During the summers I spent working at a church camp, I remember joking a lot about the song “Kum ba yah.”
I think we were tired of it; we had sung it as kids ourselves and disliked the idea of singing it night after night around campfires. In addition, it had taken on a certain cliché role in our culture, signifying naïveté and blind idealism. Surely we college students were more worldly than that!
I also think it just didn’t make much sense to us. The phrase “come by here” wasn’t one I grew up using. Where I’m from, we don’t “come by” anything or anywhere; we either “stop by” or “run by.” Paradoxically, both of these phrases mean the same thing: a very brief visit, usually without sitting down. So, from my point of view, we were inviting God to pass by the campfire, perhaps pausing to chat before moving on, but not sticking around. I remember thinking, “Who does that? Wouldn’t you want God to stay?”
I now live in another area of the country, and I find myself among those who “go by” and “come by” all the time. This phrase could mean a brief stop, as in “I’m going by the grocery store to get milk,” but just as often it means a longer visit, as in “Are you coming by my place after work for dinner?” It’s one of those language idiosyncrasies that is still foreign to me, and each time it’s used it prompts me to stop and consider exactly what the speaker means.
It’s also caused me to take another look at “Kum ba yah.” Just exactly what are we asking when we request God’s presence among us? Do we want God to pass by like a teacher moving through the aisles, stopping to correct a mistake or giving us an encouraging smile? Do we want God to stop and sit for a while, quietly listening as we share our life stories over S’mores? Or, is there more to the presence of God?
In truth, welcoming God’s presence in our midst is a risky move. Singing “Kum ba yah” focuses our attention on God’s voice instead of our own, a voice that calls us to all sorts of crazy, naïve, and idealistic things. Hearing God’s call directs us to turn and face our neighbor, rather than the mirror. Inviting God to “come by here” invites God to settle in, to participate in our conversations, and to change forever the way we see the world.
Each time we preach, we seek to make the Word of God audible to God’s children. We testify to the radical notion that God hasn’t merely stopped by to smile or frown and leave us to our business. God has chosen to make a home with us in Jesus Christ, to comfort and challenge us with his life and death, and through him to bring peace and justice not just for us but for all the world. Idealistic? Maybe. Good news? Yes.