I first started noticing this about her while we were still in school, dating and barista-ing together at Starbucks (kind of a big no no except that everyone in the history of baristas has done it). The café where we worked is in an uncharacteristically diverse pocket of Columbus, Ohio, which has one of the highest Jewish population densities in the US and people from several different central African cultures. Watching her interact with the neighborhood, while I spilled cappuccino on the floor, was where I first learned that my wife was going to become my wife.
I’d watch her face soften into pure, self-forgetful tenderness when our Eritrean and Ethiopian customers would come in and make an order through broken English. I’d watch her become as patient as a mother to one of our regulars, who was mentally ill, and several others who were just plain mean. Her short, tight crop of brown curly hair created more than a couple conversation in-roads with the African American women (I’m not sure if the term “white girl afro” is politically correct, but you get the idea). If you were well-traveled, she would ask you about it with the fascination of a two year old but would take equal interest in your story if you’d never even been out of the state.
The unfortunate thing about it was that she was one of the most Jesus-like people I’d ever met, but she would've never seen it that way. Understandably, she had somewhere picked up the idea that a Christian is someone who only associates with other Christians and preferably WASP-ish, middle-class Christians at that. What do you do, then, when you're an intelligent, soft-hearted person, who is curious about meaningful spirituality, but you've inherited a cultural definition of Christianity that is, at best, ambivalent toward the non-Christian world and even suspicious of the non-European Christian world? You decide it must not be for you and take your spiritual search elsewhere.
Being a pastor-in-training, I was never totally sure if our first three or four dates were actually dates. We would sit down around 9pm at the local college dive, affectionately called “the Zig” (short for Leipzig Haus), buy two of the cheapest drinks we could find, and nurse them until around midnight. And all the while, she would be grilling me about my theology—“Do you believe this? You don’t actually believe that?”
The questions always started at the theoretical level, but what she was really doing was probing and prodding around this unspoken one, “Who do you hate? You seem like a nice enough guy: funny, charming, a genius ahead of your time, the striking looks of a poor man’s Joel McHale, or is he a poor man’s you [alright, I’m probably putting words in her mouth]--buuut, I'm wondering, when is the other shoe going to drop and one day, over hoagies and potato salad, you say to me, ‘You know, hunny, the _______s are going to hell.’”
By now, she has discovered that there is no other shoe with me, though I have often thought it would be funny to lay that one on her for April Fools' of our 50th Anniversary year.
Some of you, who might be reading this story, were raised into a kind and loving version of Christianity, and it’s strange to you that some people have this perception of your faith. I'm glad to hear that. For others, this is simply your story, and it’s perfectly reasonable that the burden of proof should be on 22 year old, pastor-in-training to prove that he is not an angry and spiteful person. Either way, let me try to put this in the starkest relief and then let it sink in for a moment:
My wife didn’t think Christianity was for her, because she loved people too much.
One more time.
My wife didn't think Christianity was for her, because she loved people too much.
And, here, some Christians are still having internet debates about whether the reason for dwindling numbers of people in church pews has more to do with the music or the committee structure.
Let’s be clear, if this is how Christianity is perceived, the salvation police who figure out what small segment of humanity is salvageable as we try to hide our gleefulness at pronouncing condemnation to everyone we don't like, then we haven’t just slightly missed the mark. It’s not as if we were aiming for a bullseye but hit an outer ring on the dart board. No, if that's how Christianity is perceived, then it's as if we've turned around 180 degrees and thrown the dart in the opposite direction.
Now, I’ve read the gospel stories quite a few times in English and a couple times in Greek, at this point. And never once do I recall Jesus going up to a stranger and saying “Accept me as your personal Lord and savior or I’m gonna burn you good.”
What he does say is “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). What he does not say is “I am the religious credential and the secret club and the pro forma namedrop that get’s you past the guard at the pearly gates."
Only some very repressed and insecure personalities would take Jesus’ “way” to be a method of separating and then ranking humanity; would take Jesus’ “truth” to be an inert, dogmatic formula devoid of any acts of healing and gentleness; would take Jesus’ “life” to be something that kills and condemns. Only some very angry and frustrated individuals would turn these words of Jesus into a blunt instrument of division and animosity without first heeding the words, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
But let me suggest that there is another version of Christianity out there—a version that not only encourages but insists on the warm embrace of strange people, foreign people, and difficult people. It is smaller and quieter and will always see all the press stolen by it’s angry cousin. And let me suggest that this is not a new development—these two versions of Christianity have existed side by side and flat out contradicted each other ever since human beings became a part of the movement.
This is why our church’s namesake Martin Luther, back in the 16th century, once said, “Whenever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel right next door.”
He called this quieter, more vulnerable version "the theology of the cross." Karl Barth called it "the never much loved tradition." Francis of Assisi simply called it "the Way."
Next week, I’m going to try to provide a snapshot of something that happened long ago, when the church was going through a similar culture war to what we’re seeing now, in order to show that this softer, gentler version of Christianity has been with us all along. You just wouldn’t know it from watching the news. And then I’ll express my hope that this long-sidelined version is in the middle of an underground renaissance at Castle Church and a thousand communities like it.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community. Checkout this blog weekly for reflections and updates or subscribe to our newsletter so that you never miss a thing.