Strangers are both noticed and notice things. Having moved to a new area in 2017 I have been a stranger in a new area. I have noticed things. Of course it may be that many others embedded in the communities I have engaged with have noticed the same things, but my gut feeling, and from conversations with others, is that things I have noticed may not be in the consciousness of others.
I’ll tell you what I have noticed in my new area in contrast to where I moved from. Institutions and people within them seem genuinely more determined to help rather than a “jobs worth” attitude. There is stunning countryside and scenery. It is a great contrast to living by the sea, but that is the right expression – a great contrast.
Then some other interesting observations (well to me anyway). People seem to routinely park on pavements with consequent problems for pedestrians. This happens rather routinely and very very frequently. Second I am stunned by the number of metal shutters on shops, metal bars inside windows of offices and businesses, and the number of burglar alarms. Third I am amazed at how often I see motorists run red lights. It has happened enough for me to expect it now when I see a red light.
All this may be of no interest to anyone, but I share it to make the point that it is important to see through the eyes of the stranger. The stranger often notices things we have got used to. This is why it is so important to listen to strangers that interact with the Church. I am particularly thinking of those who come along to our worship or to our church events. They often notice things that those on the inside have long ceased to see. It is one of the reasons why many churches think (genuinely) that they are welcoming when in fact all they are is a comfy club for the insiders. For the outsider, the stranger, they are assault courses to be negotiated with little or no help. If you want to know if you are welcoming ask the stranger not the club members. Hospitality is so much more than thinking it nice that new people have dropped in.
The stranger is important in the Bible. We are reminded there in many places that we are to welcome the stranger and to be hospitable to the stranger. This is as relevant to the Syrian refugee who may be one of a larger group as it is to the individual who wanders through the door of a church on a Sunday. Indeed Proverbs 5:10 is extreme in its direction to God’s people “Let strangers feast on your wealth and your toil enrich the house of another”. Jesus likened himself to a stranger when he spoke about the sheep and goats on judgement day and effectively said he had been treated as a stranger and not welcomed through his followers being rejected (Matthew 25:31-46). The idea of Jesus being treated as a stranger by us is a fascinating one, since as the one through whom we were created (Colossians 1:16), he will know us more intimately than any human could.
Be careful of shunning the stranger. The stranger may know us better than we think.
So next time we want to see something clearly maybe we should stop looking with our own eyes for a moment and try to look through the eyes of the stranger. We might learn a lot.
Maybe as we enter 2018 we can use the opportunity that the New Year brings to determine that we will welcome the stranger. Like Abraham, who was visited in Genesis Chapter 18 by three men at Mamre, we might never know how much of the Divine we are encountering and how far our lives might be transformed through the encounter.