Prevenient Grace and the New York Sidewalk Game

In the years before seminary and ordination, I worked in mid-town Manhattan and Dianna worked a little farther up-town.  One thing you learn from walking through Grand Central Station at rush hour and then to or from your office building is that the crowd is as intent as possible not to make any eye-contact or acknowledge the presence of another, even if that other is so close you can tell what brand of toothpaste they used (or didn’t).  The same is true during the lunch crunch at the local deli.  So we created a little contest between us.

How many people could we get to make eye-contact, smile and say something like “good morning.”

If you walk down the street deliberately trying to look into each person’s face and offering a big smile the reaction is likely to be unpleasant.  Either you are a country bumpkin tourist who knows nothing about New York, or you are one of the local psychos dressed up in business attire.

It turned out that the trick was to summon up the image of yourself with a look of inviting kindness and then take it on.  Making eye-contact had to be a natural thing appropriate to the moment, the sort of moment two friends might share.  A gentle smile and briefly muttered greeting might be added, and the result was often an opening to that instant when the door of anticipatory welcome was opened and the other felt both safe and welcomed to respond with a smile and a word.  A friend said that it sounded like turning on a light in a dark corner, but if that’s true it would be more of a nightlight, a gentle, warm, reassuring, and not too bright a light.

One thing we learned is that you cannot fake it.  It has to be genuine.  One way we worked on that was to imagine ourselves as filled with the light of Christ and allowing some of it to spill out onto the sidewalk around us.  That imagining took on the form of something like an incoherent prayer that brought forth at least some of the real light of Christ.  I cannot speak for Dianna, but that, in itself, often, but not always, transformed me from the early morning grump who had just battled his way out of the hordes of Grand Central into a person who actually approximated that which I desired to present as a part of our contest.

So, how did we do?  Three or four “wins” in a day was a pretty good score. 

We don’t keep score anymore, and it’s become something of a personal habit.  Except for diocesan meetings where I can easily revert to New York style grump.

 What on earth does this have to do with my post on prevenient grace?  If we are the “body of Christ” then it is essential for each of us to take on as much as we are able of that aura of Christ that warmly and safely invites those who are anxiously seeking anticipatory welcome in the face of feared rejection.  Maybe playing a silly game like the one we had back then is one way of learning how to do that, and in the process finding ourselves being changed from the inside out.


4 thoughts on “Prevenient Grace and the New York Sidewalk Game”

  1. Aristotle insists that if you act as if you are brave, and if that acting as if becomes a habit, then you actually will become brave–it will become \”second nature\” to you to simply be brave.Now Aristotle most likely did not have in mind the sense of anxious courage at work in anticipatory welcome, but surely this is what gospel interactions with Jesus repeatedly show us.I think you\’re right, Steve, to wonder how such interaction can become second nature to us today. Not in \”big\” ways, but in intimate face to face \”acting as if\” ways. Thanks for giving me an everyday way to imagine how I can contest myself.

  2. How Can We Talk About , Love, Death, Courage and Evil?Andrew Delbanco ,” The Death of Satan” traces the transformation and death of the idea that the misbehavior of humans is determined by Satan. With the death of this myth modern man has learned to create hell on earth with such events as the holocaust. This week I saw the Italian film, “La Vita e dolce” or “Life is beautiful.” Set in late 1930s Arezzo, Italy, Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni), a Jew uses cunning wit to win over an Italian schoolteacher. The film switches over to a Nazi concentration camp. Here in hell he uses his artifice to communicate with his wife and to protect his son from the soul searing realities of utter brutality if the German monsters who operate the camp with efficient and creative crudity. At the price of his life he saves them from the technology of death and delivers them back into society. The film is sobering, beautiful, and robs evil in this one instance of its victory. It gives hope against the finality of evil. But then again, by seeing the whole population cooperate with the evil I am remineded that its seeda are found in me. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Amen

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