New York Movie by Edward Hopper
All of my life I have felt like an outsider.
It was difficult growing up with that feeling: like one never belonged, to not "fit in," and to suffer rejection by others. Anyone who has ever felt this way or struggled with being an outsider knows the loneliness that comes with it. The filmmaker Tim Burton has filled his magical films with characters (best exemplified in Edward Scissorhands) who were outsiders. This stems from Burton's own experience. "If you've ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider," he has said, "it never quite leaves you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays within you."
Just as in my childhood dream, I have been that outsider who observes others and trying to figure it all out. Certainly, my being a day-dreaming, shy, introverted, and solitary child did not help make my belonging or being able to join in easy for me. Over the years, I have dreaded social engagements like large parties because I most often feel lonely when I am around people. I find myself withdrawing within myself and wishing I was anywhere but where I was. My preferences are either at home, the library, a movie, a quiet walk in the woods, or somewhere I can be with my private thoughts.
It doesn't help that I am too conservative for my liberal friends and too liberal for my conservative friends. I have never been able to comfortably align myself to either political party, finding neither aligned themselves with the social-justice found in scripture. One of the places I have struggled the most has been in church despite having grown up in it. Part of the problem stemmed from my having been born a natural questioner. My mother and Sunday school teachers grew frustrated with a kid who asked, "If God knew man was going to pick the fruit then why did He put that tree in the garden in the first place? Why didn't He cast Satan to an uninhabited planet instead of earth? After Cain murdered his brother Abel, why is he afraid other people would harm him, since where did those cities of other people come from?"
One time, I remember asking my poor mother, "What if I weren't born in the United States and I wasn't born a Christian. What if I were born a Muslim or a Buddhist? Wouldn't I grow up thinking I was right?" My mother, like my Sunday school teachers, was unable to hold my questions and offer tenderness and patience with them. Instead, she answered, "Well, you weren't." "But what if I was?" "But you weren't. You were born here and you're a Christian, so there is no need to worry about it." But I did.
And what I learned early on from her and the Church was that my questions were unwelcome and a nuisance. So I stopped asking and struggled inwardly. No one told me that it was okay to struggle, to question and that God was a big enough God to allow for them. No one told me, as Paul Tillich wrote, that, "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith."
Thankfully and by the grace of God, I came across the music and the life of Rich Mullins. I remember how much I connected with him not only as an artist but as a Christian of deep questions and struggles. He once said, "It seems that I always am and always have been an outsider. I've never really fit in. I was always too religious for my rowdy friends - they thought I was unbelievably hung up - and too rowdy for my religious friends - they were always praying for me." It was from his deep sense of not belonging that Rich tried to include everyone, to create community for those who were, like him, outsiders. What struck me about this was that it mirrored the early Church, which drew the outcasts, the fringe, the marginalized, and those who so often went unnoticed by society. These were the people that Jesus drew to himself during his life and ministry.
Throughout the gospels, we get a picture of Christ as calling those who went uncalled. Look at those he called to be his disciples (that act in itself was unheard of, as rabbis never asked someone to be their disciple, instead the disciple must approach and ask the rabbi if he could follow him), they were all men who their culture would not have chosen (to read more about this, here is a link to a piece I'd written about it: Follow Me).
Back when I was in school, I hated physical education. Part of this stemmed from the coach picking two boys as captains and then telling them to pick their teams. The rest of us kids stood on the line waiting to be chosen. The longer you stood there, unpicked, the more humiliating it became. It was hard to watch one kid after another getting chosen before you. The worst was to be the two last kids standing on the line and, then, to finally be the very last one who has to be taken and was not chosen at all. This experience leaves a deep impression on a kid. It reemphasizes one's feeling of being unwanted and unliked. Yet I could not help but imagine Jesus standing there, pointing to the ones every other person would overlook, and telling them, "You. You are mine. I want you." It's why I have always loved Christ, even when I struggled within organized Christianity.
Jesus always identified himself with the poor, the neglected, the broken, the hurting, the lonely, the outcast, the forgotten, the refugee, and those that were so often unwelcomed by the religious and the powerful. That is why the Church cannot be a voice for the voiceless if it keeps aligning itself with the powerful and prosperous. One finds him at the bottom of the social ladder, with the least of these, why he welcomed women and children, why he socialized with sinners and prostitutes, why he connected with undesirables and those who the world had turned their backs on. Jesus never meant for his Church to be accepted. Francis Chan, in speaking of the modern Church, particularly in America, said, ". . . the Church needs a reset in a lot of ways. We have become somewhat irrelevant, sadly. But the path to relevance is not by trying to fit in. It's by standing out. It's not be by becoming popular but by becoming rejected." He warned of a Church whose eyes are too fixed on being popular instead of being Christ-like.
For years I hated being an outsider, but as I grow older, the more I realize it is a blessing and not a curse because it gives me a heart for those who feel left out, alone, and unwelcome. My own lonely childhood has allowed me to connect with my adopted son in ways that I never could have otherwise. It is what keeps me open to those who are hurting and in desperate need of being heard. Because of my own wounds, I feel compassionate towards the wounded. Because of my own questions and struggles, I am able to hold the questions and struggles of others. I think this is why those who aren't Christians feel comfortable coming to me. It is why I have a heart for orphans and refugees. It is why I long to build bridges and not walls to separate ourselves from those around us.
Because I so often went unheard growing up, I listen more to others now. Not just to their words, but to their hearts. I see the desire within all of us to be accepted, loved, and found beloved. It is why the gospel is really good news to me because it shows God, through Christ, opening his arms to welcome, to say all can come to the table. Christ shows us a God that says to those who have felt unloved and unwanted, "I see you. I love you. I choose you even when no one else will. You are of great worth." The good news is that God can bring beauty from the brokenness. We should never doubt this because if He could do it through the cross, He can do it through us.
The way of Christ is found not in the path of the powerful, but in the love of the broken for each other. When we attempt to align ourselves with those in power, we lose our true power as Christ-like servants who love the poor, marginalized and oppressed. That's why we must "clothe" ourselves "with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" as Colossians 3:12 commands us. We must see ourselves not in terms of political parties or countries, but solely in terms of Christ and his command that we love as he has loved because he has called us to be compassionate, not comfortable.
Henri Nouwen said it best when he wrote:
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
That is what Christ did. That is what he's calling his Church to do.