I am not the best at small talk. I find myself in the middle of those frivolous little exchanges that we have stood around at parties or when we accidentally make eye contact with a stranger in the queue for the (self service – avoiding small talk) check outs. On the bad days, you know the ones when my eyelids are being held open by caffeine and my mind feels a little like the remnants of a ‘Will It Blend?’ youtube video, I find myself wondering what would happen if I said something a little more real or important or deep in those moments. Where would the small talk end up if I refused to keep it small?
Recently, since taking on the job title of Minister, which by the way is a title that still feels like wearing a suit and tie – it fits but I’m not initially that comfortable wearing it. Well, since becoming a Minister the fabric of these small-talking moments have changed. There is still something in our culture that answering ‘I’m a minister,’ to the question, ‘what do you do?’ can lead some people to very quickly share things that sit deep in their psyche. On occasion, I’ve had strangers say, ‘I’ve never told anyone this but …’ What a strange thing. A job title makes me somehow trustworthy. How little they know.
A few weeks ago I spoke to a stranger in a restaurant. They were part of the staff. The conversation got to that question. I answered and what followed was a story that I am growing weary of hearing. “I’m not religious. My family are, but I was tired of their church trying to change me into something I am not. I believe in a God but the dogma and aggressive moralism of the church is life-sapping and joy-stealing and I couldn’t do it anymore.” Some tell tales of angry parents who reject their own children for their agnosticism, ignoring the fact that we are all agnostic in our most honest moments; we don’t know if there is a God or not but we do hope that there is. There is a theme that runs through so many of these conversations – moralistic hypocrisy.
There were days gone by when my answers in these moments were defensive. I was an emotional acrobat; “It is just their way of loving you,” or “if you truly believe that homosexuality is sinful then the most loving thing to do is to say so.” You know the type of thing many of us in the church do, where we conveniently cut round the humanity of the person in front of us and in a feigned voice of comfort defend those who have caused them massive, life-changing pain. With one hand we grip tightly to our understandings, prejudices and dogma whilst the other carelessly flips the emotions of the person we are talking to in the air.
I’ve stopped doing this because not only is it damaging it is emotionally and morally unfair. I can’t in all honesty do it anymore. I am tired of defending the dogma over the person and I am tired of defending the organisation over the human. I can no longer juggle my emotions to convince myself that in spite of the bitter taste in my mouth that the pseudo-defence of judgementalism was an act of evangelistic kindness.
These days I apologise. These days I agree that the vehement proposition of dogma that leads to teenagers harming themselves in the belief that God must hate them because of feelings and desires that they have never chosen is destroying lives. These days I refuse to stand in defence of the voice that told one young man I met that his depression is a direct result of his sin and his lack of understanding of God’s love. I refuse to attach myself to a movement that says God wants to heal you but gives no comfort to those who go home when the music and lights are gone in the same ill health they arrived in with the additional burden of disappointment.
When did we allow a message of Good News to become just the opposite? When did we become so much more concerned with how others are living their lives than how we are living ours? We are no longer just struggling to get a speck of dust out of the eyes of others but we are carving homes for ourselves in the logs in our own eyes. We have grown comfortable in our judgementalism to the point of digging in and making ourselves at home. When did we allow ourselves to turn the healing of God into a Las Vegas show with famous performers who (with good hearts) use the vulnerable as props in their message with little follow up care for their ongoing wellbeing?
I have been reading the gospels again, and I see a Jesus who gives dignity to those he meets. I see a Jesus who welcomes people and gives them the right to choose their own path as they follow him. A Jesus who loves and loves and loves. A Jesus who heals in secret and gives in secret and prays in secret. I see a Jesus who sits with the worst and the best as if they are the same because they are the same. A Jesus who would probably have a lot to say to His church that He already said to the Pharisees.
What if, when I am next in a moment with someone where I say, ‘But God accepts you just as you are,’ I was able to believe that I also feel the same way? The reality is that I am hungover from a Christian culture that accepts you as you are until they think it is time for you to change. I am so glad to be in a church community that is fighting that culture within Christianity. That is learning how to let people be people. That is learning to not just allow God’s grace to accept ourselves as we are but also to accept everyone else as they are too.
At the end of this religious detox we will realise that Jesus was there the whole time, working in the life of that person we could never understand his acceptance of. We may be surprised to discover it was ourselves we were imagining the whole time.