In a beautifully intimate passage of scripture we read, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you…” (Isa. 66:13)
What could be more intimate than God identifying the Love of God as being like that of a mother who comforts her child?
This issue of The Cry focuses on our Word Made Flesh Lifestyle Celebration of Intimacy. Throughout this issue, you’ll read stories of intimacy experienced and explored by Word Made Flesh folks from all around the world.
Here in this piece, I want to reflect somewhat broadly about the idea of intimacy. What is it for us? How does it shape us?
For some, intimacy evokes feelings, memories, and ideas of comfort, compassion, kindness, and love. For others, because of harmful choices of people in our world, intimacy evokes feelings, memories, and ideas of discomfort, uncertainty, abuse, and betrayal.
Much of the difficulty with the idea of intimacy lies in the fact that it naturally comes coupled with vulnerability. We are readily aware that human society has not always been gracious to those who exhibit vulnerability.
Too often, persons offering the intimacy of thoughtful and healthy compassion, empathy, and overall relational connection find themselves exploited and abused.
Of course, vulnerable intimacy tragically abused has been illustrated in dark and iconic fashion for us in the crucifixion of the Word Made Flesh – of Jesus Christ crucified.
It is from this low-point in the history of our world that we can see with deep clarity the need for and the importance of intimacy. Without healthy intimacy humanity has capacity to perpetuate all kinds of violence upon one another.
Yet, even in the midst of difficulties encountered, Love continues onward living into the mission that is its very DNA – care for all that is around it.
Even the very darkest of moments cannot and do not extinguish the deeply intimate greatness of Love. With immense Love, God the Son intimately cries out to God the Father on the cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
It is from this lowest point that intimacy begins its ultimate rise showcasing that in the end it will finally be exclusion that is excluded and Love will triumph.
The Love of God is intimacy showcased par excellence. At whatever level or in whatever manner experienced, relational connection is core to intimacy.
Ultimately, one does not become most intimate with an organization, with an idea, or with a set of rules; rather, one becomes intimate with persons.
Personhood is primary. Contexts arise because of personhood.
This is why it is so very vital that the core of our faith is not about a principle, but rather it is about a Person. It is about the Person of Jesus the Christ.
The world renowned 20th century missionary E. Stanley Jones in his book, The Word Became Flesh, notes that he considers “and the Word became Flesh” (from John 1:14) as the most important verse in the Bible. He writes that in all of his interreligious conversations and comparative studies of other religions, in the end, the major difference came down to being that all of the other belief systems at their core were about principles, myths, legends, and grand ideas while Christianity at its core is about a real Person and that Person’s relationship with us and our relationship with that Person.1
This personhood of Christ is what is often referred to as the scandal of the incarnation. God came near. The Word became Flesh. The All-Powerful also became all human. The intimacy created by God’s proximity and particularity became a conceptual stumbling block for many even as it offered the pathway of freedom for all.
Because of Jesus’ presence we know that the “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” (John 8:32) statement is not primarily referencing an idea. Instead, such a pronouncement ushers us into relationship with the One who calls Himself Truth itself. Jesus declares, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” (John 14:6) It is primarily to a Person that we are called and secondarily to the principles which arise out of being in relationship with this Person.
In the most meaningful of intimate ways, God does not extinguish or suppress our personhood, our volition, our ability to choose in the relationship, but rather God chooses egalitarian parity with us and intimately calls us “friends.” (John 15:15-17) We can understand that the best example of a friend who sticks closer than a sibling (Pr. 18:24) is actually God. In the parlance of our times, in the above senses of close and faithful companionship, we do indeed have a “personal relationship with Jesus.”
As an example of “personal relationship with Jesus,” of “a friend who sticks closer than a sibling,” in the deepest of communions (communion being a practice of intimacy), God says, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me.” (Mat. 25:31-46) God articulates the deepest intimate, identification with those in the deepest of need. God says, “they are me.” God says, “I am them.” God cares that much.
In the midst of the seekings and searchings of our finite attempts at Love we can take heart in knowing that as with Truth, Love is not primarily a principle, but it too is primarily a Person. God is Love (I John 4:8). Such God-Love casts out fear (1 John 4:18) and will not fail (1 Cor. 13:8).
To have such intimacy producing love that is like unto the Love that God offers means to be present and yet not to be stifling, but rather to make space in the midst of being present. How meaningful it is to have someone know you intimately enough to know how to be healthily present with you, but to still allow you space to be your own person. Healthy intimacy requires both this presence and space. Frederick William Faber alludes to such breadth coupled with proximity in his 1862 hymn, There’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea…” Here Faber offers that the God who made and sustains us, who sees us and is moved to mercy on our behalf, allows space for us to live and learn. Khalil Gibran also deals with the subject of presence and space in writing about the intimacy of marriage,
You were born together, and together you shall be forever more.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread, but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.2
Henri Nouwen, a professor and minister who wrote much about intimacy and love describes how his friend and mentor, Jean Vanier – the founder of L’Arche International, sometimes shared about relational intimacy.
When Jean Vanier speaks about that intimate place, he often stretches out his arm and cups his hand as if it holds a small, wounded bird. He asks, ‘What will happen if I open my hand fully? We answer, ‘The bird will try to flutter its wings, and it will fall and die.’ Then he asks again, ‘What will happen if I close my hand?’ We say, ‘The bird will be crushed and die.’ Then he smiles and says, ‘An intimate place is like my cupped hand, neither totally open nor totally closed. It is the space where growth can take place.3
Considering the God-breathed aspects of intimacy related in all of the above, such intimacy is the kind of life, work, and community that Word Made flesh seeks to embody and to share around the world. Word Made Flesh seeks to establish and sustain long-term stable communities of loving presence among and alongside people experiencing intense hardship. Out of empathetic solidarity, these community efforts look to foster authentic relationships of friendship that encourage people toward growth while always seeking to meet them and walk with them in the midst of whatever difficulties and/or joys they find themselves in at any given moment.
I pray that the stories, reflections, and overall content of this issue of The Cry offers renewed and greater awareness to you of the great love that God has for you and the great love that God has for everyone.
The God of the universe sees you and loves you. God knows your name (Isaiah 49:15-16), knows the number of every hair on your head (Luke 12:7), holds every tear that you cry (Ps. 56:8), and knew you before you were being knit together in your mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5).
May we all experience the intimate comfort of God and by Gods’ grace and mercy may we all on behalf of God each in our own way seek to offer such intimate comfort to others.
Executive Director of Word Made Flesh
1 Jones, E. S. (1963) The Word Became Flesh. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press
2 Gibran, Kahlil. (1973) The Prophet. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf, Inc. (A Borzoi Book). p. 15.
3 Nouwen, Henri. (1986). Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. New York, NY: Doubleday (An Image Book). p. 22.