Making space, being saved: a reflection from Jonathan Nicolai-deKoning, Micah Centre Program Director
In her recent book Opening Israel’s Scriptures, scholar Ellen Davis notes that the Hebrew word for salvation is rooted in notions of ‘making space.’ In the ancient Hebrew imagination, to ‘save’ is to make space for another. Tellingly, salvation’s opposite in ancient Hebrew is distress, which is literally to ‘be constricted.’
During this long season of lockdowns, quarantines, and self-isolation, we are easily led to distress. How often have we felt constricted, penned up, fenced in — not just by the four walls around us, but by our feelings of anxiety and despair, that we or our neighbours may not make it to the far side of this pandemic?
How do we move from feeling ‘fenced in’ to salvation, from distress to spaciousness? How do we make space for others? How do we allow others — and our Creator — to make space for us?
Throughout the pandemic, a common Celtic prayer with deep biblical roots has given me pause: ‘Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting; alone God sufficeth.’
There is a beautiful simplicity to this prayer: those who are held by the triune God of love may live lives of simple abundance, of ‘enough’ — wanting nothing beyond what is necessary, giving to others, thanking the Giver for the given life. While many of us shelter in place, while vulnerable sisters and brothers around the world and down our street feel the sharpest edges of the pandemic’s force, this prayer is a reminder that the God of love still holds us and can make space for us to flourish.
Early Celtic Christians witnessed this wisdom. Many of the communities that gave rise to the tradition of Celtic prayer were subsistence farmers and labourers in Scotland and Ireland who asked God to ‘number their days’ as they found shelter in the simple abundance of God’s ordinary gifts of life and love. In times of scarcity and of plenty, their work and prayer cultivated a sense that an abundant God had given them enough to live deeply and wisely, despite very difficult lives.
That witness — echoed in the lives of subsistence farmers and labourers around the world today — is a reminder of the profound simplicity of biblical wisdom: the given life is enough. We can draw on the spirit of the God who gives generously, deeply, surprisingly — to turn from ourselves and toward others. In my better moments, the pandemic has been an invitation to return to this simplicity and practicality in pursuit of a more just world.
For me, this strange season has not been an opportunity to start a new exercise regime or learn another sourdough starter recipe (though there has been time for that as well). It has been an invitation to remember that — even in complicated and uncertain times — ‘who God possesseth in nothing is wanting’. This is not easy to recognize in a world marked so profoundly by the power of savage global capitalism that constantly prompts us to see others’ social media posts and advertisements as invitations to want something else, something more, something better.
So I’ve tried to ask myself some questions that help me move away from a pervasive fear of scarcity and toward a sense that the God of abundance has given me enough:
Can I live more simply, even now, to make space for generosity toward others? Can this season help me in this?
Can I live within limits to better live in solidarity with others? Can this season help me do this?
Can I live well with myself, resisting the pull to compare my life to others and so avoid the logic that underpins the worst impulses of our culture?
Sometimes I can answer yes to those questions but often my answer is ‘sort of’ or ‘no, not really.’ I know that answering ‘no’ is a path to diminishing myself and others.
We do not have time — now, in this pandemic season, or afterwards — for those things that diminish us. But, to misquote Stanley Hauerwas, God-in-Christ has given us all the time we need to make space for others and allow others to make space for us. We have been given all the time we need to resist distress and embrace the spaciousness of Christ’s salvation.
May we use our time well.