why it’s even a big deal, except that God seems to condemn it.”
“That’s enough for me.”
“Yeah, me too – except now I’m not sure that God actually does condemn it.”
His mouth drops before he blubbers, “I beg your pardon?”
Nothing to do now but to keep digging. “I’ve been reading some work by a guy named Mel White. He used to be Jerry Falwell’s ghost writer. He runs an organization called Soul Force, which is a Christian outreach program for gay people who have been injured after being constantly told that they should feel ashamed for being who they are. He writes a lot about what actually goes on that those conversion therapy camps – the mind games and mental anguish that they have to endure, the alarming suicide rates for those who participate. He breaks down all the passages referencing homosexuality, verse-by-verse. Did you know that the term ‘homosexual’ didn’t even show up in an English translation of the Bible until 1946?”
“I did not know that,” Earl mumbles.
“It’s true, and there’s more. Some of the words that have been translated as ‘homosexual’ seem to reference some vague temple ritual involving priests and boys, not homosexuality as we define it today. It’s been a fascinating study, Earl – but also a pretty frightening one. Mostly, my biggest takeaway from Mel White is that I’m shocked by how little homosexuality is prioritized in the Bible compared to how much we prioritize it in the Baptist Church. Especially compared to how many times God condemns those who ignore the poor.”
I do not mention that Mel White is also gay.
Earl is as baffled as I expected him to be. But more than baffled – he appears dim, like some cylinder in his brain has stopped working properly. “This is the kind of stuff you’re teaching at the Bridge?”
“I’m not teaching anything definitively,” I say. “We’re just talking about it, is all. We’re trying it on. But we’ve got plenty of people who attend who think it’s okay to be gay – and for the first time, I’m listening to them.”
“What possible good comes out of thinking that way?” Earl pleads. “You’re just coming up with justifications so that people can keep sinning.”
“What if it’s actually us who have been coming up with justifications all along, so that we can cling to our old biases that have nothing to do with the Gospel? Like the way we’ve used the Bible to justify slavery, torture, Jim Crow… You know: All those other things we used to preach from pulpits and justify with the Word. Because that’s what I think God is telling me right now – that once again, the Baptist Church has got it all wrong.”
“What? No.” He forces himself to laugh. “No, I’m sorry – I don’t think God is telling you that. I think that it’s pretty clear that you’ve gotten in with some bad theology and that Satan is using it to corrupt your mind.” He lets out an exasperated breath, seemingly to calm himself. “Look, I didn’t expect a sermon today – especially not one like this. But I think it’s clear that you’re forgetting God’s laws and creating your own.”
“If this is truly a sermon, allow me one more illustration,” I say. “Then I’ll be done. But I want you to hear out just one more thing. Can you do that?”
He takes a deep breath, leans back, and shrugs. “Alright, brother. I’m listening.”
I take a few deep breaths of my own, gathering myself. I cannot believe that I’m about to utter any of this out loud. It is the first time I’ve dared, and I’m before a man who I know will not hear it. But it isn’t to whom I say it that matters; it is that I’m finally gathering the courage to release it.
“Have you ever read The Crucible, by Arthur Miller?”
“I saw it performed, many years ago. About the Salem witch trials.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I first encountered it in high school. We put the play on for my English class, and I played Reverend Hale.”
“I don’t remember who that specific character is.”
“Hale is the outside expert they’ve brought in to assist. He’s a minister who tracks down witches for a living. At first, he’s convinced that witches are in Salem, and he’s participating in the court and helping interrogate – signing one death warrant after another. But after a while, he starts to see the holes in this narrative. He realizes that what he’s been told about this town isn’t the truth – that people are clearly accusing each other of witchcraft for their own agendas. In the end, Hale renounces the court and tries to save the lives of those people whom he condemned.”
“Right. Yeah, I remember now.”
“Hale has this line that I memorized when I played him. I had no idea how much it was going to resonate, until I started talking about homosexuality at the Bridge, started making a list of the most important topics in the Bible. This is what Hale says to the judge when he renounces the court: ‘Excellency, I have signed seventy-two death warrants. I am a minister of the Lord, and I dare not take a life without there be a proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of conscience may doubt it.‘ I’ve been reflecting a lot about that particular phrasing, because I think that’s where I am now: I’m a minister of the Lord, and I’m having such a qualm.”
“Yeah, you clearly are,” Earl says, and I’ve never heard him sound so sad.
He’s not the only one feeling somber. I continue, “The thing is this: I was raised since I was very young to believe that homosexuality is the most terrible sin that there is. I was taught to hate the sin but love the sinner – which, it turns out, is really just an excuse to say the most vile things about gay people that we can get away with. We’ve preached against gays from behind our pulpits, we heard gays condemned by our leaders. Earl, I once told a kid named Michael that it’s better to be dead than to be gay, because I believed that this is what the Bible adamantly proclaimed. And sure, Leviticus orders that we should put gays to death – right there next to verses that spell out proper etiquette for keeping slaves and child wives. But I was never taught about those passages, or the ones condemning shellfish or tattoos – just the ones condemning gay people. And sure enough, I was preparing a sermon for this very church when I found out that Michael killed himself.”
