Years ago, I was at a church family camp function when a person new to the congregation sidled gently to my side and began chit chatting.
Abruptly, she then said,
“I don’t find this church particularly friendly. Do you?”
Initially I was nonplussed, because, well . . . our family had been going there for years and we managed to fit ourselves into a particular slot and were presently convinced that it was a jolly sort of place. After all, we didn’t feel rejected.
But then again, we didn’t feel as if we could be completely ourselves, either, which seems to be an essential part of being accepted.
So, thankfully, I managed to articulate myself with some sense of intelligence, and replied,
“I guess I’ve never thought of that before, but it’s not unreasonable if you’re feeling it. Is there anything specific you can point to?”
No, there wasn’t, and the conversation dropped. Not many weeks later the woman and her family left, and in my somnambulent state at the time — which didn’t last much longer because life circumstances shortly thereafter woke me up and drove me to look, quite seriously, for God’s acceptance, love, mercy, and compassion — I reflected upon the woman’s words and tried to see things from her perspective.
She was one of those odd, loud, vaguely embarrassing people who make most of us feel awkward when they come too close. I mean, it’s not like we want to reject them or anything, but at the same point we don’t want other people — more normal people — to associate us too intimately to one another or they’ll think we’re odd, too.
So we’re friendly to them in social situations, but not overly so — just enough to convince ourselves that we have shown the minimum amount of love required to fulfill Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The only problem is that there is no minimum standard to this kind of love: there is only love, and it is unconditional, without limit, and decidedly not circumscribed by how embarrassed we feel about being around a particular person.
As Christians, loving people puts us in the very real social position of looking uncool and awkward, and most of us, outside of Christ, do not have the confidence necessary to love embarrassing, awkward, wrongly dressed, overly loud, possibly unwashed people.
They may swear (church people do, too, you know — only not in public), drink, dress in tight things, or have a disconcerting tendency to blurt out what we’re all thinking, but certainly have too much tact to say. And when they come to church, they don’t act the way church people are supposed to act, and this is most distressing.
Jesus ate with these kind of people all the time:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” (Matthew 9:12) Jesus told the Pharisees who disapproved of his eating companions, and the unspoken barb attached to this verse is, who are the sick people to whom Jesus is referring: the “sinners,” or the Pharisees?