Over the years, I have talked with many moms whose daughters are preoccupied with one thing or another. For some it’s Barbie; for others it’s Dora; for my daughter, however, it’s the seasons. You might call Maggie our seasonal alert system. It only makes sense, really. We teach kids the months of the year, assigning three to each season and say “Now these months belong here and during this time the weather is like this.” Of course, as adults we know that there are more subtle distinctions and that spring eases May into summer and fall into winter; that there will be a few chilly days in July and a few sunny days in February. But this is not the case for five-year-olds, at least not ours anyway. With great frequency, usually in connection with picking her clothes for the day, Maggie will ask “Mommy, is it [insert much anticipated next season]?” Now this is tricky because if I respond with, let’s say, “Yes, it’s summer, sweetie,” then whatever the temperature outside, Maggie immediately runs for her suit and heads for the sprinkler, ready for a day of fun in the sun. If I try to qualify my answer, she is quick to rebut my qualification by pointing to the calendar and saying “But it’s June! That means summer, which also means swimming!”
I suppose in some ways, we are all like Maggie. We like to put everything (and everyone) in tidy categories. We like to label people so we can know what to expect, sorting people like kitchen utensils, by purpose and appearance. “Forks and knives to the left of the sink in the silverware drawer.” And Crazy Cousin Eddy in the “Relatives to be Avoided at Thanksgiving Dinner” drawer.” In certain respects, this type of categorization is helpful. You certainly don’t go looking for a friend amongst the “People I Always Argue about Politics With” drawer or potential spouses in the “Wouldn’t Trust With my Pet Hermit Crab” drawer. Still, it can also act as a barrier in relating to people whom you might otherwise enjoy getting to know.
Sometimes rather than putting other people in such categories, you find that you have placed yourself in one or two mislabeled drawers. This fact struck me, recently, while reading for my upcoming book club meeting. The book is an interesting work of historical fiction, set at the end of WWII on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. The characters were all charming and entertaining until the shrewish Christian lady entered upon the scene to ruin all their fun and give faith a bad name. I meet this character often in various works of contemporary fiction and cinema. Yet, having lived my entire life associated with church or another, I can honestly say I have never encountered her or the type of pharisaical maliciousness she displays. That is not to say I have not encountered fallen and flawed individuals and heard many accounts of rudeness and insensitivity, but the majority of committed Christian folk I know are pilgrims like me, doing the best they can and quite aware of their own failings. Of course, there are the all too public exceptions, but isn’t that true of any group?
The novel I mentioned earlier deals with a great many Germans but doesn’t equate all of them with Hitler. So why not extend the same benefit of the doubt to those who profess their sinfulness and are seeking to be transformed? Whenever I encounter such characters in books or films, my first instinct is one of shame and apologetic embarrassment. But why should this be when although I have sometimes behaved badly toward people, it has rarely been a conscious, much less malicious, act. I often fail to live up to the standards of Christ but when I (like many of those I know) am confronted with my wrong deeds, I seek forgiveness and repent. The church is supposed to be full of sinners, for where else can we go? And why is it that those outside of the church seem unwilling to accept the fact that we freely acknowledge our own limitations? Sadly, I think it is because to do so would mean taking us out of the drawers labeled “Hypocrites and Bigots” and thinking long and hard about what drawer we actually belong in. Or if we aren’t all ignorant at best and prejudiced at worst, what does that mean about the drawer you are living in?
To me, one of the greatest tragic scenes in literature occurs in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables when Javert has triumphed in his capture of the “criminal” Jean Valjean, but in doing so he is confronted with something that he has no category for. He is able to recognize the transformation of Valjean from thief to upright citizen but is unwilling to accept that transformation and would rather die than define Valjean as his equal or, worse, his superior. I am no Jean Valjean, but we do have a few things in common. We are both recipients of undeserved grace; both humbled and transformed by the sacrifice of another. It is interesting to me to compare the portraits of Christians coming from contemporary literature and those long past. In many of the classics (e.g., Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, Bronte), there are examples of the type of religious folk represented in more contemporary works. But they are shown for what they are—wolves in sheep’s clothing. And other examples of true sheep are given to balance the scales. Perhaps contemporary writers need to take a break from organizing their drawers and get to know the contents a bit better before making too hasty an assignment. Perhaps, too, we need to make our own purpose more clear and apparent. Let us not go quietly into the “Crazy, Mean Religious People” drawer. Let us refuse to be discouraged by those who wish to believe that there are no Christians worth knowing. But all the while let us love our neighbor as ourselves is such a way that there is nowhere to put us but in the “People Who Love and Care for Those Around Them” drawer.