Anybody else out there in churchland struggling with a bit of a Christmas hangover? For me, it’s not quite like those who will open their January credit card statement with its jarring reminder of that consuming materialistic mantra to which they succumbed in December: “Buy stuff, buy more stuff, buy even more stuff” (even with the best of intentions). Rather, I wonder about a more down-to-earth kind of Christmas materialism (can I even call it that?) central to Christian faith, which involves embracing the mystery of the eternal Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is the gift of God with us. Have I compromised that?
In his book “The Nazareth Manifesto,” Samuel Wells argues that everything boils down to that little word with: “With is the most important word in theology. … With is the most fundamental thing about God.” Not only does the incarnation of Jesus flesh out God’s with-ness at Christmas, Wells grounds this being with in the Trinity as a relationship of divine persons communing in love and inviting human beings in. And then Jesus’ disciples most visibly embody Christian faith by imitating Christ’s incarnation by showing up and being with those upon “whom the world has turned its back, whose suffering the world cannot bear to see.”
Interestingly, Wells juxtaposes being with as a much needed antidote to a current over-emphasis on doing for. When we rush headlong into a situation to do for others, treating people like they are problems to be fixed, acting like experts with all the answers, it dehumanizes people. But the practice of deliberately being with someone acknowledges a person’s humanity. Being with recognizes that “what grieves the world is not simply oppression, cruelty, exploitation and fraud — though of course these need to be outlawed, confronted and resisted.” Rather, “what grieves the world even more is exclusion, isolation, ostracism, neglect and loneliness.” And these things can only be addressed by truly being a person. One of the greatest challenges for disciples is to learn to be really present with another person, even and especially when nothing we can say or do will result in their total transformation.
For some time now, congregations have followed the business world and spent enormous amounts of time and energy articulating statements of mission and vision and measuring success, often summed up (a little crassly) in terms of the 3 B’s: bucks, buildings and butts. But balanced budgets, well-maintained properties and lots of members sitting in the pews isn’t cutting it for a lot churches. Surely one of the marks of a healthy church is the willingness for people to simply be with others, even though it messes with our cherished metrics. Being with matters, especially when some people or situations may not get completely better or even change much at all. As Wells maintains, “some things are worth doing even if they do not make everything come right.”
What’s more, it is a critical sign of health for our churches to get beyond ourselves, outside our boundaries of sameness, to seek out people different from ourselves to be with. Willie James Jennings calls pastors to “un-segregationist practices” in our congregational life. We cannot settle for the love of people who look and act and think like us, but instead must pursue a love that creates a new people, including those that we would otherwise have nothing to do with or deliberately choose to avoid. Incarcerated people. Refugees and immigrants and undocumented people. People who are chronically homeless, unemployed or mentally ill. People who do not agree with my politics. People of other faiths or no faith.
The call to be with asks us to be humble learners who begin to grasp, as Wells puts it, that “it is being there and not closing our eyes that matters most.”
Heidi Husted Armstrong is transitional pastor for First Presbyterian Church in Seattle.