Many churches have a beautiful Christmas tradition of filling their spaces with poinsettias for Christmas services.
The bright blooms set against the greenery and lighting of the season can make for a stunning display. It can be a gorgeous visual invitation into a very special experience of worship.
It can be an elegant, exquisite sight to behold. Wonderfully fragrant. A powerful symbol of the season.
And it makes me 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 the time I was about 10 until I was 17 just to help me get through the season.
Even now I basically subsist on Claritin and Benadryl from March through October.
So, every winter, those wonderful displays of red or white Christmas flowers in the sanctuary bring on itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, chest congestion, and a scratchy sore throat.
I know the people who decorate the churches 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 always been worth the tradeoff.
There’s no place I’d rather be than in a beautifully adorned sanctuary with 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 the last few Christmases, as I’ve fought back the coughs and sneezes, I’ve started wondering…
What other things might we be doing in our churches that are—completely unintentionally—making people “sick?”
Maybe not so much physically, but spiritually?
The road paved with good intentions
What’s struck me is not only that the folks who place poinsettias in the sanctuary obviously aren’t trying to illicit an allergic reaction, but that it doesn’t even occur to them that such a thing might happen.
And that’s the issue.
We do things all the time that causes harm to others without ever realizing it.
And we do it because it doesn’t even occur to us that it’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, we too often 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, 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 particular tribes.
Perception is reality
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 are permitted by “good Christians.”
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 think 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.
Unconditional love is hard
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.
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.
Cheap grace isn’t cheap
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. Well-being. Dignity and respect for all.
The first of John Wesley’s rules for the people called Methodists was “Do no harm.”
As we prepare to enter into a new year, may all our good intentions be matched by words and actions that cause no harm but instead spread true peace and goodwill.
May we spread shalom.
And may our cures stop making people sick.
Adapted from an article original posted Dec. 31, 2013