If you’re looking for a quick, easy way to kill an otherwise wonderful conversation at the local café, I’ve discovered a way to do so in three words:
“I’m a pastor.”
I wish a hidden camera could capture that moment of unfiltered, unspoken, awkward honesty as folks remember the things they’ve shared that they would not knowingly choose to share with a “priest.” They quickly overcompensate and apologize profusely for saying words that I’ve heard 13 billion times, “I never talk like that! I don’t know what got into me!”
The comedic value here is obvious. Uncomfortable social scenarios are inherently funny. But as I stop chuckling, I realize that there’s also something heartbreaking going on in these moments. When conversations hit such an abrupt speed bump, it reveals a deeply held confusion between sanitation and sanctification – a belief that there is no place where their struggles or yearnings can intersect with God’s grace. For these dear neighbors of mine, Christianity has been presented to them as a guide to cussing less and pretending not to notice pretty women.
I enjoy going out to breakfast on my day off. It is an opportunity to get away from the business of the church for a moment, to ruminate on the flavor of the world’s second-best pancakes, and to chat with some fellows from outside the congregation. The conversations I’ve had here are wide ranging and free flowing. I do a LOT of talking for “work” on Sundays, so I’m more than happy to do most of the listening during my Monday breakfasts. I just nod and try to learn about the people from my community. Interspersed between the standard political rants, musings about the weather, and frustration about a sports teams’ failures are diamonds in the rough – concern for a child’s education, excitement about a new romantic interest, coping with the death of a mother. The conversations are not always G-rated and most of the fellows use words my mother taught me to avoid. But when I refuse the easy out of taking offense, I’m around to see the glimmers of light in broken expressions of God’s image. By keeping my mouth shut when I’m not thrilled about what comes out of theirs, I stumble upon yearnings and dreams springing out of the very best of what it means to be human. I’m able to see how their struggles uncover in them the same desperation that draws us all together to ask the same ultimate questions – Why do I exist? Is there a purpose to the universe? Is redemption possible? Where can I find fulfillment? When I listen, the fruits and shoots of gospel connecting points spring up from what might initially seem like soiled talk. But these incredible conversations hit a snag when I’m asked about my job. These folks believe that church is not a place to deal with real life, that Christians are unprepared or unwilling to meet them where they’re at.
All of this serves as a reminder that we (believers) have a tremendous responsibility to internalize, embody, and display how Christianity deals head on with all of the highs and lows of human experience. Scripture celebrates the pleasure, passion, and heat of sex. Scripture pulls back the curtain on the far-reaching ripple effects of abuse. Scripture is nuanced enough to simultaneously handle the blessed enjoyment of a glass of fine wine as well as the formidable danger posed by drunkenness. Family drama is everywhere in Genesis. Ecclesiastes is a look into the diary of the seemingly unending search for purpose. Duplicitous and hypocritical Christians are violently exposed in Acts 5. The Lord of the universe can handle the mess. He’s called His people to do the same.
As ambassadors of Christ, we ought to expect that we’ll be interacting with folks who have different priorities and loyalties than those of our King. When we scold or withdraw from these people, we disobey the commission of the One who sent us. So we have the blessed obligation to invest in relationships and conversations, to develop thicker skin, to stick around long enough to find the glimpses of glory, and to find ways to point them to the Atonement for their sin.
We’re called to be sanctified, not to be sanitized.
I appreciate your prayer that I’ll be able to continue to have these amazing conversations, that folks won’t withdraw from this “man of the cloth,” that we’ll learn a lot from each other, and that some of these incredible people will come to discover the unequaled pleasure of knowing Jesus Christ.