ATTENTIVENESS: What Does It Mean To Abide? by Leighton Ford

Discerning God's Presence in All Things

What Does It Mean To Abide? by Leighton Ford

From The Attentive Life

If to contemplate means to look at life in the presence of God, to see with fresh-washed eyes, then how do I stay in touch during this day, and all the days of my life?

Princeton scholar Robert Wuthnow has suggested that the current interest in “spirituality” takes two forms.  One is a kind of free-floating, rootless fascination with all things “spiritual.”  The other he characterizes as “abode-oriented” – finding a home in centuries-old practices and grounded in the realities of daily life.

Abode immediately suggests abiding, and abiding is vital to Christian spirituality.  Our imagination may dance like the waving branches of a tree, but our reality must be as grounded as the trees I saw growing on and around the rock near the Carolina mountain stream.  Here again is Jesus’s own picture: “I am the true vine.  Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches,” (John 15:1, 4-5).

I must have read and thought about these words hundreds of times across the years.  Beginning in my teens I wondered what abiding meant.  It seemed to convey the very cozy sense that a grandfatherly person would have sitting at home, perhaps by the fire on a winter afternoon, Bible on his lap, cat or dog at his feet, enjoying a cup of tea and feeling very peaceful, letting nothing disturb these quiet moments, thinking very pleasant spiritual thoughts.

But what did coziness have to do with the active mind and life of a teenager, or later for an anxious father or hurried minister, or his stay-at-home wife with sick children?  Or with a world torn apart by war, worn down by poverty?

Abiding, like contemplation, must have a more robust sense.  And it does.

Imagine that you are one of Jesus’s disciples, chosen to be with him in that very private upper-room gathering just before his crucifixion.  You are taken aback when he picks up a towel and basin and goes around the circle washing your feet, and then tells you to serve the others as he has served you, to love one another as he has loved you.  He startles you even more when he announces, “One of you will betray me.”  You glance around at the others, deeply disturbed.  Then he tells you that he is going where you can’t come.

“Why not?” bursts out Peter.  “I would lay down my life for you.  Why can’t I go with you?”  In your heart you are asking the same question.

“Don’t be troubled,” responds Jesus gently, reassuringly.  “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.  I am going to prepare one for you.  I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you will be also.”

A “dwelling place” – but what kind of abode is that to be?  Shortly you hear him use the same word again, this time as a verb.  “Rise,” he says, “let us be on our way,” and then he adds, “Abide in me.”  How, you wonder, can you do both – stay and go?

Then you begin to catch just a glimpse of what Jesus is saying.  He has promised a coming home with the Father down the road.  But now he promises a home on the road!  “Let us rise and go, but let us abide.”  Going and abiding belong together.  Once his mission is complete – and you still do not understand all about what is ahead for him, the cross, the resurrection, and the ascending to his Father – then you too will be on mission.  And on that mission his presence will be with you.  “Be at home in me,” he is saying, “as I make my home with you.  Stay with me, as I stay with you.”

A few days later, when you gather again in that upper room with your friends, grieving the death of your Lord, you look up and there he is: Jesus, present and very real.  “Peace,” he says, and when he holds out his hands you can see the wounds made by the nails.  Once more he reminds you of your mission and his promise.  “As my Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Then he breathes on you and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” (John 20:22).

His words are the promise that he will “indwell” you just as God had been present with your ancestors through the long centuries.

The late Lesslie Newbigin captured this meaning of abiding beautifully:

The gracious indwelling of God with his people is not an invitation to settle down and forget the rest of the world: it is a summons to mission, for the Lord who dwells with his people is the one who goes before them in the pillar of fire and the cloud.  So the promise of his presence is clinched in the words, “Up, let us go hence.”  There is a mission to be fulfilled.  There is a conflict to be waged with the powers of this world.  There is tribulation to be endured.

Now you begin to understand the true sense of “abiding.”  It is not an invitation to a cozy time by the fire (although those times will also be welcome).  It is a summons to stick with him on the way, wherever that may lead, and the promise that whatever comes he will stay with you.

The Anabaptist scholar David Resnsberger, reflecting on the persecution faced by his spiritual ancestors, sees abiding as having both an inward and an outward dimension:

Inwardly, it is a ceaseless orientation toward Jesus, a constant looking to him, listening for his voice, seeking his ways.  Outwardly, it appears as an enduring persistence in this orientation, refusing every temptation to turn elsewhere for security, companionship, or hope.  To abide in Jesus is to place Jesus, both devotion to him and discipleship to him, above all else.  It means letting other voices, other invitations – to profit, to pleasure, sometimes even to safety and self-preservation – go unheeded.  It means a humble, gentle persistency in attending to Jesus and only to him, and a kind of unyielding yieldedness to him alone.

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