If you’ve ever been the victim of someone who was trying to convert you, you can probably relate to this old joke about a man who goes to heaven and is greeted by St. Peter for a tour.
As they pass one open room, the man asks, "Who are all those people in there?"
"They’re Methodists," says St. Peter.
Passing another room, the man asks the same question. "They’re Anglicans," St. Peter answers.
The man finds the next door closed, but he hears a beautiful choir.
"Who's in there?" he asks.
St. Peter holds a finger to his lips. “Shhhh. That’s the Baptist Convention. They think they're the only ones here.”
In the early 1980s, I worked with a woman named Jeanette who was convinced she’d be among the lucky ones in a special heavenly room.
Within the first few days on the job, Jeannette began peppering me with daily theological questions like, “Do you believe in the Bible?” Or, “If you die tonight, do you know where you will spend eternity?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m a Baptist seminary student and born-again Christian.” I said, making sure to align my religious buzzwords.
When my strategy proved ineffective, I tried to throw her off my scent by directing her toward our supervisor, a four-pack-a-day smoker.
“You should talk to Jerry,” I jokingly suggested. “I’m not sure he’s going to hell, but he smells like he’s been there.”
She was neither amused by my flippancy nor convinced by my steadfast confessions of faith. She thought that baptism in her church was the only way to enter heaven.
“In fact,” she said, “you’d better hurry because Jesus is coming back soon.”
Of course, Jeannette wasn’t really interested in my answers. Her queries were only probing stabs meant to penetrate my faith space.
So, one afternoon I decided I had enough of Jeannette’s Jesus. I pulled her aside to tell her that if my faith didn’t pass her saintly litmus test, then I guess I’d be joining Jerry in the smoking section.
However, if I’d been honest with her, I’d have told her that my witticisms concealed a shame from my past.
You see, she was using the same annoying approach I’d used in my undergraduate days at Baylor University. Those were the days I’d spent scouring minority neighborhoods in search of new converts.
The point that stuck in my craw was that I resented having my previous techniques redirected on me. And, more than likely, my previous “converts” resented me.
Perhaps Jeanette’s problem, and mine, is that we both approached people like we were guests on "The Dating Game." We held our political, personal or religious questionnaires in hand while we gently, or, in most cases, not so gently, probed folks for matching answers. Or worse, we tried to expose them via their “wrong answers.”
Jesus believed in keeping it simple. If you love God, he said, you have to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This means accepting your neighbor without all of our qualifiers such as religion, politics, race, favorite rock bands and boxers or briefs.
I never passed Jeannette’s litmus test of faith, but I’m still convinced that I will go to heaven some day. And when I’m asked which denominational room I belong in, I’ll confess that I’m a “recovering Baptist.”
And like all those in recovery, I’ll undergo a new litmus test. I’ll have to stand at a podium where I’ll be prompted to admit that I’m powerless to determine who will be in heaven and who will not.
But most importantly, I will acknowledge that there is power greater than ourselves, and that power is certainly not the Baptist Convention.