Recently Dad, J and I spent a few days hiking around what we Minnesotans call the North Shore. I dug out my camera and was excited to experiment with my shutter speed settings as I photographed waterfalls. If done well, slowing the shutter speed captures the flow of the water while keeping a crisp surrounding landscape.
This image taken at Gooseberry Falls seems peaceful and quiet, like I might be the only person there.
But, I was not. There were swarms, like every other time we failed to get there really early in the morning.
The solitude is an illusion, crafted by carefully manipulating the frame to avoid the people standing in the river above the falls or sitting along the base of the falls. I wanted a grander vista, but random strangers in awkward poses wearing Day-Glo bright clothing would obliterate the tranquility of the photo.
Mine! Mine! Mine!
I was not all zen or charmed by sharing space with crowds as I stood taking pictures and reveling in the beauty here. I was a crabby panda, snorting to myself as folks wandered into my shots while they enjoyed the gorgeous day. How dare they!
Apparently, I don’t share well when I’ve got a focused mission. The seagulls from Finding Nemo, demanding “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!” on repeat in their quest for food, are tame compared to me. When the camera gets up to my eyes, I’m on a mission to capture a good shot, and anybody else going about their business and hampering my efforts is a nuisance. In that moment I assume the universe revolves around my photographing expedition.
I forget the glorious space is not mine — it’s a gift I get to freely visit. All the other people are there with complex stories and intentions of their own, and my obstructive presence renders some of their plans fruitless, too. I see the people who tromp around in my frame as idiots. Like a really mature adult, I resort to mental name calling.
I grouchily crossed the river and hiked up the stairs, inwardly grumbling over the throngs of people. About halfway up the other side, as I fumed about the crowds and waited for J and Dad to catch up, I had a thought:
What if we get this way in churches, too?
We come with our neediness and with our human cries of “Mine! Mine! Mine!” This cry is not solely the seagulls from Finding Nemo. The truth is we all get focused on ourselves, our needs, and our wants; we all get an interior monologue of “mine!” as others impede that thing we want.
We come with our expectations about what the church experience should be — just like all of us at Gooseberry Falls that day came with agendas. Some came to Gooseberry to wade and play in the falls, in spite of the leech warnings posted. (I would freak out in an epic screaming and flailing way if I found a leech attached to me.)
Others came as a break from the drive home, so their kids could release pent-up energy before being trapped in the car again. And then there were those who came with more serious photography intentions than me, lugging heavy-duty tripods, lighting equipment and massive lenses.
All our agendas competed with each other, causing us to frustrate each other. We prevented one another from fulfilling our quests freely and unhindered. All of us slowed each other down, forced each other to wait and exercise patience.
It’s for you, too.
I think this happens whenever a group of humans gets together long enough. We’ve got needs and wants, and those desires interfere with each other. Someone gets in my way, or someone isn’t following the polite “rules” we all know he should. Someone prevents me from doing what I want or doesn’t do things the way I think she should.
We start to see someone (or a group of someones) as threat or obstacle, instead of a beloved person. We see the way he or she irks us, the way she makes us slow down or adjust our course. The way he hampers us from accomplishing the things we think we need to do. The way her values conflict with what I hold sacred.
In our neediness, in our desire for God to be “for” us, we make the table smaller. We turn God’s love for us into a zero-sum competition. God, support us over them. Make us victorious over them. We forget we might be hurting others too. We might be the offender, not the victim.
And here’s what strikes me about the New Testament: Jesus keeps poking at the human urge to make the table smaller.
As the Pharisees ding Jesus for the company he keeps, Jesus calls them out for their lack of compassion and the way they missed the point of what God is up to in the world. When the disciples try to prevent the children from seeing Jesus, Jesus welcomes the children. As the disciples argue over who is the greatest and who is going to be at the right hand of Jesus, Jesus tells them they don’t quite get his kingdom, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. When Peter initially thought the good news of Jesus was just for the Jews, he discovered God had a bigger plan in mind: Jesus is for the whole world.
There’s room at the table, and no one gets to hoard it.
For God to authentically love the whole world, God has to be for all of us. Not for us over them.
Not Mine or Yours, But Ours.
Here’s the balance beam problem. God isn’t just for you. God is for me, too. The struggle is navigating “us” and “ours.” Making space for “us” means degrees of self-denial, and self-denial can turn quickly to bitter resentment and hatred when we’re unwilling to acknowledge or address our very real needs.
We may not like it or want to admit it, but you and I are needy. We just are. And we cannot heal until we accept the reality of our needs.
It’s okay to be needy. I do not know how we meet Jesus apart from acknowledging our need for him. In the Gospels, crowds flocks to him with their varying needs: wisdom, healing and hope. Jesus is good with neediness. In fact, Jesus has loads more kindness for neediness than he does with swagger and religious posturing.
It’s okay to have our sacred values, those precious things we hold close or those practices that help us to experience Jesus. We might even need these things. They can be good things, just like taking nature photos at Gooseberry Falls wasn’t a bad goal. Taking pictures is a good thing. But it is not the ONLY good thing.
Recognizing there are other good things instead of just my ONE good thing helps me let go of myself and make space for other people’s weirdness. And I cannot do the first thing if I’m unwilling to reflect on my own intentions or explore others’ intentions. Cultivating curiosity is a beautiful skill for relationships.
While I walked around as a GrumpyPants at Gooseberry, I forgot to name my intentions. I didn’t ask why other people might be there, until my little irritation connected to a bigger theme. Then, I had to stop and deal with myself.
I could learn from the people there for non-photographic reasons. Namely how my intent to capture a beautiful moment has very real limitations. I concentrate on the world through my viewfinder and forget to put the camera down in order to experience where I am. I ignore the musical sounds of the water streaming over the falls, and I miss occasions to play. I see the adventure as solitary rather than something I share with others.
Also, my desires were still ultimately achieved, even if I didn’t get the grand big picture sans people that I intended. I just had to share while I went about my morning mission.
I’m not perfect at this. I wonder if there’s a better way to get past myself. The quickest way for me to move beyond my neediness is to name it and embrace it, rather than pretend it is not there. Pretending just makes me bitter about yielding to other people.
What most helps me create space for “us” is acknowledging my neediness. I have absolutely no clue why this works, but it allows me to hold myself a little more loosely and to make room for “you.” I am not suppressing my needs but recognizing I’m not the only one with needs. I am one among many.
I am welcome. You are welcome. The table is wide, and we all come hungry. And gloriously there’s a space for all of us.
Jesus welcomes our needs and simultaneously pushes us beyond our shrieks of “mine!” There’s room at the table, and I don’t get to hoard it (nor do you). We have much to learn from each other if we’re willing.