Wednesday night I was standing in the hallway at church, waiting for Boo to get out of the youth group. I noticed another woman also waiting. She was shabbily dressed and disheveled and her front teeth were missing. I started to make small talk, asking if she was also waiting for a teenager.
She said no, that she was waiting for the teacher, who is also the deacon in charge of benevolence. Then she started sharing a hard-luck story that matched her appearance--jobs lost, government benefits delayed, health problems, and so on. You know, I immediately recognized the feelings that bubble up when I find myself in that situation--sympathetic but also from an uncomfortable emotional distance.
I had been asking God lately to enlarge my heart, to expand my capacity for love, and so I began to quietly pray and sure enough, my anxiety subsided and I listened to her story with more empathy, making all the right sympathetic noises and offering the occasional helpful response. Her story was not even a creative variation on the sad stories we hear over and over, but she was very nice, engaged, interesting. We chatted for about twenty minutes until the youth meeting let out.
That night, as I was going to sleep, I thanked the Lord for helping me to respond more lovingly to her, when a deep spiritual awareness brought me up short: love, or at least the beginnings of love, would have asked her about her family or what she enjoyed doing or how long she had been a church member or whatever questions I ask other people--less pitiful people--when I'm trying to make a connection or begin a friendship. Why didn't I do that with this woman? I was so disappointed when I realized that even though I am intentionally creating friendships right now, I never even for one moment thought of this woman as a potential friend or peer. That made me really sad.