When I was a younger person, I had a difficult time getting to know people. It seemed like a hard thing to figure out—how to get to know someone and feel comfortable enough around them to be yourself. First, you had to engage in conversation, but if you didn’t know them, you didn’t know what to talk about to get to know them. So we need conversation starters—an intro that got things going. I found a website called conversationstartersworld.com and here were some of the suggestions:
- What job would you be terrible at?
- If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
- What would be your first question after waking up from being cryogenically frozen for 100 years?
- What songs have you completely memorized?
- What keep you up at night?
Honestly, I’m not sure these would help you get to know someone except on a very weird level. So how do you get to know someone?
I have known my husband Stuart since we met over 37 years ago and I did not ask him any of these questions. Even so, I can tell you some things I know about him—he loves Diet Coke. If the waitperson asks, “Is Pepsi alright?” it is a definite, “No, I’ll take water.” He is not thrilled with coffee, but will drink it with one sweetener. Stuart speaks Spanish fluently and Portuguese a bit. He absolutely loves dogs and has an app on his phone about dog breeds. As Grandpa Stuart, he watches PBS kids shows like Super Why, Daniel Tiger and Odd Squad with a granddaughter and a dog on each knee. All of these things I know about Stuart I found out by being with him. I could check out his Facebook page but I wouldn’t know any of this. I could read his diplomas, checkbook and emails, but they wouldn’t help much. It is my experience of Stuart that let’s me really know him.
French, German, Russian, Swedish, Italian or most other languages can distinguish between types of ‘knowing.’ For instance, in Spanish, the verb saber means to know information—like Stuart’s birthdate or his passport number. The verb conocer, however, means to be familiar with someone, to have had an experience of the person, to make his or her acquaintance. I can read every document ever written about Stuart, but I would still not know Stuart. The truth is, after 37+ years, I still don’t totally know Stuart. Sometimes he will tell me something about himself that I didn’t know, and I realize that I will never know him completely, never know all of his thoughts.
This is why today I was struck by the exchange between Jesus and Nathanael in the gospel of John. Jesus is rounding up disciples by the Galilee after being baptized by John. After meeting Jesus, Phillip finds his friend Nathanael and tells him, “We have him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” As Nathanael approaches, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asks him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
What I have come to understand about this scripture is that not all of the disciples were fishermen—some were students. Philip and his friend Nathanael were John the Baptist’s students. The fig tree was a common place for prayer for rabbinic students and they were told, “He who, when he prays, does not pray for the coming of the Messiah, has not prayed at all.” When Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree, he would have been praying for the Messiah to come. Only God could have heard Nathanael’s prayer under the fig tree for they were his private thoughts. Nathanael puts two and two together and realizes if Jesus heard his private thoughts and prayers under the fig tree, he must be God come to earth, the Messiah. With his new awareness of how Jesus came to know him, Nathanael replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
What does this mean for us? This scripture lets us know that we have a God who hears our thoughts and prayers and knows us at our deepest level, Deeper than our parents, spouse, children, friends or siblings. How does this help us?
Being known and accepted for who we are is our deepest human need. Maya Angelou wrote, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
At the same time, we are walking in a world that tells us if anyone really knew us, they would reject us. Compound that with the fact that some people, who really do know us, do reject us and we develop defense mechanisms to guard our hearts from pain.
Take the case of Anya Yurchyshyn, who titled her memoir, My Dead Parents. When her mother died of alcoholism and her father was killed in a car accident, she was actually relieved. She had experienced her father as cold and aloof and her mother as ineffectual and anxious. Her parents’ disdain and contempt for one another was on display throughout her life and she blamed her own anxiety and low self-esteem on them. When Anya was cleaning out her parents’ house, however, she was stunned to find a box of sweet, vulnerable love letters the two had exchanged. Her father had written, “Whenever I leave you, there is an emptiness inside me, a true aching of the heart.” Her mother had responded, “Our love is wondrous; it has a life almost of its own.” Anya was in shock. Who were these people? She made it her mission to understand who her parents truly were by visiting the Pennsylvania neighborhood where her mother grew up. She walked the grounds of the University of Chicago where the two loves had met. She discovered that her mother’s childhood had been heartbreakingly tragic, filled with trauma and abandonment. Her heart softened in compassion for the girl and woman who had been the mother she didn’t know. She flew to her father’s ancestral home in the Ukraine. What she had thought of as her father’s selfish absenteeism turned out to be his unselfishness rebuilding of his town after the war, a fact she didn’t know about him. Before she was born, her parents lost her 1 yr. old older brother to pneumonia, which etched the pain into the marriage. They did not tell her of his existence until she was 10 yrs. old. Anya says, “Devastating as it was, this information was a gift, shining a light into the murky corners of my childhood. My father policed my behavior so intensely not because he was a dictator, but because he was terrified of losing another child—his anger was misplaced grief. My mother wasn’t weak—she’d had to be unimaginably strong to survive her childhood, lose her parents, son and husband. I was the product of complicated people…Today I am proud to be their daughter—a person who’s replaced pity with compassion. That compassion opened the door to the emotional prison where I’d long kept my parents. And in turn, it freed me.”
This story lights up our own relationship with Jesus, ourselves and others. Anya never really knew her parents because they lived an interior life she was not privy to and so it was hard for her to accept them as they were. Christ is our interior life and we have full acceptance in his grace.
Nathanael also was skeptical that Jesus could do anything, as he says nothing good can come out of Nazareth, we are skeptical that Jesus can impact our lives or have any solutions to our problems. Like Nathanael, we wonder how Christ could know us? If we are not aware of Christ’s presence in our lives, how would that happen for us? That is the beauty of this passage. Nathanael is known by Christ long before he meets Christ. Our Psalm 139 today tells us,
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely…
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?”
This is the impact- the searching and knowing. The conocer instead of the saber. We are no surprise to Christ—we cannot nor do we need to conceal anything from him. He doesn’t care what our PR says about us. He’s read the narrative we have concocted of our lives and knows we are defending and justifying ourselves. He knows the truth about us and loves us because of it. He made us and knows our thoughts from far away and knows our hearts from the inside out. We do not need to hide ourselves. Like Anya, we imagine God to be a hard taskmaster, an overseer who dictates our lives. But also like Anya, we find out that it is out of great love that God gave us the law to create order in our lives but also gave us Jesus Christ to be the living power of love and grace that gives us the freedom to live that law.
Jesus knows you. Do you know him? What has he given us to know him? Jesus tells us in Acts 1 that he has given us his Holy Spirit that lives in the Word of the gospel and in our hearts in order to know him as the face of God. How do you know the Holy Spirit? You have known the Holy Spirit in the many moments of your life when you have discovered life as sweet and loving as well as painful and unfathomable; in the touch of a child’s hand, the swelling of your heart in grief or prayer, the love and angst between parent and child, the sweetness of reconciliation after a fight, the passing of the peace that passes all understanding. These moments are the very fabric of our lives and yet they remain unknown to us as the work of the Holy Spirit until our own Nathanael moment, when we also exclaim, ““Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” which opens the door to your emotional or intellectual prison and sets you free. May that day be today for you.