by Tim Baker.
How present are you?
Right now. Are you fully present to this blog, or are you skimming it while trying to do something else?
Are you reading it whilst you really should put your phone / tablet / computer down and be present to something – or someone – else? Should you be listening to the conversation happening over there? Or noticing the flower poking through the pavement? Or spotting the goldfinch hopping along the fence? If so, feel free to put it away, right now…
We live in a world littered with distractions. It is difficult to be present, to be alert to the people around us, the people we are connected to all over the world, the natural world, to the Spirit of God, flowing through all things. When our phones are designed to draw our attention elsewhere, when our TVs, billboards, radios and podcasts are always filling our ears and eyes with content, when there is always another email to read, and the inbox is piling up behind you: how do you stay connected, stay present?
It might be difficult, but my sense is that presence is at the beating heart of the gospel. Jesus is so good at presence – at being aware of the people around him. We see that when he notices the woman touching his cloak in a crowd, how he always seems to know the question to ask, how he comforts the suffering and challenges the comfortable. Jesus is with people. It’s the great miracle we celebrate at Christmas, but it’s also the most exciting part of the Jesus story – that God is here, God is close, God is with us. And God invites us to ‘withness’. To practice what it means to be with people.
Withness isn’t a word and my phone – thinking it knows everything –tries to autocorrect it to ‘witness’, but that’s probably another blog… It’s not a word, but it is an important principle in Jesus’ ministry: Sam Wells uses Jesus’ words in the synagogue in Nazareth to demonstrate that Jesus is interested in being ‘with’ people. With those in poverty, with those experiencing challenge and oppression and, ultimately, with us all.
At All We Can, where I work, we talk a lot about this gospel idea of ‘withness’. It is at the heart of the way we are seeking to tackle poverty in places like Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sierra Leone. In these – and other countries – All We Can’s speciality is listening: listening to the stories and ideas of people who live in communities affected by poverty. All We Can doesn’t provide miracle cures, or white-saviour ideas exported from the West, but works alongside local people and enables them to fulfil their potential, to become all that they can. That’s about staying with people, over the long-term (not simply running a ‘project’ for a year or three, but committing to partnership) and about working hard to overcome the power imbalances where those who have the money get to make the decisions.
To close, here is a poem about this idea of withness – which I hope you will see as an invitation to practice presence in your own life, and in how you play your part in addressing injustice, in Jesus name.
Withness is not a word, not really,
And yet it ever-so-nearly does sum up
Of following Jesus,
The one who sees us, who frees us,
And who is right here with us.
O come, o come Immanuel, we sing
But the thing is, he’s already here,
O so near, whispering ‘do not fear’.
Sometimes, you just have to sit with the nearness,
Enjoying the nearness of feeling the love.
But it’s kind of perverse to just sit in neutral,
Or put yourself in reverse,
When others have got it much worse.
So, although withness is not a word, not properly,
It’s an invitation to do something about poverty
And injustice, to step up and step out,
Into a new way of being,
A new way of seeing,
Where we are kind of guaranteeing
That we want to get past all this colonialism,
All this structural racism,
All this charity tourism,
Where we have the answers and the big chequebooks.
Withness says no,
Go slow, but together,
Whether it’s hard or it’s easy,
Partnership is what matters.
So, when it seems like the world is in tatters,
And voices of division get louder and louder,
The borders and boundaries stand prouder and prouder,
When the narrative is turning even more hateful,
We’ll still be here, and we’ll still be grateful
That withness is a word,
Yes really: the kind of word that can – ideally –
Help us to see more clearly
That when we love each other sincerely,
Withness can change us,
And change ‘I’ and ‘them’ and ‘over there’
To us, and us, and here, right here.
 Sam Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2015)