God speaks in unexpected ways—often through unlikely people.
Several weeks ago I went to Portland to visit my best friend, Andy. We saw a play at Stark Raving Theatre where he works.The company does a lot of new and avant-garde drama dealing mostly with sexuality. I don’t mind that, but I think sometimes they are more focused on controversy than content.
That night’s production dealt with gender identity.Among the characters was an old woman who turned out to be an old man.As usual I felt a little bit uncomfortable, but not so much as the time Andy had to strip down naked and make out with another guy.At that show, I was sitting next to his mom in the audience, and it was her third time seeing it! Eerie.
Often when seeing these shows, I don’t expect to love them, but I do look for truth of some kind.In this play the central character was a stereotypically fearful, prejudiced, repressed born-again Christian.At one point he woke up as Jesus Himself.He walked around smiling, performing gay weddings and drinking ginger ale.
The message I got from the play was that even vocal anti-Christians admire Jesus as long as He plays nice and doesn’t talk about sin.
After the play we went to a bar in southeast Portland because someone Andy knew was having a birthday.We parked a block away because cars lined both sides of the street.Showing our IDs to the bouncer, we soon slipped inside.The bar was small and packed with people; the lights were dim, and cigarette smoke hung thick in the air.Music blared from every direction.I couldn’t quite tell, but I think separate songs were playing;the distortion melted all of it into a muted drone.
On the walls hung various paintings.One was a close-up of various parts of anatomy.From far away some parts were unrecognizable and others I didn’t want to recognize.The shadows suggested something perverse, even if they weren’t. Another painting depicted a naked woman in a relaxed, classical pose.Her limbs were delicate and her fingers dramatically flexed.I wondered at how unnatural the pose was.One portrait hung alone on the opposite wall.It was particularly disturbing: a black and white sketch of a man’s face.He was cruel and demonic, almost Gollum-like in his sinister gaze.I tried my best to point myself away from that painting through the night, but any time it entered my view, I got shivers as if the demon were looking straight into me:
“You’re afraid, aren’t you?” the painting said.
“No,” I answered, not very convincingly.
“Yes, you are.You don’t belong here.”
I talked with various individuals that evening, though truthfully knew only two or three.It’s difficult to look cool when no one is talking to you, but I worked very hard at it.Apparently, it helps to have a cigarette or a beer.At some point during the evening I was introduced to Neil.Neil was retro-stylish with thick-rimmed glasses, black hair and a tight-fitting T-shirt.He smoked a cigarette and held a drink in the other hand, which I suppose made him double cool.
“Neil,”Andy grabbed him, “this is my friend Peter Walker.We went to college together.You’re both brilliant actors!”Andy had a habit of schmoozing everyone. I shook Neil’s hand as Andy was already sauntering away.“So are you doing any shows right now?”Neil asked.
“I haven’t done much in the last few years, really,” I said.“I’m just living in Corvallis,” I considered for a moment, then: “I’m also writing a book.”
“Christianity,” I said, knowing the word would evoke some kind of reaction in that place.“Particularly, how American Christianity makes contact with the culture it exists in.I don’t think it’s doing a very good job …” I knew I was baiting him.
Neil smirked a little.Then he put his hand on my shoulder and drew me in as if to share a secret: “Let me tell you a story about me and Christianity.” I was all ears. “I started going to an Assemblies of God church back in high school. It was casual at first, but the Pentecostalism, the choir, the excitement— everything drew me in.I loved it!The more I went, the deeper I got into it …”
A young woman with glasses of beer in each hand bumped in between us.“Neil! How are you?”She kissed his cheek, and they made small talk while I stood to the side.She was sweet and had a pointed nose that turned up at the tip. Several times she acknowledged me, as if to pull me into the conversation, but I had little to say.
Presently she left, and Neil continued, “So … anyway … OK, one night my girlfriend left me.A girlfriend of, like, several years. I was crushed.I didn’t want to live.The only thing I could think was, I’ve got to get to church.I knew that if I just went to church I would be OK.I went there the same evening.Everyone there saw me in tears and came up to me, hugging me, asking what was wrong,” he kind of sniffed and blew smoke to the side.He was visibly upset at remembering.“They thought I was having some kind of faith-crisis or God-experience, you know?When they found out it was over a girl, they all just sort of rolled their eyes and faded away.They didn’t care about me.I never went back.”
I waited to see if he would say anything more, but he didn’t seem prepared to. “So what do you consider yourself now?”I asked.“Where does all that leave you, spiritually?”
“I’m agnostic,” he said.“I guess I don’t know.”
I don’t remember what was said after that, but I didn’t ask Neil any more questions that night.I wanted to.I was dying to ask, “So, Neil, you gave up your entire system of belief simply because some people let you down?”It would have made me feel very righteous, but deep down I knew that question made a dangerously false supposition: people don’t matter in the interests of faith.
Neil left because the people of God let him down.People do matter when it comes to faith.I don’t think I would like Jesus very much if my church abandoned me during a gut-wrenching breakup, or if my childhood priest molested me.I wouldn’t be very supportive of Christianity if I were a woman and my pastor told me to keep living with an abusive husband.If I felt queer and my church told me to be straight or leave their fellowship. Rather, I think I would cry and seriously wonder about the grace of God.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being likeminded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”—Philippians 2:1-2