Stranger Danger

You know, if Jesus was born in modern day America, they never would have gotten past the information desk at the hospital, much less up onto the maternity ward. In fact, they may not have even made it through customs. A couple of middle or far eastern looking guys with vague intentions, no idea where they are going, and carrying valuable items across the border?

I can see them handing over their passports and customs declarations to the officer as she asks them:

“What is the purpose of your visit? Business or pleasure?”

“We are following a star”

“Umm… yeah, that’s not what I asked. Are you entering the country for business or pleasure?”

“A little of both I guess. We are looking for the king of the Jews.”

“Yeah, well, isn’t everybody. I guess we can just check the “business” box on these forms. Where will you be travelling while you are here?”

“Umm, we’re not really sure, just gonna follow the star until it stops.”

“Yeah, again, that’s not really the answer I was looking for. Listen why don’t all of you step aside and go see that nice officer over there; we have some additional questions we’d like to ask.”

And let’s say they are lucky enough to make it through homeland security, following a pat down, thorough check of their records and probably the confiscation of their gifts. Just think what awaits them at the hospital.

“Hi, we’re here to see the king of the Jews.”

“First and last name please?”

“Ummm, we don’t have one, but Herod told us he was here. And there is this thing with the star above the hospital.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, but according to HIPPA rules, without a first and last name I can’t release any information.”

Given the new rules of hospitality enforced in the name of security, safety and freedom, there may be little chance for a modern day epiphany story if it occurred in contemporary America. In fact, if Mary were a product of the current American culture, I have to wonder if she would even think to let a couple strangers near her newborn, especially ones who might look as well-traveled as these souls may have been.

When I launch into one of Caitlyn’s recent adventures, my mom never misses an opportunity to share with me how much Caitlyn and I are alike, especially when I was her age. It is often a reminder of how I have changed in the ensuing years. You see, Caitlyn is a no holds barred extrovert, who implicitly trusts others, who loves new situations, and who has little anxiety about change or meeting new people.

For example, over the past couple years, Elizabeth and Caitlyn have attended a music class together on Saturday mornings. After they return, I would generally ask Elizabeth how things went. With a hint of melancholy, Elizabeth would often report how Caitlyn would wander the circle during class. It wasn’t that she couldn’t sit still, though that certainly was an issue. It was more a function of her social nature.

Caitlyn would wander the circle telling everyone hello and looking for the first available open lap to plop down in, regardless of who owned that lap, and join the festivities. The other parents in the group ate it up, telling Elizabeth how much they wish there children were more social. We just wanted her to sit still for a 2 minute song.

So, I do not look forward to the days when we have to teach her about safety and about stranger danger. I only hope that I can help her distinguish between being aware and being wary. Because the difference between the two will impact her life and the lives of those around her forever.

You see, I think awareness, as a fundamental disposition towards the world, is about taking in information, assessing its relevance, and acting according to the emotional and mental responses we have towards that information. To be aware is to recognize the happenings of the world, whether good or bad, and be informed by our hearts, heads and guts as to how we might react to the circumstances around us.

Wariness, on the other hand, prejudices the world and those that live in it as something dangerous. Wariness without awareness is a predisposition; it is the result of a decision that has already been made; and it is an attitude towards the world that somehow the world, or the people that inhabit it, are going to do us harm.

Wariness imbues a situation with caution, fear, and anxiety before anything has happened. Honestly, there are many dangerous things in this world. There are certainly times when being wary can save our lives. But truly, what kind of life do we lead when all we are is cautious? What is the purpose of living in a diverse and creative world, if all we cling to is fear or safety?

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I walked by a homeless man in front of a King Soopers on Colorado Blvd. He was leaning against the wall near one of the entrances, wearing a baseball cap, dirty flannel shirt and stained jeans. He wasn’t holding a sign, nor was he approaching people for money. He just seemed to watch as people passed by; present, yet invisible at the same time.

I was in a rush, or at least that is what I told myself, so I hastily made my way from my car to the entrance, careful to walk on the other side of the sidewalk. All the while, I felt his eyes on me, but I was too involved with maintaining the integrity of my personal space. He didn’t say a word, and with a brief glance I noticed that he had averted his eyes to the ground, as if he might be ashamed or embarrassed. I made my rounds in the grocery store, and intentionally left by a different set of doors so that I would not be confronted with the uncomfortable feelings that the previous non-encounter had engendered in me.

This encounter had new meaning for me when I read the news this week. By now most of us have heard the story of Ted Williams, dubbed the homeless man with the golden voice. A man who was videoed and then made into an instant celebrity when that recording was seen by over 13 million people on YouTube.

The person in this story that you may or may not know is Doral Chenowith. Mr. Chenowith is a member of a small Methodist church in Ohio and is also a videographer for a local news outlet. He was also the person who made and released the video that changed Mr. William’s life. As his friends and family explain it, stopping to talk to homeless people is standard operating procedure for him, whether his camera is with him or not. He has a special gift or talent for seeing people that are often invisible to the rest of us.

His rationale for this kind of behavior is simple. As he explained to one interviewer, “It’s a part of my faith, you may not be able to help someone with money, but you can at least say hello, how you doing, and look at them.”

His words make me wonder if the man out in front of King Soopers was embarrassed and ashamed or if it was me who felt those things.

Now you know, as well as I do, that we all have different gifts and talents. I am not on a crusade to get us out of our cars talking to every homeless person we see. But something must fundamentally change, if we are going to creatively engage our faith in meaningful ways.

In a culture that feeds off of wariness; a culture whose life blood these days is built on fear, the threat of violence, anxiety and mistrust. As a people of faith, we have to decide if wariness is the best way to live out that faith.

There are certainly people, pastors even, out there who would tell you that there is no other way to interpret the world. But that seems to fly in the face of hope, and more to the point today it may even keep us from experiencing the kinds of epiphanies that can change our lives and world.

You see, while epiphanies can come through our relationships with objects and places; most often they come through interactions with other people in the world and our faithful interpretations of those moments. But that requires us to take some risks in our lives; the kind of risks like the Magi took in following a star; the kind of risks they took in stopping to ask for directions, and then heeding the warning of a dream.

To push aside our wariness and be aware of the world around us can be nothing short of an epiphany of its own. Awareness helps breed the kind of radical hospitality needed to confront the perpetuation of fear and mistrust. Awareness helps us see people as people, rather than people as problems. Awareness enables us to greet people and situations as novel and full of possibility, rather than always seeing new moments through old rose colored lenses. We might even begin to understand awareness as a precursor to epiphanies.

As the author of Matthew reminds us, the Epiphany story is one of inclusion, of remembering the grand gestures of a God who is for all people. Epiphanies aren’t our opinions about things, they aren’t the radical concoctions of pundits, politicians or even some preachers. We would do well to remember that an experience isn’t really an epiphany unless it somehow expresses the great hope and love of a God who sent a child into a dangerous world to be a messenger of faith, hope and love through his relationships with others.

At some point we will have that talk with Caitlyn about the possibility of danger in relationships. My greatest hope is that we do it such a way that she doesn’t lose that innate curiosity and joy that comes in meeting people where they are. She will learn soon enough that there are plenty of people out there willing to fan the flames of discord, fear, violence and mistrust. I, for one, can only hope my voice does not join that chorus.

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