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Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Environment of Welcoming

Last week I had conversations with two people within a three-day time span in which each person shared with me some recent events in his/her life that had been frowned upon by other Christians.  Both individuals were aware of the perception with which they would likely be viewed, but that didn't make the feelings of judgment or even ostracism any less hurtful.  (Let me clarify that neither person had done anything blatantly sinful -- although even if they had, haven't we all??)  Each of these friends expressed gratitude that I had been willing to listen to their stories without judging them or acting as though they were sliding down a slippery slope into the fiery pit of hell.  (I may have taken some liberties with exactly how they expressed that last part...)

I don't say any of this to congratulate myself but rather to ask why those of us who follow a God we describe as all-powerful often act as though He can only work in and through people when they display what we would consider to be impeccable decision-making.  If our God is so big, why do we so often think another person's seemingly risky choices are going to prevent God's movement in his or her life?  I am well aware that there are some decisions and behaviors that are clearly harmful to others (or to one's self) and I'm not suggesting we ought NEVER to intervene in another person's life.  But why are we so quick to jump to fear-induced pleas, expressions of disappointment, or worse yet, threats?

What bothers me most is knowing these friends of mine didn't perceive their fellow Christians as safe places to share their stories (and sadly with good reason).  If anything, I would hope that we who follow the Jesus with whom prostitutes and tax collectors felt at home would create a refuge to which all people could come to be real, to be vulnerable, to be met with love and grace - and yes, truth, but not the sort of truth that slaps someone across the face (it seems to me that Jesus reserved that sort of truth for those supposed followers of God who made life difficult for other people...if you're in that category, then okay, maybe you need that kind of truth, but my friends did not) but the sort of truth that embraces someone, flaws and all, and says, "I understand.  I'm broken, too, and I may not have an easy answer for you, but I will walk with you through this.  You are not alone."

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the church seems to rely a lot on fear, guilt, and shame to manipulate people into "appropriate" behavior.  I'm not exactly sure how that demonstrates the fact that Christ came to offer us forgiveness and freedom, but somehow it doesn't seem to me that fear or guilt or shame are exactly what Jesus had in mind when He came to proclaim the good news of His Kingdom...

This scene from The Office has always made me laugh, but sometimes I fear we as Christians echo Michael's statement to Toby when we encounter someone doing something we don't approve of.

I don't know about you, but it's God's grace and mercy that keep me clinging to Him, not some sense that He's going to "get me" if I don't behave.  I don't know when we started thinking that manipulation was part of our calling as Christians, but I wholeheartedly believe there is a better way.  A right way, actually.  And the last thing I want to do as a Christian is foster an environment within the body of Christ in which people feel they have to either put up walls or get out.

This was my fortune at Panda Express two weeks ago.  No joke.
I was sort of blindsided recently after I opened up to someone and was essentially asked not to share the part of my life I opened up about.  I'm an extremely trusting person (perhaps to a fault), but I really believe my openness with others is a big factor in why many people such as the two friends I mentioned earlier are comfortable opening up to me about sensitive subject matter they're hesitant to share with others.  And I think that's the way it should be in the church.  What is the church if we have to hide when we show up?  How can God produce genuine transformation in us if we're just masquerading as though we've already got it all together?

I have another friend who decided last year to start letting go of his facade, to start being real about the broken parts of his life.  He may not always say the most appropriate things these days, but do you know what he does do?  He loves people well.  He makes others feel welcome and included.  And to me, this reflects Jesus more than his previous charade.

It's not until people know they are loved and accepted exactly as they are that they can experience genuine, heart-level transformation.  Outward behaviors should undoubtedly follow suit (though we should not be too quick to assume a lack of inner transformation if those behaviors are slow to materialize, because the truth is transformation is a life-long process), but if the heart is not affected first, any outward change is only superficial.  And last I heard, Jesus was not a big fan of white-washed tombs...

I visited a church this morning where a friend of mine was leading worship, and the pastor's message was exactly in line with these things God has been speaking to my heart lately.  One of his points was that we should "reject shame as a motivator."  He reminded us that shame has never changed anyone's life, and while this doesn't mean we never confront sin, it does mean that we should only confront it from a stature of grace, not judgment.

He also said that we ought not to be rule-based and reminded us that Jesus had but two "rules":  1. Love God.  2. Love others.  He compared the Christian life to football, saying that the object of a football game is to score points (preferably more than the opposing team, of course), not simply to avoid penalties.  Likewise, the goal for the Christian is to LOVE, not to simply avoid missteps.  To paraphrase what he said, a win for us is to love our neighbor enough to share the love of Jesus, NOT to carry a flag in our pocket to throw at another Christian...just to play penalty-free is not the "win."

We would do well to remember this - to love more, to judge less.  To let people be real.  To listen and not to condemn.  To foster an environment of welcoming rather than a masquerade.

May we truly love unconditionally -- just as Christ loves us.

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