The CAFO2021 Theme in a Single Word?

In the book, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis’ imaginative portrait of hell contains no horns or pitchforks.  Rather, what gives the netherworld such horror is the utter separation.  Its residents are eternally divided from their Creator and one another.  Unable to bear with others, they move continually further apart.  

The nature of evil is to sunder.

This fanciful image reveals a fundamental truth.  The nature of evil is to sunder.  It divides humans from their Maker… severs people from one another… and ultimately leaves us estranged even from ourselves.  Separated.  Alone.  Without.  

Indeed, there is nothing worse.  The deepest suffering is not physical pain, but isolation — a soul with recourse to no other. 

The deepest suffering is not physical pain, but isolation.

Little wonder COVID has left us deeply off-kilter and ill-at-ease.  COVID has eroded human togetherness like nothing before.  Amid all the losses of 2020, the heaviest were those that kept us from being with those we love.  Perhaps more than we yet know, our souls languish without hugs and handshakes, shared worship and shared meals, times to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.  To the degree that we found ways to still do these things, we yet could thrive amidst struggle.  To the degree we did not, we began to shrivel.

Without fellowship, humans whither.

Without fellowship, humans whither.  A century ago, careful observers recognized that when orphanages failed to provide babies with intimate connection, children became sick and died, even when all their physical needs were met.  In contrast, studies show that when a child experiences tender care and connection, they are far more likely to thrive all throughout life — even in the face of great adversity.

This need never disappears.  One landmark 2015 review found that for adults, the regular experience of loneliness shortens life expectancy as much as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.  Even in old age, people with vibrant relationships remain measurably stronger, while those without fellowship decline far more rapidly, both physically and cognitively.  

Seeing all this, we begin to grasp why Scripture places such powerful emphasis on being with.  Near.  Close.  Intimate.  In the Garden, God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening (Gen. 3:8).  In Jesus, He became flesh and dwelt with us (John 1:14).  In the end, He will again live with His people (Rev. 21:3).  

Perhaps it is no exaggeration to suggest the word WITH is an axis upon which all Scripture turns.  We see this vividly on three levels.

The word WITH is an axis upon which all Scripture turns.

God with us.  Sin split the with between God and humanity.  But at the heart of the gospel is God drawing near again.  Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.  On earth, this Immanuel chose disciples “that they might be with Him…” (Mark 3:14)  Later, their opponents marveled at the result.  “When they saw the courage of Peter and John… they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).  Jesus’ final words to His followers promised this presence was permanent.  “…Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

Us with one another.  God’s presence with His people spring naturally into fellowship among His people.  It is gathered prayers and worship, grief and delight carried together, common meals, shared sacrifices, mutual care (John 13:35, Acts 2:42).  Our hearts long for this.  The greatest stories — from The Fellowship of the Rings to Little Women — glow with this kind of devoted togetherness.  It is what we were made for.  Even when it is difficult, to live truly with one another is among life’s sweetest gifts.  

God’s people with those in need.  These first two withs rise into a third.  God entered our space and pain, and now invites us to do likewise for others.  The prime verb in James 1:27 shimmers with this with-ness.  “To care for” (episkeptesthai) orphans and widows carries no hint of sending aid from a safe distance.  Rather, it suggests showing up, drawing near, hazarding deep personal involvement.  It takes the hand of a woman who has just lost her son.  Holds the drug addicted newborn all night.  It welcomes into our church and home and heart the parents whose children were removed by CPS.  When God’s people demonstrate with like this, a pure and undefiled reflection of God-with-us is set before the world.

Each of these rich, intertwined meanings form the heartbeat of CAFO’s theme for 2021:  

cafo2021 logo

This will be our theme throughout the year.  And when we gather for CAFO2021 in September, Lord willing, we will experience this WITH side-by-side and face-to-face.

Together, we will laud the God who is with His people.  

Together, we will take joy in being again with one another.

Together, we will each both give and receive, learning how to most fully be with the hurting in ways that effectively heal and wisely restore.

Speaking personally, I find myself — following a year marked by so much separation and distance — longing for this togetherness.  I know many others do as well.  And while we cannot be sure what the future holds, we have good reason to hope that we will be able to gather together in September.  

That will be a precious WITH indeed.