Presence: Commitment to be WITH the other
50 years ago, in the summer of 1967,
during another troubling and violent time in our nation and world—
race riots in our cities,
the six-day war in Israel and Palestine,
a nuclear arms race spreading around the world,
less than a year before Martin Luther King, Jr would be shot dead,
a group of creative artists from 19 countries,
held the first-ever worldwide live TV event broadcast by satellite.
They called it “Our World.”
It’s intent was to bring people together.
No politicians or heads of state were allowed on the program.
As diverse as opera singer Maria Callas and painter Pablo Picasso.
The concluding act was a new song from the Beatles,
written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney,
and sung for the very first time—
to the world, on live TV: “All you need is love.”
After that, the song spent 11 weeks at #1 on the charts.
In the 50 years since, it has become an anthem for the masses,
sung on the streets, in coffeehouses, on marches,
to get people through other troubling times.
Now . . . Lennon and McCartney are legendary songwriters.
I have at least four Beatles albums in my vinyl record collection.
But I’ll be honest.
It’s hard to think of a Beatles song any more empty of substance
than “All you need is love.”
It’s fun to sing. But means practically nothing.
Yes, getting the world to sing together—that’s great in itself.
But even when we sing the line 20 times in a song, like they did,
we still don’t know what we mean when we sing it.
“Love is all you need.”
In fact, it’s hard to know what practically anyone means,
when they talk about the pleasures and virtues of love.
Love is one of the most squishy words in the English language.
It can be pressed into just about any shape,
and mean anything . . . or nothing.
But . . . love is at the very center of our scriptures,
and at the center of our faith.
There is no theological concept more robust and profound
and essential to our understanding of God,
than the biblical concept of love.
So, we can’t just dismiss love-talk as purely sentimental.
We must . . . we must . . .
do the careful and deliberate work
of giving love the theological depth and clarity
and power to shape us that it deserves.
That’s the point of this 3-part series.
To think theologically and practically, about love,
especially as it pertains to love in the body of Christ.
I was inspired to do this series
after spending a few days with Scot McKnight last fall,
when we hosted him for some lectures in this community.
And after I read his book, Fellowship of Differents.
In that book he makes a powerful case that the church ought
not to define love by consulting a dictionary,
which tends to focus on emotions,
on feelings of affection.
Rather, he suggests, we consult our scriptures,
and define love by watching how God loves.
God is the one who gets to define love.
1 John tells us “God is love.”
The nature of God = the nature of love.
1 John also says the proof of whether our faith is genuine,
is whether we love each other,
the way God loves us.
Which takes us straight to the question, “How does God love?”
Well, the biblical foundation of love is covenant.
And Scot McKnight suggests,
another way to say “covenant” is “rugged commitment.”
There is nothing casual about covenant.
We enter into covenant with great resolve.
We assume it will be hard work.
We assume we will change in the process.
But the covenant to love remains.
When the human side of God’s covenant with us failed—
miserably, and repeatedly, according to the Bible stories—
God kept reaching toward us in love,
keeping faith, keeping covenant,
making a rugged commitment to love.
That’s basically the whole story of the Bible,
God reaching toward us to close the gap,
to restore the relationship with us,
where love is freely given and received.
God takes initiative to express covenant love in three ways.
First, God promises to be WITH God’s people,
to move toward us, and join us in our muddled mess.
Even in the Garden of Eden,
God is portrayed as one who comes
and walks WITH Adam and Eve (Gen. 3).
In the Exodus, God is WITH Israel,
in a cloud by day, and fire by night (Exo. 13).
Long after the Sinai covenant, God says to faithless Israel,
“I will never leave or forsake you” (Deut. 31).
God is WITH God’s people
in the tabernacle, in the ark of the covenant,
in the prophets, and ultimately, profoundly WITH us,
in Jesus of Nazareth, who is called Emmanuel,
meaning “God with us.”
Second, the God of the Bible is FOR us.
God identifies with Israel, says “I am on your side.”
“I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
God is our advocate.
Over and over, God fights FOR Israel.
And in fact, passes judgment on Israel
when they reject God’s advocacy,
and try to win on their own terms.
And ultimately, Jesus expresses his solidarity FOR us on the cross.
Taking on himself what would have been ours to bear.
Third, God’s covenant love is directed TOWARD our transformation.
God’s love is a transforming love,
intended to move us TOWARD a particular end,
a direction TOWARD Christlikeness,
as loving, holy, God-glorifying, other-oriented
citizens of the Kingdom of God.
So . . . in love, God is WITH us, FOR us,
and inviting us TOWARD a transformed life,
living into the fullness of God’s intentions for us.
It’s God’s action, laid out in three prepositions—
with, for, and toward.
Or . . . we could say it this way:
God loves us with presence, with advocacy,
and with pointing a direction.
That is the love we are called to emulate in life.
If God is love,
then that is what genuine love looks like.
And that is the way we are invited to love each other.
As God first loved us.
And, as Scot McKnight points out, the order matters:
First WITH, second FOR, and third TOWARD.
First presence, then advocacy, then direction.
If I am willing to be WITH someone,
it gives credibility when I act FOR them, as their advocate.
And the combination of being WITH and FOR someone,
let’s them internalize our love,
so that when we offer DIRECTION
it can be received as an act of genuine love.
