While I’ve lived all over the world at various times, when I’m at home in Edmonton I have always lived in and around the same neighbourhood. Many of my grown neighbours are former elementary, junior high and high school classmates. And of course my family knew a lot of the other families through neighbourhood sports, or charity drives, or just by living on the same street. It’s a very nice neighbourhood that way.
I tend to know these people in an usual way. I not only know them, but I know their families intimately too. I’ve been in their houses while I was still young enough that a lot of adults don’t regulate their behaviour in front of you. You get to see what really goes on rather than what gets posed for the Christmas card. Just as we know our families, our families know aspects of us. But as I’ve written in the past (Family Blindness), on average families are the people who know each other the least. They never revise their early views and yet people grow and change a great deal through puberty, adulthood, life experience, etc. etc.
One of those old family friends and I ran into each other at the store the other day. Something had happened to her and we got talking about how ours, like most families, have strange ideas of who we are. If you asked our friends or co-workers and then asked our families to describe us, the descriptions would be so far apart that you wouldn’t even think it was possible that they were talking about the same person. I did confirm that in my experience most of us think we know a lot about each other, but in fact only a few of us have ever really put any effort into learning anything current—we all just routinely speculate wildly based on really old information. But those speculations are all quite telling because, as Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
She was telling me how much her family speculates about her life just because she doesn’t join them at church. In my neighbour’s case, her family is very religious in quite a harsh sort of way. They often tackle any perceived life issues through that lens. She’s actually taken my courses so she doesn’t struggle with depression or addiction anymore, but when she had a struggle with prescription drugs in the past, her family’s answer was that she should go to church more often. That’s hilarious advice to me because out of all of her family she is the only one who lives a spiritual life.
One Christmas her family went to a church dinner. They formed a group of nine at a ten-person table. An elderly man asked if he could join them and they politely agreed. I say “politely” because they didn’t actually invite him to join with them in their celebration—they just didn’t stop him from sitting there. Despite the fact that the man was clearly alone (and that it was Christmas), they completely ignored him to the point where they only thing they said to him was yes he could sit there, and Merry Christmas when they left. Only my friend engaged the man in conversation.
My neighbour didn’t know her family already knew that the man’s wife of 60 years had recently passed. This was his first Christmas alone—and that was how her family handled it. They ignored him. That couple had been in church every week. Everyone knew his situation. And yet no one thought that some compassion or assistance was in order except the only person who wasn’t normally there. All while her family judgmentally whispered about him rather than talking with him. But my neighbour did what I’ve always known her to—she offered the man love simply with her presence. This neighbour was always great that way. She was quiet with him when he needed that, and she talked when that’s what he needed.
So what was her family doing while she was connecting with the man? More judging. They judged everyone’s eating habits, their pot-luck cooking skills, their clothes, the fact that they were divorced, or that their children had children out of wedlock etc. etc. etc. She said they were just as they’d always been since we were kids: cruel, uncharitable, unkind and judgmental. But because they were in a building with a pointy roof they thought it was all-good. Meanwhile, nearby their heathen kid was busy being loving, patient and charitable. I suspect Jesus probably would have wanted to sit with my friend and the old man.
When we were walking back from the store my neighbour told me she that, as she’s aged, she finds she has less and less tolerance for her family’s overly negative approach to other people and she’s started to say something. For instance, she recently challenged her mother who is both against abortion and yet she thinks any woman who has a child out of wedlock should be kicked out of the congregation…?
Her brother is well known in the neighbourhood for being uncomfortably strict with his likely-to-be-rebellious kids, and everyone’s witnessed a behaviour shift that lends credibility to the gossip that he finally chose to treat his truly insane road rage and his loud, rude, judgmental marriage with some medication. And yet he’s constantly telling others how to live.
One family member is a drug addict and another an alcoholic. And despite all of that the worst case is actually her father, who was caught molesting children in his past!! And yet her mother (who knows of this past) thinks all child molesters should be murdered!? Wow. Wow. And double wow. And they think their super nice kid is in danger if she doesn’t join them in a special building…?
Meanwhile, there’s my neighbour letting addicts stay with her while they transition. She took in a homeless father and son. She works for several volunteer organizations, and I’ve never known her to be anything but brave when it comes to standing up for what she believes in. She was everyone’s favourite babysitter because she was always so loving, patient and compassionate.
I have a lot of Atheist friends and a lot of very religious friends. All of them are my friends because they are loving and that makes them nice to be around. Some love using secular language, some through the language of their faith. What’s important about that isn’t which faith, it’s that they have chosen to practice their faith using love, patience and compassion as their guiding light. They are invested in actually doing things to make the world a better place. Some of my own college students have traveled around the world with their congregations to work on very meaningful projects that drastically improved the lives of the world’s less-fortunate. That’s spirituality as a verb. That’s beautiful.
If you travel enough you see that churches have done some pretty impressive things around the world. But it wasn’t really “the church.” It was the individuals within it. It was they who carried the spirit of their religion into battle. It was they who faced the challenges of this world by actually acting as the hands of God. That’s how you make the world better. Sitting in judgment won’t earn you anything but a life of negativity.
Things are not what they are called. Life is a verb not a set of rules. Whether you’re in a religion or not is irrelevant. What counts is how capable you are of love. If your congregation helps facilitate that then that sounds like a wonderful group to be a part of. Because the more people you can love the more connected you are to the power that creates everything. And it doesn’t matter if that power is named by a prophet or a physicist, how we come to know it is through the actions people take in their lives. So if you want the world to be a better place, don’t tell us what that looks like—get down on your knees and start scrubbing. Because if you want to clean up the world, before any of us judges others maybe we should all start by sweeping in front of our own doors. I know I’m going to go do that with my own right now. I hope you’ll join me.
peace, love, and God Bless. s