Monday, February 23, 2009

The Ministers Black Veil

A minister who had been practicing at a large Christian church for several years (basically most of his life) told the congregation one Sunday that he did not believe Jesus performed any miracles, and further he had doubts about the whole idea of the Trinity—specifically he did not believe that Jesus Christ belonged in it. This was a full on denominational minister who swore on the Bible to believe in foundational truths about what the Bible taught.

I had a lot of anger built up inside for many years after that; it’s fine for people to have doubt, confusion, and complete disbelief about God—but to spend large portion of your life preaching to people what you so strongly believe only to say it was a lie, can put a lot an emotions through a person. I was seventeen at the time, and I suppose a lot of my anger came from the naivety of my youth—I was old enough to know why I believed, but too young to understand the amount of profane contractions that went into building any church.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story that I have long considered one of the greatest ever wrote, and which message has never left me; it’s called The Ministers Black Veil. For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a minister who one day shows up wearing a black veil to church; he delivers a sermon on secret sin, and the veil thus symbolizes what we each use to hide our sins from the world. He continues wearing the veil, but never reveals what his secret sin is—he doesn’t have to, because it really doesn’t matter; the point is there’s something inside all of us that we fear telling even those who we confide everything in.

I suppose the minister revealing how he really felt about Jesus was his way of unleashing his secret sin to the church; he no longer had to wear the secret veil, and I suppose there is some courage in that.

I left the church after the minister’s comment, but I was alone. My parents, their friends, my friends all said the same thing, “I think we just misunderstood what he was saying.” I’m not sure if I would call that denial as much as sticking up for the church. When he made the comments several more times, people finally began to question what he meant by it, and even when he made it clear, most people didn’t leave. You just didn’t do that to your church—you waited it out because things would eventually change.

I have never been to a church that didn’t have this bizarre blend of sacred and profane. It’s as if for the Holy to dwell in the building, there must be whispers of scandal. If that’s true, however, then why go? What’s the point of church if it only introduces someone with deep faith to these profane contradictions or black veils? How is it not better leading a spiritual life that is free from the confines of church?

It’s complicated to understand, but, I think we need the profane just as much as we need the sacred and the holy. Sin separates us from God, but ultimately it brings us closer to him.

Obviously, there are some things worth leaving a church over and I still believe that the minister’s crisis of faith was one of them. The lesser profane walls of the church—gossip, slander, and anger, just to name a few—are the ones that ultimately let people see faith in action through forgiveness. It is in those bad times—the times that the black veils of the church are exposed—that we can each be tested to know what it really means to forgive and move on.

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