Isaiah promised the panicky, frightened and weary king Ahaz of Judea that a virgin would bear a son and name him Immanuw’el. Immanuel means “God (is) with us. If you break down the biblical Hebrew into word roots and leave them in the order that make up the name it’s not God with us but With us God: Im – manu – el; I like this more because With is capitalized.
Samuel Wells (A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God – out this month) writes about the power of being with. To make his point he uses the example of an encounter with a homeless person and the subsequent ways we might respond. One way we could respond is with concern; we might be moved to work to eradicate homelessness by joining the board of a housing program or shelter. Another way we might respond could be by engaging the person and talk to them about the options available to them for help. A third response might be to sit with the person and talk with them – share a coffee, discover who they are; talk about politics or sports. Wells describes the first option as working for, the second as working with and the third as being with.
When Wells considers the different responses he distinguishes a significant difference between working for and working with versus being with. The first two responses are reactions that are driven by an understanding that there is a problem to be solved. But the third response – being with – doesn’t start with the assumption of problem to be solved but rather with the desire to receive something from the person. In Wells’ words, one responds to a person by being with (them) because “you want to receive the wealth of wisdom, humanity, and grace that God has to give you through that person. You aren’t the source of their salvation (the one to fix their ‘problem’) but they are the source of yours… your every effort is to enjoy their being and share your own rather than change their reality assuming a script you’ve imposed from elsewhere.” (In 2007 I moved to New Orleans in response to hurricane Katrina. I was in a hurry to help fix things. As time went on I grew more and more frustrated, not only with how long it was taking to realize progress but also with the lack of incentive among some. One day, when venting my frustration, a colleague who was a native Orleanian told me: “The thing of it is is that people here, Jim, are about relationships first and progress second.”)
We must, of course, fix things that are broken. Especially when what’s broken in the world diminishes others. But that’s not the whole game. Sometimes we are called to be in relationship with one another as much as we are called to be problem solvers. In the church I’m serving we try to distinguish the difference between with and for ministries, emphasizing the former while realizing the importance and necessity of the latter.
As Wells casts these scenarios in a theological perspective he does so using the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: “Does God see the world as a problem to be solved or a gift to be enjoyed? Does Christ become incarnate because there’s a job of redemption to be done and only he can do it?” The answer to these questions, Wells says, is in the shape of Jesus’ life. The working with and the working for part of Jesus days on earth (his teaching, healing & the saving acts of the passion and resurrection) constitute only about 10% of his life. And the significance of the other 90% – the 30-odd years in Nazareth? Being with. “God’s fundamental purpose is to be with us – not primarily to rescue us, or even empower us, but to be with us, to share our existence, to enjoy our hopes and fears, our delights and griefs, our triumphs and disasters.”
The shape of this post leads me to Merton:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”