The Pleasure of Proximity
Let me tell you how a heart stops.
It stops on a June afternoon so thick and sticky, you’d swear it’s late August. You’re driving the one short mile to the coffee shop in the rust-bucket beater with no air conditioning because the thought of walking makes your earlobes (the only part of you still dry) sweat. You drive because you can.
You check the clock and text your friend, the one who is released from an incarceration facility every day around this time to walk to work, with just enough time to grab a quick iced coffee. “I’m heading to The Brew!” you say. Not a minute later your phone pings, “I’m on my way.”
It’s lucky, this mid-day Wednesday meeting. You have work to do, but it’ll wait. She is your unlikeliest best friend, somehow seeing you in the truest way and showing you the way to dependence and grit. You cross the tracks, imagining the warp-speed conversation before she backtracks to meet her husband, also locked up, and they clock in by five.
She walks in, visibly on edge. The room is suddenly stifling and there is no breeze left to shoot. “I need to talk to you. I’ve been praying all night about how to tell you this. Hold on.” She walks up to order her drink.
Your heart stops.
“Be near,” you mumble aloud.
You grasp for better, holier words, but the humidity is too high and they slip between your hands.
It’s the best you can do, so you say it five more times, fast. “Be near. Be near. Be near to me. Be near to her. Be near.”
I spent the tail end of last week learning about justice from the experts, men and women of color who believe the story isn’t fully written and there is still work to be done. Far from the glare of the spotlight, I scribbled page after page of notes. I’m not sure if you wonder about the things that might be said at such an event, but here are a few.
“We all represent God in His fullness. There is not just one group or culture who does.” – Latasha Morrison
“Let’s not talk about being a voice to the voiceless. Everyone has a voice.” – Amena Brown
“Don’t look at us like a mission field. Look to us as equals who can learn from each other.” – Siouxsan Robinson
“Let us tell our stories. Let us teach you how to worship. Let us teach you how to draw nearer to God, because we know.” – Sandra Van Opstal
Each word landed like lead in my chest. Why had it taken me so long to see the world as it really exists? Why had I wasted my strength on unworthy battles?
I am not an expert on much besides not-too-spicy salsa. I wrote a book about what it feels like to be rescued from the life I always wanted and flung into the one I was made for, but I’m not a missionary and I’m certainly not a saint. I’m a fumbling, mistake-prone woman with a lot to learn about the heart of God. I didn’t care about the trouble tinging the air until I sat at the feet of my exiled neighbors as a student of complexity and suffering; that is to say, a student of life, where the pain is only equal to the hope.
I didn’t know that to be a child of God is to live others-oriented, or that to be a neighbor is to be an advocate.
Two hours ago my friend shared news I hadn’t known to fear, about someone I love like rain in a heatwave.
My heart shattered, but God heard my prayer. “Be near.”
He drew near in her gentle truth, her shaking hands, her teary eyes. She pulled me in for two hugs and when she said, “I love you,” it was God Himself. I’d recognize His voice anywhere.
We have been invited into the pleasure of proximity to those we once saw as strangers.
With any luck, our hearts will not stop breaking. Tender and attentive, they’ll break at home and in public, sitting on a wooden pew and slumped against our pillow. We’ll beg for more of God and He’ll meets us at eye level, “Here I am.”
We’ll never recover from this love.