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The Difficult Work of “With”

two pairs of empty shoes
two pairs of empty shoes

Sara Miles wrote a piece for the Episcopal Café entitled “The Most Important Word in the Bible.” That word, claims Miles, is “with.” “With” is central to God’s Trinitarian nature and relationship to us. It is also central to our calling as followers of Christ. It is the most important word in the Bible. But “with” is a difficult role for us to live out.

As those engaged in missions on behalf of the CRC, we know this all too well. In the past, Christian missions have tended toward the “for” instead of the “with.” We gladly offer resources “for” others. We lead programs “for” them. But being “for” others enables us to keep our distance, to hold them at arm’s length, to maintain and “us” and “them.”

Frankly, we have gotten it wrong. We did things “for” others and tried to make God into a “for” us God—our cheerleader, our avenger, or our personal assistant. But God is relegated to no such roles. Never content to be an observer on the sidelines, God is the Advocate who goes before us, beneath us, above us, and behind. He is God “with” us. And “with” is messy. It was messy for Christ. What makes us think it will be any less messy for us?  

"With" is harder and less convenient because it means we have to take the other person seriously—their gifts, their needs, their situations—and that means a real relationship. Real relationships require time and investments of the heart. We avoid walking “with” others because “for” is easier. Who wants to sit down with someone in a mess that they can do nothing about when they can just deliver goodies and wave good-bye?

"With" also means that “we” have to recognize our need of “them.”  They have something to offer us and whatever it is we are doing together. Working “with” requires vulnerability on our parts, and openness to learning from the other—even if the other is poor or disadvantaged in some other way. "With" messes with our dominant-dependent paradigms, and that can be very disturbing. Just doing "for" not only leaves our old paradigms in place, but reinforces them. Perhaps what attracts us to "for" is that it affirms our beneficent domination and their dependent inferiority.

"For" flatters us. It feels good to be the rescuer. It is in a boost to the ego. And it all seems so Christ-like—helping the less fortunate, saving the lost—what could be nobler than that?! But “for” is, in actuality, more about “us” than anyone else.

"For" is steeped in privilege (economic, racial, you name it). It is largely clueless about the real effects of its actions. "For" arises out of a lack of meaningful relationship with the “other.”  It never questions the accuracy of its own perceptions. But as Christians, we are called to something else.

If I speak in the languages of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:1-7)        

May God continue to guide our steps as we strive to walk in the light of that persevering love, not “for” ourselves but “with” others.

[Image: Flickr user eschipul]

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