Rector's Blog: When We Are Talking
One of people’s favorite things to tell me when they find out I’m a priest is how long it’s been since they went to church. Or that they don’t go to church at all. Or that they’re not religious. Or that they are religious, but they could be more religious and that they should be going to church more than they do. In other words, when I’m walking around town in my collar, I’m like a human Rorschach test for your feelings about organized religion.
To be clear, I’m not actually complaining about this. This is part of the job, and if it really bothered me, I could’ve done something else. I could’ve stuck with my original plan and become an actor: Nobody acts weird around them in public.
It’s true though - seeing me makes people think about church and religion and what they believe about God and if they even believe in God. There’s no way around that.
As I’ve mentioned before, religious Christians often make me uncomfortable. I always wonder if they’re judging me, if they think I’m the right kind of Christian, if they think I’m too much of something, or not enough of something else. And I’m a professionally religious Christian: If I think I’m being judged by Christians, I can only imagine how others feel around me.
So let me answer some of the questions you’ve asked me aloud, and some you’ve probably kept to yourself.
Am I judging you when we talk? Probably sometimes. But not because of Jesus – mostly because I’m a person and I’m not always as kind as I would like to be. If there’s a moment when we are talking and I am judging you internally, it says way more about my own insecurity and state of mind in the moment than it does about you. Jesus explicitly tells me not to judge others, not to judge you. So really, I have no business doing it. When I think about what I really want, it’s acceptance. I want to be accepted by you, and I want to accept you for who you actually are– not some idealized version of you.
Taking a step back, I don’t believe that when God sees you, God wants you to be something other than who you are right now. I don’t think when you and I are talking that God is just sitting there on my shoulder wishing you were a better person. God is too busy loving you as you are. When I’m being judgmental, that’s on me. I probably need a nap, or a run, or a Snickers bar, or a little more therapy. I don’t blame religion for making me judgmental. I blame myself for using my religion as a way to create distinctions between you and I when I could be appreciating you more.
Also it’s only sometimes I’m being judgey. Much of the time I’m just really grateful we’re talking and I’m thinking that it's fairly fantastic that somehow you and I ended up on the same planet at the same time.
Ok, next question: Do I care about what you believe, about your religious affiliation, or lack thereof? Yeah, I do. But not necessarily for the reasons you think. I care because I like you, and because I find belief fascinating. I have spent a lot of time thinking and overthinking about the existence of God and what that God has to do with me. If you’ve thought about that at all, then talking about it is interesting to me. If you’ve never thought about it, that’s interesting to me as well. I do not need you to believe the things I believe. I am not interested in trying to convince you of anything. And I will likely not bring any of this up when we are talking. I have a pretty strong desire not to freak you out any more than necessary.
Do I always know what I believe or why? No. No I don’t. I have made a decision to be a religious Christian. Sometimes it makes sense to me and sometimes it doesn’t. For me, religion is similar to marriage in that, I don’t get to be all in only when it makes sense to me or when I feel like it. One day a long time ago I realized I believed in God and that I needed to take that seriously, and I have spent much of my life since then trying to do just that, however imperfectly. And here we are.
I remember one skeptical ex-Christian friend of mine asking me, “But how do you know for sure that you’re right?” And I surprised him by quickly answering, “Oh, I’m not sure at all.” I could be wrong about Jesus. I could be wrong about all of this. But I have decided and am still deciding to try to live my life as if there is a God and that God is Love and that Love has something to do with me. This is the best I can do.
And one more question (for now): Do I think you should go to church more? This is actually the trickiest question. Because church has hurt a lot of people. Maybe it has hurt you. Maybe it has hurt someone you love. Why would I want you to experience needless pain in an already difficult world? Why would I want you to subject yourself to that?
I don’t believe you’re going to Hell if you don’t go to church enough. Heck, I don’t even believe you’re going to Hell if you never go. I don’t believe you’re going to Hell if you are a different religion. I don’t believe you’re going to Hell if you have no religion. I hope you’re sensing a theme here. I am not interested in you belonging to a church that will teach you to live in constant fear that you’re getting it wrong. That is not how I believe Jesus works.
But I said it was a tricky question and here’s what I meant: I do believe that we are meant to live our lives in community, sharing this life with one another. And I believe that this shared life is meant to be rooted and grounded in love - unconditional love, sacrificial love, generous and forgiving and allowing and nonjudgmental, thoughtful, intentional love. That’s how I believe Jesus works. And no, I don’t think we can experience that love all by ourselves or just in our own hearts, or just on our own terms. Christians are meant to live in this kind of community with one another. It’s not so much going to church as it is being church.
And honestly I don’t think we can live in community without getting hurt a little – for the simple reason that community is made up of people, and people hurt each other. This is not an excuse. There is no excuse for abusive church environments or leaders. It is not your job to stay in abusive relationships, and certainly not to do so in Jesus’ name. And it’s not your job to be religious like me or to believe the things I believe. But if you can find yourself an imperfect little community that is based in love and where you feel loved and cared for, accepted and encouraged, where you are nourished and challenged real and practical ways, well, I hope you will give that community some of your time and energy. Because your connection and commitment is in fact the lifeblood of the community.
Mostly, what I want for you is to know that you are loved immeasurably. And when we talk, that is the thing I care the most about. Unless it’s a Friday. That’s my day off.
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