Seeing People, Learning Lessons

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill treated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:1-3)

In a city like the one where I live, most growth is up. So all of us spend a lot of time on elevators. Thus we all know elevator etiquette: Do not speak to anyone. Do not make eye contact. Stare at the numbers as the floors change.

I read a list recently of alternative elevator strategies. It was titled “Suggested Things to Do Next Time You Are on a Crowded Elevator.” Let me share a few of those intriguing suggestions with you:

• Keep whistling the first verse of “It’s a Small World.”
• Crack open your briefcase or purse, peek inside, and ask, “Oh my gosh, what happened to my snake?”
• Greet everyone on the elevator with a smile and warm handshake, and ask them to call you “Admiral.”
• Loudly say the word “Ding” at each floor.
• Say to the person standing next to you, “These things always give me motion sickness.”

Lisa Padilla, Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Lisa Padilla, Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

If you decide to try any of those, let me know how it turns out.

Most of us have elevator stories. In a city of eight million people, it’s possible to bump into a long-lost friend on a random elevator. One of our staff members not long ago got stuck on an elevator for over an hour and a half. Most of us have gotten off on the wrong floor, or pushed UP when we meant to push DOWN. Let me share with you three of my own elevator experiences, three random encounters that caused me to think about life and loneliness and fear and fellowship and faith. In each of those encounters and in truly seeing people as they were, I learned valuable lessons about life.

The lesson from Hebrews (about “entertaining angels unaware”) comes to mind because I think I occasionally bump into angels on elevators. Not the kind you usually think about—guardian angels with wings and harps and halos. If I ever reported seeing one of those on an elevator, one of my church members would doubtless suggest that I take the express elevator right to the Blanton-Peale Center (the Counseling Center associated with our church). But wings and harps and halos are not essentially how the Bible describes angels. Oh sure, the choir that sang over Bethlehem on the first Christmas may have looked that way, but even the Easter angels at the empty tomb were simply described as “two men in white.” And almost every time angels showed up in stories from Hebrew Scripture, they were mistaken merely as strangers in town. Throughout most of both the Old Testament and the New, the word “angel” simply means “God’s messenger.” No wings. No halos. Sometimes they are not even all that holy. It reminds me of Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon, who yells at Charlie Brown, “I am, too, an angel. And if you don’t say so, I’ll punch your nose, you blockhead!” Though that way of relating is not seen as exactly angelic in nature, Lucy was still a bearer of truth.

So, with that understanding in mind (that sometimes angels are merely real-life human beings who convey Truth from God), it becomes a bit easier to understand the words of the author of Hebrews when he refers to encountering “angels unaware,” angels that didn’t look like angels, whom we would not have assumed to be angels, but who got a message through from God to us.

Stepping onto the elevator outside Bay Hall (a fellowship area in our church building), I encountered a young woman already on board who stood silently staring at her cell phone. “Which floor?” I asked her as I prepared to push the buttons. She answered, “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.” It seemed an odd response. But I simply pushed the button for my floor, then (as cheerfully as I knew how) said to her, “Well, then, you get to go to floor 10.” She shot me a glance that seemed more frightened than anything else and said quickly and curtly, “Why are you talking to me? Leave me alone!” I did as she requested until the doors opened on the tenth floor. Stepping off, I turned around, looked at her, and said, “I’m a minister here. We exist to help people who need our help. So if there’s ever anything we can do for you, just get on this elevator, push almost any button at all, and someone will be waiting who wants to help you.” She looked back at me. Her expression softened. She opened her mouth as if she were starting to speak, but then she didn’t. Her eyes simply returned to her phone, and the doors closed. My guess is she was trying to find the Blanton-Peale Center and was probably looking up their floor number on her cell phone. She did not know me and felt awkward about telling me where she was going. I get that. But what I remember is her response that looked and sounded like fear. And I remember wondering as I walked away, “Who did I remind her of? Who in her past made her so frightened?” Was there some person in her long-ago history, maybe a man, who had abused her in some way? And alone in an elevator with a man she did not know, had those memories and fears come rushing back?

