Wednesday, August 3, 2011

No Room for Christian Cliques

Years ago my friend, Diane, and I took our children to the kick-off meeting for a Christian homeschool group in south central Florida. It would be our first year homeschooling and our daughters were just kindergarten age. Games were being formed for the children of various ages so that they could get to know each other - kickball for the older kids and a game of duck-duck-goose for the younger. Diane and I happily brought our girls over to the duck-duck-goose circle, looking forward to watching our girls have some fun and play with the many children their age.

Four families that seemed to know each other well were there and were organizing the game. Their children already knew each other well and took seats near each other in the circle. (It turned out they all held positions of leadership at the same church). Our girls sat side by side, eager to be a part of the fun. It was not to be.

As the game progressed, it was apparent that the children who knew each other would only pick their friends. Over and over they kept picking from amongst themselves. The parents watching laughed and cheered them on. No regard was paid to our little girls or the few others that were new to the group. One of the children from those four families yelled, “Mommy, you play, too!” and with that two of the mothers joined the circle. We watched as these mothers also picked from amongst their own children. Kids were being picked, two, three, four, five times. The mothers were repeatedly being picked by the children. Not one of the adults running the game suggested that only children who hadn’t had a turn could be chosen so that everyone would have a chance to play. Needless to say we were shocked. Sorry to say, our dealings with this particular group of “Christian” homeschoolers never got much better.

When I was little my parents enforced various rules rather strictly. One of those rules was that you never went outside with a snack unless you had something to share with everyone. Another rule was that you never handed out birthday invitations in a group setting unless everyone present was being invited. You didn't make plans with one friend in front of another unless you were inviting that friend, too. My mother used to tell me, "The more, the merrier. You wouldn't want to be left behind, would you?" If you saw someone sitting alone, you were to make sure that person did not feel alone. You didn’t ditch one friend for another friend but made the situation inclusive, not exclusive. Do not, absolutely, do not leave anyone out. In short, you were to treat other people the way you wanted to be treated: “…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Leviticus 19:18

I’ve seen the bad behavior above many times over the years. Too often it was delivered at the hands of “Christian” children and parents. I had a friend who became very disillusioned when time after time, she tried to get her children involved in church activities – youth group, kids clubs, etc., only to have them left out, excluded not warmly welcomed into the fold. Mother and daughters alike were made to feel of no importance, not worth getting to know. It wasn't for wont of trying to be friendly. The mom eventually turned to rec league sports feeling that there was more actual kindness and exclusiveness. I have to add that her girls didn’t have six eyes or big green horns. They were sweet, pretty little girls and after years of this treatment, the mother and children developed a cynical attitude toward the church. A "friendly" church or group where the friendships are insular repels newcomers.

However, instead of illustrating only bad behaviors - it is important to recognize the good behavior as well. I have seen particular groups of believers who are not only loving and welcoming, but expect it of their offspring. I remember the welcome, the patience and the kindness extended to one girl who arrived to attend a weekly kids’ club. She was not an easy child but that group showed so much love to her. She didn’t a family willing to drive her places and so a few parents in the church took it upon themselves to make sure she had rides and did not miss the opportunities available to the other children. This child, who had been bullied at school for years, had new-found confidence. The efforts of parents and children who were taught to be inclusive gave her church kids who stuck by her at school – a support system. She was no longer alone and easy pickings. She was transformed.

In 1 Peter 5:8 the Bible teaches that the devil is on the prowl like a lion, seeking out someone to devour. Who is more vulnerable than those not protected by the group? It's the weak or the stragglers that are easy prey. As believers, we should be edifying one another. Walls crumble, not just from the battering onslaught of an enemy; walls crumble due to the erosion of neglect.

Friendliness is a gift. I like to think of my Uncle Gene who “Never Met a Stranger,” my friend’s father, John, and Pastor Rick, who never failed to make a person feel welcome. None of these men stopped at the first meet and greet with their welcoming – they made a point of always recognizing the people around them. I also think of youth pastor, Mark, who never allowed a child in his presence to feel left out. Even if a child stopped coming to youth group, he made it clear that that child was a person worthy of his continued care. He called. He went to games. The Bible says that “He who has friends must show himself friendly,” and it has been warming to know that there are those who recognize the shyness and uncertainty of others and take the first steps….and often the second and the third…in order to bring others into the fold, into a sense of unity and belonging.

We all need role models like this – and we should follow their lead. Being imperfect humans, we will fail. However, we need to correct ourselves. We need to look around, open our eyes to those around us. Is anyone sick? Lonely? Having a difficult time fitting in? There will be those people that it is harder to get to know or more difficult to understand. Many people are not outgoing or just simply feel awkward in social situations. Not everyone is a kindred spirit; yet everyone is of value. No amount of youth retreats, mission trips, etc. will teach this - and what good is it to teach ourselves or our children to reach out into the unknown, if it is second-nature to neglect those in our own circles? It is our responsibility to show kindness, compassion and welcome. Not pity – for it is we that are pitiable if we neglect the potential friends that God has placed in our path.

James 2:1 – 4 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

1 Corinthians 10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.

Luke 10:27 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

Romans 13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 12:13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Hebrews 13: 1 Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Matthew 25: 35 I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

Matt. 25:40 Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me.