‘Expansion’ is not a word that has been to the forefront of late; ‘retraction’ has so often been the watchword of our times. So in early spring, on a visit to a bookshop, I was surprised by a strong sense of the ‘expansive.’ The conditions were right — the sun was shining, and the shop was in an old building with a lot of character. New books were housed on the main and upper floors; used books inhabited the basement. I browsed those floors, but was soon pulled toward the used books (what inexpensive gems might be found?) and so headed down the stairs. Books lined the edges of the stairs themselves. Books everywhere, not yet shelved in any order — a jumble of ideas, history, fiction, poetry — all kinds of interesting covers and avenues to explore. Upon reaching the basement: both order and disorder. Stacks on the floor at the base of the shelves; stacks on top of the shelves reaching right to the joists of the unfinished basement ceiling. I had some time to browse, and under these conditions — in an unfinished basement crammed full of books — it struck me just how much the retracted time of covid has not only limited time spent with others but has also pinched opportunities for the kind of encounter and inspiration that come from wandering, from simply browsing, feeding the possibility of expansion in the midst of so much deliberate retraction. From this basement full of books, it suddenly seemed to me that I was among the trees but also encountering the forest, and of how important it is not to lose sight of the one for the other.
What came to mind in the midst of all those books was a line from the very end of the Gospel According to John: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). With that, the gospel leaves us, having focused the reader’s attention for twenty-one chapters on the theological particularity of Jesus as the “Word-Made-Flesh” and dwelling amongst us even unto death, and yet now risen to new life in the power of God, and inviting us to contemplate and live in light of what cannot be contained.
Throughout the season of Easter we encounter, via the book of The Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early church expanding out into the world. Willie James Jennings highlights the central question posed to the people of God in this context: “What should we do?” Jennings calls that a terrifying question in a time of change. But it is a question that emerges from the close and closed room in which the disciples were gathering behind a locked door, through to the gift of the power of the Spirit coming upon them and propelling them into the world, and doing so with “three wonderful points of reference… the apostles’ teaching and communion, the sharing in meals, and prayer” (Jennings, Acts, 38). These are simple, small, and life-giving things — and they always depend on the work of the Spirit for their expansive character, connecting them to that which cannot be contained.
I wonder afresh, in this Easter season, if the Spirit might spark our faithful imaginations anew, inviting and encouraging us in both the ‘retraction’ of belonging and of being in a place and time, of serving ‘from the basement’ so to speak — perhaps from a small food cupboard, perhaps as a small church community in a small town, perhaps from a small sewing or baking or painting or reading or writing or prayer room — and yet at the same time enabling us to see that a focus takes shape from these places that leads us, by the Spirit, to the stacks of books piling higher and higher, making their way up the stairs in jumbled fashion, and out again into the sun of a glorious afternoon.