The church where I grew up was full of the sort of people my grandmother liked to call “real characters.”
There was the beautiful elderly woman in the choir who got her hair done every week, motored all over town, and always showed up even to the most ordinary events in an outfit where her purse perfectly matched her glasses, belt, and shoes. We had a church janitor who basically wore the exact same shirt every week, mostly spoke in grunts, and sometimes dozed off in the middle of Sunday School. We had absentminded intellectual fathers, hunting enthusiasts who showed up at church in full camo gear, working women and stay-at-home moms.
And we had John.
I only ever remember John as being at least eighty; he was a a wisp of a man with white hair and bad vision who spoke in a tremulous, fluting voice. But he loved maps and geography. Loved ’em. And it was how he connected with people. If John learned you’d gone to on a trip…well, he didn’t care about why you went or how long you were there. Still, he’d ask about the roads you took, and if you crossed this or that river, and how long you road on a particular patch of interstate.
His memory was formidable. When I attended the church regularly and went on regular high school band trips and to school events, he’d always have questions about what city I saw, how we drove there, and what route we took. And even as his memory failed him and my regular attendance turned into infrequent visits after I married and moved away, he still remembered my name – and precisely where I lived, and the names of the rivers and roads around it.
John was quirky. Was his interest in geography unusual? For sure. But it was how he connected to people. It made him unique. It clearly gave him joy, and it gave him a starting point for conversations with just about anyone – because hey, everyone’s from somewhere.
I believe that in the church, we have to some degree lost our tolerance for quirkiness: for the random bits of behavior, attitude, and culture that make us unique. As the church has grown more and more corporate and commercial, and as the Gospel of Christ has been transformed more and more into a logo and a branding exercise, it’s tempting to want to polish up the messengers and teach them how to be more generic and appealing.
I remember seminars geared toward precisely this at youth group and college retreats when I was a child. We were taught how to be the best messenger for God that we could be: we learned about the kinds of conversations we ought to have with people, how we ought to approach them, and what we ought to say. Not all of that was bad; it’s good to learn different ways of communicating and reaching out. But sometimes it seemed that the desired result was an army of students that basically communicated and interacted in all the same polished, rote ways. And where’s the variety or the wonder in that? More to the point: where’s the authenticity?
The world doesn’t need more salespeople for the Gospel. It doesn’t need shiny ambassadors doing PR for Jesus. What it cries out for more than anything, especially in our hyper-artificial day and age, is authenticity from people who follow Jesus. Honesty. Warmth. Openness. And those things can exist side-by-side with quirks of character.
Give me the homesteader believer I know who finds his joy in cutting wood and putting an old farmhouse back together, but who has soup and a stove for anyone who will visit him out in the middle of nowhere. Give me the janitor from my church who sometimes dozed during Sunday School and who never spoke more than two sentences to anyone the entire time I knew him, but whose “glad to see you here” meant something significant when he said it to me. Give me John, who didn’t relate to people through a series of questions or interactions he learned at a seminar or retreat but who reached out through maps, through interstates, through rivers and lakes.
It’s okay for believers to be real people. Some of us have odd habits or affectations. All of us struggle with sin. We have unique interests and desires and ways of relating to people – and there are believers who aren’t very good at relating to people at all! We’re quirky. We’re us. And it’s fine. Necessary, even.
Recently, I discovered a set of articles on the Christian singer and songwriter Rich Mullins. September 20 of last year marked twenty years since his untimely death in a car accident, and it says something about his influence that many believers felt called to memorialize the event in some way. Most famous for Awesome God, Mullins wrote and performed many truly timeless Christian worship songs – and he was also an honest and complicated man who performed barefoot on stage in a t-shirt and jeans, wrote a musical about St. Francis of Assisi, struggled with the differences between Protestant and Catholic faith, gave a great deal to charity, and taught music to children on a Navajo reservation.
Part of his influence was his quirkiness: Rich Mullins’ message about God’s love was powerful and influential precisely because of the authenticity people sensed in him and through his music. There was no pretense, no putting-on – he was just himself, struggles and all, and that was powerful. I came into Mullins’ music late, myself. He died when I was young and before I had a full sense of who he was. But I remember the experience of listening to his music and of realizing there was a man out there with bare feet singing about Jesus, and that he pretended to be no one other than himself, and that that was okay.
God knows us more than anyone when He calls us. He knows our weirdnesses and our habits, the things we love and are drawn to, our preferences and quirks. And while He wants to transform and change us and draw us closer to Him, He can and will use those unique and interesting things about us for His glory. So don’t abandon yourself to become what you think a Jesus-follower looks like. You, right now, are what a Jesus-follower looks like. And so am I. And so is the church janitor, and so was Rich Mullins and John.
We’re all different. We’re all quirky. And God has room for that in His family.