After almost five months in Oregon, I am still making introductions, still getting to know this new place in which we have settled. While it is a joy to meet people and have new experiences, the number of faces and names are beginning to blur. I am waiting for the familiar to emerge. Since I have taken a new chaplaincy position, the flood of introductions and names has picked up speed instead of slowing. Familiar and comfortable are only illusions. When meeting people for the first time, we do not just exchange names, we also exchange a bit of who we are. Perhaps it is a family detail: I have two adult children. Perhaps it is geography: I moved from West Virginia. Perhaps it is profession or vocation: I am an ordained minister.
People are gracious with introductions, sharing a few fragments of their own identity. Every so often, however, there is someone who is unable to hide the uncomfortable reaction they feel when they discover I am a Christian minister. Because people in general like to avoid confrontation, they change the subject, gloss over the fact, or say absolutely nothing filling the air with awkward, tense silence. God bless the soul who will address the elephant in the room standing before them.
“I am not a Christian,” came blurting out from his mouth with great energy, as if he had been holding his breath for a long time. “No offense,” he stammered, realizing what he had just uttered. “None taken.” He backpedalled a little, inserting, “I like Jesus and everything.” Interesting. Poor guy, he must feel like he has to be polite or something.
While looking at the table in front of him as if there was something quite fascinating happening on it, he let loose with the pain and grief of having been in The Church. He didn’t share details, only broad strokes of an all too familiar story. Raised in the church, there was a vindictive scene against his mother over a trivial thing. They searched for a while for another church home, only to have judgment, pettiness, and coldness greet them. The denomination, or lack of, made no difference in their experience. He furtively looked up at me during his tale, checking my reaction--waiting for the next condemning phrase to be proclaimed by a Christian. There was none.
Eyes back on the table, he expressed how his family had given up trying. He had better things to do during his college years than try to reconcile with a hurtful church. In his later twenties he felt that something was missing, but the wounds were too deep to return to a Christian context. He was searching even now, for the Ultimate. Reading about different religions and humanistic philosophies. “I know there is God or something, but I try to stay away from 'churchy' people. Maybe it is Jesus, but I can’t do church. Not any more.” His tone suggested that he avoided church like most people avoid poison ivy.
I made my chaplain responses. “That sounds like it was painful.” “You’re searching?” “What do you think church should be like?” “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” “Tell me about your journey now.” I had a few different emotions during our encounter. The first was a sense of encouragement I think. I was impressed that this person overcame his hesitation and spoke directly to a “church” person about how The Church hurt him. I felt sadness at his obvious pain. I felt angry that people proclaiming Christ could be so . . . so . . . so what? So unaware? So spiteful? So hurt themselves that they have to hurt others to feel good? What is it?
I doubt that young man will embrace church again. Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope I am. Nothing he has experienced thus far in his life has shown him that Christians want to accept him for who he is or lavish him with the abundant love that Christ showers on each of us. Hopefully the middle-aged chaplain that wandered into his room did not add to his pain. Maybe she even reflected a bit of the extravagant love of Christ that embraces both broken seekers and unkind church folk alike.
He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ Luke 10:27