A new direction

Discipleship Proximity Principle
Image of Sarah Small Sarah Small
5th June 2024 4 minute read
People standing in the street talking

When I was first married my new in-laws blessed us with a Tom-Tom sat nav. They said it had significantly reduced the number of arguments that they had when in the car together so wanted to help us experience similar travelling harmony! All was well until the night I was home alone and from somewhere in my living room I heard a disembodied voice telling me to ‘turn right here’ and ‘make a U-Turn!’ I was terrified and not at all happy to be given these directions. 

Sat-nav has come on a lot since those days and works well most of the time, so long as we tell it where we want to go and then follow the instructions to eventually reach the destination! I often wish it were so straightforward in the rest of life – setting a course and then receiving regular instructions about how to get there.  

I have been serving on an Eden team on a council estate in South Manchester for over 12 years and every now and then I spend some time wondering, am I in the right place? What direction should I be taking? Where is the destination I have in mind? And as I contemplate the answers, I find immense help in this familiar teaching of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Two simple commands – Love God and Love your neighbour. Both very much at the heart of Eden and both helpful when it comes to checking our direction. Against this measure we can ask – 

are our actions, activities and attitudes causing us to move closer to God and similarly can we recognise that they are causing us to get closer to people too? If not, then we need to check our direction of travel. 

The word ‘Proximity’ helps us to understand this direction of travel as moving toward, getting close to and being nearby. If we look at Jesus’s work on earth, he set us a fitting example, as found in John 1:14 in the Message translation: 

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.

Jesus left the glory of heaven, the direct presence of his Father and his rightful place and ‘moved into the neighbourhood.’ He did this to gain Proximity to his people – to demonstrate a counter-cultural way of life and to redeem all his creation. 

If we look back to the Eden narrative in Genesis, we can see there that God was in direct Proximity to his people – they walked together in the cool of the garden. But after the fall the people hid from God – they moved away from him and were sent from the garden. Proximity was broken. Mistrust, fear and distance crept into what had been a perfect relationship. 

If I am honest, I can see these attitudes creeping into my life, experience causes me to ask, ‘Is God really good?’ ‘Can I really trust him’ and ‘if he really knew what I was like how could he possibly love me?’ I am sure I am not alone in asking these questions. And it is ok to ask them, but the risk is if we conclude that he is not good or he is not trustworthy or he does not love me then this causes us to drift away from God. Out of Proximity from God, we quickly find ourselves going in the wrong direction. 

It is also sobering to note where my heart is at with loving my neighbour as well. Even though I live in geographical proximity am I spending time, investing in relationships, seeing people discipled and loved? When my attitude is around seeking my own comfort and convenience it is directly challenged by the call to proximity. Proximity involves cost, inconvenience, time, and energy. 

I am inspired by the hope that we find in Revelation 21: 3-5 

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

We have a God who longs to be in full Proximity to us, as we are in Proximity with one another. That is the eternal aim. It is our destination. So, let us check our directions – are we moving nearer to God and nearer to people? That is the way to go. 

Written by

Sarah Small

Sarah Small co-leads the Eden Network alongside her husband Steve. Eden is a movement of urban missionaries who live in some of the UK’s most deprived communities. She and Steve live with their three boys on an estate in South Manchester which has been home for over 12 years. She’s a passionate speaker and activist – hoping to see the church at the heart of transformation in communities that have long been forgotten.

Image of Sarah Small
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