The more I've been honest about the state of my faith, the more I seem to be making friends with a certain type of person, atheists and agnostics and all types of religious dissenters. Sometimes this worries me. Regardless of the fact that I haven't been to church for the better part of a year, I like to think I still have a reputation to uphold. I like to think there are people there who still see me as a "good person" or "true Christian" or at least as someone who hasn't completely gone off the deep end. My fear is that my new friends threaten the legitimacy of these notions.
But almost as soon as I think of all this, a pesky familiar image comes to mind, of Jesus surrounded by people who weren't approved by the religious authorities. From the stories I grew up hearing, he seemed to have quite a reputation for this. But he also seemed to genuinely not give a damn what anybody thought. He followed his own convictions and let people talk.
The difference, of course, between the Jesus of the stories and I, is that he was supposedly sinless and I am not. He could not be accused of the faults people found in his friends, but I can.
On the surface, I am afraid I will be guilty by association, that the unbelief of others will implicate me as a dangerous dissenter too. But the truth is that I am really afraid of being unmasked. Because when it comes to heathens, I am one, at least according to the only version of faith I have ever known.
This is not easy for me to come to terms with. I would like to think that I am just that saintly, that like Jesus I am willing to hang out with "the least of these" out of complete compassion and with no thought of my reputation. But I do think of my reputation, regularly, and my friendships have been more out of shared experience than my own altruism.
So when I feel shame at being associated with people the Church would not approve of, it is myself I am ashamed of, it is my own secrets I fear to have uncovered. The friends I am afraid of having, the ones the Church might warn me against, they are the very ones my soul most needs. They clean out my closets and challenge my assumptions. They open my eyes to the truth of my own backsliding/awakening (whichever you prefer). They're no more Jesus than I am, but they heal me just the same.