Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
It never fails. I’m introduced to someone new at a friendly gathering. We make small talk. And, in the course of exchanging number-and-age-of-kids and where-do-you-work information, it comes out that I’m a seminary student. Nine times out of ten, that’s when the conversation shifts from small talk to awkward talk. Looking somewhat confused, they stare at the wine glass in my hand and mentally run back through our conversation to make sure they haven’t said anything anti-religious, while simultaneously trying to think up a good reason to immediately skedaddle somewhere else. Anywhere else. And get me somewhere else while I wait!
Sure, I wish people would just relax. I mean, it’s not like I’m keeping a notebook of sins to pass along to God. (I generally leave that in the car for people who cut me off in traffic.) But, I get it. I understand that when people hear “seminary student,” their brains immediately reach for all their preconceived notions of what that looks like. And for many people, that’s not a pleasant picture. It can include bad memories of being judged or feeling excluded at church. Some may even believe there’s a disconnect between religion and knowledge (i.e., science), so they view the religious as being uneducated.
There are countless thoughts and emotions at play here, and while it makes things feel awkward sometimes, we’re all guilty. I carry a load of preconceptions with me. For instance, someone would be hard pressed to convince me that people aren’t suffering needlessly because of the state of health care in this country. I have really strong opinions about that topic because I’ve lived through caring for a child with cancer. I’ve also witnessed that same child grow into an adult who has to do battle with insurance companies and Medicaid. Introduce me to an insurance company executive at a party and see how quickly things get awkward!
That’s where things come full circle: As much as I can’t stand it when people avoid me simply because I’m a seminary student, I too avoid—or interrogate—the people I meet based on my experiences and preconceived notions. Our human tendency toward bias is one of the main reasons Jesus spent a good deal of his time justifying himself and his actions to the Pharisees. Jesus was a first century Jewish man, but he wasn’t “acting like it.” Working on the Sabbath and hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors didn’t exactly fit the mold of someone called Rabbi. And while we judge harshly the Pharisees’ behavior toward Jesus from our lofty perch of hindsight, I doubt that many of us would’ve done differently in the same position.
Which leads me straight to my own conviction: What preconceived notions do I have that interfere with my ability to share the love of Christ? Who am I sidestepping because of where they live or what they look like or how they behave? Who have I met at a party, at work, at church, on the street, in a store, that sent me immediately searching for a way out? Not because of who they are… but because of who I am?
God, thank you for giving us the gift of Jesus’ life that we may better see our own lives. Help us listen to the inner guidance of your Holy Spirit, and bring us closer to each and every one of your creation by clearing the cobwebs of preconception from our eyes. Amen.