“I Guess You’re Going to Condemn Us”
It’s not every day an atheist and an agnostic ask a Christian pastor to pray at their wedding. When my friend Marcus asked me, I told him I would love to. He must have heard too much enthusiasm in my voice, because he added, “Don’t think I’ve become a believer. This is just in case you’re right.”
And so, at their happy occasion, I prayed for a crowd of secular people in one of the richest and least religious postal codes of Sydney. I gave God the credit for inventing love and sex, thanked Him for showing us love and ultimate giving on the cross, and asked him to bring joy to Marcus and Elle. A few people probably remembered from school that they were meant to say “Amen.” I looked forward to some interesting conversations.
At the reception my wife, Carla, and I found our assigned table and were saying hello to others already there. Most were gay couples, plus a transgendered person (a fascinating conversationalist, as it turned out, and a brilliant academic). We were the odd people out, the happy little hetero Christians.
We had not even sat down when one woman spoke her mind: “I guess you’re going to condemn us, then?”
Um . . . lovely weather. The entire table stopped and listened.
“Hadn’t planned on it,” I said. “We just hoped to enjoy getting to know friends of our friends.”
“Oh, good,” she fired back. “Because most of the Christians I know condemn us.”
“Do they?” I asked.
“Yup. And that’s ironic, seeing as it was a priest who abused me and probably turned me off men in the first place.”
As I thought of all the human suffering behind those few words, I must admit that tears rolled quietly down my cheeks. Carla’s eyes were shining too. After a long moment of silence, I managed to say, “I’m so sorry. That may not mean anything at all to you, but I just feel like saying sorry.”
She said, “Thanks,” very quietly with her face softened.
Everyone breathed again, and someone said, “So, how do you know the bride?” Normal conversation flowed, but a half hour later she said, out of the blue, “You know, I miss Jesus.”
“Do you?” I said. “What do you miss?”
“Well, out of all the characters of fiction or history, I think he’s the . . . nicest. Not nicest in a weak way—just the best.”
I nodded. “What do you like best?”
“The way that he could understand and be friends with screwed-up people.” Then she laughed. “Like us.”
Her partner wasn’t having that. “But don’t you find him pretty condemning?” And she fired the question at me. “Come on, Rev, doesn’t the Bible condemn the gay lifestyle?” And she started quoting the King James Version in a voice like a Southern TV preacher: “ ‘God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature.’ ”
Her performance made me smile, but her question left me the options of potentially offending an entire table of people—now listening intently—or denying clear biblical texts. She wasn’t a lawyer for nothing.
I said, “Yes, just as it condemns spiritual arrogance, judging, malicious gossip, ignoring poor people, selfishness, not caring for the environment. . . . I find most people know deep down that we’re all screwed up. Some religious people deny it and cover up, but Jesus aims His armor-piercing words at them: ‘Whoever offends one of these children who believe in Me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hanged around his neck and be drowned in the deepest sea.’ ”
People were listening respectfully, so I added, “I just find God treats screwed-up people with understanding and grace. He likes us.”
Some faces had half smiles, some puzzled looks, some showed boredom. The lawyer stood up and said, “Aw, God—it’s all too hard for me. I just drink.” She left for the bar and did just that.
But our new friend was on a roll. “Didn’t they call him the ‘friend of sinners’?”
“Yeah,” I replied, and we just swapped Jesus stories for about 15 minutes: “Don’t you love the one where He . . .” “What did He mean when He said . . . ” Some people listened for a while, or drifted off into other conversations.
I asked, “Do you still read about Him?”
“Occasionally. I still have a Bible in my bedside table. But it’s hard. I feel guilty.”
“Junk guilt that forgiveness can handle, or guilt that is showing you something better?”
“H’mmm—bit of both.”
“Do you talk to Him?”
“Sometimes. Not enough.”
“Me either. Does anyone support you?”
Eventually the conversation changed topics, but not until we had talked about the most important thing in the world: the love of Jesus for sinners like us. That simple and profound idea, working quietly and patiently for years, still transforms lives.
Grenville Kent is a besotted husband and proud father of five young children. He is presenter of the Big Questions apologetics films produced by the Australian Union conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and lecturer in Old Testament at Wesley Institute in Sydney, Australia. This article was published May 26, 2011.