My heart is tender toward her tonight – the new girl who showed up at our summer kick-off, Wednesday night fellowships at the pool. She was easy to spot, stuck there at a table of men who out-aged her by at least fifty years. Talk about awkward. When I asked her who she was and how it was that she came to be in our midst, she simply replied, “Mr. Bill invited me.”
I chuckled, while pointing out the retired, elderly minister who fellowships in our midst, and asked her, “That Mr. Bill?”
“No, the preacher man named Mr. Bill.”
“Oh that Bill! He’s my Bill. You can call him Billy.”
And so the conversation began between us. Curious to know how she and my Billy got connected, I learned that this rising, eighth grader was one of the participants in a mentoring encounter our congregation sponsors with local middle-schoolers. A banquet was held in their honor last week, and Preacher Billy invited all the kids to come and be part of our Wednesday night fellowships by the pool.
Bravely she came; bravely she remained despite her odd seating arrangement during the dinner hour. If I had been her, I would have bolted at the first opportunity, texting my mom to quickly come and rescue me from the awkwardness. Instead she waited it out, and my heart broke with the waiting.
Waiting for someone to notice her.
Waiting for someone her age to come around and invite her to join in the fun.
Waiting for the newness to not feel so new to her but, instead, to feel a little bit normal.
I’m not much of a waiter, so after a painful hour of watching this scene play out, I gathered a couple of other women, and together, we coaxed our visitor down to the pool area and implored a few kids to come and offer their greetings. Before long, my new friend was splashing in the pool and, hopefully, feeling better about having taken the preacher man up on his invitation.
Not long after that, her mother arrived to pick her up; I was able to sneak in a quick handshake before their departure, wishing for more time and for a better way of extending the reach and welcome of love to strangers. It’s a haunting ache that has stayed with me all evening. My heart has always been tender toward those who sit on the fringes, the ones overlooked and often ignored. I’m fighting another feeling tonight as well – annoyance.
Why are kids so slow to recognize strangers in their midst? Why not the reach and welcome of love? Why isolate them rather than include them? Are their senses so dulled not to notice the need or are they so self-absorbed that to notice would require too much of them? Where’s the kindness we so boldly proclaim and yet, sometimes, so pitifully live?
I know it sounds harsh; it is harsh. But it’s true . . . across the board, whether teenagers or adults. Why do we bunch up instead of branch out? We are the church – the body of Christ, a group of believers who boldly claim the name of our Lord as our identity . . . Christians. Little Christs. For heaven’s sake . . . really for the sake of heaven . . . when are we going to start acting like him? When are we going to start reaching out instead of always living in?
I’m tired of playing church. That’s not my game. Instead, I want to live Jesus and give Jesus so that no one ever sits on the fringes, feeling unloved, unwelcomed, unnoticed. Perhaps I am tender to this, because like my new friend, I have sat where she sat tonight . . . many times – just wanting to be noticed, to be “in” instead of feeling so very “out.”
Oh could we just live it better, friends? Just look away from the mirror long enough to notice the new faces around us? Just speak some Jesus words of grace and interest into the lives of those who sit within arm’s reach? It doesn’t take much to make a heart smile and to warm up to the idea of friendship. It just takes some willingness on our parts and some training of our hearts to fully understand the kingdom impact of the reach and welcome of love.
Two thousand years ago, my Jesus stood on a hillside, extending the reach and welcome of love through his blood-stained hands. He noticed me then; he notices me still; he notices us all. Why? Because it’s in his heart to make sure that we’re all “in” instead of living as outsiders.
Christ is the way in. A heart shaped by this truth will never forsake the outsider. Instead, a heart shaped by the reach and welcome of Calvary’s love will live accordingly.
Reaching. Welcoming. And loving a new friend all the way home to Jesus.
No longer a stranger on the fringes but, instead, one of the family.
This is my gospel. This is my Jesus. This is the servant I want to be.
So be it. Amen.