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A few weeks ago SMMS hosted a ‘Family Life Conference’ looking at the changing patterns of family life and how as a church we are responding to those changes. Are we being inclusive in our treatment of those whose families look different to the Christian ideal or are we excluding those whose make up is different? Topics included same-sex marriage, polygamy, child and grandparent-headed households. We looked at cultural, traditional and biblical definitions of marriage and family life trying to understand what constitutes ‘Christian’.

The conference was part of an on-going conversation within the Methodist church about family life and I was encouraged not only by the range of topics but by the calm and respectful way in which speakers and participants alike engaged with each other. We didn’t agree on all aspects of course, but that’s ok, healthy dialogue is good.

However … whilst we ‘respectfully dialogue’ hurt and damage continues to flow from our churches and our communities. Even if we do not actively participate in violence against those who are different to us, our understanding of each others difference based on our ideologies and theologies can perpetuate hate crimes. People die both physically and spiritually because of shame, ignorance and fear based on their basic identity, their ability to ‘be’ family. The LGBTI community continues to be persecuted, forgotten children die from vulnerability, women are abused, men left reeling and confused by their role in a changing society.  How we see people and speak about people has a ripple effect and it is dangerous – very, very dangerous.

Henri Nouwen retells an old faith story in his book ‘The Wounded Healer’ (a little gem of a book that we should all read and reread) It is a powerful reminder for us at this time.

One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man were handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost”.

Then the minister closed the bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘what have you done?’ He said: ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.’ Then the angel said ‘but don’t you know, you handed over the messiah?’ ‘How could I know?’ the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said, ‘if instead of reading your bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known’.

We are so scared nowadays to accept difference. Rather than welcome someone whom we ‘perceive’ as a threat to our society we leave them out, in the cold, to fend for themselves. Rather than welcome people into our midst, into our churches we continue to look the other way – either demonising or ignoring them. I wonder what it would it take for us to stop looking for answers in our doctrines and instead just look into the eyes of one another to see the human being within, the image of God, a person of immense worth and value?