Close Encounters of the Casual Kind
For my birthday last week, David and I used our Metra Regional Transportation Authority “Seniors Ride Free” passes to go into Chicago. Rumor has it that the state legislature is going to cancel this program since Illinois is facing one of the worst budget deficits among the 50 states so we are trying to employ these passes as much as possible before the hatchet falls.
Last spring, because of the fact that Riccardo Mutti was named the new artistic director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, my husband purchased a series of tickets, which are serving as our anniversary, Christmas, birthday, and Valentine’s Day gifts. We arrived at Ogilvie Station on January 19, where a bitter biting wind forced us to catch a taxi. Consequently, we had an hour to spend in the Art Institute (where the Chagall stained-glass windows have been cleaned and reinstalled) before our dinner reservation. At 6 p.m. we hustled across Michigan Avenue to have dinner at the Russian Tea Time Restaurant.
How to choose from Ukrainian Borscht, Eggplant/Zucchini Duet, Lamb Samsa or Pumpkin Vareniky? David leaned over to the woman eating alone at the table beside ours and asked, “Do you have anything on the menu you especially enjoy?” That was the beginning of an enchanting table conversation with this woman who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago, spent her career teaching at South Shore High School, resides now in retirement at the family home in Saugatauk, Michigan, but makes regular trips back into the city where she keeps a condo in her old neighborhood.
Eventually, David and I ordered the Russian Tea Time Platter for 2; the little restaurant blurb read:
David and I enjoyed our rare leisurely dinner, chatting with our new friend. The waiter never let our teacups go empty.
She too was going to hear the symphony—a concert of Stravinsky, Dvorak, and the English composer Elgar. (And we learned from her that if we appeared at the box office after 5 in the afternoon on any day of any concert, we might be able to procure senior-priced tickets at $20 each! This is a great piece of news.)
We talked eagerly about Chicago politics, the school system, the state of the Episcopal Church (she serves on her vestry), living in Chicago during 1968, Rahm Emanual running for mayor, and where we have traveled in the world and with whom. Finally, during desserts, David just invited her to come sit at our table where we lingered over more conversation, a bottomless cup of Russian tea with overtones of blackberry, which we sweetened with rough chunks of brown sugar while sharing a plate of apricot-plum strudel. Together, the three of us strolled the short walk to Orchestra Hall, and when we parted to go to our separate seats, David gave our new acquaintance a hug. “Call if you are ever in Saugatuck,” she said. “I’m the only one with my last name in the phone book.” I made a note.
For some reason, at this biological stage of what I am calling “The Mellow Age,” I am having more and more of these close encounters of the casual kind. Perhaps it is because I have finally outgrown my innate shyness. Perhaps it is because I’m finding there really is some power in being a white-haired lady—it gives me an edge no one else writes much about. I discovered I can leverage this scandalously. In crowded airplane aisles, for instance, I turn to the young men behind me and plead, “Do you think you could help a little white-haired old lady get this suitcase up in the bin?” I remind them of their own grandmothers; they gladly rush to assist. It is just great. I am becoming more and more like my extraverted friends—sort of a general hostess to any passing strangers...anywhere.
In my research on hospitality, an article from Charles Ramsey, the Director of the Center for Islamic Studies at the University Institute in New Delhi, makes the case that there can be no rapprochement between Muslims, Jews and Christians unless conflicted groups begin to exercise hospitality—which is an essential tenant of all three faiths! He quotes scholarly research that insists that extending ourselves to strangers is a bedrock understanding of holy writ. Xenos refers to the foreigner, stranger, guest; xenia to hospitality, friendly relations, guest room; xenizo to surprise or entertain; xenodocheo to show hospitality; philoxenia to hospitality and philoxenos to host or to be hospitable. All these words are used in Scripture. I realize during close encounters of the casual kind that I am practicing scriptural hospitality in a way that has not been so easy for me to do in the past.
What is so unusual about these encounters between strangers is how close, how connected, how useful, how informative, how delightful they can be. “What are you reading?” I’ll dare ask a seat companion who has been huddled over a book or a Kindle. (Though I’ve tried, haven’t been able to catch a glimpse of the book title.) “I’m a writer,” I explain, “and I’m always interested in what people are reading.” This simple question often leads to a mutual discussion of “great books we’ve read recently” where both of us (strangers, remember) grab for paper and pens to make notes.
David has a super question he asks of people with whom we are casually becoming acquainted. (Once they realize that he is an ordained minister with a doctorate in theology.) “What has your spiritual history been like?” Their response to this question is always open and forth-giving.
