It can be a real challenge to be different. In one way or another I have been different my whole life. I’ve walked through the world, gone to schools, attended colleges and earned degrees, lived in various neighborhoods, attended different churches, worked for various institutions, and lived life. In the vast majority of those situations I was outside of the mainstream, different, not quite fitting in or belonging. Before you feel too badly about it, I have not only grown accustomed to it, but have found ways to fashion those feelings and experiences into something I can use for good. It allows me to approach most people with a heightened awareness of and compassion for others who, like me, are different in some way and are therefore treated differently.
The world is not particularly kind to people who don’t quite meet some standard of beauty, of excellence, performance, aptitude, grace, appearance, ability, of goodness, skill, intellect, and so many other “metrics” by which we measure one another and find some people exceptional, some acceptable, some lacking, and some completely unacceptable. We cast people off who look a certain way, who don’t smell so good, or who behave badly in public. People can be reviled by others because of their sexual orientation or gender expression–they are looked askance upon if they look too feminine or too masculine or not enough of either. Skin color, clothing, hairstyles, personal grooming–the external ways we present ourselves–all seem to serve as means to separate and divide people from one another. It can be exhausting.
Underneath it all we all want to be loved and accepted for who we are, all of who we are in our fullness. Too often people have to fragment themselves into tiny pieces and rearrange themselves in order to fit in in this situation versus another. They dress or behave in a particular way so as to conform, be unremarkable, appear “normal.” They can bring part of themselves into a situation, but must leave another part out entirely. They pretend and show up in a particular way, simply because it’s easier to not be themselves in order to fit in and advance in their career or work life than it is to face rejection at best and at worst persecution in some form or other.
During these 40 days it’s good to think about all the people around us who are different, how they show up around us, and how they are treated. Jesus hung out with a wide variety of characters, many of whom the local “establishment” found completely unacceptable. Jesus spent time among and often befriended those people who were considered the lowest in society: tax collectors, prostitutes, people of the “wrong” religious tradition, different races or ethnic backgrounds, people with infectious diseases that left them scarred and physically deformed. He practiced “radical inclusion,” ministering and spending time with people whom no one else would give the time of day.
As I walk through the world, what am I doing to welcome everyone? How am I creating spaces in the institutions and organizations of which I am a part to ensure that they too are hospitable and welcoming and loving to people within and around them? I have been personally rejected by individual people and loathed by whole groups of people simply because of various external characteristics that have little to nothing to do with who I am on the inside. I must treat people the way they want to be treated and loved the way they deserve to be loved. It really is what the world needs more of. I like to believe that we will some day truly become a nation, a globe, a planet that actually does welcome and embrace people based on the “content of their character,” the core of who they are, that loves them because of who they are not in spite of it. But while I’m waiting for the rest of the world to catch on I will, as the song says, “let it begin with me.” And so I shall.