Strangers, Angels and Us

There was a time when I didn't identify much with strangers. Along with the ever-present caution, "don't talk to strangers," I was born and raised in the same home and community for the first 20 years of my life. I went to the same school as my two older brothers and developed a cadre of friends that stuck by all the way through.

After college, I stayed in the academic community for nearly 15 more years, married, raised a family and gained a measure of comfort and respectability, living among people I knew and liked.

Then illness and tragedy struck. My wife passed away, and I was suddenly a single dad in a new job far away from my comfort zone. Everything and everyone was unfamiliar. When I attended a new church, people looked right through me on their way to greet familiar friends. They didn't need a new friend—they had plenty. We were now the strangers. Life had handed us lemons, and I wasn't quite sure how to go about making lemonade.

I don't recall that period with a great deal of fondness. But I wonder if I've learned anything from it. I wonder if it changes how I approach people at church—if I bustle past someone I don't know without first stopping and saying, "Hi, I'm Steve!" and then let them tell me a little bit about themselves.

Grants Pass, Ore., members, Henry and Robin Martin, recently taught members at my church how to make people feel truly welcome. Here's one of the first principles they shared: Greeting is not just a job, and, furthermore, it's not just a job for the official greeters. It's the responsibility of each one of us to make our guests feel at home.

I thought of the experience of Abraham with his three heavenly visitors, and the exhortation in Hebrews 13: "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." I wonder how many angels I've missed along the way.

The words of Jesus as He comes again, thanking His people for visiting Him in prison, clothing Him when naked, and feeding Him when He was hungry, give me pause. With my inbred Norwegian reserve, it is still not easy or natural to reach beyond the familiar face, or touch angels unaware.

Our featured interview with Mike Jones in this issue is as much for me as anyone else. Every Sabbath gives you and me an opportunity to meet a new spiritual brother or sister. There's a two-way blessing in that exchange, a portent of heaven, where former strangers blend into the eternal family of God.

"With my inbred Norwegian reserve, it's not easy to reach beyond the familiar face, or touch angels unaware."

"You step out of your comfort zone and approach an unfamiliar face in the church foyer. 'Are you visiting today?' you ask, and then blanche with the response: 'No, we've been members here for the past 10 years.' Slinking back to your seat you resolve never to approach a stranger again. It's no surprise when guests find members reticent to approach. After they receive the perfunctory bulletin from the assigned 'greeters' at the door, what's next ... who's next?"

March 01, 2008 / Let's Talk