Friend of Sinners

C.S. Lewis famously opined in the Abolition of Man “In sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” I’m meditating on these words, while reflecting on my own experiences. I think all of us can relate to having a defining moment or two, where we felt as if a piece of us was removed. We sometimes refer to this as a heartbreak, or in more dramatic times we might say “That ripped my heart out.” Disappointment is the price of admission for the human experience, and all things considered, I’ll always opt for this experience instead of nothing at all. But disappointment can have a cumulative impact over time on the human spirit. These disappointments are magnified when they come at the hand of religion or other institutions we are taught to trust without condition. But it is interesting to consider how people respond differently to these defining moments of disappointment.

I was reading yesterday that “when people are committed to a belief and a course of action, clear disconfirming evidence may simply result in deepened conviction and increased proselyting. But there does seem to be a point at which the disconfirming evidence has mounted sufficiently to cause the belief to be rejected.” One of the mitigating influences on people clinging to deeply held beliefs in the face of disconfirming evidence is the presence of a tightly knit social support structure in the form of family and friends. Often people will maintain beliefs simply as to not upset important relationships in their lives. This practice is followed by some so closely that they dare not even entertain any notions of other possibilities for fear of rejection and alienation from those around them.

I talked about some of my own struggles in this area on a recent podcast. The program’s host specifically asked about some of my evolving beliefs and how that has impacted those closest to me. I don’t know that I gave a good answer to this question. I affirmed that my family is great, and loving, because they are both. But in the same breath, I lamented that we really haven’t talked about these issues, at least not in deep and meaningful ways, for extended periods of time. We haven’t done so, mostly, I suspect for the sake of maintaining peace. Or at least not risking what we perceive to be would be a disruption to that peace. But I also understand that the mere absence of conflict isn’t necessarily an indication of a healthy peace. My guess, is that I am like most people, and we are like many families that most often ignore things because the risk of what might happen, or what may be said, is far greater than any rewards of increased understanding that might flow from the process. But at what point is the exchange worth the risk?

It has been my observation that what typically happens, is that we end up seeking out substitute families, tribes, or communities, where we feel comfortable enough to explore these thoughts and feelings without fear of relational suffering or retribution. This is why people find community in all kinds of places outside of family. And I’m not suggesting that this is something that shouldn’t be pursued, because we all need safe places and friendly spaces, but when we do this, our actions are sometimes met with outcries from those nearest to us, words that are spoken as a means to pull us back into the influence of the family, church, or community that believes itself superior to whatever we may be gravitating towards. Clichés like “Family is everything” is a reprise we hear repeated not out of love, but out of manipulation.

Yet even a cursory view of the life and teachings of Jesus reveal something differently that turns these notions on their head. On one occasion the family of Jesus was so convinced that He had actually lost His mind, that they gathered to do an intervention of sorts. As Jesus was teaching, His friends reported that His family had come. Jesus responded in a very curious way, “Who is my family?” He then followed this up by saying that family isn’t defined sufficiently by biology, but by relationship. Jesus stated, “Those who do the will of my Father, this is my mother, brother, and sister.” Jesus was also very careful throughout His life and ministry to closely identify with the outcast, marginalized, and alone. Jesus purposefully hung out with those everyone else shunned.

Perhaps the bulk of our relational energies would be better spent on emulating the actions of Jesus? Identifying those who seem to be disconnected from family, community, and tribes, and seeking to enter relationships with them? What if we made it a priority that no one feel alone. This of course, is an important distinction, because many who aren’t alone may actually feel alone. It is important that we are endeavor to be empathetic to those around us, no matter our perception of them. Of all the titles bestowed upon Jesus, I think the most interesting one, by far, was “Friend of sinners.” I wonder what it would take for me to be called such? What kinds of words and actions should I display to actually be identified by sinners as a friend?

Anything else is perhaps a truncation of who we were intended to be. Although we might be disappointed when we try, we should not give up on cultivating a radical hospitality of welcoming others into our world. The alternative of not trying and remaining alone, or sheltered in families and communities built upon inauthentic expressions of acceptance should be unimaginable to us. The result of living the unimaginable is a life of unfruitfulness devoid of flourishing.

Love someone different than you today. The rewards are eternal.

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