Reflections to start the week
Monday, March 2, 2015
What is the most important word in the Bible?
Stop before you read any further, find a piece of paper, and jot down your top three candidates. What did you come up with?
At a conference last week, I heard an answer from Sara Miles, wise and witty author. I don’t mind sharing her answer since she got it from Sam Wells, a great English preacher who said that the most important biblical word was “with”.
Sara Miles talked about what that word suggests about the character of God. I’d like to invite her to preach on Trinity Sunday (that sole Sunday devoted to a doctrine of the church when seminarians or guest preachers often get the pulpit). She used the word “with” to make sense of the mysterious, okay confusing, doctrine, a doctrine which I’ve always understood as feeble human attempt to express the reality of God, three persons in one. (Someone once told me that asking human beings to describe the mystery of God is like asking an elephant to play the piano.) The doctrine is the product of biblical allusions that have to do with “with”. In its prologue, John’s gospel makes reference to the word which was with God. The gospel of Luke speaks of Jesus filled with the spirit. Matthew’s gospel proclaims that the name of the child born to Mary would be “Immanuel”: God with us.
If indeed the reality of God is expressed as community, as relationship, a matter of with-ness, Ms. Miles said that we are similarly called to focus on the ways we are with others. Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. For most of her life she had not been a churchgoer. One day, she stumbled into a church in California and took communion. Conversion began. She was with others in a new, transformative way. As she hung around that place, she felt called to begin a food pantry, offering free food to anyone who came without condition. No need to prove indigency. No forms to fill out. Just grace. She was with others in a new, transformative way. That ministry continued, deepening her conversion (You can read about it in her book Take This Bread) as a way of being with people, not simply doing for them, but being with them.
I realized that so many of my efforts as good Christian/good citizen have to do with doing something for someone, but not necessarily with. Donating money with the buffer zone of a check, the postal system, paypal. Serving a bowl of soup with the buffer zone of a table between us. Not bad, but in my case, not enough. Not really being with, as I create bubbles and barriers that keep me safely surrounded by the familiar, in the process, losing the relational piece which is at the heart of spiritual growth (i.e., increasing love of God and neighbor). I often resort to that bubble thing with the people closest to me. Why do I do that? Fear? Self-centeredness? Fatigue? Laziness? Distraction? Lent is not a bad time for me to ask that question. (Thanks a lot, Sara Miles.)
Maybe you’re better at with-ness than I am. In our culture it’s an uphill climb. I was in a crowded Starbucks in New York recently, a line of about 20 people in that franchise of a corporation committed to community. Each and every person was deeply engrossed in smartphone, crowded in ways only Manhattan can. But they could not have been more distant from each other. I suspect there are families who gather around the dinner table, each with tablet or phone or laptop, distracted and distant. I’ve been known to send an email to my wife when we’re both in the house at the same time. What would it look like to agree that “with” is the most important word?
I’m reminded of a story of a woman who did a bit of jaywalking in Manhattan a number of years ago. She was struck by a cab, breaking her leg. She remained conscious throughout the ordeal. A woman of intellect, privilege, affluence, influence, she found herself on the pavement facing unprecedented vulnerability, facing a growing crowd looming above her. She spoke not only of the pain and fear but of the isolation. An acquaintance happened by, a person with enough intuition to lay down on the cold asphalt beside her, to be with. It made things better.
Have you ever had anyone do that for you? Maybe God is the one who does that for you. Maybe Jesus does. Maybe the Holy Spirit. Is there a way on this Monday in Lent that you can do that for someone else, stranger or friend or family member? Can you be with that person in a world marked by lots of folks who have been knocked to the pavement?
– Jay Sidebotham
Fear not, I am with thee, oh be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand. –“How firm a foundation”
Moses said to God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.” -Exodus 3
Jesus said: “And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.” -Matthew 28
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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