Miles away from home during this sabbatical year, I find myself aware of how often I draw physically close to my boys in the small moments of our everyday routine. Perhaps in reaction to the separation from my own support system, I am drawn to tangible care for our immediate family. Away from our congregation, I minister to this congregation of four (soon to be five) with all the love I have to give. I hold hands while we walk to the bus stop and I grip the little fingers a little tighter. I let my nose on small round cheeks linger for a just a moment before bestowing the goodnight kiss.
With the world seeming ever wide and expansive, I crave the action of coming close. Though the craving for closeness brings some moments that are tender and easy, it brings me equally close to the mess.
Drew and I have watched as our older son’s comfort zone has greatly diminished as he faces a new city, a new school, and simply a new identity as a kindergartener. When all becomes too overwhelming, he crumbles. Our hearts break as we watch him either cower and weep or puff his chest and yell.
It breaks our hearts to watch the unavoidable train-wreck of human development with situational change. Sometimes my coming close is met with anger as he seeks isolation to put himself back together. Other times he falls into me – even if with fists raised – so as to have someone heal his wounded being and restore the ground underfoot.
In the morning before the day begins, I wrestle with all the wounds and blessings that I absorb when I draw close. Coming close to another’s anger or despair is risky business. It tests my strength physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It brings me close to my own anger or despair.
Then I read the scriptures and I become every more confused…
Who is this God that risks everything to come so close to humanity?
Who is this Savior that embraces the mess even when coming close brings consequences?
This God who comes close seems in contrast to the world we live in. We create boundaries and sanctify narrow comfort zones. We fight for our right to keep everyone at arm’s length. We respect comfortable distances as divinely ordained. We are the anonymous contributors to a society ready to always first blame the neighbor. We build policies, cheer for walls, and seek easy “solutions” to human pain.
Coming close does not immediately solve anything for our son. It doesn’t necessarily silence his cry. Coming close simply sets the stage for all the next hard steps.
For another seven weeks, I carry around baby boy #3 so close to me that our lives are intertwined and interdependent. I await the moment when we live out the truth – that new life can only be birthed from mutual work and mutual cost. Throughout every hour of the day, he wriggles and rests so close to my being that I cannot help but feel like there must be something transformative about being so close to another as a new future prepares to emerge.
I cannot wrap my mind around this God who comes so close. I cannot perfectly execute this Christ-like love that is always willing to encounter the human mess and endure the angry fists of the fearful.
But my lack of understanding only fuels my worship of the God who responds to the world’s outrage by coming close, armed only with tenderness and truth. My worship then fuels my conviction that we must practice a distinct way of being and doing that chooses to come close to the mess.
Praise be to the God who dismisses our instincts to withdraw, denies separation’s walls, and abolishes the distance between us.
Praise be to the Savior who shows us that God’s promises and life’s pains do not negate the other.
Praise be to the Spirit who reminds us that Hope becomes real only when we come close to the mess.
Carol Harston is living in Durham, North Carolina, for one year while her husband participates in a Duke Orthopedic Fellowship. Carol and Drew have two boys and are expecting their third boy due this Thanksgiving. Carol will return to Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, in fall 2017 to serve as Associate Pastor of Faith Formation and Congregational Engagement.