|Written by Toby Sumpter|
|Wednesday, 14 October 2009 20:41|
You are a drop in the ocean. You are a multitude. Others flow through you and around you, and you flow through them and penetrate their worlds. Other people are everywhere. And you are a walking, talking, living vortex of other people. You arrived here as the result of other people. You had a mother and father, and they had parents and siblings and great-aunts and nieces, and chances are you now have a spouse and perhaps children or even grandchildren. You probably work, and your work implies other people. Then there are the people who live next door or upstairs or across the street. And that street: someone put it there, probably six or eight guys wearing hard hats. One of them was probably directing traffic. Television, movies, computers, books, music, art, and literature swarm with other people. And the food you consume is usually planted, harvested, packaged, delivered, sold, prepared, and served by other people. You did not make your clothes. Other people produced the materials, other people designed them, other people sewed them, other people shipped, delivered, and displayed them. And other people advertised them, modeled them, and sold them to you. Modern technologies make it even more likely that you have contact with other people with greater frequency than ever. You are a story that has too many characters to keep track of.
The Christian gospel, however, does not see this as a problem. It does not suggest ways for ‘dealing with this sad state of events.’ There are no solemn warnings in Scripture regarding overpopulation, the dangers of big cities, or the inherent problems with urban sprawl. Other people are not merely to be ‘handled’ or ‘endured,’ and certainly not avoided or fled from. The Christian gospel is not an escape plan from humanity, a way out of the crowd. The gospel is fundamentally about how to get back in. The gospel is about how to get back to the masses, how to begin loving other people again. Christ says it’s the greatest commandment (Lk. 10:27). It is the center of the Christian calling, our mission. We are to be a people concerned with other people. We are supposed to like them, enjoy being around them, and celebrate them. They are neighbors.
But people are hard. People are complicated by emotions and affections, goals and dreams, weaknesses and failures, strengths and surprises. And they keep having babies. All those other people bring their own stories, their own swarming crowds with them. A host of ancestors and friends, worlds of multiplying neighbors mob your every movement, word, thought, action. They gathered at the moment of your conception, and they follow you to the day they lay you in the grave. And of course the promise of the gospel is that this throng does not cease at death but only continues and grows in the Spirit, in the communion of saints, in that great cloud of witnesses that just keeps swelling until it breaks out in a terrific spring shower at the resurrection.
All of this is merely to point out and underscore that there is a great need for wisdom. The temptation is to see the multitudes and try to figure out ways to send them home. We are like foolish disciples who see the noisy, ignorant crowds, and we think we know how to deal with them. But if we are faithful disciples of Jesus, we are called to look upon the multitudes with compassion and look for ways to love them, to bless them, to feed them even. This is why the writer of Proverbs insists that we must “get wisdom.” Wisdom is a skill. If wisdom were a degree you’d have to get it at the local vo-tech school. In the book of Exodus, the Spirit of wisdom is poured out on Oholiab and Bezalel, but this doesn’t mean that they begin writing fat volumes of philosophy. Having the Spirit meant they knew how to pour concrete, were good with numbers, and could run a machine shop. The Spirit was poured out upon them to give them skills to build the house of God; wisdom is construction management.
At the center of the Christian mission is the calling to love other people. Clearly, this is an enormous undertaking. There are many people in our lives, many people make up our stories, and they are complicated, difficult, and challenging to love for a vast number of reasons. We need wisdom to love the other people in our lives. We need to know how to think about the other people in our lives, how to love them, how to serve them, and where to start. Of course ultimately the greatest commandment includes loving our first neighbor, our most important neighbor, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This Triune God is already other persons. The Christian God takes up into Himself, into His own existence, the notion of other people. And this is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The beginning of learning to live skillfully with other people is fearing and loving the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three chief persons of all existence. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the first three persons that every human individual has dealings with. Learning to love and fear these Other People, the persons of the Triune God, is the beginning of wisdom. It is the beginning of learning the art of loving other people.
Of course the idea of other people shows up in the beginning when God created man. When God created Adam, He said that it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). Even though this is in the context of marriage, the principle is that two are better than one (Eccl. 4:9–12). Marriage is not merely a sexual statement; it is a social statement. All things being equal, it is better to be with people than not. It is better to be with people than only animals and trees. And these other people are helpers. It is true that certain individuals do accomplish great things, but there they stand in all their glory with a father and mother, teachers, siblings, aunts, uncles, coworkers, bosses, friends, enemies, coaches, a spouse, children, and of course many more woven into the subtext that makes up the person and his or her accomplishment. Every individual and all their accomplishments are riddled with footnotes. But the footnotes are incomplete; we are all plagiarists. And it is more glorious this way. Two are better than one; a threefold cord is not quickly broken. Other people are good. The fact that your story includes all these other people in all their glorious complication is by design. God created the world insisting that it was not good to be alone; hermits be damned.
So it is decided: Other people are good. This is not least the case because these other people are God’s good gifts to you (Eph. 4:11–13). In fact, Paul says that Christ ascended on high and poured gifts out on men, and it turns out that when Christ ascended on high and led captivity captive, He did not primarily give special powers. Christ gave people. Apostles and prophets are people, and Jesus gave them to His church. The people that God gives to His church are for her good, to build her up into a house of godliness and holiness. Of course in other places, Paul talks about the “gifts” that were poured out on the church, but even here, the primary gift is the person of the Holy Spirit. Again, we are dealing with other people. The Holy Spirit is the person-gift of the Father and the Son. The Son ascended to the Father, and they sent the Spirit to fill the church, to hover over the world gathering people together, sending other people to minister where they were needed, equipping people to serve the other people right in front of them. The person of the Spirit is sent in order that people might be made useful to others with whom they come in contact, in order that all these people might be built up into a spiritual house, a dwelling place of God (Eph. 2:22). Remember the Spirit has to do with wisdom, and that has to do with building a house: construction management.
So there you are surrounded by a sea of faces, a commotion of voices: your spouse, your children, your neighbors, pastors, friends, and all the rest of the people you know and meet and interact with. And they are gifts of God to you. And therefore they are your other people. They belong to you as opportunities, as possibilities, as resources, as mines full of riches for you. Before we even begin to think about dealing with the other people, the hosts that press against us in every which way, we need to start with thankfulness.
Our response to the realization of other people needs to be gratitude. This is because God promises to use them for our good. These other people are gifts. These other people in all their glorious complexities, failures, and difficulties are gifts, good gifts. It is not good for us to be alone. It is good to be surrounded by the throngs of people that wind through our lives. But there is always the temptation to go with the flow of modern culture which in so many ways rejects how good God is in the myriads of people He surrounds us with. Do not act, speak, or think as though it would be better to be alone, to be free of those other people. Maybe you should start by thanking God for all the traffic in your commute to work, all those people in line in front of you, the crowded airport. But not only have those other people been given to you, you have also been given to them. You belong to a family, an assembly, a multitude of other people that cannot be numbered. You belong in varying degrees to those other people. We are gifts through the working of the Spirit, and this means that we are meant to be grace, one for another. You are not your own; you are a drop in the ocean; you belong to a crowd; you are a multitude (1 Cor. 6:19, 12:13ff). After all, we serve the Lord of Hosts.