Monday, March 7, 2016

Encountering A World Of Stories In Our Days

I've never been one who likes to be in large crowds.Throngs of people make me anxious. 

As I've written about before, I also don't do well with being stuck in traffic. Morning commutes are a spiritual test and, most often, I bear the fruits of frustration over the fruits of the spirit. 

Waiting in lines can be irritating. And somehow I have a real gift for picking the check-out line that will inevitably be the slowest and the one with the most problems (such as price checks). There's a quote by Rich Mullins that is very apropos. He said, "It never fails. God will put people in your path that irritate you, especially if you're prone to be irritated." I can attest to that truth.

Yet, I have found myself trying to change that. Stuck in traffic or in check-out lines, I try not to focus on myself at all. I silently pray for those around me. I don't know what their needs are, but God does. I pray that they would know joy or love. I pray for whatever problems or struggles they're going through. It's amazing how much of a change the simple act of praying for strangers does inside of me. In place of being irked, I find myself more at peace. It also makes me see these people not as problems or obstacles, but as people. 

Something that comes back to me time and time again during these moments is that we are made in the image of God. This being said, if each of us is, then what does each person we meet in our daily lives reveal about our Creator? 

Do we take the time to stop to find out?  

"Be still, and know that I am God," Psalm 46:10 tells us. That means: Slow down. Stop what you're doing. Pay attention. 

This can mean being present for someone else.

But how often do we do this? How often do we view people as interruptions? As getting in the way of what's important, what we need to get done? 

How much differently would we relate to others if we truly viewed them as glimpses of God? That each one is an opportunity, a gift, to explore the great mystery that indwells in each person. The world is alive with the holy in the commonplace, the sacred in the secular. We cannot get to the sacred if we avoid the secular. That's why we're in this world. 

Each person has their own story. Often you can see those stories in their faces.  Think of that, all around you are thousands of stories waiting to be discovered and told. Jesus' ministry often centered on being present and listening. Sometimes doing just that can be healing for both people involved. For one thing, it makes us pause from our busyness and makes us more mindful of another person.

What a gift it is to be present to another. As Simone Weil wrote, "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." Attention is a spiritual act. 

Attention is listening without waiting to speak or give an opinion. It's listening without trying to save someone or convert them. We stop the noise that is within ourselves and listen to the rhythms of their lives: their joys and pains. It allows us to hear what they are saying even when they aren't speaking a word. Giving them our attention is a form of loving them. As 1st John 4:19-21 tells us, "How can you claim to love God, whom you cannot see, if you cannot love those around you who you can see?" But we have to see them first. Truly see them. This means we need to stop.

So stop and listen. 

Ask them questions. 

And listen. 

When we truly hear someone, we can begin to truly understand someone. 

The eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope wrote, "Teach me to feel another's woe, to hide the fault I see, that mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me." 

When we come without judgment, we can open ourselves to loving others not as we think they should be, but as they are. Certainly as soon as we think of someone as the "wrong sort" of people that's exactly who Jesus will want us to love. The theologian N.T. Wright said, "Love is not just tolerance. It's not just distant appreciation. It's a warm sense of, 'I am enjoying the fact that you are you'."  

It always amazes me that each one of us is unique and that in the history of the world there has never been another us and there will never be another us. And to think of all the people and circumstances that had to occur for us to be is astounding. And that we are surrounded by such uniqueness. Each person is fearfully and wonderfully made. 

This can often be easier to do with people like ourselves, whether they look like us or think like us. As Rabbi Sacks said, "The supreme religious challenge is to see God's image in one who is not in our image." 

As a writer, I am fascinated by people's stories and what has led them to where they are in life. How they got into whatever career they are in, how they came to their system of beliefs, and to get a better understanding of what formed and shaped them. What I've discovered is that hearing someone else's story allows me to have empathy for them. They can go from being abstract (part of a particular group) to flesh and blood. To quote one of my favorite literary figures, Atticus Finch, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." But this takes time. And moving out of our comfort zone or just out of ourselves. 

Rabbi Sacks is right. It's a challenge, but it's a challenge God has called us to. Jesus stressed that the two greatest commandments are: Love God. Love people. His life bared testimony to that. Everything he did was shaped by those two commandments.  

Why should we love the stranger? 

Because God does. 

And He's called us to. 

Imagine how differently we would see the world if we did this. The world would be transformed because we would see the beauty in places where we had not before, in people we had not before. We would look past their features to their souls and to who they really are. How much would our religion and our politics change if we did this? We would no longer look at someone as a problem or a burden, but as the beauty that comes from the intrinsic worth put there by God. It will change not only how we see others but how they see themselves. Having adopted a child, I have watched this happened first-hand. When we invest yourself in someone, love them, and reveal to them their value, they begin to transform. And they transform us. 

Now I have never been a people person. I am, by nature, shy and introverted. But to approach each person as a story waiting to be heard has opened me up. To not only listening to the stories of others, but in sharing my own. In doing this, we allow ourselves to be opened to truths we might have otherwise closed ourselves off from. Andrew Peterson said, "If you want someone to know the truth, tell them. If you want someone to love the truth, tell them a story." I think he's right.  Jesus did that. So that is how I will try and approach those whose paths I cross and I cannot wait to see what possible stories await me.

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