My first post here at Fare Forward discussed the nature of providing Christlike presence to the grieving. An insightful commenter elaborated, saying,”I have a tendency in my life to close myself off to other people; to deny my friends and even my wife the opportunity to share in my burdens and trials… this is another species of error… those who grieve or suffer must be able to open themselves to this notion of presence.” I resonated with his observation, and the question has puzzled me, “If we so deeply desire to experience faithful companionship, why do we withhold ourselves from it?” The idea that our nature struggles to receive loving, Christlike presence – just as it struggles to provide it – caught me off guard.
A conversation with my sister illustrates. Those close to me know I often defensively respond to direct input. I’d like to tell you it’s not true, but it is. I exemplify Henri Nouwen’s description of “fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion” (“Creating Space for Strangers,” Reaching Out). Simultaneously, I’ve been blessed with relationships that live out Nouwen’s call “to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.” My older sister has a particular gift for such relational hospitality. Her presence and home put me at ease like few places on earth, and yet recently I found myself responding to her gentle questions with fearful, defensive arguments and tight-fisted reasoning, unwilling to allow her voice into my vulnerability. Her patience in the moment and over the years with God’s slow work of grace allowed me to recognize mid-conversation that I was blocking out Christ’s voice to me through her. Somehow I shut my mouth, and my sister’s following words kept me speechless. She succinctly and lovingly encouraged me, repeating wisdom God seems intent on driving home in my heart. I have so often shut my sister and others out of my deepest questions or even more treacherously, only selectively revealed them from a controlled perspective. As I sat stunned, open-handedly receiving her loving presence, I wondered how much my pride has limited those nearest me in providing faithful companionship and has held me back from experiencing God’s love through them.
I believe the heart of the matter does boil down to my pride. I don’t want to admit my lack of answers or appear stuck, needy or defenseless, and thus I manage my vulnerability, my story and my answers to protect myself and chart my own course. Above all, I refuse to relinquish control. The idea that God might choose to speak into my life through other flawed human beings rather than direct intervention threatens my carefully guarded self-promotion narrative. I’d much rather grow, process, mourn, prepare and dream in the quiet of my heart than expose the truth that I am messy, fragile, confused, willful, yearning, hopeful and slow to learn. My dogged control of my story ingeniously uncovers my hands clutching the reigns of redemption rather than trusting Christ’s redemption for me and the means of grace that God provides through faithful community.
Again, what a contrast Christ displays to my self-reliant distrust. The humility of Christ to enter the world as a fully dependent infant, submit to his death precipitated by betrayed friendship, and invite us into eternal life with him is the triumph of the gospel (see Philippians 2). We could spend pages examining his baptism by John the Baptist as he entered ministry (see Matthew 3:13-17). Why? The Son of God hardly needed the validation of his cousin nor did he require the call to repentance. As John the Baptist said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:14-15, ESV). Christ provides us with a beautiful example of public submission to relationship, submitting first to his Father and then to John by being baptized. He powerfully demonstrates this submission again in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading for the disciples’ companionship in prayer (Matthew 26:36-46). He invites them into his suffering even knowing they will fail him. Christ’s open invitation to others’ faithful presence, despite their inevitable insufficiencies, lends wonder and weight to Paul’s injunction, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). “Submit” describes a willingness to subordinate myself to others, to yield my agenda, to obey. Submission requires me to open my flaws, hopes, joy and pain to the others’ presence and voice for the sake of Christ, trusting that he will accomplish his good purposes through the messy and slow crucible of human companionship.