Some years ago, during one of those long lazy lunches that are so enjoyable when work is waiting to be done, a friend described a singular experience that had affected him deeply. His account affected me deeply as well, and the memory has rattled around disturbingly in my head ever since. Only recently have I worked out what I really think about it.
Now, before continuing I should warn you frankly that what you are about to hear is, on the face of it, a tale of sacrilege, set in a lavatorial context. If this grim fact dissuades you from reading the rest of this column, I shall understand. Please feel free to turn to another section of the magazine when you reach the full-stop at the end of this paragraph.
Still reading? Okay, but I did warn you...
My friend went to one of those big evangelistic rallies where a famous speaker is imported to address Christians from local churches together with those they have dragged along to be converted - sorry, I mean those they have invited along to hear the gospel. This meeting happened in my friend’s church, a large building with excellent modern facilities, including toilets leading off from the foyer space just inside the main door. The place was packed, the air filled with a buzz of excitement and anticipation that dwindled to a profound hush as the speaker took his place at the microphone.
He was good - no doubt about that. My friend, who was seated at the end of one of the long front pews, was genuinely moved and entertained by the first half of the evening. The combination of deep, uncompromising holiness, masterful delivery and finely honed story-telling was powerful. Apart from anything else the man looked so impressive. The fine head of waved, iron-grey hair, the discreet, perfectly fitting suit and the highly polished, stylish brown brogues all spoke of a man at ease with God, himself and the rest of the world.
After forty-five minutes there was an interval. The audience, thrilled with an infusion of borrowed assurance, buzzed excitedly once more as they left their seats to seek (in increasing order of possible availability) toilets, teas and an opportunity to spend money on the speaker’s books.
My friend knew the church well. Toilet queues in the foyer were sure to be endless. Slipping quietly through the side-door near his seat at the end of the pew, he hurried down a corridor past the vestry and the church office, turned a corner and passed through a swing-door into the little toilet block reserved for those involved in services or presentations.
It was while he was sitting in one of the two cubicles a few moments later that he heard someone else come into the block, and saw, through the six-inch gap at the bottom of the cubicle door, a pair of brown brogues moving in the direction of the urinals. The great man was about to relieve himself.
My friend tried to pretend that he didn’t exist.
He then heard two things. One was quite predictable and need not concern us here. The other was a deep inhalation of breath and a long outward sigh of satisfaction and relief on which the words: “Je-e-e-sus Christ!” were conveyed with all the passion of a mystic at prayer.
This moment was the climax of my friend’s story, and I understood why the experience had been a disturbing one. The man who had exuded holiness and self-control on that platform just now was not the same man who had uttered what sounded to my friend’s ears like blatant profanity in the gents’ toilet a few moments later.
My reaction on the spot, and for a long time afterwards, was one of disappointment and cynicism. Here was yet another example of that depressingly common gap between the public and private faces of Christianity. The public one was just a beautifully polished act, an accomplished piece of outward role-playing to cover and conceal the spiritual vacuum that existed within. The voice, the hair, the suit, the stories - all meaningless show. Perhaps he believed nothing at all.
This ridiculously narrow and condemning attitude persisted until I happened to catch my own mouth muttering something unspeakable in a particular situation, and simple justice forced me to ask myself if I considered my ministry to be rendered null and void as a result. I felt so ashamed. What right had I to judge one of my brothers who was struggling to bring people to Jesus in the way that seemed right to him? Had I not always argued that Christianity is a ragged, difficult thing, only able to work if we allow the Spirit of God to inhabit our relationships and our attitudes to each other?
When God alone is with us in the strange, trackless forests of what we really are, there is potential for us to do or say all sorts of unpleasant things. Take heart. Whatever those things might be, he will forgive us, as long as we extend the same courtesy to others.