Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“[Jesus] said to the apostles, ‘If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.'” – Luke 9:3-5

The chaplain was making her usual rounds at one of the companies she served.

By way of my usual greeting, I had poked my head in his office door to say “hello.”

“Hello, dear,” he had replied.

I winced at the unwelcome display of familiarity implying a relation other than one of equals here. “Maybe I’m being too sensitive,” I thought to myself. “We are in the South after all.”

This time I had found him at his desk poring over an open Bible, his notes from Sunday’s sermon splayed out before him.

The sermon proved a natural conversation starter.  He was happy to tell me in excited tones all about its impact and then move on to the proud origins of the denomination in which he now served as an elder.  I was content to listen.

His denomination prided itself on its missionary identity- at which point I had volunteered that I had grown up as a missionary kid and that my parents had once worked for a mission organization that this man in his denominational milieu would be familiar with.



“Oh, really?”  A smile of ringing endorsement broke out across his face.  Then, “where do your parents live now?”

“Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

“That must be so hard.  That’s where all the liberals are!” he had exclaimed.

The conversation seemed to be shifting a bit.

“Liberals? Albuquerque?” Albuquerque was not the first place that came to mind on a short list of America’s “liberal hotbeds.”

“There are all those artists out there…”

(My grandma, now senile, was one of them.  Before her fingers began to tremble so much that she could barely hold a pen to sign our birthday card greetings, she used to spend hours in her studio painting themes like the Holy Spirit.  Big, bold, abstract personifications that still hung on my grandparents’ living room wall.)

“I guess.  But I wouldn’t call the church that my parents are in really ‘liberal.'”

“Oh I’m sure the church isn’t.  Where do they worship?”

“They’re in a Presbyterian church.”

“Does their church ordain women?”

“I think so.”  (I’m not too familiar with Cumberland Presbyterians, but so the rumor has it.)

And then suddenly out of the blue his next question seemed almost to sparkle momentarily.  A bit like fool’s gold, maybe.

“Are you ordained?”

“Yes,” I had answered, smiling.

At this his own smile had evaporated, and in one moment the tables had turned: I had become one of them– those “liberals.”

“Wow, now that is something our denomination will never do! We will never ordain women! We take the Word of God seriously- we follow (emphasis his) the words of Scripture in 1 Timothy and Titus.”

He had turned his face from me now and was looking down at his Bible with a note of solemn, uncompromising authority in his voice.  His sermon notes had almost jumped off the page earlier: “an uncompromising presentation of the Gospel,” they had read.

And I guess I was grateful in the moment that he was looking somewhere other than in my direction: now he wouldn’t see me begin to tremble just a bit as the hurtful sting of his words set in, quickly turning into raw, unadulterated anger.

“Don’t lose your cool,” I was thinking to myself now.  I had just finished reading The Male Factor- all about how men view women in the workplace; and “too emotional” was one of the biggest male gripes about women colleagues.  The last thing I wanted to do now was lose my temper when serving on the job in a professional setting and as this man’s chaplain.  Losing my cool would only add to his arsenal about why women should not be ordained.

I glanced at the picture of his family on the wall above.  His two young daughters were beaming back at me.  What would their futures hold? I wondered.  Momentarily I returned to my childhood days and a father who once also believed as this man did, only maybe not so staunchly.  (It had taken his daughter saying she was going to seminary to train for ministry to change his mind.)

Then, realizing I could not let this man go on pretending that the female ordained minister standing before him was not really there now because the Bible had told him so, I found myself manufacturing my best forced laugh, and then this: “So, since you know your Bible well and take it seriously, I’m assuming you also insist that the men with long hair in your congregation get regular hair cuts?”

A rebuke hidden within a thin veil of humor.   It had gone unnoticed.

“Oh no, we don’t go to that extreme,” he had said.  (As if banning women from positions of church leadership is not extreme in a day and age when in every other sector women now serve equally alongside men? Hello, Clive, is anyone there?)

I had been waiting for him to scribble out his church information on his business card.  Now it seemed an interminably long wait.  I feigned some interest when he returned to the topic of his sermon, and even made a tepid display of agreement in response to one of his points.

“Come and visit our church sometime, dear” were his last words, as I turned and made for the door, wincing as I shook the dust off my feet.

What would you have done?  Leave your thoughts below.







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