Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Rebound from rejection
Vail, CO, Colorado
Did Bethlehem’s innkeeper act like the Grinch who stole Christmas? He rejected the holy family by slamming a door on them.
“Mary gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
The Bible reveals meager details about this innkeeper. We imagine him gruff and impatient, shooing away the holy family. But perhaps the innkeeper’s lodge was crammed with guests. So, he posted “No Vacancy,” a sign of rejection for Mary and Joseph.
Rejection pinches many in a tight economy. It makes us wince. A pink slip arrives. You are “downsized,” an antiseptic word for rejection.
Rejection breaks hearts in families, too. An incorrigible teenager laughs off his parents’ caution not to drive as if he raced at the Indianapolis 500. Scorned parents play the rejection game, too, lashing out at their wayward teen.
Moreover, we reject people who make us feel uneasy, who aren’t our type. They might dress oddly and cover their faces with scarves.
My former teacher of preachers, Ernest T. Campbell, who served as minister of Manhattan’s Riverside Church in the 1970s, tells why rejecting “foreigners” checks our fears.
“Apparently, some people never feel tall enough,” wrote Campbell, “unless they have other people under them.”
A vicious cycle spins in our heads when we feel rejected. First, we hold pity parties. Rather than striving to do better, we get bitter. After nursing our wounds, we let resentments fester. Retaliating against those who spurn us smothers fears. This cycle of aching and avenging infects individuals and nations, alike. When a door slams in our faces, as it did with the holy family in Bethlehem, don’t we get snared in a rejection-resentment-retaliation cycle?
Escaping rejection prompts people to join churches. They seek safe places of reception.
In “American Grace,” authors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell describe churches good at receiving people, warts and all. These places of refuge help people cope with rejection and spur them to positively impact their neighborhoods.
In a chapter “Religion and Good Neighborliness,” Putnam and Campbell show people entering religious communities whose acceptance there translates into heightened civic participation. They return more to their communities in time and money. They are happier when aligning with causes bigger than themselves. Rather than tearing down other church member, they build bridges of trust.
Putnam and Campbell found, though, churches that major in reducing rejection can’t eradicate it. Like Canadian geese flying in formation, birds of the same religious feather stick together. Church members on the inside don’t tolerate divergent opinion on the outside in their neighborhoods.
Some churches that reduce rejection with acceptance dull the gospel’s sharp edges. Little is preached that makes parishioners feel uncomfortable. The gospel ship rarely enters roiling waters where worshippers might feel too challenged with Jesus’ demands to change the world.
What are downplayed in these churches are prophetic sermons, the kind that tackle immigration, same-sex relationships and the government’s role in policing big business and Wall Street. Such gritty preaching might split worshippers who use differing strategies to untangle these knotty problems. Then resentment sets in. Believers retaliate, arguing with each other.
Clergy Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), using biting wit, castigated this tactic of filing the gospel’s sharp corners. One of his satirical tales tells of “throwing a tub to a whale.” Sailors distracted a whale with a tub, as Swift described it, keeping the gargantuan fish from devouring the ship.
Some religious communities, mimicking those sailors fearing a whale, don’t want to rock their ship of faith. Beckoning worshippers to jump into tubs of cozy hugs, they skip being crushed in the rejection-resentment-retaliation cycle.
The biblical Christmas story sketches a picture of rejection. Baby Jesus and his parents faced a slammed door. They’re like us, familiar with stinky mangers of rejection. Jesus accepts us when life doesn’t. This bolsters wounded spirits with solace and strength.
Christ’s way is harder than what an inn with open doors and cozy fires in hearths offer. He encourages us to move on, even if our trek leads to a manger, a world reeking with the stench of rejection.
Scour it rather than being soured by it. Here’s the key to bouncing back from rejection.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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