My oldest friend--and by that, I mean the person I've been friends with the longest, not the friend who's the farthest beyond me in years--once said something to the effect, "I'm a Methodist because my folks were Methodists. If they'd been something else, I'd probably be something else."
I've known this guy since we were 3. We learned about the Good Samaritan side by side in Sunday school. If I remember right, he was Joseph in the Christmas play, while I only pulled a measly shepherd part. We grew up together in the Methodist youth group. Come summers, we rode to church camp in a creaky school bus all the way to Wallowa Lake. When we were 15 or so, we went through the ritual of officially joining the church. Meridian's United Methodist Church: The old, gray-stone one that's been torn down for decades. It was replaced with one of those swoopy modern designs that still looks like a church, but could also be the office of a trendy dentist. There was no mistaking what the old gray-stone building was, anymore than you could mistake the old state penitentiary for a day-care center. For some reason I can't remember now, I got locked in there once. By myself. I heard stuff you only hear when you're a kid by yourself, locked in an old stone church. I told myself it was probably just the Holy Ghost, but that didn't help much. I must have been about 10, and I was so spooked out by the experience, it's not inconceivable I made a solemn vow to God that I would be a good boy forever after, if only He'd send someone to get me out of there.
But I've been thinking a lot about what my friend said, that he was Methodist, first and foremost, because his parents were. That's the way with most of us, is it not? We start out as Methodists (Mormons, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, hunters, vegetarians, late sleepers, early risers, gardeners ... whatever) because our parents were. As we go out on our own, different tides may pull us in different directions, but as often as not, we are what we are because of what our parents started us off as. I suppose that's why, even though I no longer consider myself a Christian (let alone a Methodist), I still think of Jesus as a liberal. The most liberal of liberals, as a matter of fact. That's the way I remember him from those years of Sunday school. The embodiment of love and kindness and concern. The best of all Good Samaritans. The open hands instead of the closed fist.
My intention in writing this week's feature article (pg. 13) was to find local clergymen and women who share that vision of Jesus, and I must thank Bryan Fisher for giving me the idea. It was his vitriolic response to the Boise election results in November that convinced me there just absolutely had to be Christian leaders in Boise who did not share in such a bile-based theology. (Had I found no liberal Christian leaders in Boise, I was prepared to write about the joys of Buddhism, instead.)
Finding liberal preachers to interview wasn't hard, even in such a conservative town. Liberal preachers are sort of like Hells Angels or vintage Corvette collectors in that, once you've found one of them, he can put you in touch with a bunch more. But asking them the right questions was another matter. What does a liberal preacher preach that sets him apart from a conservative preacher? Are there liberal verses in the Bible, and conservative verses? And say, why don't you liberal ministers have your own teevee shows like those guys with the great hair-dos do, huh?
Every question I prepared served more to illustrate only how little I knew, rather than how liberal they were. Eventually, I just had to switch on the tape recorder and pray it picked up something useful.
I had returned to my old church, Meridian United Methodist, to interview Leland Hunefeld, and I must say, I was nervous going in. My heart quickened. I felt sweaty. My mind clouded. I thought, "This must be what vampires feel like when Van Helsing flashes a crucifix in their faces." Finally, I decided I was simply worried about being locked in again.
I turned on the recorder and asked one of my stupid questions, and the Rev. Hunefeld went to talking, just as I'd hoped he would. He said great stuff. Stuff about humility. About his role. About the Christian duty to the wretched of the Earth. At least, that's the way I remember it, having no record of what he said.
As the interview neared its end, I noticed the recorder had stopped. Dead batteries, that must be it, and I was embarrassed for myself. Not only couldn't I think of decent questions, I couldn't even show up with fresh Evereadies. But at least I caught most of Rev. Hunefeld's good stuff. Or so I believed.
At home, I crammed in new batteries and checked out the recording. It was indecipherable. Every time the good Reverend was on the verge of revealing another profound truth, the tape skipped. "Well, the way I understand my calling is that Christ would definitely want us to SKREEEEEEK! ... that's the way I see it."
I loaded other tapes from interviews I'd already conducted. No problem with the batteries on them, thank God. But there was the matter of clattering platters and hissing espresso machines. You see, five out of the eight interviews were done in coffeehouses. Moxie Java made out like a bandit on this story. For the most part, the words were there. My stupid, inept questions, especially, were clear and distinct. But it seems every time the minister on the other end of the interview came to the pith of his or her point, someone in the background would drop a latte, or a kid would bawl or two old chums would meet like they hadn't seen one another since God Knows When. The pith, the very essence of what I was after, would be buried. Lost forever 'neath a wave of coffeehouse white noise.
My last interview was with the Rev. Mark Davis, and it took place in a quiet church room. Nobody there but he, me and a pair of brand-new Duracells. Fifteen minutes into the interview, my tape recorder rolled over and died. The Rev. Davis said great stuff, too. Only, we'll never know what it was.
So what else can I make of it? I must conclude that God is a liberal, and Satan felt he had to interfere with me getting to the Truth by screwing with my tape reorder.
Or ... now that I think about it, I suppose God could have done it Himself because he's so conservative.
Ah, jeez, I'm right back where I started.