by Karen Campbell-Nelson
For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. Romans 1.11–12
Paul’s greeting to the Christians at Rome helps to shape and breathe life into the theme of the Southern Asia Initiative (SAI), “Together in Hope”. What does it mean to be together in hope? As I reflect on this theme and its accompanying Bible passage from West Timor, Indonesia, I am drawn to the word “longing”—together in hope has something to do with longing.
Paul writes to the Christians in Rome on the eve of his departure to the church in Jerusalem where he will deliver offerings from Gentile Christians to Jerusalem’s Jewish-Christian community that needs assistance, perhaps because of hunger or some other hardship. Paul’s got a lot riding on this, for if the Jews won’t accept help from the Gentiles, it also means they reject his ministry to the Gentiles. So maybe Paul is nervous when he reaches out to Christians in Rome to pray for his journey to Jerusalem. Perhaps he’s also introducing himself and his understanding of the Gospel to them since he plans to travel on to Rome after going to Jerusalem. In any event, Paul writes this letter before he’s been to Rome or ever met the Christians there. That he chooses the word “longing” in his greeting to virtual strangers says a lot about Paul but, I think, even more about the Gospel.
John and I long to see our first grandchild, recently born half a world away from us. Longing is also conveyed well through stories and images of East Timorese reuniting in passionate embraces with members of their families after decades of separation, having been taken from their families as children during Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste. Longing is what I feel for a handful of women activists who are close friends, my church within the church. The rejuvenation of relationships free from mediation, posturing, or subtle negotiation; of relationships that offer meaning without judgement, that challenge me without threatening me—these are relationships for which I long because through them I am rejuvenated. I connect longing to close familiarity. Why, then, does Paul talk about longing when he communicates with strangers? This juxtaposition between my understanding of longing that presumes familiarity and Paul’s longing for strangers begs further reflection.
Three points about the longing of which Paul writes are particularly salient to the “Together in Hope” theme—seeing, strength through sharing, and faith that encourages. The object of Paul’s longing is not abstract but involves physical sight for he knows that truly seeing one another is an essential part of fellowship. Being able to match a person’s name to his or her physical being—complete with flesh, smell, body language, verbal quirks, etc.—helps transform a psychic disconnect devoid of emotion (knowing a person’s name without knowing that person “in the flesh”) into a deeper relationship. Longing to see is a longing for the embodiment of relationships.
Seeing is a bridge, but the ultimate goal is to share purposively. Experience teaches us that connecting and sharing with others is not necessarily positive. The process of relating to others may just as readily exhaust and debilitate as stimulate and refresh. Paul, however, longs for positive connection that he conveys as gift-giving because he knows he has gifts to share with a young Christian community. All we know is that Paul has in mind some spiritual gift when he mentions sharing. However, we never find out what it is because Paul immediately realizes he doesn't know which gifts are most appropriate until he actually meets the community in Rome and gets to know its members. He quickly corrects himself from unidirectional giving to write about a two-way exchange.
With his call for mutual encouragement, Paul arrives at the point of his greeting. His longing remains purposive but now shifts from the longing for self-disclosure and for teaching something to a longing for mutuality. The recognition that faith is dialogical in nature is not only the crux of this greeting but the crux of Paul’s theology. It is through dialogue that faith is expressed and nurtured.
Paul’s trajectory of longing is relevant to the SIA theme, “Together in Hope” in the three ways mentioned above. To see is a crucial aspect of togetherness. “Seeing is believing” is one thing, but here Paul seems to suggest that “seeing is belonging”. To see with our eyes can touch our hearts in ways that figurative sight cannot. Sharing one’s self is also central to an understanding of mission, yet stands in need of ongoing vigilance. Matthew’s rendition of going forth to make disciples (28:19) carries this sense of sharing something “we” have (the Gospel, mission dollars, knowledge, “development”) with “others” (those with fewer dollars, unrecognized ways of knowing, those considered under- and undeveloped). Such an interpretation traditionally lacks a needed critique regarding the relations of cultural and economic power that accompany “sharing”. Paul’s longing to share, then, serves as a reminder to be ever vigilant with a discipline of self-reflection and self-correction, just as Paul corrects himself. Paul’s move from sharing to mutual encouragement is an expression of hope grounded in faith.
John and I call ourselves “partners”, a comfortable locution that seeks to express relationships of equality. But as a woman who has benefitted from multiple privileges—white privilege, economic privilege, and educational privilege—in relation to most of those with whom I have lived and worked in East Nusa Tenggara Province in Indonesia over the years, the conditions of this partnership must be named as unequal. I have many colleagues and some genuine friends, but I long for the leveling of privileges that are perpetuated by structures on which those very relationships are built. As one who loves to give gifts, it can be painful to admit that giving gifts often simply serves to exacerbate the disparity of power relations rather than gulf the distance if there is never any chance for the receiver to reciprocate. Giving from a position of economic strength doesn’t level the power of economic privilege.
Timorese have helped me to better understand the mutuality in faith of which Paul writes. The exchange economy of Timor and other cultures of eastern Indonesia has taught me that reciprocity helps to ground the spiritual virtue of mutuality. When our son, Sam, turned five, we celebrated with a party in Lelobatan, a village in the mountains of central Timor, with members of our extended Timorese family. There were a few children Sam knew well, and their parents helped to decide what other children to invite. I remember we prayed, ate roast pork (celebratory food), and organized relay races and some other games on an open grassy clearing surrounded by forest. The notion of party and birthday are not culturally matched here. Timorese children’s birthdays are marked, at best, by a home worship service with the offering going into an envelope that is placed in the church offering the following Sunday. So having a party to celebrate Sam’s birthday was a novelty for these village children who showed up in their Sunday best. There was a lot of laughing and running around; and every single child who came brought Sam a gift. Many of the gifts were hand-woven cloths or hand-carved bamboo containers. But the gift I best remember was an egg that one boy gave Sam. Sam gave the children the gift of a party and a meal; the children reciprocated with weavings, carvings, and an egg. It is not the value of what is given that matters so much, but the value of the giving if it is extended and accepted as being reciprocal.
May the Southern Asia Initiative be an opportunity for us to see each other, repent of patterns of sharing that reinforce positions of power, and that remind us that faith grows, indeed can move mountains that separate and hurt us, when it is experienced as genuine mutuality. May we accept the gifts that others share, from others we have yet to meet, trusting that even strangers for whom we long can encourage us even as we find ways to share with and encourage them—each of us in our own contexts of challenges, yet together in one hope for the future of God’s mission in the world.
 For more, see “Nina & the Stolen Children of Timor-Leste”, engagemedia.org/Members/AJAR/videos/stolen-children-timor-leste/.
Karen Campbell-Nelson serves with the Evangelical Christian Church of West Timor in Indonesia.