True human encounter
June 16, 2022
Meeting someone unexpectedly is an encounter. Surviving the pandemic has meant minimizing or outright eliminating any possibility of an encounter. We stayed at home and went remote. And if we decided to go out, we experienced the oxymoron of “social distancing!”
The possibility of encountering anyone today is even more difficult when our devices distract us and virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) removes our consciousness from reality into a virtual created world.
Are the pandemic and technology leading us away from being human?
Growing up in Boston where the country’s history began and Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that it is “the hub of the solar system,” taught me early on that everything I would ever need can be found in Boston. It was very parochial thinking.
The Incarnation is emblematic of God’s encounter with us. God’s human form in Christ is to be fully immersed in the human condition so that we too may know God.
We know that going to school and broadening our worldview from a liberal education moves us away from parochialism. As a child, I may have been able to find Thailand on a world map, but it was not until 1981 when I had the opportunity to travel to Bangkok and Chiang Mai to prepare for a Youth Mission Encounter in 1982 that I realized that there was more in the world than Boston! The Baptist youth lived in northern Thailand villages for 2 weeks. They slept on bamboo mats, ate rice and green beans, planted coffee plants, rode on water buffaloes, and listened to village leaders tell stories. Since that time, my immersive travels—when there is an opportunity to stay awhile, talk with people, walk around, eat the food and even sometimes get a bit sick—have led to a true human encounter.
The Incarnation is emblematic of God’s encounter with us. God’s human form in Christ is to be fully immersed in the human condition so that we too may know God. As the song says, “Jesus walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.” When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for touching and healing people on the Sabbath and his own disciples wanted to keep Jesus for themselves, Jesus was out there, encountering people.
The cost of travel may not be possible for many people, but in this time of racial reckoning, might there be people who live across the street who you want to encounter? Maybe when they peer through their window blinds that they may want to know you too.
If there is any time to encounter others, it is today. Whether we plan an encounter or it happens unexpectedly, prepare to listen to a worldview that may be different from your own. Assume that there will be landmines of controversial topics to face together. Plan to be immersed in another’s life experience and dwell in it when welcomed. Like pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, walk to see yourself in light of others. And until we stay awhile, we won’t really experience a genuine encounter to be human again. And when that happens, we would be more Christ-like.
Rev. Donald Ng was president, American Baptist Churches, USA, 2014-15, the first Asian American to serve in this elected position. For 17 years, he was senior pastor of the historic First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco. He retired from full-time ministry in 2015.