Field Notes from Your Elbow Height

I’m pretty rubbish with crowds. When I was little, handbags were forever being flicked back into my face, elbows jabbing me in the eye, and people of an average height blocking my view of the film/ pantomime/ my parents. From then on, the ‘do you mind?’ attitude has been at the forefront of my mind whenever I am at risk of a jostling. I’m kind of like Johnny from Dirty Dancing (in this respect alone- I dance like an octopus) telling the world “This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine.” It might be because I don’t actually say this out loud, but instead try to communicate it with passive aggressive eye-rolls and exaggerated sighs, that I still feel out of my depth amongst pedestrianised traffic. Or maybe it’s because I don’t have the chiselled features or tank-top arms of Patrick Swayze…

The ‘lonely in a crowd’ feeling that particularly prevails on rush hour public transport prompts two of my least favourite mental past-times. First, agonising self-consciousness. Since, I am convinced, the world revolves around me, I try to work out what everyone around me is judging me for. They couldn’t possibly be thinking about their own lives, of course. Are they mocking my clothes? My size? What I am reading on my Kindle? Do I have food round my mouth? Do my eyebrows need shaping? Second, so the first mind-game hurts less, I get all stuffily superior. Like, about how everyone is just looking at their phones (this involves selective amnesia so that I can pretend I am a social networking hermit), the smell of that chap’s McDonalds, the volume of that lady’s music, how someone has put their bag in the most awkward position ever, I mean who does that, seriously, pshttttt. I can tut my way out of self-introspection.

Needless to say, left to my own mental devices, I am a bit of an ogress.

So I was pretty taken aback by a little phrase in Mark 6. Jesus has just had a bit of time by Himself, the apostles have joined him, but the overall feeling is still of peaceful seclusion.

“Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Win for introversion and forgetting individuals are still individuals once they are in groups of more than 17, I’m thinking. Then I stop. Because Jesus is followed by the hordes, and He doesn’t act like I would. He doesn’t loudly demand ‘me time’, or hammer a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign into the ground. He doesn’t even exaggeratedly sigh ‘no, it’s fine, I mean, whatever, I can hang out with the guys later if, like, you really cannot come back later’.

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”

Instead of passive aggression, He had compassion. And not because they looked like a decent fan-base.  Not because they were good-looking, respectable, all-round good eggs. It wasn’t even that their B.O, scraggy hair, poor people skills were unimportant to Jesus because they were already faithful followers. They were “like sheep without a shepherd”. He loved them, wanted to teach them, because they were essentially losers. And because He wanted to give them direction, to bring them home.

So yes, loving like Jesus loves means I need to respect everyone irrespective of whether they look like ‘my kind of person’ or not, because they are made in the image of God. But that attitude doesn’t come from pretending I can will myself to become Christ-like. It comes from knowing I needn’t fear judgment because I am perfectly accepted by God, and so I don’t need to take the offensive to guard my self-esteem. But even more, it comes from recognising that I am not standing at a safe distance from the hungry-for-meaning hordes. I am a card-carrying ragamuffin, and every day I need Jesus to have compassion on me, and be my shepherd.

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