My encounter with her reminded me of the wounds and scars that can be inflicted on people when they’re young. Sometimes those wounds and scars last a lifetime and affect, even impair, every relationship that comes afterward. One out of every three preteen girls in our country and one out of every five preteen boys are physically or sexually abused. The statistics of psychological abuse are dramatically higher. And abuse can cause everything from paranoia to promiscuity, from drug abuse to self-abuse, from academic failure to emotional depression. The author of Hebrews encouraged his readers, “Continue to remember . . . those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Encountering that young woman on the elevator challenged me never to forget “those who are mistreated,” especially innocent and vulnerable children, because what is done to them can create a cycle of pain that lasts throughout the years. And so we are called, I think, to advocate for them, to stand up, to speak out, to intervene, to love. “Keep on loving one another,” the biblical writer said, “for by doing so some people have entertained angels.”

The second elevator encounter was with an older woman. She pushed the button for the fifth floor. I then pushed the button for my office on the tenth. She looked at me and said, “You’re going all the way to the top. I’m just going halfway there.” Then, on the elevator with a stranger, she literally broke into song: “Up is up and down is down, and halfway’s neither up nor down.” Not having the slightest idea how to respond to that, I simply answered, “What a fun little tune.” She said, “My parents taught it to me when I was a child. I will never forget that. They were good people. They always paid a lot of attention to me.” The doors opened. As she stepped off, she looked back and said, “Thank you for noticing that I was here.”

She was lonely and felt unnoticed. And she thanked me for not merely staring at the numbers as they changed and, thus, shutting her out. She thanked me for simply paying a brief moment’s attention to her, for hearing her song, and for listening to her story about years long ago and people loved and lost.

In our land where 75 percent of adults claim to feel somewhat disconnected, unnoticed and lonely, she reminded me that it never requires too much of us just to notice people, to smile, to say “Good morning,” or simply to acknowledge that they exist and that someone cares. That’s an important truth to remember. Maybe she was an “angel unaware.”

On Sunday mornings when I go down from my office on the tenth floor to the hallway that leads to the sanctuary, the elevator inevitably stops and the door opens on the sixth floor where our children’s classes are. Parents and their kids will crowd into the elevator on their way to worship. We back one another into the corners like sardines in a can, always laughing, and always saying how it would be physically impossible to fit one more in. One Sunday morning recently, a little girl said to her mom, “Wow, this place is so crowded!” Her mother answered: “I know. Isn’t it great to be surrounded by these people?”

That mother understood the meaning of community, which is at the heart of what it means to be a church, a place where we can bring all our fears or all our loneliness and be surrounded by the healing presence, grace, love, and support of people. In this sacred fellowship, the fears are less overwhelming and the loneliness vanishes away.

In my life, in my times of crisis, I have found three human factors I can lean on. Obviously, of course, I lean on my faith, on prayer, and on confidence in the healing nearness of God. But, as Barbara Streisand sang, “people need people,” and in times of personal crisis I have found strength to survive from three human sources: family, one or two very close and trusted friends, and church (this community of people who are on the same journey, who love without judging, and who help without stopping to count the cost). “Isn’t it great to be surrounded by these people?”

A few years ago, following a service in which we installed new members of a board, one of those newly installed individuals said to me, “When the hands of clergy and other board members were laid upon my shoulders, and when I heard the congregation vow to support me with their faith and prayers, I felt like I was surrounded by a company of angels.” I think she was. We often are thus surrounded, both in sacred services at church and also in ordinary moments in the world. In classrooms and checkout lines, in subways and supermarkets, in hair salons and hospital waiting rooms, and even in elevators, God’s Truth comes to us in surprising ways through unexpected people. It is incumbent upon us to develop a perceptive perspective, to see people as they actually are, and thus to learn the lessons that their lives can teach. Put another way, our challenge is simply not to miss the moments when God’s messages come to us through “angels unaware.”

PrintThis post originally appeared in A Five-Mile Walk: Exploring Themes in the Experience of Christian Faith and Discipleship by Michael B. Brown.

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