The cartoon by Matthew Diffee in The New Yorker (July 5, 2021, p. 45) was so good I emailed a copy to Margie. It depicts a couple on the front steps of a house, the man holding a bottle of wine, the woman with her hand outstretched, her index finger about to ring the doorbell. The man is saying, “I’m ready to leave whenever you are.”
My email to Margie had on the Subject line, “Anyone you know?”
Her response: “HAHAHA. CAN’T IMAGINE A SINGLE PERSON.”
The All Caps were entirely intentional.
I’ve actually said that to her… those exact words, “I’m ready to leave whenever you are,” at that precise moment, before we actually arrive, when we are about to join some party or potluck… or any other event when people who don’t know one another make small talk until it’s socially acceptable to leave…
But I have a good excuse: I’m an introvert. It’s the way I am. It’s not something I plan or choose. Being introverted is simply who I am. God made me this way.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been convicted how unloving I am in this. My sense of conviction centers on the prayer of confession each Sunday. We are Anglicans, so use the Prayer of Confession of Sin from the Book of Common Prayer.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
“We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” That’s me. The truth is that loving my neighbor includes making small talk with strangers. How else am I to get to know them? Yes, I am an introvert. But acting introverted, being unwilling to engage in small talk is my choice. A choice to not love. True, I may need to learn how to better engage in small talk, but I am capable of learning that. And when I hesitate, it is an instance of sinning, as the prayer puts it, in what I have left undone. Meaning I have not loved God with my whole heart and have not loved my neighbor as myself.
The whole prayer catches me out. This is far worse than the awkwardness I feel trying to engage strangers in small talk.
Small talk is a way our culture allows us to make socially acceptable contact with total strangers. It opens communication. It involves asking questions and listening—both acts of love—and hearing their story. Sometimes it goes nowhere. Sometimes it cracks the ice and fades away to go nowhere. And occasionally it cracks open a door to the deeper things of the heart that matter most. Sometimes we part strangers. Occasionally we part friends. And when that happens, we catch a tiny glimmer of hope in a world fraught with meaninglessness.
Last Sunday my sense of conviction was deepened by a hymn we sang.
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above. [“Come Thou Fount,” John Wyeth, Robert Robinson)
As I sang, I realized that I don’t go far in my wandering. My wandering is as close to me as my introversion. The real distance is how far it takes me from God’s love. “Whoever does not love,” St John says, “does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Amazing where my refusal to engage in small talk takes me when I reflect on it.
I don’t have research on this, but I suspect most people usually feel that have a good excuse for their lack of love. It’s not like I wake up and decide to be unloving; it just happens. It feels as natural as my introversion. It’s only later, after we leave the event, my wife and the Holy Spirit team up to… shall we say… clarify things for me.
I also suspect there are as many good excuses out there as there are fallen people.
You might be busy. The press of productivity and efficiency makes unhurried time with people, which love requires, practically impossible.
Perhaps your neighbors hold contemptable political views. Freedom to you means not being coerced by the State, and too many are making political choices that increase tyranny. So, you are obligated to love fellow patriots and to defeat the rest, the liberals, the woke.
Perhaps you offer to love but feel it’s important to insist on making clear how your neighbor is wrong. Or refuse to serve them because they sin in ways you find unacceptable. Your righteousness is deeply satisfying even though it makes you unsafe as a friend.
Perhaps you are an anti-vaxxer, believing that the statistics are inflated, or the danger overstated, or your personal risk too high to help achieve herd immunity. One friend reported that two guys in her county were vaccinated and dropped dead the next day. You believe in loving your neighbor but being vaccinated for the common good comes at too high a cost.
And here perhaps each one of us should fill in the good excuse we harbor in our heart and imagination to absolve ourselves for our lack of love.
Love is hard in the best of times and with the best of people, and we have neither in this broken world. But we have something better, a vision of something greater and that vision is infused with love. Sacrificial love that lights our path, and invites is into its warmly welcoming reality where divinity dwells in light unapproachable.
Some people say that life is just a given thing
but you and I both know by whom its lent
and that its right here in the dirt
where we’ve both been loved and hurt
that Love Himself has come to pitch His tent [From “Angel Unawares,” by Malcolm Guite on his website July 5, 2021)]
My good excuse melts away in the light of the Incarnation. He could have simply commanded my attention, but instead he came to know me, and in continuing to listen to my prayers is graciously listening to small talk, indeed.
The first memory I have of the gentle presence of God’s Holy Spirit came when I sat under the lower boughs of a pine tree as a young child. It was my hiding place, evading watchful eyes of judgment and disappointment. I remember that there, in the cool shade as I learned to watch and listen to the birds, I sensed a remarkable tranquility. My solitude was complete, yet I did not feel alone. Looking back, I realize now that it was there that I first blundered near the Interface that separates the visible and invisible realms of reality. Now I realize it was there I was given a child’s first awareness of the presence of God. I thought I was escaping, when in fact I had been wooed. It was a place fit for an introvert, and my mistake has been to want to stay there (selfishly) rather than visit (regularly) in preparation for following my Lord into the world of dirt and love and hurt (and strangers and small talk).
Along with Confession and Absolution on Sunday, both of which I needed, the Collect for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, which day it was, completed my sense that Providence was at work designing a service of worship for me.
Grant us, O Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who can do no good thing apart from you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Photographer Krystyna Sanderson points out that “the light that Jesus brings shows things as they are.”
It strips away the disguises and concealments. It shows things in all their nakedness. It shows them in their true character and their true values. That is why it is difficult to be in the light of Jesus. The light reveals our faults, our sins. When the light of Christ exposes who we really are, we may not like what we see. [It was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (2006) p. 212]
Yes, I am an introvert but when I allow my life to be defined by that, I am unloving. It is God’s call that is to define me.
So, yes, my good excuse is so very bad it’s embarrassing.
How’s yours going?