GRACE IS EVERYWHERE
The United Methodist Church that I commute past every day sports a message board out front, one of those old-fashioned, do-it-yourself jobs that you usually see advertising bean suppers at the Odd Fellows. The words change every month or so, to no definite schedule that I can see. Since I started taking notice last fall, there have been half a dozen cycles of messages, enough to suspect a pattern, or at least that the pastor’s not writing them. There are two completely different styles. The work’s been delegated to a Sign Committee.
One of the authors is clearly a nice deacon with a safe job and multiple kids, who perhaps anticipates the monthly consistory meeting with some trepidation. Has anyone posted comments on the church website? Is the pastor just indulging me as usual? He has his list of possibilities close to hand in case a new message is demanded. But the night gets late and he sits back in his chair in relief when the Sign Committee report – almost always the last item on the agenda – is passed over for lack of time, meaning general approbation, no criticism from the sheep or shepherds this month, and he can continue to drive by the old message in satisfaction for another few weeks.
For the holidays, starting just before Thanksgiving, he submitted “Give Thanks to the Holy One,” thus acknowledging in one simple phrase secular Turkey and sacred Christmas. He’s also undoubtedly the author of the new message I saw a couple of weeks ago, written perhaps in anticipation of the summer driving season: “On the Road Again: A Faith Journey.” Good, easy, clear intentions – no message for exegesis or paranoia that I can make out.
The other guy is much more interesting.
Last September he gave us “God is Watching You.” Both religiously and grammatically trained, I nearly stood at attention in my car. You might have expected, in a liberal city such as mine, that proselytizers would take a gentle approach. The friendly deacon would have posted the usual anodyne variation “God Is Watching over You,” or slightly more daringly, “God Is Watching out for You.” But GIWY’s lack of prepositions seems like a throwback to a harsher time, the 50s, or Newt Gingrich’s 1994, or maybe to the Tea Party’s view of the world in which people keep score on immigration and neighbors track secret socialists and canvassers for Greenpeace in their midst. United Methodist is not a congregation of Calvinists on the prairie, where this kind of message wouldn’t get a second thought. I don’t think Methodist ministers condone hellfire and damnation anymore. What gives?
I’d like to think that our man picks the messages with no thought at all – just another example of the mindless maxims that so often come out of the mouths of religious people. This is undoubtedly not true, or perhaps true of the other scribe. Most people put some thought into what they publish, if not into what they say or do. No, I believe that our second man is an elder of the church, perhaps a small-business owner, and he has in mind (1) a general indictment of the back-sliding ways of the atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Buddhists of Newton, Massachusetts, (2) someone definite: a straying church member, an apostate neighbor, a son goofing off in college, the female owner – single, plainly gay – of “Cloisonné” two doors down from him in the strip mall, or (3, cleverly) both.
He cemented my case in January when the holidays were over. “Give Thanks” came down, and “Grace is Everywhere” appeared. No more simple messages from Squanto and Jesus: dark winter is here, let’s put away childish thoughts and think about our anxious souls.
Now, I could be the paranoid one, of course, and the writer could merely be saying that people will be continuously comforted in all walks of life if only they care. I think not. I think he meant – again – that I am being furtively and comprehensively watched. I think he wants to play Bad Cop with a secret hankering for the brutal laws of the Old Testament. I think he’s a puritan with an eye on the sex-education curriculum and the agenda of the Gay-Straight Alliance in the high school across the street. He’s the one that chomps at the bit during consistory, wanting change and punishment. In this guy’s mind, the essence of religion is paranoia.
“God is Watching You” had a relatively short run. Probably it didn’t play well with the liberal wing, with someone like me for example. If I were a member and if I were truly religious, I wouldn’t need to be zinged every morning. And if I’m not saved, what good do breast-beating and guilt do? We don’t need reminding of our sins out in public, that’s what church is for. Outreach should be uplifting. Just get ‘em inside where God’s got a fighting chance against pleasure and ambition and the general slide in morality.
Now it’s April, and “On the Road Again” has just been taken down. Hard messages promoting death and resurrection consume the space, pushing for the prime time of Easter Sunday morning when the elder will count bums in pews, expecting record attendance, for which he will take credit. He hopes to become a committee of one.
I’m girding up for his next assault on sinners, although I tell myself I don’t really care about all this, I’m not religious (especially in the bright and hopeful morning when I often miss the message entirely). I watch for God, he doesn’t watch for me.
Jim Krosschell‘s essays are published in Louisville Review, Waccamaw, Southeast Review, Contrary, Southern Indiana Review, The Common, and many others.