There are few things more intimidating than the anticipation of seeing new faces and meeting new people. And yesterday took the cake.
Monday marked orientation day for RTS and convocation evening for Greyfriars Classical Academy (where I’ll be teaching 9th grade history and literature). From 9:30am to 9pm, I met RTS students, chatted with RTS professors, toured the city of Charlotte with my fellow classmates, shook hands with my academic colleagues at Greyfriars, smiled awkwardly at high schoolers passing me in the hallways, and carried on conversations with a wide variety of men and women from all backgrounds and pursuits.
It was clear that my biggest enemy was the pressure to impress. I prayed many times in the hours leading up to orientation that God would help me enjoy the time, be myself, and not become so absorbed in impressions. Yet as occurs in every public setting full of new people, I resorted to a self-evaluation method of interaction: frequently checking myself, trying to observe myself from the perspective of the other person: being funny to the guys, confident to the girls, and sharp to the professors. This conceited form of interaction serves little purpose, but it has become so habitual in my interaction with new faces that to do otherwise is twice as terrifying.
I’ve noticed that normally this facade breeds a predictable, surface-level conversation with everyone. We share a few facts, discover a mutual connection, make each other chuckle, and move on, silently and subconsciously hoping that maybe someday soon we’ll meet them for real and they’ll meet us for real. But something different happened today: a handful of people forced me to be pull out of my smooth sailing, confident, glad-handing facade and into the beginnings of a true relationship of love by doing one simple thing: listening.
At the beginning of orientation I sat down at a table with a man and his wife and made small-talk. Soon more people joined us and we went through the litany of necessary and predictable first questions–“what’s you name? where are you from? what are you studying? what brought you to RTS?” It surprised me, then, that later some of those same people came up to me to talk to me again. They had already gone through the basics and they were interested in more? Soon I found myself talking to people about some of my fears coming into seminary, some of the difficult things that have happened at my alma mater, and the passions that have brought me to RTS. These people looked me in the eye and really listened, and because of that I couldn’t help but be honest with them. And then, what’s more, many followed up. One person approached me later with a book that addresses those fears I had mentioned to he and some others in an earlier conversation.
These people were listening, and they treated me like a real person. They extended a great courtesy that I rarely extend to others at our first interaction: the courtesy of caring more about what the other person is saying than about what I will say in response. And in this simple selflessness, they made a sojourner feel excited to call this place home, a nameless man proud to associate his name with theirs.
I used to listen to a song as a kid called “Talk to Me.” In it the child has a simple request of her parents: “Talk to me/ Show me that you care / Talk to me / Listen to what I say … I know you love me when you talk to me.” And it is in those simple words from the voice of a child that challenges even the wisest and most impressive of adults to submit to one of the simplest forms of love: listening.
In Deuteronomy 10, God challenges the people of Israel to “love the sojourner, for you were sojourners in Egypt.” Without a doubt, we’re still called to this today. Living in a city with tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Latin America, this call to love the sojourner seems very applicable. But yesterday I realized that I, too, am a sojourner. I’m a man longing to feel I have a place I know and am known, a place where I’m comfortable in my unique humanity, a place where I feel loved because I’m understood and welcomed. With a handful of people today, I saw God’s Deuteronomy 10 call fulfilled toward me.
Everyone is a sojourner in some respect, for we all sense the longing to feel at home with the people around us. You, too, have felt like a sojourner–and maybe still do. So as we seek to accomplish God’s call to love and care for the sojourner from afar, we can’t forget that maybe he’s already in our midst, talking to us as we think of something clever to say, forgetting that love is only a listening ear away.