The Progress Tango

There are some stories that you stop telling after a while. You note the raised eyebrows, the upturn at the corners of the mouth, the attempt to steer the conversation in another direction, the non-committal comments: “Oh, really? Ah, right. Ah, well. How interesting.” It’s as though you were telling them about your time in the SAS or how Hoghton Tower really belongs to you, since you are directly descended from Lady Godiva. Your listeners just can’t credit it, but they’re too polite to say so. 

That being the case, I will not weary you with the story that starts this off. You’d find it too much to swallow, even though it’s true. I’ll simply say that I have been waiting for well over a decade for apologies from all those involved. Yes, I have a little list, and from time to time I tend to murmur “And when I arrive at my destination...” But, I have a great deal more patience than Ms Kiddo, which is just as well for those reprobates.

A few weeks ago I received the latest apology: the fourth so far. 

Have you noticed how people who have injured you feel free to approach you in a formal church or social setting, such as a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral, where there is safety in numbers and when they know that you will not wish to offend your hosts? And yet, if they see you in the street, they duck down the nearest alley faster than Uncle John in the company of bald head Sally when he sees Aunt Mary heading his way.

I have no desire to identify the person involved, so let’s call them No. 4. 

No. 4 came across the crowded lawn and shook my hand and was all smiles and happy to see me and how had I been and what they wanted to do was to say sorry for what had happened and… It went on for quite a while. We shook hands again, and I was satisfied. For me, it was big step forward; and so it was for No. 4, I supposed. We’d made progress.

But there was more. There always is. As we talked, it became clear that one of the great storms of life was about to burst upon No. 4’s family, and they were very sensible of this fact. Was the apology part of getting right with God by making sure you got right with those you had wronged? Was it a way to create good karma? No, surely not: no Christian would think that way - would they?

My mind went back to the time when No. 4 had got up in a church meeting to welcome a number of local dignitaries, folk of the liberal, ecumenical, bridge-building persuasion - and an imam from one of the town’s mosques. After the greeting, the cheerful conclusion was as follows: “because, after all, we all worship the same God!”

I should add that this person had been a church officer for several years, there and elsewhere, in churches that called themselves evangelical. 

The conversation continued. No. 4 was now attending another church. What a wonderful church it was! The people there had so much love for each other! How much No. 4 had learned over the last few years! The teaching was so wonderful! Another step forward, then. More progress. That’s what I thought. 

Then, other concerns called me away, including an opportunity to give my testimony to a friend of our host; and thus the evening wore on.

Our host’s hospitality included an impressive buffet, and as much to drink as anyone could want. Speeches were made, music was played, songs were sung, and then there were some well-known hymns and choruses, since many of those invited were from local churches. It’s just a pity that by then some were slurring their words, and several were so tired and emotional that they began to ramble incoherently, or were reduced to tears. Once upon a time, I would have found it amusing, I suppose: but not nowadays. I caught the eye of the woman to whom I’d been witnessing earlier on. She was distinctly unimpressed.

It was time to go. As I was heading for the door, tributes were being paid to a much-missed, absent friend, now gone on to be with the Lord. For a few moments, a voice that I recognised rose up above the rest. It was No. 4.

"She must look wonderful now, with her wings! How lovely she will be! She will be the most beautiful angel of them all!” There was more, but it was lost in the rising tide of emotion and noise and nonsense.

It was dark outside, and raining hard. I walked back to my car feeling pretty well baffled. 

I’m still asking myself this question: if you’ve spent years in evangelical churches, and you call yourself a born-again believer, and you’ve testified to your faith by baptism, and you’ve held important offices in your church, and you are also an accredited Christian counsellor - how is it that you imagine that when you die you will be rewarded by being turned into an angel? And what else is there that you believe that has absolutely no basis in scripture?

Making progress, eh? As we used to say at work, when a new and idiotic idea was promoted as the next big thing: “Progress? It’s the Progress Tango - one step forward and two steps back.”

Heaven help us all.