I’ll never forget that day in English 201. I got swept up in an argument with a guy on the opposite side of the room. Josh wasn’t the kind of person I would know outside of class. I quickly categorized him as a liberal atheist who only liked playing devil’s advocate to annoy Christians.
After class, he approached me. He asked questions about my faith and he patiently listened to the answers. He didn’t seem offended when I asked questions in return. What started that day was a friendship. I learned Josh was an optimistic, thoughtful, open hearted poet, and we spent hours discussing faith and poetry. We still argued, but we did it from a basis of knowing and caring about each other as people. Our relationship was more important than changing each other’s views. We’re still in touch today, still disagreeing about issues of faith but still caring about each other as people.
Josh leaned in to me when, ironically, I should have been the one leaning toward him. It was easy to dismiss him as just someone I disagreed with when he was at a distance. Up close, I saw someone made in the image of God.
Last week, we began to think about leaning in. This week, we’re talking about how. It begins with the power of proximity.
We start with recognizing who and what we’re tempted to move away from. Which person, people or perspectives make you roll your eyes, shake your head, draw a line in the sand separating you from them?
God calls us to move closer to ‘”it.” Jesus is the ultimate example of one who moved closer, when he came as Immanuel, “God with us.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the incarnation of Jesus well, “And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly . . . God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.
God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and the broken.”
God didn’t stand at a distance, waiting for us to get in line with him so he could be in relationship with us. He came to us. He wants us to relate to one another the same way.
Here’s what happens when we move closer:
1. Proximity builds trust
C.S. Lewis says that Christ could have, “had he pleased, been incarnate in a man of iron nerves, the Stoic sort who lets no sigh escape him. Of his great humility, he chose to be incarnate in a man of delicate sensibilities who wept at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood at Gethsemane.”
When my friend Josh moved toward me with questions and curiosity, I realized his goal wasn’t to win an argument. His approach created trust between us that allowed us to really hear and know each other.
Jesus moved toward us as one we can trust. When we move toward others not to win but to love, we are like him.
2. Proximity brings understanding
Shawn and Sarah McHargue are a wonderful couple who previously attended Vista. They recently moved to Atlanta, where Shawn started a non-profit helping young people learn how to be auto mechanics. Sarah works at a school designed to educate students from tough economic backgrounds.
Sarah commented that before she moved into that community, she thought, “If you just work hard, things will work out for you.” It was a simple solution to poverty.
Then she got close to her neighbors. She witnessed the single women in her community working several jobs to create opportunities for their kids. Her theory began to crumble because she was closer.
The further away we stand, the simpler the solution for “it” seems, but the closer we get, the more we see the complexity. Proximity gives us the opportunity to step into something we would not have otherwise understood.
There is a cost to proximity. It will cost time and energy and perspective. But Jesus counted the cost and came close for us. He’s not waiting for us to get our stuff together with simple solutions.
So here’s a simple phrase we can remember as we attempt to lean in: instead of debate, relate. Here are a few suggestions for how we can respond when others differ:
1. That’s interesting. Can you help me understand?
2. That’s interesting. Can I share my perspective?
3. That’s interesting. Where can I learn more?
This is the gospel: we lean into others because Jesus leans into us. Choosing proximity may not change what we believe, but it will allow us to love well.
Questions for thought:
Who or what is your “it?”
Are you simplifying, minimizing, or just avoiding those people or situations, or are you looking for ways to move closer?