So often, we want to jump straight to giving direction,
and call it love,
without establishing any WITH-ness or FOR-ness.
A parent who truly loves their child,
will not try to shape the moral direction of their child,
without having established a relationship of love and trust,
by being WITH and FOR their child.
without being preceded by long-term presence and advocacy,
will not be experienced as love, but as coercion.
We’ll have two more Sundays to focus on advocacy and direction.
For now, let’s think about presence—
the rugged commitment to be WITH the other.
It’s harder than it seems, truly being WITH another.
Especially when that other, is profoundly other—
truly outside our tribe, outside our way of seeing the world.
Sometimes, we have to travel a great distance to be with someone.
And I’m not really referring to miles.
Sometimes, our neighbor next door, who we are called to love,
lives a great distance from us,
culturally, politically, religiously.
Sometimes, a member of our own church family,
sharing our pew, or small group,
or voice part in choir,
lives a great distance from us, in one way or another.
Being genuinely WITH another
is not something that happens by chance.
It is a choice.
Just as all acts of love are.
This is not the kind of love that anyone
falls into or falls out of.
We choose whether or not to love
by choosing whether or not enter into
someone else’s life and experience,
and be with them in it,
so we can find out what their life is like.
To love us and pursue is God’s choice.
As we heard in Psalm 139,
God chooses to follow us, wherever we go—
to the heights, to the depths, to the far side of the sea.
No one travels a greater distance than God.
God chooses to enter into the messiness of our humanity,
and be with us in it,
to even co-suffer with us,
for the sake of our salvation and restoration.
That is love—
a rugged commitment to travel the distance,
to close the gap,
to offer the gift of deep and lasting presence.
Hear me now!
A rugged commitment to be WITH another
is not just showing up long enough
to listen to someone’s side of the story,
it’s not just being quiet while they make an argument,
or explain why they think or act as they do,
as we rehearse our response or counter-argument.
No, being WITH another, in love,
is a choice to open our heart and mind to the other,
to place our physical bodies in their neighborhood,
to actively move toward them,
willing to share life with them long enough,
to know, viscerally, what life is like in their shoes.
It is not something to be taken lightly.
Love never is that. It’s costly.
The rugged commitment to be WITH another
is what makes an intimate relationship—
like marriage, or any deep friendship—work.
It is radically living out our basic human need
to know and be known.
In family life,
it’s choosing to stick together even when we disappoint each other.
In church life,
it means not walking away from conflict or tension
or painful misunderstandings.
It means a willingness to do the hard work of maintaining presence.
Talk about loving our neighbor is cheap.
Actually loving, by being WITH, is a precious thing,
that often comes at the expense of something else . . .
such as . . . our treasured preconceived notions about the other,
that we might need to let go of.
This principle of presence,
as the first layer of learning to love our neighbor,
applies in many other areas of life,
beyond intimate friendships
or relating to other church members.
It also has to do with loving our neighbors in everyday life.
The plight of refugees and immigrants
is certainly high on our radar these days,
with President Trump’s order to temporarily suspend
the refugee program
and the on-again-off-again ban at the border
affecting thousands of Muslims around the world.
Of course, sincere Christians can disagree
about what a good immigration policy should look like.
But we cannot disagree that a central commitment for us all,
according to our scriptures,
is to welcome the stranger,
care for those in danger,
and to love all our neighbors . . . even our enemies.
But in this case, how do we love?
I suggest there are cheap ways to love, and there are costly ways.
The easy and inexpensive ways to love are fine, as far as they go.
We should probably do them.
Like putting up signs in our yard.
Maybe calling our elected representatives.
Attending some rallies.
All good, no doubt.
But how might we love our neighbor
by choosing to be WITH them in their suffering,
not in the abstract,
but here, now, and in particular.
It’s not enough to read about them,
or think we know what they are going through
because we saw it on Facebook.
Do we know what it’s like, right now,
for some of our Muslim neighbors in Harrisonburg?
or Iraqi Christian refugees, for that matter,
whose families are in a refugee camp somewhere,
caught between one kind of suffering, or another?
When was the last time we chose to travel a distance,
even if it was only across town,
to sit with one of our neighbors,
to let them know we are thinking about them,
to ask them what life is like for them right now,
to ask about the welfare of their families back home,
to ask them how we can be good neighbors to them?
That’s only one small example.
Certainly, in a divided political climate,
in a divided church,
we can do the same kind of active, stretching toward the other,
to be with them,
to ask what life is like, and take time to listen, over time.
Even if we ourselves aren’t under any immediate threat,
or don’t feel ostracized, or condemned by others,
or unsafe, or unwelcome . . .
Even if we are in a secure place . . .
especially if we are in a secure place,
we are called to love those who are not.
And the first step of love, if we take God’s love as a model,
is to pay the price to travel the distance,
and to be WITH the other—
not just in Spirit,
not just in thought and prayer,
but also with them in the here, in the now, and in the particular.
As we reflect on what that means for us,
let’s remind ourselves, in song,
of the God who, from great distance, comes to us in the silence,
and calls us each by name,
and says, “I claim you as my choice.
I love you and you are mine.” (STS 49)
—Phil Kniss, February 5, 2017
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