I’ve been spending some time walking around and talking to various people around the seacoast area. My favorite moments are plopping down at a counter or at a bar and chatting up someone new. I really do learn a lot. Usually, to be honest, I end up playing pastor without announcing that I am doing such. Everyone needs someone to listen, I think.
And there are a lot of feelings about God and about people of faith out there, especially here, in New Hampshire, in New England, in one of the most unreligious parts of the country. One can hear them if one converses enough and is able to appreciate the inherent interestingness of other people.
Yet – When people find out I’m a pastoral intern, they are often quick to wonder if I’m just talking to them to peddle my wares, my doctrines and philosophies and Victorian restrictions. That is usually the low-point of the conversation in my experience. They’re worried that I’m trying to make them a notch in my belt. They worry that they have become just another “score” for the Willy Loman of religion.
Isn’t that a horrible way for someone to feel?
Currently, at UNH, the area college, there are street preachers who are telling the students that they are going to hell for not accepting Jesus into their hearts. One student told me that a lady sang the following to them: “Jesus take the wheel…Yeah, Jesus took the wheel and is driving you all straight to hell!” Whoa!
And that becomes peoples’ experience of God? It just isn’t right. I refuse to mince words about it. That’s not right, and that’s not the God I know. The one who came down to dwell amongst us in love, to heal the sick and to comfort the lonely and liberate the oppressed and heavy-burdened – and doing such without being crushingly forceful or overpowering.
And that’s why it’s so important to talk with people, any person, about God, and to listen to them talk about God, to give them a chance to theologize. We aren’t and don’t get to be the ones who act as air traffic control directors for Heaven and Hell. We also don’t get to go Death of a Salesman on others, selling off our wares in sweaty and number-oriented desperation, wreckless with and dishonorable toward the very real souls in front of us.
Rather we would do well, I believe and trust, to take Jesus as our example, especially as Jesus is presented by St. Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Philipians, a fine summary of the Gospels if ever there were one:
3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Jesus truly humbled himself. Jesus listened and spoke to others in love, “[regarding] others as better than [Himself]” and looking “to the interests of others.” It isn’t all about us. It isn’t about us selling something or scoring a point here and there and everywhere. It isn’t about our sending people straight to hell because they aren’t like us. That’s not our place. Our place is here, in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’s ways and Spirit. This is a humble, listening, and loving – really, loving – Spirit.
Of course, this is a tough order. It’s hard to be humble, listening, and loving. I’ve messed up more times in my life in trying this imitation than I want to recount or recall. But should you walk in Jesus’s way, please try to see that God is with you in this – and know that I too support you in this – as will many people, ones whom you know and ones whom you do not yet know but will come to know through such a humble, listening, and loving Spirit.
Success isn’t a description for such a thing, because being humble, listening, and loving aren’t games. They are realities in the encounter of other people and God. And that’s all that I really mean to ask for and promote here – sustained and further attempts – despite the inherent difficulties that come with being truly human – at being Christ-like, at meeting people, where they are as they are, and loving them as best as one can – for just being people and for just being there.
So complicated and so simple at the same time, huh?
But – if you take only one thing away from this, here it is – bottom line – God loves you just as well as other people too.