By JIM NICHOLS
Geiger-Muller counters have been in use for decades. As the least expensive device to determine the presence of ionizing radiation, they have served useful purposes in both peace and war. Ionizing radiation is a type of energy that is potentially damaging to human tissue; it is, frankly, dangerous. There is no human sense that detects this type of energy, so it has been historically important to have instruments that can. You are probably aware that the simplest Geiger counter devices have a sensor tube that generates audible clicks when radiation is sensed. There is a low background level of radiation normally, but the sounds increase in speed in the presence of a radioactive material.
One wonders if we humans have other inbuilt sensors for items or situations (or people) in our environment. When we find ourselves in a strange place or with individuals we do not know, do we have sensors that alert us? What do those alerts tell us? As the number of “clicks” increases, how do we respond?
We often speak of the “fight or flight” response humans and other animals have that is clearly protective. As understandable as that is biologically, it is unfortunate that it lapses into the spiritual realm all too easily. For many of us in too many situations, “strangers” (even religious ones) represent a threat rather than a potential blessing.
Rather than being threatening, scripture often portrays strangers as messengers from God. They may not be recognized as such initially, but in retrospect they play important roles in God’s dealing with us. It is also of interest that these strangers often appear on the scene and then quickly are gone, sometimes with little explanation to us of what just happened and who that was.
In Genesis 14 Melchizedek appears briefly. He is identified as the King of Salem and referred to as a “priest of God Most High.” He plays a key role in caring for Abram (Abraham) but then, as quickly as he appears, he disappears from the text. Readers of the time seem to understand his spiritual importance and he is mentioned briefly again in the Psalms. Later in the New Testament he is (for the readers of the time) clearly connected to the Messiah, but we 21st century readers see him mostly as a mysterious stranger inserted into the story of God’s people.
Jacob’s name was changed to Israel during a wrestling match in the middle of the night. His opponent is described as both a “man” and as “God.” In either case, the being appears in the dark, contends with Jacob, and then disappears. It was life-changing for Jacob and for his descendants, but not clearly obvious at the time. It was, frankly, an unexpected and odd encounter. One wonders how loud and numerous Jacob’s “stranger danger” clicks that night were.
Author Barbara Brown Taylor notes the relationship between the following groups of people: Romans, Samaritans, Canaanites, Syrophoenicians. Members of each of these groups are religious strangers who have encounters with Jesus; the encounters were significant to the participants at the time and significant for us as readers today. They were people who worshiped other gods, or the same God Jesus worshiped but in diverse ways. The stories indicate he did not treat them as strangers but welcomed them into fellowship with him. He offered peace, gentle instruction, and grace to them. That sounds like a model for me.
As happens, I find myself talking and writing to myself here. I carry around the same stranger danger fears as you do. I have been able to decrease the intensity through intentional behavior, but it is a challenge still. If I let them, strangers teach me nuance; they force me to consider and re-consider my positions and attitudes. I do not necessarily change them, but I do examine them again.
It may be noteworthy that we are given no physical description of Jesus—how tall, how heavy, eye and hair color. Perhaps that is a significant omission as if those attributes are unimportant. Maybe I am being instructed to see God’s image in others even if those others are not in my image.
Thomas Merton: “God speaks to us in three places: in scripture, in our deepest selves, and in the voice of the stranger.”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain