And when meeting a fellow hospital visitor at a bedside, I asked, ‘So, you’re the patient’s mother, are you?’ I then learned that she was in fact her sister. If blushing with embarrassment was an Olympic sport, I’d get gold.
But one particular episode stands out in my mind as epic in a truly terrible way.
A diminutive, nervous-looking chap approached me at the end of a church service, requesting prayer. Introducing himself hesitantly, he shared his dilemma. ‘Nobody seems to notice me,’ he whispered, his eyes downcast. ‘In social gatherings, I seem to be invisible. I’m awkward with conversation. Perhaps I’m boring. Nobody ever calls me by name. Would you pray for me?’
Perhaps you guessed where this is going. Here was I, standing before a man who felt unnoticed, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember his name. Breaking into a panicked sweat, I racked my brain to try to remember how he had introduced himself, without success.
Christian leaders have tactics for moments like this. When unable to remember someone’s name, one can pray for ‘this brother’, ‘this child of yours that you love’, or ‘my dear friend’. A Christian writer friend (it would be wrong to specifically mention Adrian Plass) froze when he was asked to sign a book for a lady whom he knew very well – but had completely forgotten her name. ‘Remind me,’ he murmured, using his most pastoral voice, ‘how do you spell your name again?’ She smiled, knowingly. ‘It’s easy,’ she replied. ‘It’s P-A-M.’ Awkward.
So, I resorted to one of these emergency strategies, asking God to bless this ‘priceless man that you love, know and care for’. I don’t know if he noticed my failing to name him in the prayer. I really hope not.
We all long to be seen, to be known. Eden is a picture of naked innocence, of knowing God and each other completely. I’m not proposing nude fellowship, naturist small groups – that would surely be appalling. But the longing for self-disclosure, for intimacy, lingers within.
That’s why Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire. Facebook and other forms of social media offer the opportunity for connection, however fleeting or trivial.
As followers of a relational God, we too must intentionally build relationships of substance. We do this as we consciously listen, ensuring that we’re not just using what others say as an opportunity to think about what we’re going to say next. To be truly heard is a rare luxury.
We can change the culture of friendships, marriages and churches as we catch people doing something right, offer appreciation and encouragement, and pause for kindness.
And while small talk is a vital component of relationships (we can’t and shouldn’t go deep with everybody), we can dive beneath the surface with a few, and take the risk of vulnerability.
Of course, nearness is not always comfortable, or welcome. Just a few days ago I found myself in the bowels of a tiny commuter aircraft, off on yet another ministry trip. The seats were tiny, and I was seated next to a very large man who made Goliath look like a pixie. When it came to his aircraft seat, his cup overflowed, so to speak. My face was flattened against the window, and he was fighting a losing battle with flatulence.
And then he turned, looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘I like closeness.’
Adapted from Jeff’s forthcoming book with Adrian Plass, All Questions Great and Small (Hodder & Stoughton)
Jeff Lucas is teaching pastor at Timberline Church, Colorado. He is an international speaker, author and broadcaster Follow Jeff @jeffreylucas