Monday, October 10, 2016

‘Hello. What’s Your Name?’

Reconciled to the reality that I’m an introvert who out of necessity learned to become far more outgoing than is my natural inclination, I greatly admire the “people person.” This is someone who has no problem being the life of the party, the individual that strikes up a conversation with anyone.

One of those is my friend, Gary Highfield. As he and I would meet to collaborate on his book, When ‘Want To’ Becomes ‘Have To,’ I’d watch with amazement as he would easily interact with people he’d never met. He’d approach total strangers, whether to chat or ask them to serve as an instant “focus group” for an idea he was considering for his book.

Ease with people was one of the qualities that enabled him to become a top salesman for a national cellphone company. Gary’s book – about rising above a disadvantaged childhood – is enabling him to reach out to young people in circumstances much like he experienced. His goal is to instill in them hope for a brighter future.

Recently Gary mentioned a question he often uses to connect with people, whether a business person, a parent wrangling with a child, a student, or even a homeless person sitting on a curb. The question: “Hello. What’s your name?”

This question, he explained, is as profound as it is simple. “In high school, there are basically three kinds of kids: There are those who are known because of their achievements. Then there are those who are known because of the trouble they get into. And there’s a third group, those who are quiet, inconspicuous, the ones hardly anyone knows. They are virtually invisible.”

Then Gary added, “That last one’s the worst group to be in – and that’s where the most students are.” He understands this well, not only because of the students he encounters almost every day, but also because years ago, he was among them.

Think about it. The classic sitcom “Cheers” was set in a bar “where everyone knows your name.” As a friend of mine used to say, “The sweetest sound to anyone is the sound of their own name.” I’ll never forget how I felt the first time an article bearing my name was published in The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper.

Getting back to the question, “What’s your name?” The gruffest among us might be inclined to respond, “Why do you want to know?” But imagine being in that third group of students – quiet, inconspicuous, basically ignored. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have someone walk up and actually be interested in knowing who you are?

How about the down-and-out individual perched on a downtown doorstep, the sort many of us typically ignore for fear of being asked for a handout. How would this person react if we stopped, looked directly into his or her eyes and said, “Hello. What’s your name?”

In the gospels, we see Jesus modeling this all the time: The woman with the incurable bleeding problem in Matthew 9 and Mark 5. The man in John 9 who had been born blind. The helpless paralyzed man lying on a mat, also described in Matthew 9.

My favorite is the so-called “woman at the well,” a Samaritan woman who came to get water at midday because other women despised her as an outcast. So she chose to fetch her water when no one else was around. In this account from John 4, we don’t know if Jesus inquired about her name, but what He said was just as startling. He asked, “Will you give Me a drink?” which was unheard of, since Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans and by custom, men didn’t speak with women they didn’t know.

She responded, You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” Jesus proceeded to reveal He actually knew the woman very well, describing her troubled circumstances and then offering her hope.

Jesus told the woman, Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13).

We don’t know whether their conversation was recorded in its entirety, but do know what Jesus said to this woman – along with the simple act of acknowledging her existence, rescuing her from anonymity – transformed her life.

It’s amazing what just a few well-chosen, caring words can do. As I noted earlier, taking the initiative to interact with someone I don’t know goes beyond my comfort zone. But perhaps the Lord wants us to understand that comfort zones are vastly overrated.

After reaching out to a succession of “nobodies,” showing love they probably had not experienced in years, if ever, Jesus “saw the crowds (and) had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Then He declared, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Maybe we each could enlist to become part of that workforce, even if all we do is walk up to a stranger – in a restaurant, a school, an office, or on the street – look at them and say, “Hello. What’s your name?”

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