I have a tendency to pull away from people during times of stress. Sometimes this is a necessary thing to do, but it was completely forbidden in my experience with Evangelical World.
During a summer retreat in Estes Park, Colorado with my college church, I fell in love with the idea of complete authenticity. How annoying is it to give the colloquial response “I’m fine” to store clerks who ask how you’re doing, even when you’re not? No one actually admits the truth. We all know that “How are you?” is really more of a greeting than a sincere inquiry.
Everyone was transparent that summer. You could walk up to a stranger at lunch, sit down next to them, and immediately learn everything you never thought you’d want to know about what that person’s life is like. A single conversation could include stories of painful divorces, struggles with internet porn, and drug use without ever learning anyone’s last name. Yes, at times this was extremely intimidating, but in a way, it was also refreshing. Without any pretenses or masks, you knew exactly whom you could trust.
I resolved to be completely authentic after that summer: no more “I’m great, how are you?” platitudes if I wasn’t feeling that great. Wasn’t it a sin to lie, anyway?
That authenticity phase didn’t last a week beyond the retreat. I returned home, got a job at a local restaurant, saw my rapist’s mother walk in and immediately had a panic attack. I started counseling, anti-depressants, and really dealing with un-faced trauma. I started drinking. Complete authenticity? Yeah, screw that.
But there were some bible studies and prayer groups I joined where privacy wasn’t a choice; or at least, it was highly frowned upon. The idea of being open among strangers is terrifying for many people, even without a history of trauma. Just being introverted makes me uncomfortable having to speak in front of crowds if it’s not necessary. I prefer the option of quiet listening and one-on-one conversations. When you are the only one in a small group who hasn’t said anything, though, your lack of participation is obvious. For me, it was not viewed as silent participation, but rebellion. We were Christians; we were a community. That community was automatic because we all loved Jesus, and as such, we had to be open and honest with one another so we could hold each other accountable for any sins.
Per small group instructions, I tried explaining some of my issues once to someone with zero concept of depression and anxiety as legitimate mental disorders. It didn’t go very well. In fact, it scared me out of opening up to people I don’t know ever again, because until I use my own judgment to determine whether or not a person is “safe,” I will be making myself vulnerable to getting hurt. That’s how many churches end up with an increase of empty seats. You can’t force community any more than you can ask someone to do you a favor in such a way that is really volun-telling instead of volunteering.
There is one instance I can think of in which being completely authentic among strangers was one of the best things that happened to me, only it wasn’t me who opened up: it was my future best friend, Kelly. On the first day of Intro to Counseling at seminary, there was a student who made a remark that depression was nothing more than a label used to justify sin. To add further insult to such a horrendous injury, the woman also added that “true Christians” wouldn’t face depression if they had true joy and contentment in Christ.
It was Kelly who immediately stood up and responded, “I’m a Christian, and I have depression. I’ve felt Jesus going through it with me. You can’t tell me that my relationship with him isn’t real.”
I had never been so proud of someone I didn’t know. Immediately after class, I went up to her and introduced myself. She is one of the few people from that toxic environment that I still keep in touch with, though I do wish I hadn’t had to pay $30,000 to be able to meet her. But, “there is a season for everything under the sun,” including an unfinished graduate degree. And through her I have learned that it’s okay to be have faith and still wrestle with doubt; she is one of my favorite sounding boards to share those doubts with.
Now that is community done well.