I just got home from a trip back to OH for a friend’s wedding. It was a great time to see a lot of college friends again, party and so on. But during the festivities I had a few very important conversations that I’ve been reflecting on since then.
I always think of myself as someone who has never successfully proselytized anyone. That’s not quite true. I encouraged one friend to move to Japan and become a Buddhist monk (last I heard, he was going to undergo at least some training before he came back to become a clinical psychologist) and another couple of friends to reconnect with their families’ Judaism.
Apparently, this is only somewhat true. A few of my friends each independently took me aside sometime during the four days I was out there for the wedding and talked me about the impact I had on their lives. They talked about how they had more respect for Christianity and religious people in general because of what they saw in me. One of them is looking for a church to become a member of. One of them might be an ex-atheist in the future. One of them, still an atheist, was still willing to have a long conversation with me about faith and reason (his wife, a pastor, asked me to talk to him because their conversations were upsetting her).
What I realized was that the biggest impact I have on people’s lives is by having relationships with them. Now, most of you are saying “well, yeah, stupid” right now, but I’m an introvert who has always been good at writing, so personal relationships haven’t always been my strong suit or even my first choice for interacting with people. Let’s…just leave it at that for now, because here it gets embarrassing.
I never thought I was having an impact on these friends until they talked to me about it. I wasn’t trying to have an impact on them. On the rare occasions they had questions, I answered them to the best of my ability. I was myself around them because I trust them. I almost never made more than joking invitations to come to church with me at any given time. But somehow, I clearly had a big impact on three different lives.
If you had asked me, I would say that I left barely a ripple on their lives in the religion department. Apparently, I was completely wrong.
I’m so thankful, and…humbled isn’t a strong enough word…that they told me all this. One of them had actually broached the subject before (he was a reference for my seminary applications) but took me aside to expand on what he had said then.
I talk about symptomatic, rather than systematic, theology because when doing theology you can’t get away from yourself. A theology is so often a theologian writ large, and I want to remind myself that this is the case so I don’t get carried away with myself (and so I can jibe others to do the same, if I may). I’m glad that, for a few people at least, my symptomatic theology was something they appreciated and that helped them.
I also talk about practice being more important than doctrine – orthopraxis over orthodoxy. It might be that real practice always comes from doctrine in some way, but I was glad to learn that, at least in little ways, I have actually been living out what I say I should be living out. By consciously and in a disciplined way putting practice before doctrine, I was able to reach people who had never been reached by any amount of doctrine (all three were raised Christian and were familiar with the basic tenets of the faith and had been approached by Christians in the usual way – doctrine first). I know this because they told me.
So I need to think about this a lot more. I need to be more intentional, to know better who I am and what I’m doing. In the meantime, I think that, with this blog coming to a close in the near future, this is a good note to end on personally. I’m not sure if this is self-aggrandizement. It isn’t intended to be. I did my best to make the point that whatever good they might have seen or experienced is the result of my faith life, not the reason for it, but it seemed disingenous not to also say “thank you”, biting back all the sarcastic comments I’d normally bury a compliment like this in.