On Sunday mornings, I usually don't read in the newspapers about the hymns we're going to sing. This Sunday was an exception.
Tammy Faye Messner, better known by her first married name as Tammy Faye Bakker, died Friday. And The New York Timesrecalled this little detail from her life:
Mr. Bakker's wife vowed to stand by her man. When he was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy, she appeared at a news conference and, in tears, sang, "On Christ the solid rock I stand/All other ground is sinking sand."
Who knows what Tammy Faye meant in that moment, but the "Man" she sang about standing on was Jesus, not Jim. I had selected that hymn for Sunday's worship service because the Gospel lesson included Jesus' admonition to Martha of Bethany that there was "only one thing that was necessary." Edward Mote's 1834 hymn seemed like a good way to underscore that truth.
Mote wrote: "In every high and stormy gale / my anchor holds within the veil." Tammy Faye knew from stormy gales–from coping with an adulterous and fraudulent husband to her final struggles with cancer of the colon and lung. That hymn was full of Good News for her.
Tammy Faye wore a persona, a public mask. She was, after all, a performer and an entertainer. She insisted on wearing her hideously flamboyant make-up even when undergoing surgery. Entertainers, like all public figures, can easily lose track of themselves behind the mask.
But Tammy Faye had great moments of humility and authenticity–most famously, her refusal to condemn homosexuals. The Times, again:
"I refuse to label people," Ms. Messner said in a 2000 documentary, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," when asked about her attitudes toward gay rights. "We're all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn't make any junk."
Most standard-issue evangelicals were not paying much attention to her by 2000, but a few told-you-so tongues began wagging when that movie came out. But I think her statement shouldn't be taken as a blessing on homosexuality so much as a fundamental affirmation of God's love for all sinners. Her experience with "high and stormy gales" to recognize we're all made of "the same old dirt," and that our only hope is to be "dressed in his righteousness alone."