Sometimes we'd run into each other after church. She dressed for worship like most of us used to dress 20 years ago, before it became a "come as you are" party. With a demurely made-up face, clad in clothes that bespoke modesty, she looked the perfect model of Christian decorum. As she was, most of the time -- to my face.
But I happened to know that my outspokenness, short skirts, moderate tendencies, and generally uppity attitude made her, well, a little crazy. In public she was nice to me. So nice, you see, that sometimes I forgot that she really wasn't. Big mistake.
Sadly, a lot of Christians buy into the idea that they can be sweet as Danish in church but viperous at home. You don't see a lot of debates at coffee hours over topics that matter -- pity, isn't it? Candor seems reserved for the moment when the car doors shut and you begin to pull out of the churchyard.
Where did the faithful get the idea that they had to be falsely polite to each other? Certainly not from the author of Psalm 52:
Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man?
Why do you boast all day long,
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor,
you who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
Ok, so there are psalms that get a little gritty. A lot of Christians have a notoriously tough time with the psalms, because, well, they doesn't quite fit the courtly image many want to project. But what of the Gospels?
Sorry. In the seventh chapter of Matthew, as in many other places where he speaks, Jesus doesn't mince words:
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"
Jesus asks his followers to turn the other cheek, pray for their enemies, leave their families for him, and visit prisoners. But nowhere, as far as I can tell, does he tell them to crook their pinkies and pass the sandwiches like disciples of an etiquette class.
And as for the apostle Paul? Fugghedaboutit.
The problem is, of course, that orgies of politesse are fundamentally meaningless if you are going to go home and trash the person with whom you were just exchanging pleasantries over coffee and cookies. Our nature is to rant and rave, like the writer of Psalm 52, and call down destruction upon our opponents -- and what's more, our Christians sisters and brothers are well aware of it. We aren't fooling anyone.
As much as we'd like to begin from a place of altruism, our aspirations towards kindness and compassion cannot keep pace with our ego, or strong opinions, or the fact that our toddler kept us up half the night. So why don't we cut to the chase and confess our brokenness and weakness, and ask for a helping hand, not solely from our neighbor but also from the God who happens to love almost-damned fools like us?
If we were more open to reveal the wounds we like to bury under layers of gentility, we might find that we have more in common with our fellow faithful than we think. And maybe those conversations at the church door and even in the parking lot might fit more closely with the service that just preceded them.
With a little more realism about our limitations, we'd be in a better place in our Christian walk -- or stumble.
When we begin on our knees, there's really nowhere to go but up.