I am both an introvert and starting a church, which is not the easiest combination. People find out what I do and they have questions to discuss. Not simple questions, but serious, complex questions about God, life, church, death, and life-after-death, just to name a few. I love to have these conversations, but admittedly there are times when I don’t feel up for it.
Recently we were out for the evening, dinner with friends and then to a bar to see a band perform. While waiting for the band to take the stage, I was introduced to someone as, “This is Jennifer. She is starting ‘The Other Church’ along with her friend, Erik.” I was asked what The Other Church is, where we meet, the usual questions. After I talked a bit about what I am doing and why, he asked, “So what do you think of the bible?” Based on the sudden intensity in his voice and body language, I suspect that I had ventured out of his comfort zone and was now being tested to determine how much of a heretic I might be. Okay, maybe I’m overstating it a little. But seriously, he wanted an answer to a big question, and I just wanted to go into the other room where the band would soon be playing.
Sometimes the questions are like this guy’s, a little accusatory or at least awkward. Often people are interested in the opportunity to explore something. Conversation tends to delve quickly into deep waters and I admire the bravery I see as people share deeply personal thoughts. However I have occasions where I want to say, “I had a really long day and don’t feel up for this conversation right now. Could we talk another time?” But I don’t. I listen and I answer and I ask questions in return.
I don’t feel a responsibility to have the answers for people, because I don’t know the answers. Instead I think of my job as more of a guide, walking alongside others in conversation and exploring with them the various subjects that come up. I might have some expertise because of my education or experience, but I do not consider myself to be an expert. The things I share and the questions I ask aren’t meant to convince someone to think like me, but rather to consider something from a different perspective. Often I find myself not wanting to shift a person’s thinking but to expand a thought or idea. I want to make God bigger. I want to make the connection between each of us as humans stronger. When I see a narrow God or a dividing perspective in someone, I like to pull it apart just a little in order to make room for something more. And yet there are times I am not up for the task. So back to the bar and the other night…
I listened to my new acquaintance articulate his view of the bible – each and every verse as the full authority of who God is – and insinuate that I do not take the bible seriously. In my fatigue I then pulled out my “Game On!” strategy. The bible has some very difficult passages in which God instructs certain things to be done. These passages are rarely, if ever, read. If one does come up, the verse or passage is usually dealt with in such a sanitized way that the consequences of the content are largely ignored. So in my effort to move this along without backing down, I loosely quoted one of these difficult passages and asked,
“What does that verse teach you about God? How do you honor the verse equally with all the other verses in the bible? My guess is that you don’t. In reality we all pick and choose the parts of the bible we like, and dismiss the parts that we don’t like. I am suggesting that the bible is a complex book full of paradox, tension, and even occasionally contradiction. We can either hide behind a position that is impossible to live out or we can be honest about the difficulties and trust that God can handle our questions and discomforts.”
This is not the conversation I wanted to have. I think the guy was a bit antagonistic, but I think he was also sincere in the attempt to navigate his discomfort. I should have listened and asked questions. Instead I got defensive and articulated my view in a way that didn’t further conversation but rather shut conversation down. I forgot that he and I have more in common in our love of the bible than where we differ in terms of its content. I forgot that I am not an expert, just an explorer. I could have been kinder. I should have been more thoughtful. But I was tired and wanted to stop talking.
Perhaps what I should have done was focus on the commonality – two people in search of a God worth following. And perhaps I should have been honest about my limitations in such a serious conversation. I would have thought that being in a bar at 10:00 pm on a Friday would alert him of my possible limitations, but in reality this happens to me in all kinds of places and at all times of day. And perhaps most of all, I should have said upon introduction, “I would love to have this conversation of what I am doing and why, but let’s do it another time.” Not my best moment, but I hope to do better next time.