Wineskins Archive

December 7, 2013

Intimate Stranger (July 2012)

Filed under: — @ 8:50 am and

By Scott Simpson

Twenty years ago, my best friend Kirk was killed in a highway accident. Talking with all the various mourners after the funeral, I found that each of us had a unique story, a special memory or experience. There were many generations represented, and a number of different backgrounds. Some of us knew each other, some of us did not. But what struck me at the time was this:

Every single person here thinks he or she was Kirk’s best friend.

I even noticed the temptation rising up for each Kirk story to be followed by one that was a little better… one that no one else knew about… a demonstration of “Special Kirk Knowledge.”

Kirk WAS my best friend. But I also heard in that circle how many elements of him I had not seen, how many Kirk experiences I had not been there for or yet heard about. Once I got beyond my own small, competitive grief, some of them opened me up to new insights about my friend, new ways of listening to another’s experience of him as a harmony, augmenting my own.

In this way, even strangers became intimate.

When you really love someone, you’re less interested in debating and proving the quality of your knowledge of them to others; you are simply obsessed with any bit of insight that adds another facet to your understanding of that one you love.

God has made himself known to us in Christ (Colossians 1:15-20), and yet there is a still a day coming when we shall know as we are known (I Corinthians 13:12). That day is not yet today. There is a paradoxical mystery in the knowing of God. The knowing is wrapped up in the seeking, and like Jacob’s wrestling match with… with whomever that was (God or angel or whomever – Genesis 32:22-32), we can become more fully informed of ourselves in relation to God, but God himself remains, to some degree, unnamed, a stranger with whom we’ve wrestled, however intimately.

Maybe it’s contemporary evangelicalism’s need to package and manage a brand-able god-product, or maybe it’s modernity’s prideful insistence that any god that’s real and available as a topic of discourse must be subject to empirical, systematic, almost scientific ways of knowing, but we seem to think it’s imperative that we compete and win the God-knowledge contest. This competitive nature creates for us some very restrictive filters or lenses that let in only certain things— like the setting on my car air-conditioner that circulates only inside air, or a house of mirrors reflecting just what’s already inside.

In sectarian religion, what I breathe, what I see, usually smells and looks a lot like me.

Jesus told the Pharisees and teachers of the Law in John that he not only came so that the blind can see, but also so that those who think they can see can become blinded (John 9:39-41). Knowing that I don’t know is a vital posture if I want to learn. It opens me up to the wonderful experiences of others: their experiences with the God I love and want to know better. Walking with God is not a game of right or wrong, but rather an ever more complex experience of the One who is simply, “I Am.” Like playing music “by ear,” it requires that I listen to the counter-melodies of others and respond, knowing we’ve been promised a Spirit-guide, an along-side advocate who sways and dances along.

Music’s an apt metaphor because words lead so often toward arguments and rebuttals. Playing by ear places me in the midst of the jam-session, clueless of what might come next, but mindful not only of the Spirit’s presence, but also of the other musicians. Listening is the goal, not winning. Responding is the dynamic, not fixing. The others sometimes play odd instruments, or have minor or dissonant sensibilities, but as I respond, I find my next note, and the one after that. In this kind of inspired improvisation, my own notes often surprise and then delight me.

But the first teacher is silence. Silence is the unity within the music. It comes between every note and gives significance to each. It’s Elijah’s post-wind-earthquake-fire “still, small voice.”(I Kings 19:11-13) It’s “be still and KNOW that I AM God.” (Psalm 46:10) It’s me, unknowing all that I know, acknowledging that the One I love—intimately—is still a stranger.

THAT’S why I listen—not to be affirmed in my knowledge, but to be still, and KNOW.

This is our example—the example displayed in all of creation. A diverse planet unifying, playing by ear the song of its own true Spirit, the Spirit of the Creator, the Intimate Stranger wresting, dancing, breathing, becoming KNOWN.

by Thomas Merton

When no one listens
To the quiet trees
When no one notices
The sun in the pool.

Where no one feels
The first drop of rain
Or sees the last star

Or hails the first morning
Of a giant world
Where peace begins
And rages end:

One bird sits still
Watching the work of God:
One turning leaf,
Two falling blossoms,
Ten circles upon the pond.

One cloud upon the hillside,
Two shadows in the valley
And the light strikes home.
Now dawn commands the capture
Of the tallest fortune,
The surrender
Of no less marvelous prize!

Closer and clearer
Than any wordy master,
Thou inward Stranger
Whom I have never seen,

Deeper and cleaner
Than the clamorous ocean,
Seize up my silence
Hold me in Thy Hand!

Now act is waste
And suffering undone
Laws become prodigals
Limits are torn down
For envy has no property
And passion is none.

Look, the vast Light stands still
Our cleanest Light is One!

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