Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
This week, I'm sitting with Jesus' farewell discourse—farewell love letter, really—to his friends and thinking about what it means to abide.
Science & Nature
The birthing cave in Sedona at night
Photo of Sedona's birthing cave, taken at night.
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Arts & Architecture
Carrie Newcomer sings "The Point of Arrival"
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When is it hard for you to abide?
Abide in me as I abide in you.—John 15:4
The commentary for what we call the “farewell discourse” of Jesus (John 14.1-17.26) in the Oxford Annotated Bible compares this treatise to a love letter. It really does read like one. It begins, “Let not your hearts be troubled….” Think about that—it is the beginning of many love letters—“Beloved, don’t let your heart be troubled.”
I want to draw our attention to one word in this love letter. It’s a word Jesus uses to frame his entire farewell to his friends: meno—which translates, “abide.” The sense of this word is not merely to stay, but to dwell, particularly in times of hardship or challenge.
"There's a subtle flavor that... "abide" gives us," one scholar notes. "Abide means not to just continue to exist but to continue to exist under adversity and unchanged. It gives the impression of being unable to change one's circumstances but clinging to hope, clinging to life…" (S. Edgar, The Greek Geek, blogos.org).
Edgar points out that Jesus asks His friends to be present with Him in the garden of Gethsemane as he prepares to pray before being lead to the cross. He said to them, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, to death. Meno—abide and watch.
They did not abide, as we know. At least not in that moment. But, there is always another chance, to begin again. That’s part of abiding too—trusting God to still be with us, even when we cannot stay in the pain.
Abiding is a central concerpt in the scriptures. It is the necessary prerequisite for, well, everything.To abide is to be connected to our life force. In order to bear fruit, we need to abide. When we are not abiding, we are in a state of disconnection. This is its own kind of pain.
Abiding is hard to do on our own. In fact, it’s not something we do at all. We have to work hard not to abide. When we think about the image of the vine and the branches, we can perhaps embrace abiding more as a state we become aware of than a thing we will. The vine and the branches simply are enter-twined. Perhaps there are ways we cultivate conditions for abiding, more than will ourselves to do it.
Jesus talks of abiding in this farewell love letter as if he’s singing a lullaby. Abide in me and I in you. Lullabies are about two people, the singer and the hearer, abiding together, in the deepest intimacy.
There’s a lullaby I come back again and again. I've shared it here in a past post. It’s one Sweet Honey in the Rock sings that gets right to the heart of our felt sense of abiding.
The words go like this:
The clock on the wall says its time to go, But I know my heart really wants you to stay awhile.Hear the seconds ticking by and the world outside is still…So before you have to leave, stay a while with me…stay a little bit longer; stay a little bit longer.Stay a little bit longer with me.
I think both Jesus and his friends want to stay. No one really wants their intimacy to end. That’s what this love letter in the middleof John is all about—the pain of an ending, the hope of what is next, the need to abide. As song writer Carrie Newcomer says, the end that marks the point of arrival (arts and architecture lesson for today).
I’d like to share a story with you.
When I was a child, I had a cherished association with Mississippi artist Marie Hull. That relationship was the inspiration for this blog. Many of her paintings hang in our family home. As I describe on this site, my mother introduced me to Mrs. Hull’s art classes held on her screened in porch, and I was the only child in those classes for several summers.
Years later, when Mrs. Hull was very old, my mother would take me to visit her in the nursing home.We would talk about her travels to Mexico where she sat with a portable easel and painted, living the Bohemian life long before it was in vogue to do so.
We talked long and wide. And then, eventually my mother would rise, preparing to leave.Inevitably, Mrs. Hull, at that very moment, would bring up a topic too delicious to resist.Ann, have I ever told you about the time when?... And thus she would launch Part B of our visit…and we would stay a little bit longer.
My mother knew what was happening.Mrs. Hull didn’t want us to leave. And were it not for supper to be fixed, older children to be fetched, and the like, my mother would have wanted to stay even longer.But life has its clocks.
Fast forward a few decades. I made many trips back to my home town to visit my mother during her last years. In the early days of those visits, I would schedule time to see lots of other friends. We’d get a glass of wine or go for brunch. Mama would always say, “Go, I want you to see your friends.” But as the years passed, I realized, there were cues. As I prepared to meet my friends, she would ask me…Remember the time when? Or…how about we go for a ride tomorrow? Abide. Now, as it had been years earlier with Marie Hull, so it was with Mama. It was her turn. And so, gradually, I let go of other visits. And my trips home were reserved for one thing: abiding with my mother in the days she had left. In the midst of her hardest days. I’m glad for that.
Stay a while with me. The pain of an ending, the hope of what is next, the need to abide. Abiding is simply sitting with what is.
Abiding is the prerequisite for the kind of connection God envisions for our world.
In the farewell discourse, Jesus is preparing his friends to be able to abide, specifically so they can contend with sorrowful losses and with those they see as their enemies, those who would oppose them. Jesus knew they would face painful losses as well as adversaries and opponents. He speaks in John 16 about their impending sorrow and joy.
He compares these sorrows and joys to the experience of a woman in labor. Abiding is the condition that allows the labor to yield fruit, new life. I’ve read that meno has a physical location in the deep bowels or belly of a person. Like the womb. Another deep metaphor, like the vine, to express the meaning of abiding.
There is a necessary connection between branch and vine that is womb-like indeed.
The conditions of a womb are incredibly precise—with rigorous requirements. Abiding places are not casually constructed; rather, they contain a great deal of specificity intended to support a relentless commitment to the integrity of the one being held.
As he prepares to leave them, Jesus is asking his friends to cultivate favorable conditions—womb-like conditions, if you will. To stay with one another—a little bit longer, perhaps than our natural inclinations would suggest. To stay particularly where these is discord and try to transcend it. And then, when it is time, to move to the next abiding place.
While abiding does entail staying with someone in the midst of hard times, it is not a stagnant state of staying to avoid what's next. We stay as long as we are called to be in a place, with a people. And then, like a baby being born, we are sent out. To abide is not to get stuck; it is, rather, to be constant in the midst of challenge. We are forever finding endings that are, at the same time, beginnings.
Recently, over dinner, our family was talking about favorite movies we’ve watched in recent years. One of mine is a movie called Life Itself. Some of you may have seen it. It tells the story of two families whose lives were inexplicably bound. As the matriarch of one of the families lies dying, she says to her beloved child, “Life brings you to your knees. It brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you get back up and move forward, if you go just a little farther, you will always find love.”
I believe this is what it means to abide. To get back up, together, when we imagine we cannot, and go a little farther. To be with what is, trusting there will still be love.
I think this is always our work, and perhaps, particularly it has been so for the past year. We have been brought to our knees. We’ve stared hard at the temptation to cut our losses and run when things have just gotten to be too much. It can seem so much easier to try not to abide—when we’ve experienced such isolation, when we’ve witnessed over and over the pain of racism ripping us apart, as we’ve experienced our deep divisions and as some of us have faced unspeakable losses. Abiding seems an elusive state in these days.
And yet, we are already abiding. All of us. And the one in whom we abide is birthing us, through the end that marks the point of arrival. I think Jesus was saying something like this to his friends. Yes, the end is coming. But it is the end that marks the point of arrival, too. Both are true. Neither diminishes the other.