The stranger among us (Rom 12:13)

(The second of two posts on Rom 12:9-13.)  In a previous post, I admitted to being an introvert.  In fact, I’m a fairly strong introvert, though I’ve learned to adapt over time, given the very public roles I perform.  Nevertheless, one of my least favorite things to do is to walk into a roomful of strangers where one is expected to be outgoing and sociable.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with others–but small gatherings of people whom I already know are much easier to deal with than large gatherings of people I don’t know, no matter how friendly they are.

It’s nothing personal.  And I’m far from alone in this.  For example, witness how Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, recently made the cover of Time magazine, to the gratification of introverts everywhere.  (If someone decided to ride that wave of interest, and organize a national conference for introverts, would anybody come?  Hmm.)

When Paul tells the Roman Christians to practice hospitality (Rom 12:13b), I hear his words through an introvert’s ears.  I know that hospitality was a highly valued virtue in the ancient world.  People who traveled found themselves constantly among strangers, not all of whom could be counted upon to be friendly and welcoming.  Travelers often hoped to find some of their own people living in the lands through which they passed, and to enjoy the warm and safe shelter of their hospitality.

For the Jews, this practical concern was amplified by moral demands of God’s law:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the LORD your God.  (Lev 19:33-34, NIV)

Essentially, God says to the Israelites: “Do you remember your days in Egypt?  Remember what it was like to be treated as a stranger in a strange land?  Then show what kind of people you are–show what kind of God I am–by the way you treat the stranger in your midst.”  To do what God commands here is one concrete way to be a people of justice, mercy, and humility (Mic 6:8), the qualities God demands from his people.

Hospitality is the capstone of Paul’s exposition of a sincere and unhypocritical love.  Again, think back to Kinnaman’s claim (see previous post) that many avoid the church because they perceive Christians as unloving hypocrites.  Dare we ask ourselves how many would make that accusation because they’ve experienced an obvious failure of hospitality?  In our own church?  From us personally?

Again, I hear Paul’s words through the ears of an introvert.  There are two sides to this.  On the one hand, of all the people in the room, I may be one of those who, by virtue of temperament, would be least inclined to walk up and welcome a total stranger.  Some people are naturally outgoing;  I’m not one of them.  Welcoming strangers is definitely outside my “comfort zone,” and takes energy that I don’t always feel I have.  I understand why, on a Sunday morning, people would prefer to just hang out with the friends they’ve already made.

So imagine you’re at church, standing around with one or more friends, talking.  You look up, and see someone you don’t recognize, someone who seems new, maybe even a little lost.  And then you pretend not to notice, and go back to talking to your friends.  Intentionally, or by unintentional default, you decide to let the stranger take the initiative, or to let someone else take care of it.

I get that.  I’ve done it myself.

But on the other hand, I’ve been the stranger, the one who felt and probably looked like a lost puppy.  It’s not fun.  And truth be told, I wouldn’t want people swarming me either–introverted folks need a little more space than that.  Yet someone has to take the time and energy to help me feel welcome, or I’ll look for my first chance to high-tail it out of there and never go back.

Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt (Lev 19:34, The Message).  Let love be unhypocritical; practice hospitality.  Look up from your social group and notice who’s standing there alone.  Reach out.  Do something.  For I am the LORD, your God.

Lord, teach me compassion for the stranger among us; may I experience your welcoming grace as you welcome others through me.  Amen.

2 thoughts on “The stranger among us (Rom 12:13)

  1. I can completely relate to being a fairly strong introvert and, like you, I have adapted over time. (I’m an INFJ.) I know this from the Myers-Briggs temperament test I’d taken in a couple of my psychology classes. That being said, I also know there are about 16 variations of personality types. I also know that humans are very complex and that tests cannot explain all the variances of temperaments in a given person.

    I, too, can completely identify with not enjoying walking into a room of complete strangers, where I know one is expected to be outgoing and sociable. I’m not very comfortable with small talk (although I can manage it), and prefer reflective and deeper communication levels.

    Interestingly, there’s also a strong part of me that really loves human relationships, albeit within a small group or one-on-one. And within that context, I can also enjoy carefree, spontaneous interactions laced with warmth, intimacy and sensitivity. However, I need to retreat to my cave, so to say, and recharge my batteries. I will desperately need that solitude and silence, and the ability to back away for a while. I will often read or journal and take hikes in the great outdoors, which helps me to unwind and recharge.

    So . . . there’s a bit in a nutshell. I will have to read Susan Cain’s new book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”. And if there was a national conference of introverts on this subject, I do believe I would be able to attend — knowing that there would be a time of talk, and then a time of retreat into our various rooms . . . without having to worry if someone thought we were party-poopers or anti-social!

    Now . . . I’m all for hospitality, and treating strangers in our midst with kindness. Years ago, I decided to try greeting people at the first church I ever attended. Suffice it to say, this was completely out of my comfort zone! I was very nervous . . . knowing how awkward I could be . . . but it was the best thing I ever did. I had a role to play, and that helped me considerably.

    During the years I was a greeter, I saw a lot of introverts come into the church. (Being an introvert, I could spot one immediately!) I could see that the introverts really wanted to be ignored. They would usually sit at the back of the church and avoid all eye contact as much as possible. I was the same way, when I first started going to church. I didn’t want anyone approaching me, and would sit at the back and avoid eye contact. I would feel that way not only because I was awkward, but also because I was suspicious that people might want something from me . . . such as my money, time, etc. Thus I was very cautious and observant, albeit not sociable. Knowing that there were probably other people who felt and thought in a similar fashion, I made certain not to be pushy. I would simply smile and acknowledge everyone, but I would also gauge how much or how little interaction people needed or wanted.

    On the other hand, the extrovert types would “often” come in looking straight into my eyes, and would start asking questions about what kind of church it was and a multitude of other things. They also tended to sit more towards the middle or the front of the church. Over the years, I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone, and will now sit towards the front. However, I still have days I need to pull away and will need to sit in the back of the church!

    Over the years I learned a lot about people and myself, being a greeter in the church. The different types of personality types taught me the value of being hospitable; but not overly hospitable to the introverts, and more open to the extroverts. And, of course, there were all the others in between.

    The main point is that I became more outgoing and receptive to the different types of people who came through the doors of the church. It also helped me with my own awkwardness, in that I now had a role . . . and that gave me a reason to approach and/or communicate with others. This had a 2-way effect of creating a safe, hospitable environment for the variety of people who walked into the church, as well as opening me up to acquaintances and friends whom I would have never had the opportunity to meet and get to know better.

    I think this ties into what the apostle Paul was saying, and what you talked about . . . regarding hospitality being the capstone of Paul’s exposition of a sincere and unhypocritical love. When I was greeting people, it did feel sincere and unhypocritical, and that carried over into other areas of my life. It was a very good thing all the way around!

  2. Again, Angie, well said! Hospitality will look rather different for an introvert than an extrovert. Knowledge of the difference, seasoned with sensitivity, helps avoid misunderstanding. I especially appreciate your comments about how stepping outside your comfort zone resulted in such wonderful benefits in time, including getting to know people that you otherwise would never have met…

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