At the beginning of this year, I made a vow to read my Bible every day—regretfully, this discipline all too often gets waylaid by a demanding to-do list. Along with my prayer journal work and Scripture study, I also underline and make notes on some devotional book. This year it is To Be Near Unto God, written by Abraham Kuyper. The 110 meditations are on a single thought from Psalm 73: “As for me, it is good to be near unto God.”
Kuyper was a theologian who became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. A journalist, scholar, and politician, he was also a devout Christian thinker. In 1880 he founded the Free University in Amsterdam, which considers that the Bible is the unconditional basis upon which to construct the whole framework of human knowledge. His goal was to, despite all worldly opposition, work to establish God’s holy ordinances in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people. Certain historians consider him to be one of the most influential of leaders, not only in the Netherlands, but across the entire European continent. While reading his meditations, I have had the distinctly humble feeling of sitting at the foot of a giant.
Recently, I have come “near” to God in these close encounters of the casual kind. I catch little children in their strollers staring at me, “You know I am a grandma type, don’t you?” I say to them as they stare at me.
This is a holy moment. In this passing encounter, so unplanned, so fleeting, a child has locked his eyes on me, knowing something that I no longer know, perhaps. What a privilege for an infant, a baby, or a little toddler to, however fleetingly, be intrigued by me.
An old man, whom I’ve never before met, regales me with stories about his dearly loved wife, now dead. You see, we are common white-haired elderly mellow people. We can trust one another to hear, to understand. Something sacred has come down to connect us—philoxenos, perhaps, or xenizo.
Young men are also comfortable with me (often their mothers know who I am, “You know Karen Mains!”) How wonderful not to have to manage all that earlier cross-gender stuff. I shamelessly pick their brains, finishing up parts of my interrupted formal education. How interesting this younger generation is, how well-informed, how exposed to concepts remarkable and intriguing. We connect—for a bit—xenos on the loose, perhaps.
So here’s what I want you to do—all you shy, introverted, reserved folk (or all you hyper-organized, over-committed, self-absorbed folk). See what surprises may await you in the close encounter of the next kind.
“Continue to love each other with true Christian love. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.”
Hebrews 13:1-2, NLT
Spiritual Growth Tools
Hungry Souls is in the process of taking all the last ten years of building spiritual growth tools with teams of committed and able volunteers and making them into web-based tools that will eventually be accessible over the Internet.
New Office Administrator
Susan Hands has been our faithful office administrator for the past six years and has now taken a job with Wheaton Bible Church. We will miss her and are extremely grateful that she put up with all our adjustments as we transitioned to a smaller office and to a more defined mission.
God has provided a wonderfully-equipped substitute. Heather Ann Martinez is an ordained Anglican priest with her Master in Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary. She has a background in office administration, sales and marketing, has been a curate at St. Hugh of Lincoln Episcopal Church in Elgin and calls herself a “clean freak.”
These are the perfect skill sets for where we are at Mainstay Ministries, Hungry Souls and the Global Bag Project. Heather’s training will enable her to help us frame the tools we are developing for Internet outreaches. Heather Ann’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
God is good! He is good all the time!
The Soulish Food e-mails are being posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to register on the Web site to receive the biweekly newsletter. You might want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
“For some reason, at this biological stage of what I am calling ‘The Mellow Age,’ I am having more and more of these close encounters of the casual kind. Perhaps it is because I have finally outgrown my innate shyness. Perhaps it is because I’m finding there really is some power in being a white-haired lady—it gives me an edge no one else writes much about. I discovered I can leverage this scandalously. In crowded airplane aisles, for instance, I turn to the young men behind me and plead, ‘Do you think you could help a little white-haired old lady get this suitcase up in the bin?’ I remind them of their own grandmothers; they gladly rush to assist. It is just great. I am becoming more and more like my extraverted friends—sort of a general hostess to any passing strangers...anywhere.”
To Be Near Unto God
“The author states, ‘The fellowship of being near unto God must become reality … it must permeate and give color to our feeling, our perceptions, our sensations, our thinking, our imagining, our willing, our acting, our speaking. It must not stand as a foreign factor in our life, but it must be the passion that breathes throughout our whole existence.’”
Hungry Souls highly recommends this devotional work.
Friends and Strangers: Divine Encounters in Lonely Places
This book is a collection of essays Karen wrote when she first began to recognize the divine interplay that often occurred when meeting strangers. Some of the chapter titles include “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” “Guess Who Came to St. Patrick’s Day Dinner?”, “Writer Without Words,” and “A Comfortably Rumpled Advocate.”
Hungry Souls is happy to make a hardcover copy available to you (autographed by Karen), for $10.00 plus $3.95 shipping and handling. You may mail a check made out to “Hungry Souls.” Please write “Strangers” in the “Memo” line of your check so we will be sure to mail you the right book. Send your order to: