It was the first day of an annual conference of a Christian denomination. The hotel where the conference was taking place was buzzing with people. The lobby was filled with attendees who were checking into their rooms. A group of people who had just checked in was standing in front of the elevators waiting for the next one to take them to their rooms. From looking at their badges, any outsider could tell they all belonged to the same First Church of the Greatness.
When the elevator finally got down to the lobby, with much patience and courtesy, they all let the bellboy carrying several bags get in first. Trying to return the kindness, the young man standing next to the elevator panel, asked each person which floor they were going to and then he would press the appropriate button.
“47,” shouted a lady standing in the back.
“So you are going all way to the top?” asked the young man.
“Yes, I AM going all the way to the top, but ARE YOU?”
Suddenly a hush came over the full elevator. It was one of those moments when pulling a George Carlin’s suggestion on what to do in a full elevator would have been much welcomed. George used to say every time we got into a full elevator, we should make higher and higher dramatic notes as the elevator went higher and higher. Alas, no one had the presence of mind to do something like that. So, understating the lady’s Christianes language, everyone else held his or her breath, waiting for the bellboy’s response.
For a split second a confused look came upon the young man’s face as if he was saying to himself, “What kind of a @#$!% stupid question is that? Isn’t it obvious that, along with everyone else, I am going to the top, too.” But then, Eureka! You could see the light bulb began to flash on the top of his head like a neon sign on the top of a cheap motel in Vegas.
“Yes, Ma’am, I’M going to the top, too,” He responded politely.
But the lady just couldn’t let it go. By witnessing to this heathen, this was her chance to make a point with the people present and show them how to add another notch to their spiritual gun.
“I am not talking just the top, but all the way to THE TOP,” she continued.
By now the man had caught on with the game she was playing. He was doing his best to play as dumb as he could just to get the woman off his back without giving into what she expected him to say.
“Yes, Lady, I am going all the way to the TOP where the pool, the bar and the gym are.”
Recently a friend gave me a book by Anne Lamotte entitled, “Traveling Mercies” In the book Anne talks about how she got “all the way to the TOP”. The contrast between her language and our elevator lady, who represents so many evangelicals, is so striking that while reading the book I cried, screamed and laughed for joy.
Anne did not grow up in a Christian family. Just like me, she grew up during the Hippie era of free love, drugs and booze. By the time she is writing the segment of the book talking about her so called, “conversion” she is a pill-popping alcoholic who had just aborted her unwanted child by a married man.
Every weekend, when she was hungover, she went to a flea market where she could buy the most wonderful ethnic food. Between eleven and one on Sundays, she could hear gospel music coming from a run down church right across the street where she often stopped by to listen. Once a month she went to the church, however, she always stood at the door and never went inside. No one tried to con her into sitting down or staying. She says, “To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology or dowsing.” It wasn’t till a few months later when she finally allowed herself to take a seat on a folding chair at the entrance.
Seven days after her abortion, as she is bleeding heavily, lying down on bed in the dark, she became aware of someone with her, hunkered down in the corner of her room and she knew it was Jesus. The thought of becoming a Christian appalled her. “I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
From that day on, everywhere she went she felt a little cat was following her, wanting her to pick it up, open the door and let it in. A week later, when she went to church, she was so hungover that she couldn’t even stand up for the songs. But this is what happened afterwards.
…I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels… I opened the door to my houseboat, and stood there a minute, and then hung my head and said, “Fuck it: I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in now.”
Oh my God! Isn’t that the most creative “sinner’s prayer” you have ever heard? Can you imagine walking a sinner through a prayer like that?
“OK, are you ready to accept Christ into your heart now? Then, close your eyes and repeat after me: Fuck it I quit. You can come in now!”
Being so offended by the word “FUCK”, I know many evangelicals would completely miss Anne’s conversion moment. After all, how could a holy God accept such a filthy prayer? Forgetting that, as Søren Kierkegaard calls him, the “Wholly Other” that I know cares more about the woman’s soul than her using a four-letter word while talking to him.
In responding to her own question, “why everyone is not joining the evangelicals”, in her book, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation”, Christine Wicker says:
Partly that’s because evangelicals use spiritual language that’s no longer heard in common parlance and because like every strong group, they learn to communicate in a sort of verbal shorthand that has depths of meaning to it but sounds like jargon and nonsense to others.
The self-righteous and “out of touch with reality” attitude of so many of us evangelicals that insist on saying, “We have it all figured out. We got the formula! There is only one way to communicate with God and that is, of course, our American Christianese” reminds me of a message Dr. Tony Campolla once gave to a large group of young evangelicals.
He was talking about world hunger, urging the young Christians to get involved with preventing it, when he said something like the following--I am quoting from memory:
Within the next a few minutes, as I am talking to you, X number of children around the world will die of hunger, but the majority of you will not give a shit about it. And you know what angers me even more? That you are more concerned about me using the word “shit” than you are about the thousands of children dying of hunger.”
As I am writing this blog, there are millions of people around the world who, like Anne, acknowledging a vacuum in their lives, are starved to know something that would fill that vacuum, but majority of us, evangelicals, do not know how to communicate with them. Just like the old Romans, we have decided that anyone who doesn’t speak our tongue must be a Barbarian. We are so used to our Christianese language that no longer are we aware that the rest of the world needs to hire interpreters to even understand us.