“And what a relief to see your friendly smile. It is like seeing the face of God!“
[Jacob, to Esau]
It’s happened twice in the last month. First, a man from my church was doing work on my home and met my next door neighbor. To my shame, I’ve never met him. But my church friend got to talking to him and my neighbor mentioned that he has wanted to ask me something about my house for months but “it always looks like he’s angry so I’ve never bothered.” Then a youth group visited my church and I led them in passing out flyers in my neighborhood for ESL classes and other community events. And one of the youth mentioned to a lady in my church, “Gowdy always looks like he’s mad about something.”
I have to laugh at this because while I’m not mad that often, what I call my “resting introvert face” clearly causes people to think I am. Part of me wants to react “That’s just how I am and if people are confused that is their problem.”
Yet I think the nature of Christianity pushes against this. When I was in grad school, my favorite professor, Dr. Wong Loi Sing (whom I’ve referenced several times in theology articles) taught us something that was way out of the norm for grad school level classes on things like Hermeneutics and Greek. He taught us that gestures—the subtle, easy-to-take-for-granted, mostly non-verbal ways we communicate—can reflect the Gospel.
In light of that, I have been thinking recently about how I really should smile more. Not all the time, and not in a disingenuous way, but just in a way that demonstrates, “It’s not my nature to smile because I’m deep inside my own head, but you are important so I’ll focus more on you than me.” Generally speaking, people appreciate a smiling person. Twice this summer I’ve read, once in a Christian blog and once in a secular book on grit, that smiling is one of the easiest things we can do serve other people and make our environment better for everyone.
Several months ago I wrote about how we can use greeting others to preach the gospel. And I firmly believe that greetings are just one (albeit a crucial one) of many gestures that fit this idea. Since I’m a pastor and preacher I feel the need to clarify that the gospel in its most potent form must involve words (Romans 10:14). But I also believe when Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify God in Heaven,” that there are thousands of small, seemingly meaningless gestures that could apply. If the gospel doesn’t touch every single aspect our lives, including our facial expressions, body language and the whole of non-verbal communication, then I do not think we understand it.
When I am walking down the street in Chicago, 99% of the time I have headphones on, listening to an audiobook or something in Polish. And when I see someone on the street that I know, my temptation as an introvert is to give a wave and keep going1. Yet I know that quite often the right thing to do is pause what I’m listening to and take the headphones out and speak to them. Sometimes this means a brief conversation happens. Other times it means just a simple greeting exchange takes place. Yet I think taking the headphones out communicates to the other person that they are worth deferring to. It’s not a big sacrifice like helping someone move or visiting them in the hospital. It’s a mere gesture. But I think it matters. I’m sad it’s taken me a long time to learn this.
Other examples that I think matter to my personal context come to my mind. Some cultures appreciate a slight bow to older people when greeting them. When someone is trying to turn right in their car and I am in the crosswalk as a pedestrian and they are waiting on me, running to the corner instead of walking says “I see you. Your time is worth something to my convenience.” And saying “Excuse me” or “Con permiso” to people of certain cultures if I come even close to them when I pass by them is something I think I should practice2.
Your circumstances are likely different than mine. If you are an extrovert, stopping to talk on the street probably brings joy and requires little effort. Maybe for that type of person, the gesture could be to avoid doing something so as not to draw attention. I only give examples for practicality’s sake. But all people can consider how to use gestures to in some way “consider others more important than yourselves”. The gospel is absolutely proclaiming Christ with our words. And it’s huge sacrificial actions. Yet it’s also small gestures that we can practice dozens of times daily.
- And if I’m being super honest, sometimes the temptation is to pretend I didn’t see them. ↩
- Full disclosure: when a close friend of mine, whose parents are from Mexico, told me I should consider doing this even if I come within a couple of feet of someone as I pass, I bristled at it. I told him there is no need to say “Excuse me” unless I bump into them or I need for them to move so I can pass. Which of course is true in my culture. He handled my defensiveness with tremendous grace and that caused me to reconsider his advice and put it into practice. Sort of a “soft answer turns away wrath” type moment. ↩