Becoming a Christian is easy. Living like a Christian is easy. Doing the things a Christian is supposed to do is easy. But actually being a Christian is pretty hard. OK - not really "hard" as in "difficult" but rather "hard" as in "it takes actual work." It requires you to do things that a lot of people — even well-meaning Christians - just aren't comfortable doing. And that's been the case for me for the majority of my life.
For so, so many years I’ve tried to do the right things and read the right things and know the right things. I've never not been in church. I was raised in the church and have always known what I believe. And not just because it's what I was raised to believe. I've done the math and decided for myself. I've been involved in church since I was a teenager. I've held leadership positions, led worship, and even shared in the sermon. I've helped feed the homeless, organized youth events, and worked in a theatre and puppet ministry. I've read Bonhoeffer and Chesterton and Lewis, worked through group studies of works by Francis Chan and Richard Foster, and spent countless hours discussing theology with friends and family.
Every bit of that was with the most sincere heart and with the intention of ministering to others or furthering my own Christian walk. But in the end, it’s all been so academic — just a bunch of unapplied head knowledge and useless actions — and, like it says in Isaiah, "like filthy rags." Because Christ didn’t call us to know all sorts of facts and figures, to be able to quote this or that writer, to do all sorts of stuff, or to memorize all the scriptures. There might be value in those things but there are far more important things we are to be about. No, He simply told us, above all else, to 1) love God and 2) love people. And that's not a comfortable thing to do. It requires relationship and relationship is a messy thing.
To be in relationship with someone means you have to accept all of them — even the ugly parts — and still stick around. To be in relationship with someone means you have to be willing to be vulnerable with them and allow them to be vulnerable with you, which is even harder for a lot of people. It means celebrating with them in their joy and hurting with them in their grief. But hurting doesn't feel like you're doing anything good. For so many years Christians have had it drilled into their heads that they are supposed to make other peoples' lives better with the Gospel and pain sure doesn't feel like "better", does it? But that's what we're called to do and I failed miserably.
Another thing that kept me from really engaging with people is a feeling of inadequacy. For years I wouldn’t step out of my own little box because I thought I had to have answers in order to be used effectively. News flash: that’s a load of crap. What people really want from you is authenticity. They want to know that you're being real with them, not telling them what you think they want to hear. They don't want a lot of lip service and pat answers. They want truth. They'll ask hard questions but they would rather you give them an honest "I don't know" than for you to BS your way through something that sounds good.
Every Wednesday through the summer, our church gathers at a park in one of the project neighborhoods in town. We just hang out, play with the kids, talk with people, occasionally have some food. No agenda — just being there. Our pastor told a story a couple weeks ago about something that happened one week. One of the children — a little girl — had gotten her hands all dirty and he was showing her how to wash them off in a puddle. She wanted to dry them off on his shirt but he kept not letting her and she went off with the still wet. Later though, he just broke down when it really hit him that he was valuing his shirt over her. Instead of having the attitude of a servant, he didn't want to get a stupid t-shirt dirty.
It's only taken me 50 years (almost) to figure out this very simple thing. I need to stop trying to be a Christian and just be Christian. I need to stop trying to do all this stuff for humanity and just love on people whoever they are, however they are, wherever they are and in whatever way I can at that moment. And sometimes that means getting messy.