By Gil George
This year as I engage with lent during my recovery from a challenging season of life, I have been led to give up abstraction and take on presence. Abstraction has a few definitions, and I am speaking primarily of allowing ourselves to be diverted to a general idea or quality rather than an actual person, object, or event which leads to the state of someone who is not paying attention to what is happening or being said. To illustrate what I am getting at I would like to tell you a parable.
While on a deep sea fishing trip, some men came upon a family that was clinging to a crudely constructed log raft. When the family saw the boat approaching they began to call for assistance and the fishing boat drew nearer. When the fishermen saw the raft they immediately began questioning the construction of the raft, discussing the knots that were used, the type of wood, and that the raft obviously needed a bit more buoyant wood. Eventually they drifted past the family and continued their fishing trip while discussing the principles of raft building. Later, when the mother of the family and the surviving child were picked up by the Coast Guard they asked through their translator why the other boat kept going past them.
This is the danger of abstraction that the church and I have to address in ourselves, that allowing ourselves to be distracted by issues puts others’ lives in real danger. I have to confront the desire for self-protection that pulls me away from engaging others’ lives. I have to ask myself who I might be passing by when my care could be the difference between being “lost at sea” and someone reaching a “safe and dry” shore. During this Lenten season, I am laying issues like the nature of biblical authority, whose interpretation of the will of God is valid, and what constitutes sin aside and am instead taking on being present to others no matter what. I would like to think that I will be successful at this intention, but old habits are hard to break, and I am in the boat, not the raft. I don’t have the urgency of being forsaken driving me. I am not in danger of death.
That is the truth that God is leading me in, that my calling is not to debate abstractions, but in the words of the old chorus I’ve Got a River of Life, to be a channel for the river of life that flows from God’s Spirit. The truest test of the strength of my faith then is not in whether I can win all the spiritual debates, but whether I have a river of life flowing out of me that makes the lame to walk and the blind to see, that opens prison doors and sets the captives free. Are we ready to step away from the abstract spiritual debates that bring more wounds and distract us from God’s mission and instead be present to those who are wounded and hurting no matter the cause or cost? I don’t know if I am, but with God’s help maybe we can let go of the deadly distraction of abstraction together.