One fall, a few years ago, found Rachel and I hosting a new group of people for dinner, and we were a little anxious. It was a Community Group for the church we attended before coming to Cobblestone, a group that would meet weekly throughout the school year in order to create community for one another. We would share life together; our anxieties, our failures, and our successes. We would study Scripture, pray, and serve together as well. In a city that was busy, and always on the go, these groups were, in many ways, an anchor for our lives. We had been in other groups, and it had gone well, but for a variety of reasons we had a lot of new people this year, and we were nervous. Our first meeting was sharing dinner together, and to be honest, it was a little awkward. There were lots of pauses and breaks in conversation, and after it was over I worried that we were going to be in for our share of uncomfortable evenings. But, as the year went on and we continued to meet and share in one another’s lives, things began to change. We began to really know one another, we began to care for each other, and we realized that despite being very different in many ways we were all actually struggling with similar challenges. People who I thought had little to contribute to the group would sometimes say something very profound that would stick with everyone. What that group really showed me is that everybody is complex, and everyone has something to share.
Typically when I meet someone I want to quickly categorize them because it is convenient and easy. Categories I like to use are: with me or against me, good or bad, mature or immature, giver or receiver. I do not write people’s names under labels with these titles in a book or anything, but often whatever my initial impression of someone is becomes my default way to interact with them. If I think someone is against me, I will always be ready for a confrontation. If I feel that someone is with me I’ll be more likely to listen to their side of the story.
There are three major negatives of treating people like this. First, it is dehumanizing to them. I am reducing people to an adjective (good, bad, mature, etc.) simply because I do not want to involve myself with the complexity of their life. Second, when I treat people like this I ignore the ways that I could learn from them. I either assume that everything from their mouths is gold, or that there is nothing that I could possibly learn from them. Third, it is dehumanizing to me. Categorizing people keeps them at a distance. They cannot affect me, nor can they really get to know me. And the one thing all of us need is to be seen, known, and loved by another. This cannot happen if we keep people at a safe distance from us.
Robert Lupton, when writing about a similar theme, says, “When my goal is to change people, I subtly communicate: Something is wrong with you; I am okay. You are ignorant; I am enlightened. You are wrong; I am right. If our relationship is defined as healer to patient, I must remain strong and you must remain sick for our interaction to continue.” How degrading and arrogant it is to always treat somebody like they are always wrong, or always in need of something from you. How damaging it is to be the one who thinks they have to be right all the time or strong all the time.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul writes that the Spirit of God has given each person unique and different gifts “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This highlights once again that the complexity and differences of those around us are good, and in fact, we need one another to reach fullness in Christ.
I share these thoughts not just because we are planning on starting our own types of community groups in the fall (which we are), and not just because the people we treat most often like an adjective are ‘the poor’ (to hear more about this come to the next CFCG), but also because we just need to know that we too are more than an adjective. That the God who sees all our actions and knows all our thoughts, who sees the good and bad, the smart and dumb, the pretty and ugly, still loves us and moves towards us, and invites us to do the same with others.