It was 2012, and I was a brand new pastor at my first call. I mean, brand new—still had that new pastor smell on me, and the receipt said, “No Returns.” I was so new, in fact, that a wedding had just been celebrated at the church without me: I opted to let the couple have a neighboring pastor marry them because I would have had literally days between our moving day and their wedding, which is hardly enough time to run through any sort of premarital routine or get to know them as a couple.
In those days, the parsonage we lived in was attached to the church. You could walk through a thick door in the basement and come out into the fellowship hall, which made for some very convenient winter days, especially when taking babies to church. I would frequently wander over to the church at night because it was so easy and it never really felt like I was “out of the house.” This particular night, I went over to the church to unpack some more boxes in my study when I heard voices. Hunting them down, I found they belonged to two members cleaning up after the wedding. I greeted them, the new-pastor-old-members-meet-and-greet pleasantries started, and soon they began to unload about the wedding. What follows is a summary of what they said:
These people trashed the place. They have no respect for our church and they should be ashamed of themselves. Can you believe they were drinking beer in here? I mean, the preschoolers go in this room, and what if we hadn’t seen the mess? Empty beer bottles in the sink! They didn’t even have the decency to clean up after themselves. And you know what else, Pastor? I distinctly smelled marijuana coming from behind the dumpster. They were drinking beer and smoking weed IN OUR CHURCH! I have half a mind to call [bride’s Grandma] and let her hear about this.
Et cetera. I listened with empathic incredulity that was growing by the minute. The freshness of my ministry was encouraging me to get riled up, even though I was clearly hearing one side of one story from one party. I didn’t know the couple who got married, I didn’t know the members I was talking to, all I knew was that you shouldn’t slam beers and smoke weed in a church parking lot. I should do something! I’m the pastor! So as a token of that conversation, I picked up an offending Bud Light bottle cap and placed it squarely on the desk in my new study to remind me to “follow up” (read: “scold/shame”) the offenders. It did not occur to me then to wait for more information. No, I must take action now. “Next week I’ll make a phone call,” I thought.
[Right now every seasoned pastor is groaning in spite of himself. Just hold on … ]
For the last few years I have noticed the unapologetic willingness of my countrymen to work themselves into a lather with only one side of any given story. Visceral outrage has to change later by nature of more details coming to light. At least, any reasonable-thinking human should temper their disapproval. For example, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police. Outrage! Wait, he was on probation for disorderly conduct and domestic abuse, had allegedly sexually assaulted the girl who called the cops on him, was maybe about to kidnap her kid and steal her car, and was reaching for a knife with which to attack the police when he was shot? Oh. Well … good thing we jumped to conclusions and hanged the cops from the nearest yardarm in the court of public opinion before getting all the information.
Another example: red-neck Trumpers plotted and attempted an insurrection. Despicable. Every supporter of Trump should be entered into a database and deprogramed. Oh wait, John Earle Sullivan, a guy who filmed the shooting of Ashli Babbitt at the capitol, a known left-wing protester, anti-Trumper, founder of activist group Insurgence USA, who can be heard on camera encouraging arson and violence against all Republicans at the capital, was arrested for his part in the riot? No, sorry, violence is only and solely the propriety of “Trumpers,” conservatives, and the like.
Space prohibits more examples, so I’ll leave it with those two. Suffice to say, the Outrage Culture is a real problem, even if it’s endemic to the human psyche. We hear something terrible, and we leap into action without waiting for more information. This is unacceptable in a civilized society.
Back to the bottle cap:
I ended up not making any phone call about the drunk-weed-wedding. The next week, when I saw the bottle cap, I chalked it up to a learning situation, and the opportunity for a new pastor to listen to someone blow off some steam. I placed the bottle cap in my desk drawer as a reminder to learn more information and let the story unfold before I react.
As the years went on, I got that information. I learned and got to know that couple, their family, the ups-and-downs of their life and situation. They never knew that I had that bottle cap in my desk drawer, never knew what I knew about their wedding mishaps, and I never told them. I also learned about the ministerial toxicity of those steam-blowing members who became significant thorns in my side. Most importantly, I learned that people who demand justice the loudest are often duplicitously trying to draw attention away from their own bottle caps.
As I was packing up that same study five years later to move on to another church, I found the bottle cap in the desk drawer. I sat down and passed it between my fingers, smiling in remembrance. In a wave of nostalgia, I thought about keeping it, of packing the bottle cap and carrying it with me throughout my ministry for all that it symbolized: secret pastoral knowledge, forgiven sin, patient endurance, the wisdom of waiting for more information, etc.
But I didn’t. I threw it out. I figured I have enough bottle caps of my own without saving someone else’s.
If only my countrymen would likewise reserve judgment in favor of more information before casting the first stone, there would be fewer bottle caps to clean up.