Many thousands move across country every year, but I have not been among them for twenty years, and as an elder, the experience has been unsettling in unexpected ways. For one thing, a new place in a strange setting creates a lot of awkwardness. Without the open skies and mountains, I find it hard to locate north, east, west and south. Locations of the usual stores is a mystery, and the stores themselves have different names. I asked one of our family members, near whom we now live, what direction he was from town center. He had to think it over because the terrain and roadways of tidewater Virginia don’t lend themselves to a direction. They’re still described by metes and bounds, albeit modern ones. COVID restrictions make entering the worship life of a new parish challenging. Arranging new utilities and internet service is not the seamless process advertised. Neither is severing ties with old ones left behind. Gone is the comforting familiarity of my old study, making it harder to concentrate on reading and writing. Our household goods should arrive soon, and we can begin the process of settling in. It all adds up to awkwardness.
In the scheme of things, our move is a trivial matter. It wasn’t forced. We chose it. We can afford to make it. We have the privilege of staying with my sister in her roomy home until our stuff arrives. It’s still awkward.
So why am I harping on awkwardness? It’s because I don’t think those of us who are settled in familiar surroundings are sufficiently aware of the difficulty faced by people new to a community or parish. We expect the familiarity so well known to us to be theirs by little more than good intent, a warm smile and osmosis. The awkwardness faced may be caused by having been forced on one in ways not of their own choosing, perhaps even putting them in a precarious financial state. Newcomers may not have the skills or experience to navigate the changes they are facing. Awkwardness can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, angry lashing out, and poor decisions with long lasting consequences.
Two cases come to mind. Years ago I ran into a guy in the local Y locker room who, though a stranger to me, aggressively complained each time I saw him about what a miserable excuse for a city it was. The roads were poor, the food was crummy, people were cold, he was sorry to have moved here, and he fervently wished to be back where he came from. In his case, no amount of invitation would suffice. His defenses were set and he was hunkered down for a long siege. The other involved an unexpected death that left a woman stranded in the awkward position of a new station in life for which she was ill prepared, while grieving the death of a loved one. Everything that had seemed familiar became an alien landscape where no sense of direction could be found. Kindness surrounded her, but she was helpless nevertheless. They’re only two examples of what is going on every day in thousands of ways in thousands of lives. No doubt sociologists and psychologists study these matters at length, producing a large volume of literature. I imagine they’re filled with useful advice. But at the practical level of every day life, what might a Christian response be?
Inviting those who are experiencing the stress of awkwardness in a new place to find Jesus is not it. Helping them find the pharmacy or grocery store is. When Jesus told the parable of going after the lost sheep, it wasn’t to preach, but to guide the sheep back to safety. Being a guide pointing out small steps toward greater familiarity, safety and comfort may be the most Christian thing one can do. Simply explaining the what, where and how of the next few steps can be life saving. Jesus is often portrayed as carrying a lamb. Lambs often do need to be carried, but sheep don’t. They can walk for themselves, as can most people. They may need to be guided in the right direction, but not carried. In other words, don’t do for someone what they are able do for themselves. Just be a trustworthy guide.
Should the path be toward the parish doors? Of course, in the right way at the right time, but it’s not going to church that counts. It’s being nourished by the holy food and drink of God’s abounding and steadfast love known to us in Christ Jesus that counts. Be an agent of that love in the context of daily life. Confidently offer it in God’s name. When the time is right, point the way to church. For that matter, the same goes for the newcomer to worship. The basics of “here’s what’s going to happen for the next hour or two” is more important than assuring them Jesus is glad to see them. Like Nathaniel under the fig tree, they’ve never been out of his sight. In a way, it’s all about empathy.
Empathy is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days. Everyone wants to demonstrate their moral goodness by being empathetic, which is a good thing until it gets demoted through overuse to cliché status. Empathy doesn’t belong on a bumper sticker, it belongs in action. Empathy for those who are experiencing awkwardness in an alien setting is shown not by trying to feel it as they do, because it can’t be done. Empathy is shown by being aware of the awkwardness, and by guiding the other as though leading them, step by step, through the maze.