By Bert Montgomery
When my friend Sue first met Tom, whom she would eventually marry, he was introduced to her as a Sunday School teacher at a Baptist church. Her immediate response was, “you don’t look like a Baptist Sunday School teacher!”
Sue had a mental template, a way of categorizing what Baptist Sunday School teachers should look, dress, and act like. Tom didn’t fit any of those things. Her mind scrambled to categorize him so she could know how she should speak to him, how she should relate to him. But, in her mind’s filing system, Tom was not anywhere close to her “Sunday School teacher” box. (By the way, Tom was, and still is, a Sunday School teacher at a Baptist church; and he still doesn’t look the part).
This is a natural psychological occurrence; it is something we all do. We need quick-reference categories in our minds to make sense of the world around us, to know how to respond to the world around us, to know how to act and react to other people around us.
As we go about our lives conveniently putting each other in neat, little boxes, sooner or later we notice that others are putting us in their neat, little boxes, too.
We do it racially and ethnically: Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. Latino. French. Spanish. Mexican. Cajun. Creole. Italian. African.
We do it politically: Democrat. Republican. Independent. Socialist. Fascist. Anarchist. Liberal. Conservative. Radical.
We do it religiously: Christian. Jew. Muslim. Buddhist. Hindu. Sikh. Atheist. Agnostic. Armenian. Calvinist. Catholic. Baptist. Methodist. Mormon. Sunni. Shiite. Progressive. Moderate. Conservative. Fundamentalist. Sinner. Saint. (Religious folks love stuffing others into categories).
We can be many different things at once, depending upon who is seeing us.
I am still a little boy to my mother; a younger brother to my older sister. I am a husband and companion to my wife, and a father to my sons.
To some I am a colleague; to others, a total stranger.
To the good folks at University Baptist Church, I am a pastor.
To many students at Mississippi State University, I am a teacher.
I am an author to some editors and publishers; but to my favorite authors (like Stephen King, for instance), I am just another fan in the crowd.
I am a Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian to my atheist and agnostic friends; though some Christians say I am a Bible-denying, un-Christian heretic.
But to one dear friend named Rani, even though I am a Baptist minister, I am also a Muslim.
Rani is of the Islamic faith. During one of her visits to our church, she stood up and thanked our church for our open support of our Muslim neighbors. Then she turned toward me, and she said I was a Muslim.
“Muslim” is an Arabic word, she explained, which means one who submits to the will of God. That is how Rani said she sees me: someone striving to do God’s will.
I have spent most of my life trying to shake many labels and live into others I wanted to be: hippie, activist, peace-nick, Jesus-follower, rocker. Somehow I have only successfully managed to pull off “big goofy white guy.”
Nevertheless, I think I will keep on not looking nor acting like a “Baptist pastor” while ministering among a congregation that does not look nor act like a “Baptist church.”
Maybe not fitting nicely into neat, little boxes has something to do with God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven …
Rev. Bert Montgomery pastors University Baptist Church in Starkville, teaches sociology and religion courses at Mississippi State University, and can’t remember if it was Søren Kierkegaard or Kim Kardashian who said, “To label me is to negate me” … Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.