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The Sacred in Small Talk

1 John 4:20b – If a person does not love their brother, whom they have seen, how can they love God whom they have not seen?

It’s no secret that talking to people whom we don’t know can generate anxiety. For over a decade, Dr. Gillian Sandstrom, PhD, has found that at some level, we are both equally worried about many aspects of ourselves and the others involved. While these worries may be valid, her research shows they are all but accurate. Reporting on shared conversations, participants ratings consistently showed that they enjoyed their conversations much more than they expected – with these people they did not know. Living with this pandemic, screens and headlines have mediated our conversations with people we share differences with, for better or for worse. Questions of whose privileged or disadvantaged, whose lives matter or whose lives now have the fore. Our nation is in a dialogue we cannot ignore. 

The country had been shut-down for two whole months. Pumping gas on my way to work, a finely-dressed, middle-aged, South Asian man on the other side of the pump initiated a conversation with me. It began pretty benign and conventionally. Questions such as: How long have you been here, what do you do, where are you from…He proceeded to ask me “Where do you live?” Loosely, I told him around the area. He asked me why I wouldn’t tell him specifically. I told him that it wasn’t my custom to share such detail. Then he posed a striking question, he asked “Are  you afraid of me or think evil of  my intent? If I were to visit your home or meet you nearby what would we do?” Slightly baffled I replied, “We’d have tea and talk.” He laughed softly, a gentle smile emerged beneath his neatly trimmed grey beard, with kind eyes he asked for my phone number. I declined, citing that it was not my custom. 

By now, he had overfilled his gas tank, attending more to me than to his task. The words he uttered next in such a gently suggestive frame have stayed with me ever since. “I cannot have your number because you do not love me.” I was puzzled. As I stood, dazed by his soft confidence, he said “I love you brother,” extended his hand for a fist bump, got into his luxury SUV and drove away. 

Who did he see when looking at me? Who did I see looking at him? How could he say “I love you brother,” so easily and seemingly genuine? The way his eyes were filled with kindness met mine filled with confusion. Two ethnic minority men, both darker shades of brown, both living breathing humans, both navigating a pandemic, share a conversation at a Liberty fuel station, near the nation’s capital…How little of me did he need to see to recognize me as a brother? How much more of him did I need to see to receive him as mine? 

Gracious God, help us to learn that who we love is just as important as how

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