I don't interact with the non-churched world all that often. The reality is that most of my friends are pastors or college friends who lived at the campus ministry center with me, or parishioners, etc. Most of the folk I interact with are comfortable at church, choose to be there and like being in that environment. Even those who aren't or don't choose to be are usually people who have known or do know the church or members of churches well enough to not judge us based on the fact that we attend church. They see us or at least strive to see us as the individuals that we are. But I've had occasions more recently to be around people who are not church folk. And it's been an education. The biggest part of that education includes learning about the assumptions that I've found many non-churched people make about churched folk, and especially about pastors.
Here are some of the most common assumptions:
1. All we care about is converting those who are not church folk.
2. We reject science completely.
3. We are crazy and fanatical.
4. We think there is only one way to be in life and one way to believe and one way to practice faith.
5. We will judge everyone we meet.
6. We believe everyone who doesn't believe the way we do is going to hell.
7. We walk around with little hypocritical halos on our heads pretending to be better than we are and completely failing at being so.
Okay. Not one of these applies to me. Not one. To be more specific: I'm not interested in converting others. I don't see that as my call. Your path and your relationship with God are your own. I don't presume to assume how others should be on their faith journeys. If you are interested in deepening your faith, and would like me to be part of that, I am happy to walk with you in that journey. If not, that's your life and your business. I still value you as a human being and I still find that you have worth while things to contribute to the world. And if you are an atheist, well, you have your own relationship with the Universe, or with humanity, or with whatever it is you do believe in. That, too, is your own path and not for me to judge. I love science and really enjoy science programs and scientific theories. I think that science answers the question "how" while religion answers a totally different question - and that is "why". I may be crazy, but not because I'm a person of faith ;-). Who am I to judge anyone? I haven't got it right. No one I know has got it completely right. But we are all on a journey, all on a path of some kind, and all striving to make sense and meaning from our lives and to bring light to our part of the world. The only "hell" I know is the one that some of us have lived through here and now, including myself and my family. And even in that horrible place in our lives I found God still present, so how is that really hell? I don't know what happens after we die, and again, I don't think I'm a good one to determine for God what happens for any one individual. I do think that whatever happens, we will still find ourselves loved by something beyond ourselves. But that applies to you, whoever you may be and whatever you may or may not believe. I think most people try to do good. And all of us fail at times. I'm not better than anyone else. And I don't try to be better than anyone else. I try to be the best ME I can be, and I try to have the best relationships with God, others, and self that I possibly can. I don't see it as being hypocritical that I go to church or even serve in a church. Jesus himself said, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners". So if I had it completely right, I wouldn't need church, would I?
I look at the people I hang out with who are churched. They are all wonderful, but are not what others assume either. Some swear up a storm. Some have thoroughly tattooed bodies. Some had children out of wedlock. Some have partners to whom they are not married. Some are divorced. Some are gay. They all have lives, which means they've all experienced joys and griefs, challenges and surprises. They all had teenage years, which means they mostly went through rebellious and experimental stages just like other folk. They, too, would not possibly fulfill the assumptions or expectations of some of those I have recently encountered - thanks be to God!!
I find it very troubling that people feel it is okay to make these assumptions. I realize we all make assumptions about other people and that at each time period, different assumptions are socially acceptable and others aren't. For awhile it was acceptable to make prejudiced assumptions about people based on their ethnicity. In many places we now see that as wrong. For awhile it was acceptable to make assumptions about blonds. Maybe that one still is acceptable in some areas. For awhile it was acceptable to make assumptions about people of other faiths - Jewish people, Islamic people, Buddhists. I think many still make assumptions about these people, but in other places these kinds of prejudices are no longer acceptable. There continue to be people who struggle with heterosexism and ageism and sexism and racism, and many of those assumptions made are also erroneous, and in some places acceptable and in some places not. Right now it seems more than acceptable to make assumptions about Christians. And the Christian Right doesn't help by claiming the word "Christian" as something they proclaim exclusive rights to. But, to be the judgmental person I just said I would strive not to be, it shows an amazing arrogance and self-righteousness to judge any other person by a label, especially when you have no personal knowledge of them.
I don't like being written off by assumptions. And it saddens me a great deal when I lose the opportunity to get to know someone because of their assumptions about me. I try to be philosophical about it, and tell myself I must not be missing that much if they are a person who makes those kinds of assumptions without taking the time to check them out. But I'd be untruthful if I said it didn't bother me when I am summarily dismissed without a second glance based on what I do, especially when so many of the assumptions are just plain wrong. But what can I do? If a person fails to give me the time of day simply because of my profession and my faith, there is no opportunity to counter the assumptions made. Do I limit my interactions to church people? I don't choose that because I do think there is wisdom and light in all kinds of people and I want to meet and know that as well.
So I take the chance. I take the chance of meeting others and I hope to encounter openness in those I meet. When I don't, I hurt, but then strive to accept it and move on because there isn't another choice about it anyway.
But the good news for me in this is that it calls me to pay better attention to the assumptions that I make. Because as I said before, we all make assumptions, some with intent, and others without even a thought. It calls me to pause before I assume why someone looks or acts the way they do. It calls me to pause before I assume why someone has made the choices they have made. It calls me to pause before I assume why someone has been cranky or even mean...because we don't really know what a person is going through, what has led them to where they are, or why they make the choices they make. It even causes me to pause before I make assumptions about why that other person is making assumptions about me. Who knows why they are judging me as a pastor, or as as a person of faith? I don't really know. So, I need to set the example, and allow that there are things beyond what I can and do know. And that, regardless of the missed opportunities or missed friendships, that it is okay for them to be on a path that means we will not get to know each other more fully. That's their journey. And I can't make assumptions about what that means for them.