PRIESTHOOD OF THE BELIEVER
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
—Hebrews, Chapter XI, Verse 1
Whenever I speak on social justice issues, or, more likely now, do readings from my books, someone invariably asks me about my religious beliefs. Some people opt for a subtle approach and others want to make sure I clearly understand their perspective. Last year I participated in a panel discussion on memoir at a book festival in South Carolina, and the moderator called attention to the three authors’ different backgrounds that influenced their work, including a remark about my life as a lesbian activist. Following our discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions.
We took turns responding to typical inquiries regarding memoir as a genre, difficulties in the publishing world these days, and whether our books provided cathartic experiences for unresolved issues in our lives. It was a lively interchange, and I enjoyed the questions and listening to the answers of the other panelists while I added my own opinions. As time for our session was about to run out, the moderator asked for one final question for any author. I saw a hand raised in the back of the auditorium, and a microphone was passed to a man who stood up and reached for it.
I sensed this was my question before he said anything. He was a tall man with vanishing silver hair and nicely dressed in dark pants, white shirt and a tie that was an indistinguishable color to me from my seat onstage. He did, indeed, direct his remarks to me.
“Miss Morris, I was wondering how you reconcile your life with what the Bible says about homosexuality. I know that God loves you, but He hates what you do. Why don’t you change?”
I was prepared for the question since it was a familiar one to me, but I paused to assess the restlessness of the audience before I spoke. Yep, everyone was ready to move on.
“The few Bible passages that refer to homosexuality are typically taken out of context and require deeper discussions than we have time for here,” I said. “Change is a word that implies choosing. My life has involved many choices, but my being a lesbian is not one of them. I’m not sure that anyone really knows how God feels about my life—including me.”
You get the picture. For those of you who ask these questions, and I think you know who you are, I want you to know that I appreciate your concerns. I usually answer with as much candor and humor as time allows and direct the conversations to other topics.
In real life, when time is not an excuse and levity and brevity beg the deeper questions, my journey of faith has no glib explanations. I am surrounded by the ghosts of generations of family members who relied on their convictions about God during the difficulties they faced throughout their lives. One of my eighty-three-year-old mother’s favorite sayings to this day is, “God is on His throne. No matter what comes, we know that God is on His throne.” This phrase comforts her in the confines of the Memory Care Unit where she lives and assures her that everyday problems are temporary and serve some greater purpose. It also relieves her of any personal responsibility for outcomes that aren’t suitable. It’s an expression she’s used frequently in her life when someone contradicts her opinions and she wants to end discussion. After all, what else is there to say when she declares that an omnipresent and omnipotent Deity reigns over us? In some deep inner place, my mother’s faith sustains her.
Certainly this core belief system came partially from her mother, who lived a life of constant struggle as a single mother in the Great Depression. Left with four children when her husband died unexpectedly, my grandmother waged wars against poverty and, ultimately, herself when she fought the more difficult battles of loneliness and depression. A letter to her sister in 1954 following the death of their father illustrates her convictions that surely passed to my mother: “I know Papa has gone to heaven, and that is where I want to meet him. The Old Devil gets a hold of me sometime. I slap him off—and pray harder for the Lord to help me be a better Christian. I realize more that I need the Lord every day, and I want to love the Lord more and try to serve Him better. He alone can take away these heartaches of mine. I want to have more faith in Him. I have been so burdened, and I want to be happy. Serving God and living for Him is the only plan.”
My grandmother’s belief that faith was the only solution to the multitude of problems she faced and that there were higher levels of faith beyond her grasp was reinforced by the teachings of the little Southern Baptist church she attended every Sunday. The sweat and, often, tears of pleading preachers for more trust and more commitment stirred their listeners’ emotions and created an environment of permanent unworthiness, or as Paul writes in the New Testament, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans, Chapter III, Verse 23). My grandmother’s efforts to “have more faith” included a daily ritual of reading Bible passages using the rudimentary skills she acquired during a schooling that was limited to a third-grade-level education. I can still see the outline of her sagging body framed in light through the thin partition separating the kitchen from the enclosed porch that served as our bedroom while she sat at a small table and I lay in the darkness wishing she wouldn’t get up so early. But, there she would be, struggling to read godly guidance in the ungodly hours before dawn so she could be dressed and ready to walk to work by 7:30 a.m. six days a week.
Shockingly, my grandmother on my daddy’s side glossed over the deeper issues of faith in favor of a focus on hope. You may remember the famous quote from the Bible in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians: “In a word, there are three things that last forever, faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them is love.” For this paternal grandmother, the greatest “thing” that lasted forever was hope. She wasn’t concerned with the intricacies of faith nor did she exhibit excessive “love” toward others outside of her immediate family, but she attended the same Southern Baptist church faithfully every Sunday. Her hope was for humor, however. Her belief was that in every Sunday church service she could find something or someone—or, preferably, both—that she could use to entertain her family at the dinner table later.
