“I need to get to church this Sunday,” my new friend said. “I’ve missed it lately and I need to get back. My whole week goes so much better when I go to church.”
She’s a little older than me. Sweet… funny… kind. As we chatted, I nodded to show I was listening to her.
Then she asked me: “Do you go to church?”
My head changed from going up and down to back and forth.
“Why not?” she asked, surprised
I gave a smile and a shrug.
She gave me her disapproving look. “You need to go,” she said.
I continued to smile and not answer.
“WHY don’t you go to church?” she said.
Not long ago, I would have told her I was an atheist, that I used to go to church, and in fact, I was a preacher, but now I have had enough of religion. Instead, I said gently. “I don’t want to.” which prompted her to sputter.
Bible Belters follow a script for moments like this but I was opting out of it.
I could have said:
“I’ve been meaning to get back to church.”
She would have considered it an acceptable response but it ran the risk of prompting her to invite me to her church. Then I would have had to lie and say, “Thanks, I’ll try to make it sometime.” I’d never have any intention of doing so but she would feel better for having made an effort.
But, like I said, I didn’t feel like following the script.
“Didn’t you go when you were a kid?” she pressed.
“Yes. My dad was a preacher,” I volunteered. “In fact, he still is.”
This time I gave a head nod. She went back to the script.
“You should go back,” she said with a parental glare. I’m going to call your daddy and tell him that you’re not going.”
“You’re going to tell on me?” I laughed.
She laughed too. “Well I ought to,” she said.
Then she went off the usual script, but it was still within the context of the show.
“I’m ashamed of you.” She said
She repeated it and waited for my response. Most people aren’t so forthright. They let that part hang silently over the conversation like a dark cloud.
At this point, I suppose I could have taken the conversation in varying directions.
Perhaps I could have shown a little remorse.
“You’re right,” I could have said. “I need to get my act together”.
Or I could have shown some outrage. “Who do you think you are?”
Or maybe I could have tried to explain myself. “I’m sorry but I don’t believe anymore.” But then I would have had to defend my not believing, and I’m tired of that.
I chose another direction and used my West Texas drawl.
“Oh now…, don’t talk that way…. You’re gonna hurt my feelings.”
I let her see my eyes twinkle. She laughed and we went on to other topics
Why didn’t I get mad at her?
Because in the deepest part of herself, she didn’t mean it. She was trying to do what her religious leaders taught her to do and I could see that it caused her pain to say it. But she thought she was supposed to.
She was the real victim, being forced to say things that weren’t part of her gentle nature.
I could have gone to my script and lectured her on the evils of religion, the superiority of science, and maybe thrown in some thoughts about the separation between church and state.
A verse in her Bible says that a soft word turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). Maybe it can turn away religious aggression, too. In any case, she’s still my friend who knows that I have a different perspective. Perhaps when she’s ready we can have another conversation.