Mark leant over me and in confessional tones told me that he cried himself to sleep each weekend thinking about how he could escape from the hold that alcohol and cocaine had on him. He has two children that live with his ex-partner, a demanding job and a fast life style. Weekends are the main problem as that is when he begins the binge of drink and drugs which lead him into a cycle of regret, remorse and fear that perpetually turns him to prayer. He describes himself as a ‘lapsed Catholic’ and I was stunned at the depth of our conversation and the sincerity of his confession to me as a stranger he had just met, to be honest it felt very special and had the quality of an ‘ordained meeting’. I was able to offer him some support and advice, I listened to him and have been praying for him ever since.
I was in Northern Ireland to speak at a conference and decided in my free time to grab a pint of the ‘black stuff’, I had wandered into a local pub and happened to ask Mark to take my photo whilst supping my Guinness. We got talking and he soon discovered I was a Christian, at first he was shocked that I was in a pub as this didn’t fit his understanding of Christianity. My encounter with Mark has raised a couple of reflections for me that I wanted to share.
Whilst the cultural context of perceived faith in Northern Ireland is unique I find it interesting that Mark, like many people, has a well developed and quite strong assumptions about what is and is not acceptable Christian behaviour. His perception was that his behaviour prevented him from being a Christian or receiving God’s help. I felt that my role in this ‘confessional’ encounter was to help him understand that God loved him just as he was and that Christianity was not something that excluded him because of his behaviour but was rather something that might help him with his behaviour.
It seems to me that a task for Christians is to enable people to know that they belong and that this might lead to belief that might lead them to change the way that they behave. For some reason this process seems to have been reversed in that people often assume that faith requires prerequisite changed behaviour, rooted in new beliefs that will enable them to belong. This is subtle stuff! My point is that we must find ways of generating a sense of belonging, however, it may also require us to ‘debunk’ our own and other people’s assumptions about the ‘terms of membership’!
I also reflected on how the encounter with Mark would never have happened unless I had visited the pub and how even in writing about this I am nervous of how I will be judged by others. Perhaps I would never have crossed the road for the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan for fear of ‘questionable association’! The truth is that I love association with people in this way and perpetually find myself having to assure ‘non believers’ that God likes and loves them despite their assumed messages to the contrary.
Jesus seemed to cross social, cultural, religious and political boundaries all the time in His ministry. It was one of the main reasons that he ended up on the cross if you think about it! I wonder if we run the risk of safe, known and respectable Christian interventions and behaviors that comply with seductively sanctimonious views of faith that spends more time identifying and patrolling the boundaries of faith membership than we do eating with sinners.
I’m all for cracking open another Guinness this Easter as well as an egg or two! What do you think?