In my home church, we have a beautiful Christmas tradition of lining the altar with white poinsettias for our Christmas services. The bright blooms set against the greenery and lighting of the season makes for a stunning display. It is a gorgeous visual invitation into a very special experience of worship.
It is an elegant, exquisite sight to behold. It is wonderfully fragrant. It is a powerful symbol of the season.
And it makes me sick. Literally. Sick.
Since boyhood, I’ve been subject to pollen allergies. When I played Little League baseball in the spring, my eyes would often swell almost shut from all the blooming flowers and trees and the fresh-cut grass of the ballfields. I took allergy shots every week from age 10-17 just to help me get through the season. Even now I basically subsist on Claritin and Benadryl during March and April.
So, every winter, that wonderful display of white Christmas flowers in the sanctuary brings on itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, chest congestion, and a scratchy sore throat.
I know the people who decorate the church aren’t intentionally trying to make anyone sick. They’re authentically trying to create a very special experience for people.
And for me, it’s worth the tradeoff. There’s no place I’d rather be than in that sanctuary with my church family on those most holy of days. So I pop an antihistamine and gut it out (and, admittedly, whine a bit to my wife and kids…we all need to vent, right?!).
But this Christmas, as I sat in my pew and fought back the coughs and sneezes, I started wondering…
What other things might we be doing in our churches that are—completely unintentionally—making people “sick?” Not so much physically, but spiritually?
What occurred to me was that not only were the folks who placed the poinsettias obviously not trying to illicit an allergic reaction, but it didn’t even occur to them that it might happen.
And that’s the thing. We do things all the time that somehow cause some harm to others. And we do it because it doesn’t even occur to us that that’s what’s happening.
In a way, it’s understandable. We’re experiencing something deeply meaningful and we want to share that experience with others. Our intentions are good.
Unfortunately, too often we fail to translate that experience to others’ perspectives. Especially if they’ve had a bad experience with church in the past.
In our efforts to spread our joy, to include more people in our experience, we say and do things that make others feel more and more excluded. Not because we’re mean or bad or evil, but because we simply don’t consider how our words and actions are perceived outside of our tribe.
I think this may be especially true when we see people engaged in what we perceive to be behaviors that seem contrary to what we’ve been taught to believe. In our efforts to “save” them from such behaviors, we usually end up doing more harm than good.
We don’t mean to, but that’s what happens.
And so we say things like, “The most loving thing I can do for someone is to point out their sin so they can correct it and get right with Jesus. If I see someone drowning, should I not throw them a life vest? If someone is falling out of a plane should I not give them a parachute?”
On the surface, that all seems noble enough. And it’s true. If we see someone we love doing something harmful, our natural tendency is to intervene.
But what we fail to realize is how that sentiment is often understood. In our efforts to be helpful, we are instead perceived as being critical and disparaging. It’s not our intent. But we have to recognize that perception is reality.
To the folks we’re trying to help, it doesn’t sound like help. It sounds like judgment. Like condemnation. Sometimes it even sounds like hate.
Our poinsettias become poison.
Here’s the thing…
Unconditional love is hard. It requires us not only to reach out to others, but to put ourselves in their place. To walk alongside them in whatever their experience is. To not try to “fix” them, but to simply be present, no matter what.
The difference is our focus. Are we going to focus on what we perceive to be peoples’ sins? Or are we going to focus on God’s grace?
Jesus didn’t just offer people a life vest or a parachute. He gave up his life vest. He handed over his parachute.
There is a temptation to look at what I’m saying here and say it’s too easy on sin. To say that it’s just a weak excuse to accept what Diedrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.”
But in reality, there’s nothing harder on sin than grace. Because grace is the only thing that breaks sin’s power.
The message of the gospel is not sin management. It’s shalom.
As we enter into a new year, may we learn to focus not on sin and judgment, but on unconditional love and grace.
May all our good intentions be matched by words and actions that cause no harm but instead spread true peace and goodwill.