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When crossing paths with a stranger could be an encounter with God

By Allen Sleith

In my previous article I wrote of how the reality of God can be described in many different ways. As well as the well-known biblical titles such as Creator, Saviour, Judge and Lord, there are still others that indicate something intrinsic to the God revealed to Israel and the Church.

Last time, I suggested that 'Elusive Presence' is one such descriptive - God as Spirit, freely coming and going with tangible effects as does the wind, according to Jesus (John 3).

In similar vein, let me offer another analogy - God as 'Familiar Stranger'. I'm indebted to a Jewish scholar, Marc Gopin, for making me aware of that evocative image in a lecture he once gave in Belfast. His moving and persuasive meditation led us through the numerous times in the Hebrew Scriptures where people encounter the divine in a human form or vision or voice in which proximity and peculiarity fuse together in a life-changing event.

Abraham, Jacob and Moses experienced this; and who can forget the way in which young Samuel, a temple apprentice, learns from old Eli to discern the voice of God calling to him at night, stirring his prophetic consciousness?

I know one has to be careful here. We warn our young children, and rightly so, to be wary of strangers whom they might meet and who, for all they and we know, might seek to cause them harm. But there comes a stage in life, when the transition to a more mature outlook has to be taken, the moment when the stranger, the 'other', the different one, the outsider, is to be encountered more with hospitality than hostility, an opportunity for mutual sharing.

Again and again, God initiates encounters where we are invited, even challenged, to meet someone or something as a gift to our growth, which, left unexplored, might well leave us stuck in a rut, rejecting the promptings of the Divine.

So when and where might God be found today? If Jesus is any clue, the next time we meet the ill, the poor, the least, the hungry, the imprisoned - God's Elusive Presence in the guise of these Familiar Strangers (Matthew 25).

There might be more to others than seems to meet the eye.

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