Leaving Salem

I struck up a conversation with a man at the coffee shop the other day. He was a nice chap. We talked about the usual neighborly dribble: The weather, the news, work. When he discovered I was a “Christian,” he could not have been more delighted. He too was a person of deep faith. And my perspective on beliefs and faith became the only topic to which he wanted to speak. This always makes me feel really weird. It is the reason I am sometimes slow to reveal my vocation. I’m not ashamed of my faith or what I do for a living; not in the least. But Christians are the most fixatedly suspicious people I know.

When a Christian discovers that someone else is also a Christian, they always want to square him or her up, to find out what “kind” of Christian he or she is. Are you a Methodist/Lutheran/Pentecostal/Liberal/Evangelical/Catholic? What label does this other person wear? And when they find out that someone is of the ministerial persuasion (a reverend, preacher, or super-spiritual-holy-man-or-woman), well, it becomes something like a press conference, as they pepper you with a million theological questions like “Where did Cain get his wife?”

Or, as with my new-found coffee companion, they squeeze you unmercifully into a preconceived, sanctimonious container. As a minister, they assume you spend all your time reading Old Testament Hebrew, watching the 700 Club, and polishing your halo. They cannot conceive that those of the ministerial guild would actually enjoy drinking a beer and talking about football instead of faith, and that some of us don’t like the 700 Club at all. So I turned the conversation, best I could, to a recent movie I had seen. That was a mistake.

First, it was a movie with an “R” rating, and I was informed that such a transgression did not promote “family values.” And second, in the course of our little chat I had revealed that I saw the movie on a Sunday afternoon: On the Lord’s Day. Here is where my friend moved from visions of my personal holiness to antagonistic, investigative reporter. My ministerial halo was slipping off its axis and obviously had some smudges on it. He could not understand how this was possible. In frustration he asked, “What if Jesus had returned while you were in that movie house on the Christian Sabbath; what would you have done if Jesus had walked in and sat down beside you?”

Really, that’s not a bad question when you think about it.

I suppose if Jesus had actually walked in, I and everyone around me, would have shriveled into the floor like Dorothy’s Wicked Witch of the West or John the Disciple on the Island of Patmos. When John had a mind-numbing vision of the risen Christ he collapsed to the ground as if struck dead. But since my halo was hanging on by only the tip of a devil’s horn, I answered with more sarcasm than sanctity. “Well,” I said, “I believe I would have bought him a coke and a large popcorn.” Need I say that our conversation ended?

Why is it that Christians seem to be the most uptight people in the world? If someone seems to be enjoying life, this is almost always translated by the Christian establishment as some kind of misbehavior. Where did we get the idea that faith has to be so staid and somber, so legalistic and afraid?

Recently, a friend asked me a weightier question than my hypothetical reaction to Jesus in a movie theater. She asked, “In your work, speaking and writing, what do you hope people will take away from it all?” I’ll answer her here. My hope is that people will take spirituality – particularly Christ-centered spirituality – seriously, but not take themselves so seriously. My wish is that people of faith would be exactly that: People of faith. Then, they just might discover the ability to lighten up and live.

Yes, Jesus could show up the next time I find myself in a movie theater. If so, I will probably melt down like so many discarded candy wrappers and popcorn buckets on the floor. But his words to me – his words to us all – would probably be the same he spoke to John on Patmos: “Don’t be afraid.” So enjoy the movies and save him a seat.

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