I have three children. Two boys. One girl. That means that five of us have taken long car trips to arrive at our vacation sites.
Maybe you’ve heard some of the things I’ve heard from the back seat of the car.
“He’s touching my armrest!”
“She won’t stop humming!”
“He’s looking at me!”
Of course, my children are all adults. You’d have thought that they would have grown out of this by now.
If there’s anything sibling rivalry suggests, it’s that Jesus has awfully high aspirations for us.
Jesus prays that we will all be one. Experience teaches us that relationships with even those who are closest to us—maybe especially those who are closest to us—take some serious work. Paradoxically, we seem simultaneously hardwired to need other people and to struggle getting along with each other.
Movies and popular music and television suggest that we can find a soulmate with whom we can experience a seamless harmony. Always be in perfect step, be of one mind, and never grow weary of each other’s habits.
It’s probably not a news flash to you that this is hogwash.
Nevertheless, Jesus wants us to be one like he and the Father are one. Not with just a select circle of friends. Groups of like interests or backgrounds or points of view. Jesus wants all of us to be one in our dizzying variety and diversity.
That is a very high aspiration indeed. The Father and the Son are breathtakingly vulnerable with each other. Without the slightest fear of rejection they share their most intimate thoughts and dreams and desires.
They are different, and they love each other for that difference, not in spite of it. Nevertheless, they are linked soul to soul. The joys and sorrows of the one reverberate in the other’s very heart. Their happiness includes ensuring that the other’s needs are met, not just their own.
We have a long way to go.
That’s probably why Jesus’s prayer was this: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)
“Protect them,” he said. Ironically, Jesus is asking the Father to protect us from ourselves. From our tendency to fortify ourselves from each other. To give us the courage and the compassion and the perseverance and the grace to stick with each other. To resist fleeing, withdrawing, blaming, and holding grudges in order to keep on engaging.
That’s what being one amounts to in this life. Sticking with each other when we inevitably let each other down, drag the people we love into messes of our own making, and stumble together into obstacles placed in our way by forces beyond our control.
The holy seamlessness of the Father and the Son is the gift that Jesus offers his followers. We will know it perfectly in eternity. In the meantime, our oneness will be a work in progress. Our hearts will be stretched and broken and mended and stretched again. By each other. And that is precisely where God will do his most magnificent work.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by sharing a story about a family from a congregation I once served in another state. I’m changing names and some details to maintain anonymity.
Becky and Steve had been married for just over two decades. They balanced their highly successful professional careers and their parenting of one daughter (Ginny) and one son (Doug) with a sort of stressed-out grace. In other words, their ratio of getting it right to falling on their parental faces was about as good as any of us who have actually been there could hope for.
They were genuinely present in Ginny and Doug’s lives without being helicopter parents. Churchgoing folks, Becky and Steve set a standard of good character and personal responsibility in their home. Everyone was held accountable but no one was held hostage with shame or the threat of rejection.
In high school, Doug began using drugs. He started by drinking and smoking weed at parties. That’s the pattern that many of his peers followed. They were amateur party girls and party boys, indulging in a few wild episodes while staying more or less focused on getting on with life. By contrast, Doug turned pro with his drug use.
He stayed stoned most of the time, and he expanded his drug-taking repertoire. Midway through high school Doug was a heroin addict. He stole from his parents and his sister and his peers. He skipped school. At one point he simply disappeared. His parents only found him when a distant relative from another state phoned to say that Doug had turned up down the street.
After some floundering, Becky and Steve responded in the sanest, most helpful ways. They learned tough love. Doug went to rehab, then a halfway house, and continued with twelve step meetings. Becky and Steve joined Al-Anon.
Doug would do well for a while. Take up his studies. Get a job. Start to look and sound and act like the son they had once known. And then he would relapse. The lies and the stealing would resume. The studies would cease. The job would disappear. And then it was back to intentional boundary drawing, rehab, and a period of recovery.
Becky and Steve never gave up on their son. They did not reject him or write him off. Like many of us, they had to figure out how to love under trying, uncertain circumstances.
They did not love their son to get a desired result. They loved him because they were committed to Doug. Along the way they granted second chances. Let go of past hurts and betrayals. Slowly built a renewed trust. All to give a new person—a new creation—a fighting chance to emerge.
You may hope that I will say that all the hard work finally paid off and the struggle is now won. But that’s not how recovery works. That’s not how life works.
Addicts stay sober one day at a time. They become trustworthy, make amends, build a new self and a new life each day. And one day at a time family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, and employers forgive, rebuild trust, and forge a new relationship with someone whose identity is still emerging.
In a manner a speaking, that is what we are all doing with each other every day. We forge our relationships with each other. We negotiate intimacy and compassion.
Sometimes this means reweaving strained connections after we have hurt each other by being selfish or indifferent or just boneheaded.
At other times, we need to grow and stretch to stay connected to someone else who’s changing. Strictly speaking, we are all changing every day. We learn new things, collect new joys and sorrows, register some wins, and take a few losses. We take other people for granted at the risk of slipping away from them.
Intimate, compassionate relationships are a gift from God, a gift that comes with some assembly required. There are no clear instructions for assembling relationships.
But Jesus himself has taught us about the tools we’ll need: mercy, patience, forgiveness, and compassion. Vulnerability, flexibility, and perseverance. Humility, fidelity, and emotional courage.
This would be hard enough if Jesus would just give us a break. Let us stick with the people like us or the people we are drawn to or the people who make us feel comfortable. But that’s just not like Jesus.
Think about Jesus’ own followers. Fishermen. A tax collector. A political radical. Homemakers. Women of the night. Jesus loved them all. And he taught them to love each other. It was probably quite a stretch.
But that’s what happens when you follow Jesus. You get stretched in heart and soul. Not instantly, all at once. But gradually. One day at a time.
You can check out additional reflections on these themes in post like theses: Rehab and Untroubled Hearts.