Monday, December 10, 2012

Learning to Look for ‘Invisible People’

Strolling through the local mall the other day, I realized we’re surrounded by what we could call “invisible people.”

Not people that are literally invisible. (Although that does remind me of the story about the Invisible Man, who on his wedding day made his bride mad because he didn’t show up.) No, I’m referring to people we pass by regularly, without giving them a moment’s consideration.

As I passed a security guard, I heard him engaged in conversation with a woman at one of the Christmas charity booths. I’d seen this fellow before, but hadn’t thought of him in a real-person sort of way. He’s not a snappy dresser, and doesn’t carry himself in a way that would command attention, so although I’d noticed him, I hadn’t really looked at him or wondered, “I wonder who he is? I wonder what his life is like? What are his hopes and dreams?”

I overheard him say something about God, but didn’t want to eavesdrop. It simply struck me that this fellow I’d never met had some opinion of the divine – even though I hadn’t heard enough to know where on the theological spectrum his views would fall.

This got me thinking about other “invisible people” there – custodial staff; people working at gaudy kiosks; the little old man sitting at the bench in the corner, looking like he had nothing to do and nowhere to go; weary kids wanting Mom or Dad to take them home.

Frankly, it’s easy for me to ignore people like this. Even though I’ve sometimes been described as “relational,” I’m really not an outgoing, “people person.” I’ve never been accused of being the life of the party – at such gatherings, unless I connect with someone, I’m inclined to become “invisible” myself. Reaching out to others takes effort for me.

But that’s still no excuse for looking past people whose lives are just as important as our own.

Recently a friend recounted being approached in the parking lot at another mall by a man of a different ethnic background. In broken English the man asked where a particular department store was located. Suspecting this might be a prelude to ask for a handout, my friend was reluctant to engage in conversation. When the man stated his car had broken down, my friend felt sure a plea for cash was next.

Finally he pointed the man across the vast parking lot and briefly watched him begin the trek to the store, a long walk on a very cold, windy day. Suddenly conscience – or conviction – seized my friend and, despite reservations, he pursued the man and offered him a ride to the store.

What began as a threat to my friend’s comfort zone, or even fear for his safety, suddenly transformed into friendly conversation. The man needing directions, it turned out, was the pastor of a small church serving a minority community in a city nearby. This “invisible person” was a fellow follower of Jesus.

One of our greatest human tendencies is to gravitate toward people “like us,” and exclude all others from our field of view. But consider the example of Jesus: He was always looking for the unlikely person – the Samaritan woman; Zacchaeus, the little guy climbing a tree to see Him; the crippled man whose friends took a risk and lowered him through a roof; smelly fishermen; a woman accused of adultery; a despised tax collector.

Maybe that’s an example we should strive to follow, especially this Christmas season.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3,4). 

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