Seen, safe, soothed

Previously, we’ve seen how James chided believers for giving preferential treatment to the rich, giving honor to those with higher status. Implicitly, they were trying to burnish their own status, but in so doing they were also dishonoring the poor. We don’t need to imagine this as pure toadying, as if church ushers were bowing and scraping before every visitor who wore flashy jewelry. People may simply have been doing the same thing they had always done before becoming believers, sending the same unspoken signals about who was important — and who wasn’t.

I think here of Paul’s rather sharp comments to the Corinthians regarding their distorted celebration of the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Cor 11). House churches would probably have met in the homes of the rich — the only ones who actually owned homes in the first place. The rich were used to dining together and flaunting their wealth, which they no doubt continued to do after receiving the gospel; the food was sumptuous and the wine flowed freely.

But the majority of believers, along with the vast majority of the populace of the Empire overall, were poor. They came to meetings of the house church hungry because they had no choice; their hosts, by contrast, were well-fed and somewhat sloshed. It was humiliating to the poor, and hardly the context to share the Lord’s Supper together. But the rich Christians, apparently, hadn’t even noticed their own behavior, nor the social assumptions behind them. And Paul wanted it to stop.

As I suggested in an earlier post, it’s perfectly natural for us to want to find our place in a group of people, be it a family or an organization. We want to belong, to feel a sense of significance — to matter. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this in itself.

Indeed, as proponents of what is known as attachment theory would insist, that sense of belonging and significance should be formed in our earliest years, in the cradle of the family. As one theorist puts it, we have an intrinsic need as infants to feel seen, safe, and soothed in the presence of our caretakers.

Seen: our parents see and value us for who we are. Safe: they not only protect us from danger, but foster in us a secure sense that they will always be there for us and won’t reject us. Soothed: they respond calmly and appropriately to even our most troublesome emotions, helping us learn to calm ourselves.

Of course, it doesn’t always go that way.

If we’ve experienced that kind of security in our earlier years, it spills over into adult life in positive ways: we will tend to be more trusting and trustworthy. But the lack of security also shapes us. As adults, we may end up grasping at things that we hope somehow will give us the sense of significance we want and need, the significance we never had, lacking someone who cuddled us, gazed into our eyes, and gave us the message: You matter. Without that foundation, we may feel the need to accrue status almost as a means of emotional survival.

I don’t read James as yelling at people for being “bad Christians,” as pointed as his language can be. Again, he wants his readers to gain wisdom, to stop, to think: Is this what you really believe? Is this the kind of person, the kind of community you think God has called you to be? Is this the way to embody the gospel?

What if the Christian community was a place for people to feel seen, safe, and soothed? Certainly, James’ insistence that they be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19, NRSV) would already carry them a long way in the right direction.

. . .

Perhaps that seems unrealistic or unattainable. But I think here of the ministry of Jesuit priest Greg Boyle to the gangs of Los Angeles. Homeboy Industries is a place where even members of rival gangs — who have shot at and killed one another — can learn to work side by side and even come to love one another. They believe passionately in God’s love for them, because Father Greg has genuinely, patiently loved them. He doesn’t see in them the hardened and dangerous criminals that society sees; he sees them as the beloved of God and acts accordingly.

It sometimes takes them a while to believe that Boyle means what he says, before they learn to affectionately call him “G-Dog,” or mostly, just plain “G.” But when they do, they feel seen, safe, and soothed.

Boyle writes of Moises, an imposing young man who comes to Homeboy for the first time. After a brief interview, Moises says to Boyle, “So, you’re a father,” pointing at all the homies milling about the reception area, whom he calls Boyle’s “children.” Then, unexpectedly, he begins to weep. Haltingly, he asks, “Can … I … be your son?”

Boyle leans in and whispers, “Imagine what a gift it would be, to have a son like you.” And he means it.

Moises cries for a while longer before responding, in a voice still broken, “That … is the one thing … I only … ever … wanted to hear from my own father.”

As believers, we all have a Father who treasures us. James hopes, as does Boyle, that we would come to recognize the fullness of that truth. And maybe then, within the church, we’d be able to whisper, Imagine what a gift it is, to have brothers and sisters like you.