I have a writing conference coming up, and I’ve been trying not to think about it. Although I spend a good part of my work week happily among colleagues and teach big classrooms full of students with enthusiasm, I’m an introvert at heart, most content in front of my computer at home or out in my garden, alone. The thought of being among clots of strangers in some vast hotel lobby fills me with dread.
Anyway, I was thinking about how much I hate conferences and reminding myself of how wonderful it’s been, on occasion, to stumble across a fellow God-lover among the strangers assembled there. The topic of faith comes up slantwise through some serendipitous comment about someone’s having read something in a church book club. Or maybe I notice a woman ducking her head briefly before lifting her fork to eat.
Such chance believers typically turn out to be quite different sorts of God-lovers than I am, which makes the encounters all the more thrilling. They refer to their pastor as “Father.” Or they go on about some pet business of politics important to their faith that I don’t give a rip about. Sometimes their God is barely recognizable as the God I know. Still, I want to sit next to them when I see them enter my next session and to eat my overdressed salad from a Styrofoam box at their table and to suck their occasional thoughts about God into my own.
Yes, I’m that piteous stranger you meet sometimes at conferences whom you can’t seem to shake. Know this about me: I am in some sort of heaven, sitting there beside you, accepting the M&Ms you offer from the little bag you got out of a machine. We are siblings, you and I. We come from the same home.
I figure that’s how Abram the Hebrew—literally, Abram the Foreigner, the first instance of the word Hebrew in the Bible—must have felt that day after rescuing his cousin Lot and a bunch of other Sodom and Gomorrah inhabitants who’d been taken captive. When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah come out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, they bring along their friend Melchizedek, another king like them but also, we’re told, “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18 ESV). Later, the writer of Hebrews will describe Jesus himself, repeatedly and at length, as a high priest “in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5.6, 5.10, 7.11, 7.17 NIV).
Melchizedek brings out bread and wine for them all to share—Catholics memorialize the event by mentioning Melchizedek during the Mass—and then he prays this prayer:
Abram, may you be blessed by God Most High,
the God who made heaven and earth.
And we praise God Most High,
who has helped you to defeat your enemies
(Genesis 14.19-20 NCV).
Wow. Imagine hearing that from a stranger! Imagine being a stranger among strangers yourself in the Valley of Shaveh, a place Abram’s never been before, a place where he’s so unlike everyone else, so alien to their values and practices, that people refer to him as “the Foreigner.”
Hearing Melchizedek’s words, sharing bread and wine with him, Abram must have felt himself, for a moment at least, at home. As a person of faith—which the author of Hebrews defines as one who welcomes God’s promises and acknowledges being a foreigner and stranger on this messed up earth—Abram suddenly finds himself, for a moment, where all the faithful want to be, in “a country of their own” (Hebrews 11.13-14 ISV). Not, that is, in “the land they had left behind” or even in the one in which they find themselves, but in “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11.15-16 NRSV).
Priests of God Most High. That’s who we are when we acknowledge God among strangers, whether at a conference or among our readers. And however strange and foreign we might feel ourselves to be, we are where we belong.