The Bible is relentless about the connection between God and humanity. In the very first chapter of Genesis, we are told that humanity makes God known: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1.27, NRSV). The Prophet Jeremiah tells us that “knowing God” comes through showing up for those who have been discarded ( 22.16). The Gospel of John is relentless about the intimate connection—communion—between God, Jesus, the disciples, and humanity in general. The prologue to John’s Gospel says that “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (1.14a, The Message); Jesus tells his disciples “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you…I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing” (15.4a,5, The Message). Before he is arrested Jesus prays for a deeper connection between God, Jesus and the disciples. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they (the disciples) also be in us” (17.21a, NRSV).
When we think of spiritual practices that deepen our connection with God, we often think about spending more time in prayer, and of course there is nothing wrong with that. But what if we expanded our notion of prayer to include really being with and welcoming everyone who comes our way, especially those who are suffering. In Matthew 25, we find out that God comes to us through human beings in great need: the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and prisoners” (25: 31-46).
I thought of this kind of prayer when I was at a conference looking at how churches invite, welcome and connect people to God’s mission. As we were reflecting on how churches welcome people, they showed us a Chick-fil-A customer service training video. The video is a series of different people walking into a Chick-fil-A restaurant. No one speaks, but we are given a brief description of everyone’s story. One man has been “fired from his job and is worried how he will provide for his family”; another is a “single mom raising a family alone and try to make ends meet”; another is an elementary school aged girl whose “mom died during childbirth and dad blames her”; and so on. The video poses this question to Chick-Fil-A employees: Are you aware that our customers are not numbers, but people with unique and often painful stories? And how would that change how you welcome them?
If I was truly honest, I would have to acknowledge that most days, and even on Sunday mornings, I am not really present to people. Too often I am thinking about the next thing I need to do, or still processing a previous conversation. Therefore, I not only miss truly being with other people, and but I also miss being with the God who dwells in them. People who try to be present to God in silent prayer often talk about being distracted. The same challenge applies when we try to present to God as it arrives in other people.
Today I am going to try to be present to the God who is coming to me in others. I invite you to try this too, and if you want, let me know how it goes.