The Proximity Principle

ON A HOT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA DAY, I sat on the curb of a street just down from Skid Row and listened to a “one at a time” story about a sweet elderly lady from the Midwest who got lost in South Central LA.

She was wandering down a back alley that was notorious for gang activity. She’d come to LA on a mission trip with people from her church but somehow got separated from her group. She had no idea where she was or how to get where she needed to be. Then she saw him.

He grew up in a street gang, had worked as a hired gun, and had spent the last several years in prison. In fact, he’d been released from prison that very day.

What do you do if you’re that old lady, lost in South Central LA with a scary-looking dude covered in gang tattoos coming at you?

I know what I’d do: turn around and run.* It’d also be a good time for her to have a loud imaginary phone conversation with her pretend grandson, the FBI agent.

Collecting Maps

I recently read a blog post about a book called The Island of the Lost Maps, written by Miles Harvey, which tells the mostly true story of a map thief named Gilbert Bland. Bland would steal old and precious maps from libraries across America and then sell them. Harvey talked about why he was drawn to a story about a thief who stole and sold old maps.

In my 30s I spent a great deal of time at a travelers’ café in Chicago whose walls were adorned with maps from Bali and whose shelves were filled with maps and guides to far-flung destinations. I was then the literary critic for Outside Magazine, a great job but one that was beginning to wear on my patience. You see, the books I read were about people who climbed Himalayan peaks, rode a bicycle all the way across Africa, sailed wooden boats across the Atlantic, or tracked into restricted areas of China. These tales of adventure filled my days and my imagination, and yet my own life was anything but adventurous. The interior of the coffee shop was ringed by clocks, each one showing the time in some distant locale, and as I watched the weeks ticking away in these distant places, I began to long for an adventure of my own.1

Harvey also said that he reminded himself of a character in a Joseph Conrad novel who would look at maps and say, “When I grow up, I will go there.”

Most of us understand that approach to life. We look at maps that promise adventure and we think to ourselves, Someday. Someday I will go there. It’s not practical now—but someday. I’m overwhelmed with responsibilities right now—but someday. When I’m a little more prepared. When I have a little more time. When I have better directions. When it’s a little safer. Someday I will go there.

And so we sit and stare at clocks and watch the weeks go by. We look at pictures someone else has taken. We read stories someone else has written. We watch television shows about the life someone else is living. And we don’t seem to be aware of the irony. We spend our days staring at maps—but we never go on an adventure.

I feel that way sometimes when I study the one at a time stories in Scripture or the biographies of missionaries. When I read those stories, something comes alive in me, but most of the time I don’t go anywhere.

Can you imagine how it’ll feel to look back at your life and realize there were adventures God intended for you to have, but you never experienced them? There was a purpose God made you for, but you never lived it? There were opportunities God put in front of you, but you never took them? There were stories you were meant to be a part of, but you turned and ran in the opposite direction?

I desperately don’t want that for me, or for you, so we definitely need to figure out what it looks like to live out the adventure of God’s will for our lives. The good news is when God sent his Son to earth, he also sent us a map.

God’s Will Is . . .

On the night Jesus was arrested to be crucified, he spent some time with his closest followers and talked about his will. John 13 records some of his final words to them. After explaining he wouldn’t be with them much longer, he reminded them of one of his primary purposes for them. In verse 34, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

It’s not a new suggestion, idea, proposition, or recommendation but a new command. But why does Jesus call it “new”? It’s not new. Loving others was often his central message. What Jesus said next is what made it new: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (v. 34).

Jesus had shown them a new way to love. In fact, the disciples heard these words with freshly washed feet. Moments earlier Jesus had knelt down and humbly washed the dust and dirt and grime out from between their toes.

They knew what he meant when he told them his will was for them to love others the way he had loved them. It’s a love that puts others’ needs ahead of our own. It’s the kind of love that considers others better than ourselves. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t insist on its own way or keep a record of wrongs.

One of the words that best captures the love of Jesus is proximity. At Christmas, we celebrate that Jesus loves us enough to come be with us. That’s what Emmanuel means: “God with us.” The incarnation of Christ, Jesus coming to earth, makes it clear that the way he loves requires proximity. It’s hard to love someone if you’re determined to keep your distance.

Idleman, Kyle. 2022. One at a Time: The Unexpected Way God Wants to Use You to Change the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

We have just released a new Bible Study based on Kyle Idleman’s book, One at a Time. These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.