on knowing and being known

The hallway can get crowded on Fridays with people packing up bags and boxes and socializing after they shop. I raise my voice a little over the hubbub.
“Sonny, could you pass that cart behind you over this way?”
Five or six heads turn to look at me and Sonny breaks into a grin.
“Did you hear that? She remembers my name!”

Much as I love seeing everyone smiling, inside my heart drops. I haven’t performed a spectacular feat of memory; Sonny and I introduced ourselves to each other 10 minutes ago before we walked through the pantry together. In his happy exclamation, what I really hear is an indictment of the systems that shuffle Sonny and other community members through a rotating door of forms and numbers. I hear a longing to be recognized as an individual human being, not a member of the mass called “the poor”.

I am a big-picture person. I like efficiency and organizing things strategically. I want to know how to improve the system, how to create widespread change, where to put resources for maximum impact on real-life circumstances. But ultimately, that approach on its own is destined to fail, because relational and spiritual needs, so bound up with physical ones, don’t fit into its spreadsheets. Systems and strategies can deliver faster service and smarter budgets, but they don’t make more of humanity. George Buttrick writes:  “Life itself seems to insure that mass pressure shall splinter again into its units. Real conversations are not stereotyped. Artistry is an individual gift. Thoughts are intimate. Memory is essentially personal. Love knows its own. Prayer is selfhood aflame – the more itself because it is lost in God: at Pentecost every man was heard speaking ‘in his own language.’ In this wide realm where separateness reigns, people are valued not only because they are like, but more because they are unlike: friends are dear for their idiosyncrasies of gesture and thought… It is a rule that ignorance and indifference see men in the mass, while knowledge and love resolve the mass into remembered friends. The Good Shepherd ‘calleth his own sheep by name.’”

“Social justice” has become such a buzzword for me in the past few years that I have divorced it from its real beginning and end: the love of God. And in the process, I lose sight of the deeply personal nature of love, and of true justice. I imagine that my responsibility is to “contribute” in some way, but not to offer myself as a neighbor, as a friend. It is easy to take a similar approach to student ministry – to focus on getting a certain number of people in the door without taking time to simply appreciate those people once they get here. The hard work of relationships is not efficient, not measurable, not a cause-and-effect chain; it is slow and uncertain to a degree the system’s spreadsheets would calculate out as absurd.

It’s also not optional. We have to care for whole people, and the massive investment that takes requires all of us to commit to making these “others” part of our lives. But this is the mystery of God’s economy: when we start doing that, we might find that it is the first time we’ve started to care for ourselves as whole people, with relational and spiritual needs nothing else can fulfill.

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