“Do you have time to get together and talk?”
I haven’t kept track of the number of times I have heard that question in recent years. There were seasons when its frequency seemed to ramp into overdrive, filling up my days with numerous meetings that had been initiated with that one extremely vague and ominous question.
I don’t think I ever said, “No.”
Sitting down to discover why the question was asked has been, in large part, what I’ve done for the past six years. Not quite knowing into what I was being invited was equal parts terrifying and invigorating. It forced (and I really do mean forced) me to have a stronger trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to actually lead us into Truth instead of my own ability to fix someone’s problem.
It was a beautiful season. Yet, something happened during that time I did not anticipate. I started developing a lexicon that was unique to me, and others started picking up on it. Before long, people knew how I was going to approach them. They knew my perspective. They knew my values and convictions. They even knew the words I would use to describe all of these things.
In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing!
Communities that have easily recognizable language to surround and embody admittedly nuanced theological thoughts often create a comfortable space where people can open up and be vulnerable about the raw interworking of their spiritual lives. These are rare and beautiful communities – the type of thing that you can’t ‘un-know.’
The problem comes when the same language that created the space begins to define its boundaries of ‘in’ – ways that deny ‘outsiders’ the ability to understand, engage, and embrace the God we are attempting to talk about in the first place.
This is when the good, the true, and the beautiful can become cliché. I’m sure you can think of numerous examples, but for our purpose here, suffice it to say, if it has been made into a ‘Christian’ bumper sticker, then it is probably that to which I refer.
Clichés are difficult to avoid. We humans crave an easily-digested certainty. They are difficult to avoid because they don’t start out as cliché. They begin as good, true and beautiful descriptions of an indescribable God.
Clichés are clichés not because they aren’t true, but because, at least at one point, they were SO true that they became an over-used, overly-recognizable slang, which drew boundary lines between the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders.’ I’m not suggesting that we stop using language to talk about God. It was God who gave us language in the first place and it would be a denial of a good gift to throw it out simply because we can’t fully capture our subject with words.
Let’s just come to terms with the fact that using words to characterize the divine is akin to putting a leash on a lion. Then, let’s keep using words wisely, intentionally, and carefully, but not anxiously, fearfully, or tentatively. My guess is that God’s grace is grand enough to make up for any deficiency in description.
All of this highlights our predicament.
What does it look like to leave the already tired language behind while doing our best not to create a new one moving forward? My guess is that this is why many of us are drawn to the language that embodies spiritual formation. I love the language that spiritual formation is giving the Church. I love it so much that I want to steward it well in order to retain its vitality. This is why, when I’m talking with people who have a thirst for Christ (which is everyone, whether they know it or not), I’m not concerned with using it much at all.
Instead, I want people to have a deep, maybe even indiscernible, sense that they are ‘seen and known.’
Seen and known for who they are – invaluable creations who have the image of God imprinted on their souls, at the core of their beings.
Seen and known regardless of where they have been, what they have done, or what they are facing in the moment of our relational collision.
My hope is that this communicates a love that transcends our own capacity to show love. My hope is that this points people, even if only slightly, in the direction of Jesus. That it causes a subtle rupture in our souls, and opens our posture to the Spirit’s movement in our lives a bit more.
There will be always be appropriate times to speak of the ‘reason for the hope that we have,’ but we no longer live in a world where ears and eyes and hearts are receptive to an acknowledgement of God’s grace found in Christ without first developing a relational foundation of mutual trust. If people don’t feel, and have evidence of being, truly seen and truly known, then they simply don’t believe that we (or Jesus) have much of anything valuable to share with them.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken” (The Weight of Glory).
However we define ‘neighbors’ – be they our roommates, classmates, co-workers, or even our children or spouses – they have a desire to be seen and known. God desires for us to be the conduit through which they are introduced to and nurtured in relationship with the One who fully sees them, fully knows them, and fully loves them.
This is part of what it looks like for the Kingdom to come ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’
This is good news.
Giff Reed is a husband, father, and friend. He is one of the pastors at Red Door Church in Bloomington, IN, and founded a college-aged ministry, theCanvas, six years ago. He works in Career Services for the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University. Giff enjoys his wife (Lilly), his ruggedly handsome sons (Quincy and Abraham), good bourbon, Indiana Basketball, and many other holy and sacred things.