Because she was out of town last weekend, for starters.
But the foremost reason I didn't go back to her Baptist church here in Lubbock, Texas this past Sunday was because my tolerance was plum wore out, to use a local expression, and tolerance is something I try to keep in full reserve every day of my life.
The weekend before, in a sermon titled "Spiritual Exercise!" for the 9:15 a.m. worship service on Dec. 8, her pastor interpreted tolerance, a concept that my peers and I hold in sacred reverence, as a smokescreen for evil.
"We've become confused about what evil is anymore," he said from the pulpit that Sunday to a congregation of about 600, illustrating his eighth and final spiritual exercise, to "completely abstain from evil," of which forms sexual immorality was one of three -- according to my mother's notes -- he chose to call out by name. "Do we sometimes call it other names, like tolerance?"
Finding this inconsistent with his usual message of love and personal fellowship with Christ, I gathered my jacket and left, which is quite comical considering that he had just urged Christians, three bulleted exercises before this last one, to "conscientiously honor preaching," according to 1 Thessalonians 5:20, which my mother's well-worn Bible reads, "do not despise prophetic utterances (NAS)."
"It must have been a problem back then, too," the pastor had mused, "because they felt the need to say something about it."
Well, yes, because this is the problem with the kind of preaching I was subjected to that Sunday morning: 1 Thessalonians doesn't say anything about intolerance. Abstinence from evil, yes, but not intolerance.
This is obviously not my church, anyway. I am obviously a guest here, and in this whole town actually; locals think I work at the health food store when I'm just there buying trail mix in my designer jeans. But the pastor's words just remind me too much of Sarah Palin's recently quoted remarks about resistance to social change in this country: "...we're not rooting for your social truces."
The only reason I attend the Baptist churches of my childhood that I conclusively left behind in adulthood is to spend time with my family, for whom I return to Texas every year around this time to visit for the holidays. Though I no longer accept the spiritual parameters of the Christian doctrine, and very often rail against their narrowness, I value fellowship with my family at the top of the list of those things that are most important to me in life. So when I visit my family for the holidays, I attend their churches and participate in their religious rites every Sunday -- the same ones I grew up in and am more familiar with than some Baptists -- because my time with them is valuable and limited. And who doesn't love a good gospel choir?
Each time I attend a Baptist church, however, I'm happy if I can make it from one end of the sermon to the next by carefully maintaining my balance on a very thin wire of resolve. Every Sunday that finds me in a Baptist church also finds me praying to my own god that the sermon, or the people, won't push me over the line of tolerance right out the doors. I have nightmares that one of these Sundays I'll wake up in some Texas condemnation station like Pastor Charles L. Worley's in North Carolina, and that I'll have to end it by walking out of a hate-filled speech like so many I've weathered before, such as the one in the video embedded in this report in which Worley recommends rounding up gays and lesbians in concentration camps.
So, however important reverence for preaching is for spiritual exercise, it's not carte blanche for a preacher to suggest that intolerance of others is God's will, and it's hard to honor the defamation of a word and an ideal that at least one tolerant congregant in the audience values deeply as a code for moral conduct.
In his ongoing series "Hope," for two consecutive weeks the pastor had been hitting chapter five of the first of two epistles, or letters, that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians around 50 A.D., drawing his instructions for saintly conduct from a list of 15 that the Christian missionary prescribed to the new church at Thessalonica. On Dec. 1, in "How to Act at Church!," he highlighted the first seven. The following Sunday, in "Spiritual Exercise!," honoring preaching was number five of the last eight.
My request for an audio and video transcript of the incriminating sermon is still being processed, and I haven't been able to talk to the pastor himself about his remarks. Fortunately, I have my mother's Bible to aid my own interpretation of Paul's letter of encouragement to Greece's newest Christians, very appropriate since to "carefully test everything" was the pastor's thirteenth recommendation for spiritual exercise, and to "conclusively keep the good" his fourteenth, just before the ultimate admonishment to abstain from evil.
So I'm doing exactly as Paul himself, and in echo my mother's pastor, have instructed their followers to do: using reason and logic to salvage the good from the garbage before I throw it out.
And praise the lord, my mother takes notes in her Bible.
What I found when I opened her New American Standard to 1 Thessalonians was a scribbled, vague cross reference to the 17th chapter of Acts, the book immediately following the four gospels of the New Testament which details the missionaries of Christ's apostles in the distant reaches of the Holy Land. But it was a discussion with my maternal grandmother about Paul's life that led me independently to Acts chapter 9, where I read with rapt interest about Paul's conversion from a notorious persecutor of Christians to a disciple of Christ, soon forgetting that, eight chapters ahead lay the underlined passage in Acts 17 that my mother, in her absence, had left for me to find to answer the problems of her preacher's sermon for myself.
I became engrossed in the story of Paul's miraculous conversion because it's paramount to the pastor's slander on tolerance. Formerly known as Saul, the rapacious Jewish tyrant dedicated his life to preaching Christ after Jesus blinded him with a bright light and then restored his sight three days later in order "to show him how much he must suffer for [Christ's] name's sake."
I laughed out loud when my grandmother reached this point in her own recounting of the parable. I can see how a person committing the crimes against humanity that Saul did would eventually go blind from the horrific sight of them, and then maybe one day open his eyes and see the world in a whole new light. Anyone who persecutes others long enough is bound to feel empathy for them and see their humanity eventually. And after a life-changing makeover like that, why not change your name while you're at it? Saul's conversion to better ways, his rebirth as Paul, is one of many stories in the Bible every human being can relate to.
I keep hoping the Baptist church will one day feel true empathy, and then tolerance, for those they choose to judge so harshly.
Eventually I followed the story of Paul's suffering as a Christian missionary through the next eight chapters of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles all the way to chapter 17, where he arrives at Thessalonica and then Berea to preach the gospel. In verse 11, I happily discovered the verse my mother had underlined explaining that the Bereans were more "noble-minded" than the Thessalonians because they received the gospel heartily, "examining the scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so."
Here was her cross reference from 1 Thessalonians, yet another instance of Paul's life illustrating the value of reason in our quest for God and embracing what we know is right, two points that Paul spelled out for the Thessalonians and that recently her pastor reminded his congregation about: "examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
This is precisely what I've been doing, and so I state conclusively that by any measurement of reason, I have yet to see a case where tolerance, compassion and empathy for others have ever hurt anybody. According to what I know is right from a lifetime of careful examination, tolerance is crucial to the ongoing, deep and harmonious fellowship and communion of humanity; intolerance only pushes us over lines and out doors.
But who knows? For those who practice intolerance, or preach it, perhaps like Saul their rejection of others will provide the key to their own conversion and redemption. That is my hope, at least.