The preacher was irreverently skewered on a regular basis. “Brother Latham is such a handsome man, but his sermons bore me to tears. Same old talk about sin every Sunday. Everybody knows he’s against it by now. He needs to come up with a new position or a new topic. And, did you see those poor little children of his? They look just like their mother, bless their hearts. God didn’t answer any prayers there, if you ask me.” The pious friends who seemed to take church so seriously were open season for my grandmother as well. “Did you see old lady Shead? Her face was twisted in such a tight knot it looked just like all that hair she has wadded up on her head. She must have fifty hairpins holding it together. She looked like God gave her some secret bad news this week, or maybe He put a burr up her butt.” And she was off and running as my grandfather and I laughed hysterically at her assessment of our churchgoing experience. No one, and nothing, was sacred at that table. She was a woman in charge of her home and family and most of the conversations that took place within both. I worshipped her.
And so, this was the faith of my mothers. The church was the teacher, the Bible the textbook, and the interpretations ranged from the holy to the inadvertently profane. I listened and watched these women for as long as they lived and, throughout my childhood, absorbed their diverse values that blended with the Sunday School teachings and preaching of the Southern Baptist churches my family attended. I learned to sift the messages and keep the ones that appeared to lessen my likelihood of going to hell when I died.
Since I knew from the age of five or six that I had what the Bible lovingly called “unnatural affections,” I also understood the threat of eternal damnation that could be my fate, unless God wrought a miracle and transformed me from my evil thoughts and desires. During my teen years I felt particularly wicked as I lusted after the girls in church and my favorite female high school teachers. In 1963, when I was seventeen and felt the flames of hell licking around me, I read a small pamphlet called a Statement of the Baptist Faith and Message. I thought I had discovered my saving grace, a distinctive Baptist teaching called “the priesthood of the believer.” While this doctrine produced volumes of theological intrigue, my simplistic interpretation at that point in my life was that no one stood between God and me. What a relief. No need for confessions to a priest or, necessarily, to trust the ravings of Baptist preachers. I was redeemed. It was a doctrine that kept me tied to the church and allowed me to censor its bad tidings for more than forty years.
It carried me to a Southern Baptist Seminary where I, rather ironically, had my first lesbian relationship when I was twenty-three years old, a seven-year relationship mired in our guilt and my infidelity. It carried me to a small Southern Baptist church where I had a lesbian affair with a married woman who was the Youth Director and another one with the preacher’s wife. God and I didn’t consider this to be adultery.
To say that my faith odyssey took a zigzag somewhere during the past fifty years is an understatement. With a genealogy of six generations of Southern Baptists and a family tree that includes a great-great-great-grandfather who was a minister during the Civil War in a rural North Carolina Baptist church, it’s no surprise that I surrendered wholeheartedly to the faith of my forefathers. I served as a minister of music and youth for five years in two Southern Baptist churches in South Carolina in the 1970s. Even after leaving the ministry, I continued my membership in the church and its music programs for more than twenty years. As the Southern Baptist denomination abandoned the doctrine that supported direct communication between the believer and Creator in favor of a collective acquiescence to a pervasive ultra-conservative leadership that led to the restructuring of its institutions of higher learning in the 1970s and ’80s, I stayed. When the boundaries between church and state blurred and the denomination tookright-wing political bent, I stayed. When the sermons of the ministers in the churches became a royal proclamation of morality as they and their leaders deemed it in the 1980s and ’90s, I knew my favorite doctrine was in trouble, but I stayed. Yet, eventually, that faith turned to heretical unorthodoxy—a seismic shift in my core belief system. Why?
My work as a paid staff person exposed me to the inner power struggles of church leaders and the budget requirements of doing “something great for God,” as one minister explained to me in the midst of a burgeoning capital campaign. I overlooked the hypocrisy of rancorous Wednesday night business meetings with the harmonious Sunday worship services. After all, the music was what God and I had in common. I didn’t forgive the preachers for their tirades against homosexuals, but I ignored them because God and I knew better. The “priesthood of the believer” was such a comfort—until it wasn’t. I was forever changed by a personnel matter, a blip on the radar screen of Important Events. When the church pianist, a close personal friend, was fired for being gay, I ran out of excuses for God and me. If God didn’t want my friend, I was sure He didn’t want me, and the feeling was mutual. I was done.
Charting that journey on a blackboard entails an array of colored chalk that begins with white for the innocence of childish trust to green for the color of money in the church to red for the anger of betrayal by believers to gray for the edges of doubt and disbelief in the Deity of my mother. “God” and “throne” are words that summon visions of clouds and enormous golden chairs from a Cleopatra movie in the ’60s—not a bad image, but not a convincing one, either. My maternal grandmother’s duel with the Devil also evokes strong feelings for me, but they are feelings of sadness for her inability to achieve that higher level of trust she desperately wanted. She never could be quite good enough, and I can’t believe in a Deity that inspires fear and irrational guilt. As for my dad’s mother, her irreverence was an early confirmation for me of my introduction to the doctrine of “the priesthood of the believer” and gave me permission to begin to overcome feelings of shame when I faced the puzzles of sexual identity that were my life. My grandmother definitely had a unique relationship with her God. Her words and sense of humor helped free me from the somber sermons of damnation in my youth and encouraged me to think for myself. I wonder if she knew.
All paths lead somewhere, and mine returns to where the journey began. My faith is in the rising and setting of the sun each day—with hope that I’ll live to see them, and with love for the laughter that makes each day worth living.