Every Monday and Thursday morning, pre-school kids and their parents, grandparents, or caregivers, gather in our church basement. We call it Playgroup. Playgroup is music; we have our own “band”—Dick on accordion, Ken on violin, Craig on piano. And a gentle dog, Lena, who loves to fetch her ball over and over again. Stories, snacks, and coffee. But mostly, playgroup is play. The activities of play vary—throwing a ball, building a wall, riding a bike, donning fairy wings or a superhero costume, sharing a smile, reading a book, giggling uncontrollably for no apparent reason, becoming immersed in conversation. Just in the last couple of weeks of playgroup, I’ve been part of winding wandering discussions about racism, potty training, custody struggles, the politics of Palestine, chocolate cookies, old hymns, sparkly rain boots, prayer, summer kids’ activities, the climate and more. I’m realizing that the key ingredient in play is attention. In a time and culture in which distraction is an epidemic, choosing to be fully, deeply present to each other in the moment is both radical and wonderful.
Today’s passage from John is a continuation of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples on the night before he died. In this intimate encounter, Jesus sought to comfort and encourage his friends amid the disaster of crucifixion. We revisit these words during Eastertide because they show us what Jesus imagined resurrection to be. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Well, in the Gospel of John, there’s no list of “do’s and don’ts.” There’s actually just one commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus demonstrated how he wanted his disciples to live out this commandment by washing their feet. In this act that shocked his friends, Jesus taught them that love is not a simple reversal of who lords it over who. Love totally reimagines the systems that determine how people use power. Love, for followers of Jesus, is footwashing—a posture of graceful mutuality and sharing, a vulnerable and transformational way of being present to each other. And love is a portal to resurrection. The practice of love gives birth to a new and different kind of world.
“And I will ask the Mother/Father God and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” The word translated “advocate” is “paraclete.” Para means “alongside.” Kletos is from the verb “to call.” Jesus’ role was to be a Paraclete—one who is called alongside. And, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is also the Word made flesh, the one who embodies divine presence in the world. So, Jesus showed us that God is not behind us, pushing, or ahead of us, pulling, or above us, judging. No, God is beside us—listening, comforting, befriending, accompanying, and collaborating. Jesus wanted his disciples to know that when he was no longer able to be with them physically, that would not be the end of their friendship; it was only the beginning. He would call another Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, to come alongside humanity and stay with us forever.
The Spirit is not a rescuer, a fixer, or a magician. The Spirit is our partner, bringing forth the holy wisdom that is already within us; supplementing our strength; sharing our burdens; and laboring beside us to continue the work of Jesus. Jesus said that the world cannot receive the Spirit of Truth. In other words, when we take Jesus’ transformational way of love seriously, such a choice will inevitably provoke misunderstanding and resistance, and sometimes even violent rejection. Crucifixion will continue to be part of our human experience. And so will resurrection. “I will not leave you orphaned.” This tender language both acknowledges the threats all around and assures us that they cannot cut us off from God, from others, from ourselves. Through the Paraclete’s loving companionship, we have a family, an identity, a place to belong, a system of support. “Because I live, you also will live.” In my early twenties, I spent a couple of summers living and working at Wilderness Canoe Base, a community located on two islands at the edge of the Boundary Waters. Every morning we gathered in silence in the outdoor chapel. The birds sang, the pine martens hissed, the wind rattled in the birches, the heat radiated from the rocks, the rain slapped the lake. The community assembled, their approaching footsteps crunching on gravel and causing the suspension bridge to groan and creak. When everyone had arrived, we would settle into stillness for a time. Then someone would stand and offer “First Word,” a reading or reflection to begin the day. After that, we would sit and wait some more, before departing for breakfast. Some people, of course, began whispering to friends the moment they left the chapel. But I loved being present to people without having to talk, cherished the ritual of walking together in silent attention.
It is the sustaining presence of God’s Spirit alongside us that also allows us to be present to each other and to the world. It’s true that we can practice presence anywhere, anytime. And yet we have unique opportunities as a church community to share the gift of attention. At playgroup, choir rehearsals, coffee hours, study groups, kitchen clean-up shifts, mornings at the food shelf, in worship, and yes, even in meetings, we inhabit a space that simply doesn’t exist in other parts of our lives, a space in which it is possible to be fully and deeply present. The small groups we are forming for the summer are all about committing to presence. Through a simple rhythm of speaking and silence, we will sense the companionship of the one who is called alongside us. We will share about our lives with honesty and vulnerability and simply be heard, and held in love. We will cultivate the art of responding to each other without judgement, without advice-giving, fixing, or invasive questions. Being with each other in this way will be nourishing, renewing, trust-building, and healing.
Making space for deep presence in community is a lost and neglected art in our culture. However, fostering this sort of friendship has been central in the lives of Jesus’ followers through the ages. The late Irish poet and theologian John O’ Donahue wrote:
In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”
Over the last two weeks, folks have gathered in a circle in the parlor for lunch and conversation. Longtime members and those who are brand new to our congregation have come together to get to know each other and to explore who we are as a church We’ve been reading the covenant of membership aloud together. Folks often comment on this sentence: “We seek to build together a community of generous hearts and differing but kindred minds.” It’s striking me today how important it is that we keep this covenant. Jesus calls us to share the gift of presence, to sit together in the pews and to accompany each other in life, even (and especially) when we don’t have a lot else in common. He wants us to be a community that can be present to each other, that can find kinship and practice soul friendship without erasing our differences or minimizing our diversity. He hopes we will have the generosity of Spirit to imagine how we might transform our relationships to power in order to more fully and deeply keep Jesus’ command to love. Because that is how this community will grow in our capacity to collaborate with each other and with the Spirit, to be partners as God’s brings about resurrection in the world. Amen.