Karl Barth, Porn, a Minister and Me: An Unlikely Lenten Story

A year ago during Lent while at my favorite used bookstore, I spied a book by stalwart Reformed Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Beaming over my bounty and fingering through the pages I found a small piece of paper tucked away deep in the book’s binding. I figured it was the receipt from the book’s original owner.

Boy was I wrong.

It was a receipt all right, but not for the book. Instead, it was from a now defunct “adult” video store, listing two gay porn flicks rented in 1998.

Obviously I was intrigued. Barth and gay porn in a used bookstore during Lent? Somehow it didn’t fit.

Upon further examination I discovered the receipt included the person’s name, address and phone number. Googling the man’s name I discovered he currently serves as a minister in a local church. Moreover, he was married with children. (And just to be clear: This was the 1990′s, when to be legally married meant it was actually someone from the opposite sex). And he still lives in the same house listed on the receipt’s address.

What was I to do? Inform the church where he serves, known for being open and affirming of the gay lifestyle? (Alas, there are many such churches in the Minneapolis area.) What sort of response would I get if I spoke with someone on their staff about my discovery? I imagined a disinterested shrug.

Perhaps I mail him the receipt along with an anonymous letter littered with various Scripture references regarding sexual sin and let him know I’m praying for him? But then what if his wife stumbles upon it, or even opens the letter instead of him?

I’ve since unexpectedly seen this individual at several public functions. Twice he walked right past me. Do I break the ice and take the plunge? “(Ahem) Apologies for the intrusion but you’re _________________, correct? Just so you know, I, uh, found a receipt of yours from 1998 for a couple of gay porn flicks you rented…..” Not the sort of thing you discuss during first introductions, especially in the context of our very public gathering. So I declined.

I still have the receipt. And we’ve yet to meet.

Admittedly, I sometimes feel like Jimmy Stewart’s character from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, conflicted about my accidental voyeurism into this imgresman’s very personal life and responsible for what I do (or don’t do) with the receipt and the information it contains. But more than that I feel genuinely sorry, even concerned, for this man. Yes, 16 years have transpired since the video transaction. Perhaps he’s repented? But perhaps not. I’ll likely never know.

And so a year later at the dawn of a new Lenten season, I prayerfully remember this man and his family and how we strangely yet Providentially met via an unassuming Barthian tome in my favorite used bookstore a year ago.

Presently writing with newly ashen cross placed on my forehead, I remember that the tragically beautiful season of Lent—the Christ of Lent—is as much for him and his sins as it is for me and mine.

But it is the latter that I most struggle to remember.

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, prefect remission and forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

—From The Book of Common Prayer designated reading for Ash Wednesday

Lord of all mercy, hear our prayer indeed.

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