While looking for something else, I happened across a news story from 2016 about a gay gospel music recording artist who had come out of the closet.
After that, he’d basically lost his career. The story mentioned a half-dozen other gospel singers who’d come out, with the same results.
This column isn’t about gay gospel singers per se.
It’s about how much lying we’re taught to do in the church particularly and in Southern culture generally. Maybe in our whole national culture, I’m not sure.
I’d never heard of the gospel singer featured in the news report, but I certainly know the tune he’d been playing.
Anyone who’s ever been involved in church leadership could tell you that gay people have been involved in churches from the beginning.
I remember a conservative evangelical minister telling me 25 years ago —back when in many quarters, not just in evangelical Christianity, being gay was considered morally questionable if not downright scandalous — that it was common knowledge many of the male music directors in his denomination were gay.
The preacher said this was fine, as long as nobody talked about it. Their denomination’s doctrine held that homosexuality was a grave sin.
So everybody just happily (or unhappily) pretended.
See, you can be nearly anything in a church, you can wrestle with any type of personal, familial, moral or spiritual pain, you can hold any political or philosophical viewpoint, if you keep quiet about it and wear a friendly smile and say “Praise the Lord” a whole lot.
Churches are the original don’t-ask-don’t-tell organizations.
Religious people don’t like you to mess with their status quo. They don’t like you to discuss your life’s complications, especially if those complications contradict official tenets or social norms.
If you do talk in church about a personal issue, particularly if some people think it’s an embarrassment or a sin, they expect the story to already have a happy, deus-ex-machina ending attached:
“We used to have a horrible marriage. We were on the brink of divorce. But God miraculously intervened and now we’re living in heaven on Earth! Hallelujah!”
But life rarely follows such a holy script. Real life is terribly, beautifully messy and self-contradictory and ever-changing.
We need to accept that. Mainly, though, we avoid it.
Ask 10 of your fellow parishioners how life is treating them.
Chances are all 10 will tell you, “I’m sitting on the top rail, praising Jesus!”
They won’t say they lay awake last night until the wee hours staring at a dark ceiling, wondering whether God really exists, and if he does, why this world is so mean-spirited and fouled up.
Again, this isn’t only a church phenomenon. It’s a Southern phenomenon, too, based on practicing good manners and not giving offense. It might be a universal phenomenon.
But I find it ironic that it’s common in Christian circles.
After all, we follow a savior who declared, “The truth will make you free.”
To which my first wife’s grandmother liked to add, “But first it will make you mad.”
That is, the truth is freeing. But if you step up and tell an unpopular truth, if you don’t follow the pre-approved script, folks nearby are likely to beat you black and blue.
If they’ve decided everyone in church ought to be straight, woe unto the pioneer who says, “Well, I’m here, I’m a believer and I’m gay.”
In extreme instances, telling the truth can even get you crucified.
Still, mostly, living a lie is more demoralizing — and dangerous to your soul — than speaking the truth.
I learned this the hard way.
Long-time readers will recall that my first wife suffered with terminal cancer. She was bedfast or nearly so for years. I was her primary caregiver.
We’d had a wondrous marriage.
However, the strains of her illness gradually wore us down. Confined together, stressed out, we started sniping at each other. Things went downhill on multiple fronts. I fell into depression. We split up temporarily.
When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I blurted out the truth — in conversations, from the pulpit and in newspaper columns.
This is hard, I said. I’m falling apart. I don’t know how much longer I can do it.
The anger was intense. Friends left. My church almost collapsed. How dare I, a preacher, not be perfect?
Still, I can’t describe how liberating it was to quit pretending.
I also discovered I was far from the only person battling caregiver burnout. I heard from thousands of readers in the same situation, who thanked me profusely for being honest.
I decided the heck with it, from here on I’m telling the truth.
Because Jesus was right. The benefits of truth-telling usually outweigh the costs.
And it may be that the people who get rabidly offended needed to be offended. It may even be that, in the end, your candor will set them a little bit free themselves.
When in doubt, tell the truth.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.