My mother is vacationing with a somewhat observant Jewish friend from Israel. I invited them to come visit us on their way back home. “We could go out to dinner,” she said, “but there’s no way I can bring her to your house.”
I would love to think that the problem with my house is that it’s too small or too messy. But unfortunately that’s not a convincing lie. The reason our house is off-limits is that our bookcases prominently display images of a certain Jewish carpenter, his mother and friends.
Even with years of conversations like this under my belt, it still hurts. Moreover, I still don’t know how to respond in practice. When I’ve offered to put away my icons to accommodate visitors, it felt like being ashamed of Christ. When I’ve insisted on keeping them in place, it felt like sacrificing family and friendships to religious self-righteousness. Both “solutions” made me feel rotten – and failed to make my parents feel comfortable.
So many of us converts find that, for our family and friends, our lifestyle is not merely baffling or disagreeable, but offensive. The offense may be that we’ve betrayed the heritage our parents strove mightily (or thought they did) to pass on to us, or that we’ve embraced that which they find abhorrent (I’m thinking of my Catholic friend whose parents are abortion advocates), or that we’ve aligned ourselves with a group our parents perceive as “enemy” or “other” – or all of the above. The way my family feels upon seeing my icons is, I would imagine, similar to the way some evangelical Christian parents feel upon discovering paraphernalia of a homosexual lifestyle and gay-marriage advocacy in their child’s bedroom. It is a surge of pain, which quickly leads to irrationality.
And, six years in, I can say with bitter conviction that there truly is nothing that I, on my own strength, can do about it.
Here is something to consider. When God was offended by the sins of the Amorites and other inhabitants of Canaan, he sent the Israelites to destroy them and build a holy nation over their ruins. But had the Israelites brutalized the Canaanite population of their own initiative, surely they would have suffered a terrible fate at God’s hands.
In other words, we are not the ones to decide how to deal with the offense given by those living on (what appears to be) the opposite side of God’s law. Some of our decisions may be of the violent variety (like bullying gay teenagers), while others, just the opposite, may legitimize and cover up offense which must not be abided (like ordaining gay bishops). Too many of them, of either kind, are myopic and poor.
Instead, we must wait – patiently, and seemingly forever – for God Himself to give judgment. In the meantime, while I don’t know how to deal with my own personal little crisis of offensiveness, here are some things that have NOT worked out well:
Lashing out. My first reaction to my mother’s comment was the desire to say something like, “If my house is not good enough for you and your friends, please don’t ever come here.” Glad I kept my mouth shut.
Telling them what to think. I am frequently tempted to philosophize about how it is sinful blindness and intolerance that leads my parents to condemn my Christianity; if only they were more enlightened and more loving, everything would be honky-dory. Then I imagine myself in their position.
Turning to worldliness. It is helpful to stay away from the source of disagreement or offense and focus on what you have in common. That works for me, up to a point – the point where I discover that, in my constant efforts to keep things friendly with my family, I become more and more focused on the worldly things that they and I have in common, and less and less focused on my life in Christ.
Pretending there’s no problem. I’ve often concluded that the fights my family and I have had about religion were really fueled by something else – personalities, old conflicts, etc. That is true to a significant degree, and addressing those other problems will help. But at the end of the day, God is bigger than our petty conflicts. Once we can see through them, we see Him – and He stands either alongside us or between us.
Carrying the burden of solving the problem. You’re choosing your words carefully, controlling your anger, doing your best to show the love of God, and coming down hard on yourself when you fail to do all those things. But by focusing too hard on what you can do, it’s easy to ignore the agency and dignity of the other party – and above all, the fact that this is really God’s problem to solve.
Shutting down. Not talking is easier than talking – or so it seems. Half the time I avoid mentioning to my parents what I did Sunday morning, where I volunteered last week, what I wrote on this blog. It prevents unpleasant conversations, but it is also a way of giving up on the relationship, and on the souls of the people on the other side.
Take away all these tempting “solutions,” and what you’re left with is a raw and painful mess, right in the place where human beings are supposed to encounter one another. Perhaps the lesson is simply this: Can’t go over it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it – every day, year in and year out, until God brings about His resolution.