This little adventure into “Radical Acceptance” and checking out this new church is making me think about a lot of things, and rethink a lot of others. And that’s a good thing.
I’m not generally a touchy-feely kind of guy. At least not with people I barely know, and certainly not with people I’ve just met. So if I meet you in person for the first time, you can safely expect a hardy handshake. Pastor Neill is not like me. He’s a hugger. Worse, he’s a kisser. Me? I tend to think that kissing is reserved for loved ones. It’s an act of intimacy shared with only a few — despite my years in the Middle East where public displays of affection were the norm. So that first Sunday at church as the congregants filed out the door, and the pastor normally (in my experience) shakes everybody’s hand, offering a kind word on the way out, I was caught a little off guard when Neill gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I quickly regained a grip on my composure, smiled, made some off the cuff pleasant remark, and went on my merry way. Okay, so that’s just him; no big deal. A little odd, maybe, but no big deal.
I’ve had a few lunches with him since then, trying to get to know the guy better, to figure out what’s his deal, where he’s coming from, where he’s going, and most importantly, if I want to hitch my wagon to this train. So I’ve got questions. And with years of theological training under my belt, I’ve got a lot of them. Sure, I was knocked off balance by the audacity of his vision and approach to church, but was it really kosher enough for me to make this my new home? And the hugging/kissing issue came up during one of those lunchtime conversations. I don’t remember his precise explanation so I may be mischaracterizing him, but I was left with the impression that it all ties back to making people feel welcomed, loved, and accepted. But the truth might just be a lot simpler: that’s just the kind of guy he is and how he expresses himself.
I didn’t waste a whole lot of time analyzing it. Like I said, it might not be my style, but it’s really no big deal. But today I did start thinking about it again. Isn’t this really inappropriate? Isn’t it crossing that line of intimacy that should be reserved for loved ones?
And then it came to me. That is exactly the case. The whole mission of the Church should be to bring God’s love into this world, to show people that they are accepted and loved, and to mirror that love in real life. As a pastor, Neill is the visible representation of Jesus on the earth. We all are, of course, but as “leader” of a church, he is in a more conspicuous role. For better or for worse, people do look at spiritual leaders differently; they expect more of them and hold them to a higher standard. And in that capacity, as the representative of Jesus, shouldn’t he act like Jesus would? And doesn’t God actually (not just conceptually) love everyone? Wouldn’t he want them welcomed and embraced as intimately as he knows them? Suddenly I saw the kissing in a whole new light. Jesus knows every person who walks in those church doors, and he loves them dearly. Wouldn’t he kiss them? (I mean, I know he’d kiss me, right?) If the pastor’s goal — our goal — is to tend the flock in Jesus’ place, then what better way to show the people that they are loved than to treat them like close family? What better way in this world of hurting people to say “you are loved” — even though we’ve just met?
Okay, I’m not too likely to pick up this habit, but it does make me want to reconsider hugging. On any given day, a significant percentage of the people sitting in the pews will be hurting, will be going through some hard times. And in congregations comprised of people regularly rejected by family, society, and especially the church, that percentage will be even higher. The need to model God’s love is all the more urgent. And an innocent hug or kiss on the cheek becomes all the more significant. It might be just what they need at that moment.
So the next time the pastor gives me the holy greeting, I’ll try to restrain my initial reaction, accept it for what it is, and offer up a quiet prayer. “Thank you, Jesus, for your love.”
Just one more factor to consider in rethinking how we do church.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 1 Thes 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14)