I went to Bible Study Fellowship the very first week of college, still so new to faith I had never called myself a Christian out loud. It was with a giddy, electrified feeling that I sat in the college chapel basement in the circle of couches and chairs. Someone led us all in prayer and we took turns reading that night’s chapter out loud verse by verse. We dug into the brownies someone had brought and we wrestled with questions about the Book – politely. This was Minnesota, after all, so we kept it nice.
It was the first of many times I’d come to Bible study that year, but I never made any lasting friends there. Christians at my college were a tiny minority, and I came to know most of them by sight and many by name, but aside from a few conversations with a senior in my major, we rarely spoke outside of the basement. Maybe it was the rainbow pride button pinned to my backpack. Maybe we were just from different worlds. These were the kids of pastors and missionaries, and my childhood had been half-heathen, my teenage years fully so. I’d never known their style of prayer, spontaneous and somewhat pleading, or their style of music, simple but full of joyful praise. I wasn’t sure yet where (or whether) I wanted to go to church, and I didn’t really know where they went. No one ever invited me to come with them.
I never quite felt at home with these people. I wasn’t sure if they really liked me. I made other friends, most of whom were not Christian. These were the people who invited me to eat meals they’d cooked, have movie nights with them, sit next to them in class. My problems never saw the industrial fluorescent light of the Chapel basement, but they were spilled out for friends who shared cafeteria tables and dorm rooms with me, who invited me to swing dance on Saturday nights and baked me cinnamon rolls on lazy Sunday mornings. I drifted in and out of campus Christian culture, mostly too concerned with finals and volunteering to carve out much time to explore my faith. The Christian kids and I passed each other in school hallways and smiled, but rarely did we talk.
If we were all sitting in that room again, nine years later, sunk into the plush couches with a panful of brownies between us, I would want to ask them why. Why did they see me, the weirdo at Bible study, clearly curious but unfamiliar with this new world, and not eagerly embrace me? Why didn’t they try to teach me what they knew, ask me questions about my life and the pride button on my backpack and really listen? Did they not want to risk the awkwardness, the discomfort? Were they convinced I wouldn’t listen? Were they too preoccupied with passing their classes? Did gaining or losing a new member of the Body seem so trivial to them?
Of course, I have to own my own failures too. I was the one who lacked the passion to show up at Bible study much after that first term, who visited many churches in the area once and never went back. I never asked them to a meal either or asked them probing questions about their lives. I was certainly very preoccupied with classes and made very little time to think or talk about God. These things can’t be discounted. But what I barely realized, and what I’m sure was clear to them, was that I needed guidance and encouragement in my faith. There I was, having just escaped Egypt, dazed by my new freedom, facing many temptations in the desert, and utterly at a loss for which direction to move in now. I needed someone who cared enough to guide me.
Their failure in my life was small, a tiny symptom of a terrible trend in the whole Church: lack of love. It was lack of love that stopped them from befriending me, and it was lack of love that’s led to torture and holy war and the culture wars. We Christians fail at the clearest, most important instructions we’ve ever been given. We don’t love our neighbors enough, we don’t love our enemies enough, and sometimes we don’t even love each other. Jesus said we would be known by our love for each other. That’s easy to say and to intellectually believe, but what does love look like? Sometimes it simply looks like listening to people talk about their lives, serving them dinner, inviting them to church. The basics.
Of course, now I’ve been a Christian for almost nine years, and I’m much less clueless than I was, but I still fail at this very thing all the time. Now I live in a city, walk to work through crowds, sit in a cubicle maze, and I’m surrounded by people who in so many ways are lonely and hurting and confused, and I do not love them like I should. I’m shy, I’m lazy, I’m preoccupied, I’m self-absorbed. I try not to be actively unloving, but I forget to be actively loving.
I believe God, with infinite patience, forgives me my lack of love. Likewise, I must try to forgive myself and all the other Christians who have failed and continue to fail at love. Because the really glorious thing in all this? We Christians fail all the time, but God cannot fail. Our best love is conditional and flawed, but God’s love is complete, touching everything in the world, falling like rain on parched, cracked ground. I want to dance in that rain, cup it in my hands, save it by the barrel, and quench somebody’s thirst on some ordinary day, maybe in a dingy church basement.