I was doing a bit more reading this week (finally nice to get back to it after such a busy month) and came across this provocative article. It’s written by Brad Nelson and can be found on the Next Wave e-Zine website.
It is reprinted for our consideration:
For several weeks I’ve been studying the significance of facing. Only I have never actually taken the time to connect the concept of facing to praxis.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead makes for a good metaphor. Having heard about Lazarus’ sickness, Jesus eventually decides to turn and walk back to Judea—all the while knowing that Lazarus is, in fact, already dead. Jesus knows he’s not walking toward Lazarus. He’s walking towards a tomb and a shiva ceremony. And while Jesus certainly knows the dramatic ending this story will have, that does not prevent him from weeping. This picture of Jesus turning his face and walking toward the pain is striking to me.
To add to the drama of this scene, the disciples are convinced that Jesus is walking to his death. Not long ago some angry people in Judea had tried to kill Jesus. What’s more, the disciples believe this fact so deeply that Thomas announces, “Let us go also so that we might die with him.” Despite these things, Jesus continues to walk toward the death, toward two angry sisters, and toward a crowd convinced that “it’s too late.”
In Greek, the word Prosopon means face or presence. In Hebrew, the word Panim means the same thing. Throughout the Old Testament there is an understanding that the face of God is synonymous with life, shalom, covenant, promise, etc. The hidden face of God is symbolic of desolation, destruction, exile, and death. Not only is this “facing” found in the OT, but is, in fact, a picture of the place that God is creating for us (Rev. 21)…”his face will be upon them or he will dwell among them.” I’m wondering if we are able to carry out this sacred act of “facing” into one another as Kingdom agents. What might that look like?
To begin, I think it important to note that this idea of facing finds its beginning in a culture very different from ours. A Western approach to pain or difficulty is that it is something to be eliminated. Practically speaking, our purpose is often to eliminate that which causes discomfort and a lack of control. From this mindset, our purpose is to regain control of the situation. What is the problem? Come, let us fix it.
We don’t lament. We just don’t. I find it very interesting that while Jesus knows what is about to happen at the tomb of Lazarus that he still cries. Pain isn’t merely something to be eliminated; it is something to be acknowledged, something to be felt. A word that seems to capture what this means for me is presence. In reading the story of Exodus I am overwhelmed that above all else, God is a god who is here. He hears the cry of the oppressed, but then turns around and relies on the presence of Moses to realize that a bush is burning but not consumed. Further, when Moses asks him about his name, he responds by saying I AM. Tell them I am a God who exists. I am here. I am present.
Perhaps the sacred act of facing begins at presence. Not “I am here to alleviate your pain,” not “I am here to…” fill in the blank. Maybe facing begins with “I am here.” Period. Presence with strings attached isn’t really presence. It’s like when God called Moses up on the mountain. He said, “Moses come up to the mountain, and when you get there, be there.”
And yet at the same time, the point of everything is life. God even has a habit of taking things that were meant for death and creating life from them. We see people in pain and we are moved to compassion. Compassion comes from the Greek “Splangchnon” which originally refers to the viscera…bowels and guts. So to be compassionate is to feel the pain of others in your guts, combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce pain. Presence is only half of compassion.
Often, we have a habit of filling in the other half with what we personally think is needed. We look for ways to offer our covert advice under the guise of great concern. There is a very sacred practice among the Quakers known as the clearness committee. In this encounter, participants are allowed to speak to the focus person only in the format of open, honest questions. The process is beautifully deliberate and can be found at length in Parker Palmer’s “A Hidden Wholeness.” But our impulse to alleviate or reduce pain, if authentic, should look like a deep willingness to take whatever posture is necessary to love the brokenhearted.
I’ve mentioned before what I call “giving the gift of freedom,” which is really only a flowery way of saying that we should offer to take whatever posture necessary to love those in need. I’m here if you need to talk. I’m here to watch a movie with you if what you need is to escape the trauma and remember that life is still normal in a way. Or, I’m not here, if you need space. If that is the case, know that my love for you is such that you don’t even need to return my phone call. Are we willing to take whatever posture is necessary to love those in need?
We can, like Jesus, turn our face toward the death around us and walk toward it not knowing what will happen when we get to the tomb. As we walk with those facing the reality of death (And I mean death in every sense; not merely physical but also the tangible death in a marriage that isn’t working or the rigor mortis of trying to be a parent to a seeming prodigal child that just won’t come home) it’s okay that we don’t know what we’re walking towards.
I think we get tricked into thinking that victory is always clean or that redemption is always beautiful. That’s not true. That’s not the world we live in. Victory is when something triumphs over something else. And love, more than anything, is victorious. Be hesitant of anyone who tries to convince you that love is clean. It’s messy. It’s bloody. But maybe in this messiness we can be shaped into a hopeful militancy, hell bent on loving by whatever means necessary, in shapes both beautiful and hideous and commonplace. The spirit in which we relate to one another is so important.