by Sara Miles
I work at a church, so every summer I get a fairly incessant barrage of emails from church youth groups all over the country asking if we have any last-minute volunteer opportunities for their coming mission trips to San Francisco. Can 15 or 20 of their teenagers come to our food pantry some Friday and work for us? Do we know about any other service opportunities, since they’ll be here for three days and would like to do something for the homeless or other people in need?They are so nice. And I always feel snappish. Partly it’s that our food pantry really can’t take groups: We’re just not big enough to have tasks for everyone, and I know what a drag it is for volunteers to stand around with nothing to do. But part of my frustration with mission trips has to do with my understanding of the Holy Trinity.
Let me explain. Samuel Wells, a theologian from Duke University and a priest currently working in England, writes about a new framework for understanding Christian service.
He’s not interested in what Christians want to do, think they should do, or even actually do for the poor. He’s interested what he calls, shamelessly, the most important word in the Bible.
It’s sort of like a theological party game. What’s the most important word in the Bible? Jesus? Love? Mission? God? Sin? Mercy? What do you think?
Samuel Wells—and here is where I think the Holy Trinity comes in—says the most important word in the Bible is . . . with. It’s a trick question, but I have to agree: The most important word in the Bible is with.
The Trinity is, at heart, about with: about what Christians call perichoresis. This is the dance in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one being, existing through their mutual relationship. And God is always gathering all humanity into that undivided relationship, bringing us all into life with God.
Remember, at the beginning of John’s gospel: “The Word was with God.” And Proverbs: “When God fixed the foundations of the earth ... I was there, ever at play in God’s presence, delighting to be with the children of humanity.” In other words, before time began, before anything else, there was a with. And until the end of time, there is a with, as Jesus promises: behold, I am with you always. With is the most fundamental thing about God.
With. And so we open our worship saying: the Lord be with you. We proclaim that the Word made flesh came to dwell with us. We call his name Emmanuel, meaning: God with us. We bless our gatherings saying: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
Notice: with, not for.
Because God is not actually for us: except in my crazy, private triumphalist fantasies in which God, who takes my side always, will magically appear and smash my enemies. God is not doing nice things for us, like strangers on mission trips who appear, hand out random goodies, and go home. God is not for us in the sense that God is always going to be giving us exactly what we want, protecting us from illness and harm, and making us rich.
God is just with us. God sticks with us. Accompanies us. Delights in us, plays with us, suffers and abides with us. In trouble and in doubt, when everything goes perfectly and when things fall apart: God is with us.
Trinitarian theology has a reputation for being difficult. But I think the real challenge isn’t intellectual or doctrinal—“Oh, it’s so complicated, how can three be one?” That’s sort of like saying, ‘How can I possibly be Sara who’s Katie’s mother and Sara who’s Sylvia’s colleague and Sara who’s Roberto’s neighbor?’ Am I three separate persons, three Saras? No, of course not: I’m just one, existing with different people. All my relationships inform each other—who I am as Sylvia’s colleague affects and is affected by my relationships with my neighbors and family—but I’m actually not three separate persons.
And the Trinity is not three separate beings: God only exists in relationship. With God’s self and with us. That’s the challenge. Because this understanding of the Holy Trinity, if we model ourselves on it, changes everything. Our lives as Christians must mean being with others the way God is with us. With, not for.
Doing for, as mission groups and lovers and parents know, is super-tempting: It’s easier and often feels safer than being fully with. Let me act on your behalf, doing something for you as if my being were somehow separate from yours. Let me hand you a sandwich at a sanctified distance. Let me solve your homework problems without getting entangled in your other problems. Let me send you some flowers to apologize when I’ve been snappish, without having a real conversation.
Being with is riskier. If I wait and listen and show you what I’m really like, my life becomes implicated in yours: We are no longer separate. And I might get changed by our relationship.
Recently, I was at home working on a deadline. It was a beautiful warm day, and all the windows were open, and I was trying to focus on my writing and not get distracted. And then from the street I heard someone loudly wailing: “Help, help, help, help . . .” I looked out the window but couldn’t see anything. I waited, thinking that maybe a neighbor or a teacher from the school across the street would respond. The wailing continued. “Help, help, help.”
“Oh, man,” I thought. “I bet it’s just that drunk lady who hangs out on the corner, but I guess I should go down and make sure everything’s OK.”
It was that drunk lady on the corner . . . a puffy, bruised, middle-aged woman who bounces back and forth between the street and the hospital and the county jail without ever getting sober; who mostly either sits on the sidewalk and moans, lies on the sidewalk in a stupor, or passes out.
I’d talked with her a few times before when she was a little more alert and had been able to walk down the block. Once she wanted to chat about the baby she was expecting—this was a total fantasy, as far as I could see—and it occurred to me that she might be really demented or mentally ill, as well as suffering from alcohol poisoning.
But now she wasn’t talking. She was just moaning. “Help, help, help.” I asked if she wanted me to call an ambulance for her. “No,” the drunk lady said. Did she want me to get food for her? “No,” she said. Then she started wailing again—not even “help,” this time, just moaning. “Wo, wo, wo, wo.” She was crying. She was impossible. I couldn’t do a darn thing for her. And so I just sat down with her while she wailed. I think I said something stupid like, “I’m sorry you feel so bad.”
After a while she stopped, and closed her eyes, and we sat there some more. I got up to go home, and crossed the street, and she started crying again, and a neighbor came out of her house and addressed me. “This is very upsetting,” she said, crossly. “I have little kids, and I don’t want them to hear this. Can’t we call someone to take her somewhere?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think so.”
The neighbor introduced herself to me, and she said again how messed-up and upsetting this was, and I agreed, and we talked together as she walked with me back to my front steps.
Abiding with others
Sometimes there is nothing to do for anyone. I hate that. I can’t tell you how much I want to make things better by doing something for people, and how little, it turns out, I want to just be with them. Because if I have to be with them—well, then if someone is drunk and crying, and she just wants another person to be with her in her unhappiness, then I have to sit there. Or if she’s upset and worried about her kids, and she just wants another person to be with her in her anxiety, then I have to stand there and let her see how useless I am. I’m scared about not doing the right thing, and I have to let my own weakness and neediness show.
Being with people means I can’t leave messages for them on their phones at a time I conveniently know they won’t be there. I can’t do good deeds for them and go home. In fact I can’t do anything for them: I have to abide with them and allow them to abide with me.
The most important word in the Bible is the most important word in our lives: And it is a word made flesh. God lives with us, just as Jesus lives with the Father, and we with one another, and the Holy Spirit, the very breath of life, lives with us all.
Sara Miles, founder and director of The Food Pantry, serves as director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Her books include Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead and Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. She speaks, preaches, and leads workshops around the country, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and on National Public Radio.This article originally appeared at Episcopalcafe.com. (back to top)
To read more Gather articles, subscribe now. As a subscriber, you can also view Gather online, as an app on your iPad, on your Android device and on your Kindle Fire. To request a free copy of the magazine, contact us.