I sat there exhausted and annoyed. This had been the third time this week! The third time! If only I hadn't have made eye contact at church earlier that day. That moment, that quick glance, gave him an opening. What I thought was a friendly glance, soon became an invitation for in-depth conversation, declarations of friendship and prospective coffee dates.
I had simply wanted to be courteous and nice and friendly. I didn't want to 'hang out' or become besties with this socially awkward forty-something man. How did I become the church magnet for needy and unstable people? Why couldn't they all just leave me alone!
I didn't want another Facebook message, or phone call. All week I had received invites and pleas and I was desperate to just hang out with 'normal' people! Was that too much to ask?
I know how I must sound to you! Trust me I do. I sound completely unloving and callous and offensive right? Utterly unchristian? Insular and exclusionary perhaps? Well at least that's how I would perceive me too I suppose.
But I'm not an unloving person. I don't lack compassion, kindness or care for other people. But I do lack something, and it is only now that I am realizing it. I lack the ability to love ALL sorts of people. I had forgotten to examine Jesus' love, a love to all people.
So how did Jesus love the broken, the dejected, and the social outcasts?
Churches are like hospitals
A dear friend of mine has often said that churches are like hospitals; they attract the broken and the suffering. People who are socially awkward, mentally ill or emotionally needy crave love and they seek acceptance. So the church provides a haven, for these broken people to flock to.
Whilst the church I attend inhabits a community brimming over with dysfunction, and brokenness, our church space is rather homogenous, housing people that commune from other neighbourhoods. Of course we have a few 'tokens' that is local people who suffer from mental illness or severe social problems, so that we feel 'local' enough in our offerings and flavour.
And sadly our church has become a scene where outsiders or people that don't tend to 'fit' a very specific classification, stand out and stand apart.
Whilst many church members are 'courteous', through conversing in a polite manner after the service, I often fail at this preferring instead to engage in hearty conversations with my friends. Essentially I put in my designated socializing time with the socially awkward teenager or the mentally unwell man before running towards the safe and familiar.
And I feel good about myself because I have performed my 'Christian' duty. But I have not performed anything Christ-like here. I have tried to imitate Christ, but the imitation is clearly cheap and inauthentic. And people know this, they sense it. And so I have not loved the broken spirit, or the kooky character sitting in the corner. I merely tolerated them for as long as I had to, to feel righteous.
What did Jesus do?
When I often hear how Jesus engaged with broken people, I tend to envisage prostitutes and widows and tax collectors; people who were deemed socially venomous because of their 'actions' or their 'professions' or their 'circumstances'. Essentially normal people like you and me, people who had been considered outcasts through no fault of their own or poor life choices. Jesus loved them all.
So I uplifted this example and sought to instil this within my own life… I was suppose to love the broken, and the poor. And so I actively began to embark on mission trips specifically within the Philippines.
Yet despite my God-gifted ability to love and care for my friends and co-workers in the Philippines, the love I demonstrated was a very specific love to a very specific type of person. And I can't believe that it is only now that I am realizing this. It is one of those ah-ha moments.
When I travel to Manila every few months, I always gravitate towards people that are most like me. I laugh with those that share my twisted and psychotic sense of humour. I cry with those that share my anger towards injustice. And I play with those that are outgoing and silly. I create an in-group and I love them completely.
But what happens to the people who are socially awkward individuals on the fringes of the community? Or what of the mentally impaired people who feel excluded and ostracized? Do I talk with them, do I extend myself to share or interact with them?
My answer is rarely. Rarely do I do this!
Embrace the socially awkward?
Jesus I now realize did not solely commune with professional outcasts; those people deemed immoral because of their actions or life choices. Jesus also connected with and loved those individuals that were frequently rejected because they were 'weird' or 'hard work' or 'socially awkward'.
Jesus loved these broken people without judgment, without hesitation, without a time limit. He gave himself to these people, even though his disciplesâ€"people he loved and regardedâ€" craved his time and knowledge and care. Jesus sacrificed this time, to spend it with those that others would never dare to love.
In the book of Luke, Jesus was criticised by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners. On hearing this Jesus said to them "it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners".
So I ask you this, just as I ask myself…are you called to church to simply engage with those like yourself; your friends, your family, your co-workers in Christ? Or are you also called to love and embrace all of God's children, despite their differences, their quirks, their unlovable qualities?
These I tell you are the people we must love and care for most, because the world will not love nor care for them. They are the forgotten and the broken and the sick. And it is love that they need; love from Christ, demonstrated through our example.
Now I must say that this love does not mean that we do not guard ourselves through necessary boundaries. At times this is vital, especially when people are desperate for all-encompassing attention and support.
Boundaries are healthy and very necessary. But boundaries do not restrain love; rather they simply allow us to love in a healthy way for those individuals that need guidance, discipline, and austere limitations.
But whatever you do, do not limit your love to specific groups in church life. Christ's love is universal, and so must ours be.
Alison Barkley lives in Newcastle and is a post graduate student at Deakin University.
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