Recently I received an email/sermon from a somewhat-young-to-middle-aged person in my circle of friends and family members. The email arrived in my inbox not completely out-of-the-blue, because we’d talked briefly on the phone about a week before and we generally do keep in contact somewhat regularly. But the intensity of the message was a surprise to me. I read it a few times, my thoughts ranging from, “This is a joke! Right? This must be a joke!” to “Oh, wow, so this is the mindframe with which this person is operating,” to “It seems that my decision, months ago, to back away from this relationship still seems to the best decision for now.”
The writer of the email started off strong, asking if I still have certain virtues in my life. The writer knows that I used to be a Christian, and now I am not. (During the past several years, the writer has brushed aside my efforts to explain my reasons for leaving religion.) He/she then mentioned that he/she thinks I am a good person and that I do good things for others, but it is in vain because I am doing these good things with the wrong intentions (I don’t know how this conclusion was reached). The writer went on to say that he/she is concerned that I have been placing too much emphasis on things such as reasoning, human interpretations, science, and other such things. The message ended with a reminder that our lives are fragile and weak. There was a brief sign-off, but no “Have a nice day!” or “Talk to you soon :)”
Sigh. Pause. What do I do with this?
I kept my reply brief. I know the tendencies of the writer to become critical and defensive, and I know that it is useless for me to launch into a long explanation about how I choose to live my life. I sent it and tried to forget about the whole thing, but for me, it’s not so easy to just move on.
Here’s what a lengthy, heartfelt reply might have looked like:
Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I wish, though, that instead of sending me a sermon, you would have at least replied to my lunch invitation a few weeks ago and also many invitations over the last several years. I have been slowly learning to stop asking, because it hurts me too much to hear “No” or to be ignored almost every time, for no reason that I can understand. We could have caught up on each others’ lives. Did you pass that exam? Are you taking time off this fall? Any good books on the go? You could have seen my new apartment. Maybe the Handy-Man would’ve dropped by and you could get to know him a bit more. Maybe you could’ve looked at the photos on my fridge and seen a tiny glimpse of my world.
You asked me if I still have the virtues of grace, mercy, love. Yes, I do. No, I don’t live them out perfectly in every moment of my life, but I’m sure we’d all be hard-pressed to find someone who does. People mess up. People hurt and get hurt. People need to redeem and be redeemed over and over. My desire to be a good person did not go out the window just because I no longer believe in virgin births and resurrections from the dead. I do “good deeds” because it makes me happy and it makes other people happy. It seems like the natural thing to do in most cases, and I don’t feel like I am “going out of my way.” People help me, and I help people — it’s often that simple.
I know that many times over the past couple years, I mention the things that I’ve learned — that the moon is 384,400km from Earth and has a diameter of 3,474km, or that so many animals migrate every year (my favourite migration: the wildebeests!), or that the Laurentide ice sheet covered much of Canada several times in the past. I talked about how cool it was to go to the Deutsche Museum when I was in Germany, and how eye-opening it was to visit Pearl Harbour in Hawaii and the new Human Rights museum in Winnipeg. In your email, your remarks implied that I am placing emphasis on “studying and knowledge” instead of on such things as love and mercy. The mental gymnastics to make sense of this are too challenging for me, so let me just say that these things can all co-exist. They don’t cancel each other out. I guess back when I was a Christian, I also saw things in such a polarized way — either you love Jesus and are filled with good “Christian” virtues, or you study science and become a cold and hard person — but I no longer see it that way.
You reminded me in your email that our lives here on Earth are “weak and feeble.” I know. I am very well aware of that fact. Remember how I used to do bedside vigil for people in the last stages of their lives? Maybe I didn’t tell you about those conferences I went to with other volunteers from the hospice society? Remember when my friend Pat died and I’d spontaneously burst into tears in the days afterwards? Oh, I am so aware that all of us — me, you, everyone — live without guarantees of next year, next month, next week. That’s a scary and beautiful thing about our relationships and all of life.
I am trying to understand why you sent me a sermon, why you seem to pick apart my character and my life. I am trying to understand why you’ve seemingly been avoiding me in real life for quite a while now. Maybe you are struggling with your Christian faith — with doubts, questions, “sin.” Maybe you’re worried that my departure from religion is contagious. Maybe you have a lot of anger about something else, and it’s just directed at me. Maybe you’re waiting for me to get back on the right path (whatever that is, in your opinion).
Psychology and self-improvement articles that I’ve read recently suggest that this is not about me and my supposed problems, but about you and whatever’s going on in your world. They suggest I focus on other things and quit wasting my time and energy on something that isn’t about me in the first place. My psycho-therapist friend reminds me that, despite what Christianity might have taught me, I’m not always to blame; she reminds me that I don’t always have to “go the extra mile” and that relationships are two-way streets. The Handy-Man pats my arm and says, “Put it on the shelf and leave it alone for a while.”
So, I guess that’s what I do now — I put this on the shelf, or at least into the “delete” folder in my email account. With my attempts to be loving and gracious and merciful, and also with my thrist for knowledge and my fascination with how this big ol’ world works, I try to brush aside your words. I back away for a while, instead of trying yet again to explain myself. I wait for time to heal, and I wait for people (myself, included) and circumstances to change. Maybe in a few months, I send you a joke or a “Happy 2018!” card. Maybe if I rent a car someday, I’ll call to let you know I’ll be driving through your town. Maybe we’ll meet for a quick lunch and see where the conversation goes.
For now, I must run. I’ve got books that need to be read and a cup of coffee with a shot of Bailey’s just waiting to be consumed.
Take good care,