Are All Strangers Friends You Haven’t Met Yet?

imageI grew up believing the Will Rogers quote: “A Stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet.”  It really fit my personality.  As an extroverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive person, it came naturally to me to be nice and friendly with everyone I met.

This often worked well for me in social situations.  I would walk up to strangers, shake their hands, and introduce myself…feeling excited about the possibility of making a new friend.  I could “work the room”as well as anyone.

This really helped me in my career as an Episcopal parish priest.  When I was called to start a new church in Naples, the first question people would ask me was how I was going to reach people and invite them to church, especially when many lived in gated communities.  I would respond by saying that I’ll be out and about in the community, and I’ll invite people to come and join us.  After all, that is what Church Planters do…connect with their community and invite perfect strangers to come to church.

It was often surprising to see who would accept the invitation.  We began attracting a diversity of people, which crossed racial and cultural boundries.  Our slogan reflected our core value of “All are Welcome.”

That didn’t always go over so well with certain folks in my denomination who thought I should focus my efforts on reaching Episcopalians.  You know, the stereotypical folks who already know how to find their way through the Book of Common Prayer during worship, and who are familiar with the songs found in our denominational hymnal.  I double-downed on my efforts to reach the “unchurched,” which when tallyed revealed that they were about half of our congregation.”

I thrived on being a bridge builder with the community.  My biggest mistake was not putting the same efforts into building bridges with deanery and diocesan folks who would be making major decisions about our fledgling congregation.

Lesson Learned…bridges go two ways.  People cross back and forth.  Just as people can come on board, they can also leave or withdraw their support.

I’m not an engineer, but what I have learned from those who build actual bridges for a living, you have to choose your sites carefully…otherwise it will be a disaster.

This image comes to mind.  During our visit to China about ten years ago, we were sailing along the Yangtze River.  When we turned around a bend you could see that efforts were made to build a bridge across this great waterway.  On each side of the river, there were beautiful bridges.  The only problem is, they didn’t meet in the middle.  Each side had built a bridge based on the best place to build on their side of the river, and evidently didn’t coordinate their efforts so that the two sides would meet.

I still think of that bridge on occasion.  It helps me when I get into conversations that become polarized. Instead of criticizing the other person, I try to see if there is a way we can connect…perhaps meeting in the middle.  To be honest, that isn’t always possible.  Then I have to decide if it is worth trying to build a bridge with that person, or if we will always be at an impasse.

It was hard for me to “unfriend” my cousin when it seemed that Facebook became a battleground for our opinions.  We weren’t building bridges but tearing them down.  We had to give it a rest.  I don’t know if we will ever connect, but I don’t think its healthy for us to spend precious time trying to convince the other of the rightness of our opinion.

So, this begs the question: “Have you ever met a stranger that you knew, no matter how hard you tried, that they would never be your friend?”  I mean a real friend.  We can certainly try to be nice to everyone, but everyone will not end up becoming your friend.

We can choose to try to build a bridge in a relationship, but at some point we just might have to let it go.

For this extroverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive person, that is hard to admit.  But I have come to a more realistic perspective: I can try to be friendly with everyone, but not everyone will be my friend.


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