On Sam Wells and the Importance of Prepositions

23 Oct

Sam Wells: vicar, author, preacher. 

Standing before an almost packed auditorium at the University of Indianapolis last Saturday, Sam Wells asked us to journey halfway around the globe, to the Saharan desert where, in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Lazlo faces a seemingly possible choice – staying with his injured lover until she dies or hike three days to Cairo in search of help.

Wells, a social activist Anglican vicar and author, let Lazlo’s difficult choice linger over his audience, gathered for “Incorporating Service: The Body at Work,” the 22nd annual national conference for the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. Thanks to the Lilly Fellows’ emphasis on encouraging a place for Christian themes in otherwise secular academic disciplines, the audience ranged from grad students and professors to provosts and chaplains. “Yesterday we heard a talk,” a fellow participant told me over breakfast, referring to a superb conference-opening historical overview of American collegiate service by Calvin College’s Jeff Bouman. “This morning we’re going to hear a sermon.”

My breakfast companion was absolutely correct. Wells’ talk took us to the depths of two profoundly personal reasons why we do service – and why one is both more satisfying and harder than the other. Wells’ irresistible logic and eloquence was complemented by his English accent and a vaguely Colin Firth-ish appearance, and while he dared singing with comic badness to illustrate his points, the heart of his talk lay in three simple hypothetical situations.

Wells asked us to imagine (1) buying a Christmas gift for the “most difficult” person in our family, (2) hosting the extended family for Thanksgiving, and (3) hustling to drop off meals and gifts for the poor during the holidays. One thing all three have in common is disappointment: The gift falls short and doesn’t fix the relationship, the dinner exhausts the host who is too busy pleasing people to enjoy their company, and the gifts and meals feels impersonal and unsatisfying.

The other thing they have in common, Wells pointed out, is the preposition “for.” Being a vicar, of course, Wells approves of doing things for others. But ultimately Wells argued for service built around a different preposition: “with.” The emptiness in all three situations stems from the failure to be with the difficult family member, with the guests, to be with the poor. So why do we choose instead to settle for only doing things for others? His answer: “For” is often easier. Building relationships is more challenging, both in terms of time and in terms of energy. Just as it’s easier for organizations to do things for this or that group than consulting with said group to find out what’s truly needed. So to Wells, this distinction has implications not only for our personal, individual acts of service, but also for how organizations address the needs of larger groups.

As if this was not enough to chew on, Wells frames all of this in terms of a larger existential question – or, rather, two questions. Is the central question of human existence to throw off the limitations of mortality, or is the central question of the human predicament instead isolation? If you say it’s mortality, your service is likely  to join a solution-oriented culture in which we want the less fortunate to have the same opportunities to throw off limitations – and you’re likely to throw yourself into acquiring skills that help solve those problems for others. If, on the other hand, the big question is isolation, you have to accept the considerably more challenging duty of being with people, facing problems that may have no easy solution which you can then congratulate yourself for helping solve. He argued that the gospel – from Jesus being sent to be with us to the Trinity as the “embodiment of with” – is ultimately centered on the latter.

Vespers altar at U. Indy chapel.

Besides, he suggested, we still haven’t exactly licked mortality. As he put it with  deliciously dry humor, “As eternity is rather extensive, anything short of that is going to seem inadequate.” And while Wells acknowledges that we should still do things for people, letting that become the dominant mode of our service can create an isolation that turns our earthly lives into a “kind of hell.”

Afterward, I would thank Wells in the lobby for deepening the “for-with” distinction I had explored in an earlier blog about Rev. Murray Branch, the pastor at Dexter Avenue-King Memorial Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He warned our fledgling Habitat for Humanity affiliate that we shouldn’t say we’re building houses for people, but with them – affirming the dignity of all in a spirit of partnership. Wells agreed: As it turned out, he actually named Habitat as a model of “with” service in a Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, a book he co-authored with Marcia A. Owen.

As for the fictional Lazlo,he of course acts out of the mortality model, as Wells noted in his conclusion. Lazlo abandons his lover to face the prospect of death alone, only to return to find her dead. He then tries to fly her body back to Cairo, only to crash and injure himself – after which, Wells notes, he is lucky enough to find a nurse who is willing to do what he failed to do, face death with him.


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