Lately in the news, in town, on Facebook, in the air there is a war brewing. The war is over the name Christian. Who is one, and what does it mean, and what does it look like from the outside, and what does it look like from the inside?
I overheard a conversation among some Christians a few weeks ago while I was visiting friends. "I saw my nephew had posted something with profanity on Facebook, and I told him, 'I know we don't know each other well, but you need to get that down off your Facebook.'"
"Good for you," came the reply. "It's good that you were there to stand up for the truth."
I stopped what I was doing for a minute as what I had overheard sank in. I couldn't help wondering whether this kind of "Christian offensive" is really going to be useful in the long run. Would you pause and consider your actions prayerfully and carefully if someone you hardly knew came up and shook their finger in your face? It seems like at that point, the rightness and wrongness of the situation would almost be irrelevant. What would matter would be the emotions. The shock, the anger, and the defensiveness. The people who I had overheard were good people. They had good intentions. But in the name of Christianity they may have pushed some unnamed nephew even farther away from the Good News than he already might have been.
Let me offer this as an alternate tale that illustrates the same idea from a different angle. I met a good friend of mine while I was finishing up my graduate work. At the time, some older friends of mine were taking turns giving me a really hard time. There were lots of accusations, criticisms, blatant insults. I would not claim that I didn't play any part in the situation -- because I'm sure I did -- but the end result of all of it was that I was being bombarded with terrible messages about myself, and in the end I just had to stop listening to all of it, even though there might have been a kernel of truth in there somewhere.
My new friend met me in the TA office with a smile, and only minutes after our first conversation she listened to my dilemma and explained Eudamonia to me with excited hand gestures and diagrams drawn in highlighter on an index card. "Also, just don't talk to them when they call," she said. That one conversation set me freer than a thousand nights of meditation on my faults. She helped me change gears from negative anger and self-loathing to something more constructive, and from that I was able to rebuild my life in a new shape. The word succor explains what she provided to me there.
My friend is not a Christian. She does not profess a specific religious creed, and yet she lives by a personal code of integrity. She evaluates and reevaluates her actions in light of that code, and she does it without spilling her own personal journey all over the people around her. She has a calmness that allows other people to grow beside her, not at the same rate, not in the same way, but perhaps, after all, in the same direction.
When I am sick, the first thing my friend asks is if she can bring me some soup or other groceries. When I need a book or movie recommendation, she puts serious analytical thought into suggesting just the right obscure Netflix gem. She is a rare friend because she sees me as I actually am, with all my contradictions and faults, and she just sits with it all, neither embracing nor judging. She is willing to sit. And wait.
Her patience has played a large part in my own spiritual journey. Whether she knew it or meant it or not, her life example has brought me closer to Christ; the ministry of her friendship has allowed me to see past the bitter, bean-counting relationships -- and religions -- of my past into a future where friends just share space and time because they want to.
She doesn't profess a Christian creed with her voice, but who acts more in keeping with the example of Christ? The righteous Christian who dispenses unasked-for advice to her sulking nephew, or my agnostic/atheist friend who sits with me in all my ragged glory-mess?
When I was breaking with my earlier faith community I came across some commentary on YouTube by Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens. The two men were witty, succinct, efficient in their criticisms of my former church, and I couldn't argue with the veracity of anything they said. Far from turning me to an atheist, their clear concision allowed me to let go of the contorted doctrines I had been wringing to death in my hands, and allowed me to consider that grace, not perfection, might just be the key to a Christian life, after all.
So this means that my own Christian walk, bumbling and stagger-about though it might be, has been informed in part by a little group of agnostics and atheists -- not just those who I have mentioned here but others as well. The quality about them that has made their words and actions ring so true -- and the reason I can hear the Holy Spirit echo in their words -- is that they say their piece and then sit quietly. They explain their view, and then they get down off the soapbox and give someone else a turn. They listen as well as they speak; perhaps they listen better than they speak. They know how much to say, and how much not to say, and when to say or not say it.
What if a Christian could do this same thing?