Living in a small town like Laurel, no matter where you go, you’re apt to encounter a whole plethora of people. While it’s not quite the size and movement of a city, I definitely meet large numbers and a diversity of people all the time. I’ve also got the small town blessing of regular neighbors and friends whom I frequently see. On my Sabbath day today, I went out walking with my son Jacob while praying one of my favorite prayers, “Lord, show me where you are at work right now. Allow me to see where you are and what you’re doing.” I pray this in keeping with Jesus’ words about himself,
I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does… (John 5:19-20a)
Striving to be like Jesus, one of my daily goals is to look for the activity of God around me and to join in.
So, as I walked along, I began to notice a pattern with passing by people I don’t yet know. There was either minimal eye-contact or maybe a muttered “hello”. But very little effort was given by either of us to genuinely connect. Have you ever wondered why this is? In situations like these, my first inclination is to avoid striking up a conversation with a stranger. I can do it, yes. It’s something I’ve trained myself to do, but it’s not my gut impulse to give a cheerful, “Hey, how are you doing? Where are you headed today?”. Part of me thinks I should be more open to them; after all, I bear the good news of Jesus Christ, something they need. Shouldn’t that be worth the effort?
And yet while we’re hesitant to connect with a stranger on the street, many of us could say that we’re highly networked with numerous people, many of whom we don’t know very well, if at all. For example, I’m active on Facebook, write this blog and through them, have conversations with people I’ve never met before. As a pastor in my community and a part of a larger United Methodist connection, I network in cooperative ventures with hundreds and hundreds of people, some of whom I barely know. Networking, especially on Internet social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Xanga are all the rage. So it’s ironic that with all of these virtual connections, so many of us find ourselves feeling incredibly lonely. It astounds me that someone can look at a computer screen filled with scores of “friends” while looking at all of their contacts listed on a Blackberry and still, at the end of the day, feel isolated. It’s happened to me before…
So as Jacob and I walked on a path along the Patuxent River here in town, I saw something I had never seen before in all my times up and down that path. A Laurel police cruiser was actually driving on the pathway! I pulled Jacob’s stroller over to let him pass, but he waved me on and then rolled his window down.
“Hello there! How are you doing?” I asked.
“Just fine,” he said. “I saw you have some precious cargo, so I thought I’d let you all pass by first.”
“Well, thank you! This is an interesting, out of the way beat you’ve got here, officer,” I said.
“Ahh… I’m just making sure there’s no trouble down here. We had a stabbing recently nearby between two homeless guys, so I’m just trying to keep this area safe for folks.”
“Well, thanks,” I said. “I probably know who they are. I’m the Senior Pastor up at First UMC on Main Street, and we do a lot of work with our homeless population.”
And on and on we went, back and forth, probably for ten minutes or so. We talked about both of us needing to get in better shape and the safety of our community. After we said goodbye, I walked away grateful for the opportunity to get to know this man and wondered how my church could do more to honor and thank our local police department. But it all began with an open “hello” and some neighborly conversation. I only wished I had more time to talk with him. And I wished even more that I had slowed down enough to talk to some others I passed while out walking.
I think God answered my prayer by reminding me that most of us in this transient, fast paced, highly mobile, digitally networked world are starved for meaningful relationships. For all the same reasons, we’re not so certain how to keep strong the relationships we already have. No wonder the divorce rate is high. Our children are increasingly acting out and growing up far too quickly. We fill our emotional gaps with multimedia stimulation. More people are prone to addiction and mental illness.
To a degree, our culture will always suffer from these things because we are fallen creatures. However, these diseases have risen to pandemic levels as families, communities, and churches cease to be the environment where people find their personal moorings. The real connections of family, community, and Church continually remind us who we are and whose we are. Otherwise, we drift into a morass of loneliness and existential crisis.
God also reminded me to do one more thing: slow down. Take the moment to just to talk and listen with people. Don’t worry so much about time and obligation. Make space for people, for anyone– strangers and most especially the people I’m closest to. Think of every opportunity I have to speak with someone as a gift from God. For we never know just how a person, each made in the likeness of God, could turn out to be among God’s richest blessings.