Have you ever felt invisible? I did recently. I was visiting a large suburban church. A member just home from several months overseas related her experiences. Gloriously attired in that country's national dress, she skillfully held her audience's attention, especially mine because I was once quite familiar with the city in which she was based.
After the services we talked, sharing our impressions of that colorful Asian city. We were deep in conversation when some friends of hers dropped into the seats in front of us, swung around, and rudely interrupted our discussion. Then all three talked "over" me for several minutes as if I had vanished. I thought if I moved away, they probably wouldn't miss me. I did, they didn't (I did excuse myself, but they were too absorbed to hear).
Discourteous? Yes, definitely! Deliberate? Perhaps. I don't like such behavior, but I try to be patient and move on and talk with others. However, I can't help thinking, What if I were a first-time visitor, a sad lonely person needing comfort, or an earnest truth-seeker? I would have felt disappointed and rejected.
Yet in that same church are a group of people committed to personal ministry. They present a bunch of their own homegrown flowers to every visitor they can find. It's very pleasant to be a recipient. Their social graces leave a highly positive image in many minds. First impressions are so important.
My family and I travel many kilometers every year in our work and visit a large number of churches in the process. We've been surprised more than once to find no one at the door to greet us. Often, we find little knots of people involved in their own interaction in the church building. The message that sometimes comes across is: "You're not a regular and I can't be bothered talking to you." Sad, isn't it?
I realize this pattern occurs in all groups of people everywhere. Of course, it's more noticeable and embarrassing in your own church system. Ministers and their partners are used to searching their congregation each week for new fact's. The larger the church, the greater the difficulty. The pastoral job is assessed on performance, whether we like to admit it or not. This makes clergy couples far more aware of visitors. However, this does not excuse any of us from lack of courtesy, unthinking or deliberate.
As I thought of the lady in the national dress and her friends, I asked myself, "Ouch! Have I been guilty of this sort of behavior?" Almost certainly! "Have I frozen someone out of a conversation?" Probably, though I hope never deliberately.
Recently, on television, our Commissioner of Police addressed the problem of road rage, a problem which is becoming increasingly common in this stressful world. He said how much he would like society to return to the old "pleases" and "thank-yous" an earlier generation had insisted on. (It's difficult to fight when your social interaction is centered in courtesy, don't you think?) It really made me consider my own responsibilities. I determined to be more careful when I interact with people.
Do go and make friends with any new face who visits your church or any other social gathering. Don't be distracted. Give them your undivided attention. Let's all make a greater effort.
Social graces? Yes, please!