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Zero Degrees of Separation

By the Reverend Phil Wales

A former team-mate of mine at the Care Quality Commission developed something of a talent in helping his other colleagues there foster more effective work relationships through building more trust between them. Perhaps because of this I’ve found myself thinking in recent weeks about some of the many people in my life whom I’ve trusted and those who have placed their trust in me. 

For me, this list includes my family, friends, teachers, and dozens of colleagues over several decades of work. Of course this group will be different for each one of us. To illustrate, the former professional footballer Ian Wright spoke movingly during an episode of Desert Island Discs about the powerful and immensely positive impact that one of his class teachers had on his school years and the direction of his career. The recording is still available.

Whoever these significant people are for you it wouldn’t take you more than a second or two to bring them mind. But then, after we get beyond our initial immediate recollections there’ll be another much larger group. This will be made up of those people whose importance may not be so quickly recalled. And beyond this second group, in the hinterland of our minds, are all those people we’ll never know personally yet we have depended on at some point for reasons we may not have thought much about, if at all. 

There’s a hypothesis known as 6 degrees of separation. It’s the idea that every person is no more than six social relationships away from every other living person on the planet. It first captured the public imagination in the 1920s and has been taken up in novels and films as well as studied scientifically. Though it’s unlikely that the idea could ever be proven, it’s a poetic way of helping us marvel at just how connected and dependent we are on each other.

As we grow into adulthood making decisions about what to commit our lives to and so who to put our trust in, can often be a prolonged, complex process. And once we have made a commitment staying the course can be very challenging. This is as true for Christians as it is for anyone else. In fact, many of St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities shows us that this was just as true for those very first disciples as it is for followers today.   

Christ’s mission to all humanity was to reveal that God is ever present, ever loving in our lives whether we are aware of it or not, or whether we doubt it or not. The Spirit of God which guided, prompted, encouraged, inspired and directed those first believers to trust in Christ is the same spirit at work today. And when I have moments of doubt this passage often comes to mind: 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Meditating on this passage reminds me that there are, in fact, zero degrees of separation between anyone of us and God. And whilst sometimes we may try and push God to the outmost hinterland, none of us live in the hinterland of Christ’s life in us.