“Oh, mercy,” Earl exclaims, and he puts his hand over his mouth.
I let it linger, until I can see that there are tears in Earl’s eyes. “It took a little time for it to creep up on me,” I say, holding back my trembles. “But suddenly, I’m not just remembering the conversation I had with Michael. I’m remembering how I was a leader in my youth groups, and I’d occasionally go squeal to the pastor that I thought one of the kids in our church might be gay – because of something they’d said, or maybe a way that they looked, or even maybe because just the Spirit was telling me it was true. I’m remembering how a lot of those kids disappeared and didn’t come back. I’m constantly thinking about all of those kids now, and how the Bible doesn’t say anything about conversion therapy camps or praying the gay away. I’m starting to wonder if maybe we’ve been wrong this whole time.”
“People get things wrong all the time,” Earl says. “We’re fallible, we’re fallen. It happens.”
A hot tear practically steams as it streaks down my burning cheek. “Except if I’m wrong about this, I’m not casually wrong. I’m dangerously wrong. I’m catastrophically wrong. I’m murderously wrong.” I look Earl directly in the eyes, determined not to sob. I’ve bared enough of my soul to this man, and I know I’m being judged for it. “And so are all of us.”
I’ve never seen Earl – always the most animated of orators – so at a loss for words. “We’re not wrong, Danél. The Bible is clear.”
“Maybe,” I push through. “But what if it isn’t? After all the terrible things we’ve preached about them – after all the terrible things we’ve done to them… Don’t we owe it to them to at least listen? Don’t we owe it to them to at least consider the possibility that we’ve misheard the voice of God? Isn’t the Bible full of whole nations repenting of that very sin, over and over again?”
I settle into my chair as a weight feels suddenly released. I realize that I’ve nothing more to say.
Earl is quiet for a long time. His arms are crossed tightly around his chest, his head nodding and his eyes unfocused with thought. “You know,” he mumbles after a while, “I’m not sure what your grandfather would have thought about the sermon you just preached.”
I intuitively feel that pang of my late grandfather’s expectations, which has informed so much of both my life and my father’s. I simply shrug.
Earl sighs, and I see that mostly he just looks like the tired old man that he is. I imagine that this is the first time he’s encountered these sorts of theological gymnastics. He’s a kind man, far more gentle about this than my grandfather would be. But mentally, he’s no different than the kid Alex or the old deacon Duane – my past and my future, talking about God right in front of me.
But something has changed about his disposition. His cheeks are beat red, and his eyes are darting about suspiciously, as if the walls might be listening. “You can’t ever preach any of what you just said in this church, or in any Southern Baptist-affiliated church in this state,” he says softly, like he’s whispering a dangerous secret. I think he is actually afraid for me. “I can’t stop what you’re doing at the Bridge, but you do it in your own peril. Out of respect for your grandfather, I won’t report it – so long as it stays between us in this room. This is the sort of thing that will end your career in the Southern Baptist Convention. Understand?”
I simply nod to knowledge I already had.
“So long as you keep a lid on it with this sort of message and it doesn’t leave the Bridge, we can keep supporting you. I won’t tell the other pastors about this, or the congregation, or your Dad. Just make sure that every service at the Bridge ends with the gospel. Keep it in the Word as much as you can. Make sure everything has a verse to back it up. And don’t forget that it’s all God’s Word – not a line of it has any error at all.”
“I promise to keep it in the Word,” I say, though I’m not sure I’m telling the truth.
“And you’re going to need to apologize in front of the church. Otherwise, Emmanuel Baptist is prepared to declare you a heretic and the Bridge a cult. I mean, we’ll wait a few weeks for them to calm themselves down, and then we’ll have you come and speak.”
The sour pit in my stomach returns. “What exactly am I supposed to apologize for?”
“For telling them things they weren’t ready to hear,” Earl says. “Let God guide you.” He smiles softly at me, and my heart breaks. I know he means well. “Can you do that, Danél?”
I think about all my friends in this church, and about all the ways they’ve been good to me. I think about their whispers among each other, questioning my faith. My heart breaks again. After a long time, I say, “Yeah. I can do that.”
Earl’s shoulders relax, and he sighs. “Okay, good. Thank you. God is good. Can we pray together, Danél? I’d really like it if we could pray together.”
I nod. We grip hands and offer our requests to God. Earl prays in Jesus’s name that we will be one, like He and the Father are one. I pray that we will never forget to love the way that Christ loves the church – no matter race, color, creed, or identity. We embrace and go our separate ways. Tears return to Earl’s eyes as he waves goodbye.
I do not end up apologizing to my friends at Emmanuel Baptist, and what I preach to that congregation a few weeks later will be the last thing I ever say in front of a pulpit. It becomes the biggest step I’ll take toward freedom.
But today, I don’t feel free. I go home and try to open my Bible, but I find that I cannot without feeling a wave of immense shame. Instead, I simply run my fingers along its edges until they my fingertips are sore. “I’m sorry, Michael,” I say. It is the first time I’ve said those words out loud. Then I sit on the floor, curl up into a corner, and vanish into agonizing sobs.
Read Part 4 — “An Exiled Christian and a Genderqueer Walk Into a Bar” here.
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