Last week I re-posted a joke on Facebook about a couple arriving in heaven after a fatal car crash. They wonder whether they can get married in heaven, and ask St. Peter. St. Peter says he doesn’t know, but he’ll go find out. The couple at the gate waits a long time (maybe an eternity), and while they pass the time, they begin to wonder if it’s possible to get a divorce in heaven. When St. Peter finally returns, they ask him, but he blows his stack on hearing their second question. Turns out it took him all that time to find even one priest of whom to ask the first, and he wasn’t about to go haring off all over heaven to find yet another priest to answer the couple’s second question.
I hesitated before re-posting this joke, because I have a number of clergy friends on Facebook, and I’m not sure how seriously most of them take themselves, secretly or not.
The joke is probably lost on anyone who, in response, wants to quote the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is said to have said that after the resurrection of all souls, people will not marry, but be like the angels in heaven. And the joke is likely a puzzlement to anyone who has grown up without the cultural lore about St. Peter. Who he?
But for anyone who has been disappointed in a church community, or anyone who has been betrayed by clergy, or anyone who suffers from the habitual judgmental stance of church people across the board of denominations, this is a bitter joke and meant to be so.
You can bet the joke didn’t originate with clergy. And I bet the joke didn’t start from a conversation of two people in the church, clergy or not. Probably, the joke started with people who once were church people and have walked away, perhaps for reasons of sanity. Heck–even clergy have left on that score. And of course this isn’t the only joke of its kind.
I think the joke is as full of pins and needles as the Scarecrow’s head before he met the Wizard. Heaven. Really? When is that, and what? Marriage? Why? And what’s with a gate that shuts people out after death? Not to be too literal about it, but has anyone taken stock of the layers of insider knowledge required to make sense of this joke, let alone provide laughter?
So, ok, lighten up, it’s a Christian insiders’ joke. Aren’t Christians allowed to have insider jokes?
Well, I rather think not. Churchy people can claim insider status and they regularly do, using language that outsiders don’t understand, but since Christians are supposed to be salt and light in the world, I don’t believe their identity should lodge in any exclusivity at all. Christians who are drawn to defending some or all aspects of the institution have, in effect, accomplished a very strange thing, actually unheard of–they have become salt that has lost its taste. They are circling the wagons of tradition to hold the light in, defending their peculiarities from the world’s observation or hoping to justify themselves in the world’s eyes.
There’s another thing about Christian insider jokes. Understanding them depends on learning a vast amount of complicated knowledge, much of it interesting history, but nearly all of it completely unnecessary to daily life anywhere in the world. To make that irrelevant knowledge requisite for true Christian living and leadership is to forfeit the patience and good will of people in the world.
Christians can’t fix the way the world sees the church–any part of it. It’s not their job to fix anyone, anyhow. When you are salt, you don’t get to tell the person whose food is on the table whether or not to use you, or how much salt works in a dish of chili. If you are salt, that’s all you are. The person who needs salt and finds what is needed, takes as much as is necessary, or as little as the blood pressure can stand. Salt has no say. When you are light, if you mistake yourself for being the lamp, you think a lot about being turned off and on, or about the kind of light bulb you believe would work best. Christians aren’t the source of light–ever. It’s too bad so many of them regularly understand themselves as conducting light, leading them to think they are closer to the power source than people who are seeing by the light. Light does not dictate what I can see, whether I am reading People Magazine or looking at a man at an intersection holding a piece of cardboard saying “Homeless. Anything will help.”
The thing about salt and light that is difficult for anyone invested in church itself, is the diffuse nature of either one when effective. The sad thing about Christian insider jokes that isn’t often articulated is the fact that we think we can still remember when most people in our society shared our cultural awareness of Christian beliefs, standards, behaviors, and furthermore, shared our sense of value in all those cultural markers. ‘Everybody knew’ Roman Catholics focused on guilt, and Reformed Protestants wouldn’t dance or smoke, and Episcopalians drank, and hats and white gloves were tickets to respectability in every congregation. If many in the world now consider Christians to be irrelevant (at best), might not that be due to the totally irrelevant things that church people said were essential?
These days, much is being made among people doing the heavy, cutting edge thinking and speaking for everybody else in the church, about ‘being missional.’ That’s a churchy term for figuring out how to be relevant again as Christians, in larger society. I am interested in the fact that bitter jokes like this one about priests in heaven, appear in social media at the same time that prominent Christian clergy, like Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, are focusing Christians on joining a Jesus Movement. Maybe the joke is a slant kind of question. Will the church make the same mistakes in this century that she has made in all the centuries previous?
What’s an example of a church mistake? Going beyond all the ready accusations, I’d say it’s a mistake to expect being missional to be about the lamp, the light bulb and whether or not Celtic gray salt is as acceptable as French flake or Himalayan pink. There are better questions. How is it you are salt when you go to your job as grocery market cashier? How are you light in your work of business-to-business marketing? How are you light as you cut hair, salt as you teach biology to 8th graders, light while you repair air conditioners, salt as you sell used cars, rent apartments, make bank loans, inspect elevators? Can prison guards and state police be salt or light? Can politicians? How? The answer is most likely not, “Go to church.” The question remains. Ignore it at missional peril.
I can think of an insider-outsider revision to the joke on St. Peter. Of course it’s next to impossible to find a priest in heaven. Where are they, who are they? Poor St. Peter will have to run the length and breadth of the world instead, looking in dementia wards and at border crossings, going into refugee camps, nursery schools and advertising agencies, knocking at the doors of roofing companies, asking in department stores and coffee shops, talking to chamber maids, public restroom cleaners and truck drivers,bar tenders, astronomers and physicists. And when he finds people being salt or light, they won’t have time to answer his question anyway. That’s the rest of the joke. There are lots of things that don’t matter in heaven, after all.