“I hate you.” Those words sound so hurtful, angry, violent and harsh. Have you ever said them? Have you ever heard them? Have they ever been directed at you? These words are weapons with only one intention: to inflict damage and we often bear the scars of them.
Tammie was cleaning the kids desks at home when she found a little trinket box. It was decorated in true Mia fashion (she is very expressive). Tammie opened the box, to find not only the storage of hidden treasures, but a message painted in red on the inside cover. “I hate you Joe.” Ouch. She showed it to me. As appalled as we both were about these forceful words, we also could not stop from laughing. Why? We laughed because it was so outrageous. Mia loves her older brother, looks up to him, seeks his approval, goes out of her way to do nice things for him, and often (too often in my book) allows him to take the lead whenever they are playing together. Yet at the same time we both could see it. Mia lives her life with her heart on her sleeve. It is one of things I admire in her, but when her feelings get hurt, her heart breaks. She must have created this message after an argument, or after a misunderstanding, or one of those moments when kids are just mean to each other. I could imagine it, storming off to her room in tears. The box was a welcomed distraction. Out came the paint, and a way to express the humiliation as she felt cross in the heat moment. “I hate you Joe.” It probably would not be the last time she said it. We were both pretty sure it wasn’t the first time either. “Oh Mia” we said.
We laughed, because the kids were playing so beautifully when Tammie made this discovery. In the last year both kids have grown up tremendously, and their relationship has only strengthened. We laughed not because the words were funny; they are not funny at all. We laughed because the greater truth is love. Suffering is true. Violence is real. Taking out your frustrations on another person are the symptoms of that internal pain. Our news is so loaded with stories of heartache. Our experience knows it too well. We see it all around us. The truth remains that love is greater than our pain. When people reconcile, there is joy and laughter. Where there is love, there can be forgiveness and hope. When relationships break there is death and mourning. When bonds are reestablished there is new life. We laughed at Mia’s “I hate you” box, because we heard their laughter coming from the basement, and we knew the love we shared as a family was written far deeper on our hearts than paint in a box. Later I thought about what would have happened if we were caught laughing when the kids came up the stairs. Maybe I’d have a box with my name on it too.
The church is in the reconciliation business, and we can stand in the fray to help facilitate a turn from hate towards love; from misunderstanding to understanding; from words that hurt to words that heal; from repentance to forgiveness, from violence to embrace, from pushing away to drawing near. Look to Jesus. When we think of the cross we often look past the horror and violence of it, because we know the greater truth – Jesus went to the cross out of love. It is the kind of love that conquers hate once and for all. “God proves his love for us that while we were still yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Ponder those words and feel them. You know their truth – even when you run and shout and shake your fist at God. If you are like me, you hope others ponder and believe them too.
The Worst Three Words
The worst three words we can hear are not, “I hate you,” but “I don’t care.” The true enemy is not hate, it is indifference. We can’t make people care or see how important faith is when they simply are not interested. When people look at the church as irrelevant, or they structure their time and priorities that have little or nothing to do with us, because they don’t believe it is worth their time or effort, then those words, “I don’t care” really hurt us. They hurt because we know how deep God’s love burns for this world and we are eager to be part of it, while others (especially those close to us) are missing out. We can feel rejected and dispirited. Maybe we even start to hate ourselves for not being able to write those words of love upon them in anything other than erasable ink. We ask ourselves, “What must we do to get them to come?”
I believe that trying to get people to church who are not interested in coming in the first place is a losing proposition. We need to ask better questions than which marketing techniques or programmatic offerings we should put together (along with all the resources to support them) in order to get people in the door. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to get people in the doors who don’t want to step inside. Church can be a very scary place for people. The question, “what must we do to get them to come?” is not really about attendance numbers. It is about relationships. What we are really asking is how to make the connections we are missing.
I suggest these strategies:
Love conquers hate, and difference making (as in making a difference) trumps indifference. Can we articulate how the love of God in Christ makes any difference to us? If we can’t – we really have nothing to share. But if we can (and WE CAN), then we have to be able to talk about it. Let’s talk about it.
Even when people don’t care about us, we are called to care about them. The only way to change the image that the church only cares about itself is to do something about it. Forget marketing; go talk to your neighbor. See what they are interested in, what is on their mind, what stresses them out, what they hope for, who needs help, and listen. Care. Be who you are called to be – a person who shares the love of Jesus by loving other people.
Going Where People Are
If people are not going to come to us, we have to go to them. One of the hardest questions to face is, “Excluding members, if our congregation was not here, would anybody miss us?” If the answer is anything but “yes” we have a problem. If the church only exists for ourselves, we are doing it wrong. Our congregation council has been exploring a ministry “focus” – one thing, one project, one idea that gathers our collective energy, gives our ministry an outward focus, and has potential to become something others know us for doing. What is that one thing? We are still discerning it. Maybe you have ideas, but our answer can’t be what we do inside. I love worship, music, children’s ministry, events with food and they are all great. But those are all internal things we do. We need to get outside, meet people and find out how we can be helpful.
What Defines Us
“I hate you,” and “I don’t care” do not have to be statements that define us. “I love you and I care” can be. Our kids have their moments. Sometimes they storm off from each other. Other times they barely notice the other is in the room. If we want our kids to care, we can’t wait for them to come to us. To care for them is to show them what we mean by “love.” We are big on not saying “that’s OK” but “I forgive you” when it needs to be done.
Tammie took the box over to Mia and asked, “Do you think we should throw this box away?” Mia replied, “Yes, we had a rough time for a while.” Don’t we all. In the meantime we can all learn neither to laugh or ignore it when someone says, “I hate you.”
Why would the church be any different?
“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:16-17)