Several weeks ago, I preached a sermon using some of the ideas from the book Stranger God by Richard Beck. Beck uses Matthew 25 to remind us that Jesus didn’t say we’d encounter him in our closest family and friends. He said we’d encounter him in strangers–when we feed the hungry, offer a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit those sick or in prison. Therefore, as disciples of Jesus we are called to lean into relationships with those who are different rather than our default reaction which is to lean away. Why is this so important? For so long, the church has carried out missions and mission work to people. It’s a posture that is transactional in nature. You have a problem and We (the ones with the time, effort, money, knowledge and love) are able to solve that problem for you. You’re welcome. But, what have we missed by being in ministry to those people rather than in relationships with them? Have we missed encounters with a living and risen Christ? For this reason, one of the goals set forth by our Missions Team at church is to seek relationships as an end with no other agenda or pre-text in mind.
How interesting it was then, a couple of days ago, while at Annual Conference, our conference teacher, Junius Dotson, was sharing about a new initiative within the United Methodist Church called #SeeAllThePeople. The See All the People movement approaches discipleship in a new way:
“The most essential step for making disciples of Jesus Christ is to immerse ourselves in the lives of the people who are right outside our doors, acknowledging that God calls us to have meaningful relationships in authentic, organic and consistent ways.”
During his presentation, Junius Dotson recalled an experiment that was done in the 1970s testing the idea that prolonged, sustained eye contact brings people closer together, even if they don’t even speak a word to each other. Two years ago, that experiment was recreated with a diverse group of Eastern and Western Europeans as well as Middle-Eastern immigrants and refugees. What came of that exercise was truly remarkable. (Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7XhrXUoD6U)
I have to admit that I am terrible at eye contact. So often, when I’m talking with someone, I catch myself staring off into the distance, or even worse, at my phone or computer screen. What I’ve realized is that it sends the message that “I’m really too busy for you and I don’t care much about whatever it is you have to tell me.” To anyone reading this who I’ve done that to including my wife and children, please accept my sincerest apologies. What scares me a little bit more is this: if that’s how I treat the people who are closest to me: my family, coworkers and friends, what does that mean for the strangers and others I encounter in my day to day life? If I’m supposed to find Jesus in the face of a stranger, then how can I do that if I don’t truly see another person?
When we look into the eyes of another person, our brains start doing amazing things. Eye contact creates compassion, empathy, sympathy and intimacy–not just in your head, but in the other person’s head as well. Prolonged eye contact can be uncomfortable . . . Why? because it’s intimidating. If you have a dog, try to look it in the eyes for more than 8 seconds . . . he won’t. It makes him uncomfortable. It makes us feel vulnerable to be seen by another person. What we’re used to when it comes to being seen is judgement and the desire to be accepted by others.
As you go about your week, what would it be like if you fully expected to encounter Jesus in the strangers you meet? What would it be like to see the strangers that come into our lives a little more clearly? Now look, don’t walk up to the first person you see in the grocery store and start staring them down on aisle 7, but what you can do is create the space for a relationship to grow by offering someone the gift of seeing and being seen. A friendly smile to a cashier or server. You could step it up a little bit by going to that person at church who you met a couple years ago, but have since forgotten their name, and invite them to sit down and have coffee and learn more about them–being intentional to see them and their lives. Of course, eventually, to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we must learn the practice of leaning into and creating new relationships outside the walls of our church–every day, striving to grow our own circles of compassion so that maybe, just maybe, we might encounter the risen Christ in the eyes of another.
If you want to explore this more over the summer, check out the Stranger God book discussion that starts in July at FUMC Hurst. You may also wish to explore www.seeallthepeople.org as well as www.neighboringmovement.org/blog.