The encounter with the fundamentalist Christian I discussed in my last post has left me thinking that the woman represented both the best and worst of her own religious tradition. She invited two complete strangers who were behaving oddly (we were walking at night in a neighborhood without sidewalks in a culture where everyone drives everywhere, even to the park or grocery store down the street) to come and join her and her family around a fire and share some food – OK, the food was marshmallows roasted over a fire, but holiday/dessert/junk food nonetheless. Isn’t this what Jesus taught? Isn’t this what the entire Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us? Welcome the stranger, offer hospitality, assist the one left by the side of the road (or just walking down the road). That she did, and she did so warmly and without reservation. Her invitation was animated and joyful and loaded with the spirit of the season. It was the very picture of the best of southern hospitality, 21st century Christmas style.
And then we talked and she learned just how different from her we were. We do not consider Jesus our Lord and Savior and neither Jesus nor anyone else has died for our sins. In fact, we think everyone is in with whatever God or Gods or Goddesses or spirit infuses this universe. A loving deity sends no one to eternal torture and torment. In fact, God loves everyone. No exceptions. Even our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Upon learning all this she then began to represent the very worst of her own faith. She not only disagreed with us, she was afraid of us. Very afraid. We were not only wrong, we were evil. Every time she spoke to us, at her every turn in the conversation, she felt the need to convince us that we were wrong, and not only wrong, we were bad or evil for being wrong and needed to change our beliefs. The hospitality she had only recently offered was withdrawn. She didn’t say this. She didn’t kick us out or tell us to get off her property. She didn’t need to. Her voice changed. Instead of being friendly and open and neighborly, it took on the tone of a cross teacher addressing unruly elementary school children. She no longer looked at us when she spoke, but cast her eyes toward the ground or the fire – where we were certainly headed to burn for all eternity. She kept her hands and arms wrapped more closely about her.
The more I think about this encounter, the more I wonder about just how similar I am to this woman. Am I not also by turns a wonderful representative of my own faith and an example of its darkest shadow? Surely, I am open and accepting and loving and inclusive. Yes, I am. If I am honest, I am also intolerant and afraid of others, such as religious fundamentalists whose beliefs differ so enormously from mine. At times I think of myself as being somehow above or better than those whose religion or politics or favorite band or sports team is different (and inferior) than mine. I have been a teacher, both high school and college, and I know that I can slip into “teacher voice” when I know I am right and people can certainly learn from what I am saying. In fact, one of the things I’ve learned about my own preaching is that I used to slip into teacher voice during sermons (I almost never do that now). I can suffer from what a colleague of mine calls our religion’s “terminal uniqueness” – surely no one and no religion is as liberal, progressive or enlightened as (me and) mine!
The more I reflect on this conversation, the more I think that the most missional act, the best way to be a missionary of your beliefs and your values, is to live them out to the very best of your ability. Walking the talk is important. It’s also harder –and at the same time easier – than we think it is. If I can do my best to just be who I say I am, I may find that it is exactly during the times I think I am superior or better, that I need to practice the inclusivity, acceptance, and hospitality I claim to represent. Indeed, practicing radical hospitality and radical integrity to the best of our ability just might lead each of us, each in our own way, to that place where, as Frederick Buechner said, “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”