Compassion and Nehemiah 3

There is no more important posture one needs, in rebuilding broken things, than compassion “a willingness to suffer” with those who languish under the weight of ruins. Suffering with another person is the willingness to enter into the mess and, with a Christ-like reverence for those whose lives are broken, being present with them in the reconstruction process. As Thomas Merton said in The Sign of Jonas of God’s compassion: “I am noisy, fully of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!”

The ministry of Young Life played an important role in my adolescent years. My local leader, Phil, served as a constant presence in my messy young existence. He shepherded me to three impactful weeks of summer camps, bravely sought me out for short conversations at school events, was willing to look like a fool week in and out performing skits and outdated pop-songs at our weekly club, and organized regular nerf-war games in his church fellowship halls on Saturday nights. I am confident that this kept us out of a lot of trouble we might have otherwise conjured up. I was a mess of a kid, emotionally and relationally. There was no more vivid symbol of this than my first camp experience. The night before departure, I came down with a wicked cold. I lost my voice and I became a flowing fountain of mucous. By the time we arrived at camp two days later, having sat and slept in a fifteen-passenger van, there were three Kleenex boxes worth of tissue-balls piled around me and scattered throughout the van. At Young Life camp, arriving in wild style is one of the most important aspects of the week. They pulled us immediately out of the van and took us on a clothes-soaking ride atop a giant intertube on the massive Minnesotan lake. Soaked, we were rushed off to a spectacular introduction to the rest of the camp grounds. I found out later that Phil spent a small portion of his free time that day gathering up the moist tissue balls to throw them away. I shudder. If anything, Phil resolved to suffer with me on the first leg of what would be a decisive week of my life. I’m sure this was only a small glimpse of the ways Phil suffered in those years for giving me a role model in return. Ruined as my house was, Phil lived with me there for a season.

Without compassion the kingdom of God cannot be established. We see another symbol of this reality in way Nehemiah chose to dwell among Jerusalem’s ruined house and rally together those there living in ruins. As told in Nehemiah 3, he catalyzed everyone as manual laborers, from the unlikely High Priest with his order to the Gibeonites who the author tells us had some relationship to those in charge of Judea. This means that there were tensions of authority inherent among these two groups. The author describes the complex community of co-laborers and their work in a counter-clockwise fashion, beginning at the sheep gate (near the temple) and ending at the little north-west portion of the wall that stood between the muster gate and the sheep gate. This mean that in that section the priests and the goldsmiths and merchants worked next to one another. Would that be true in our day as well. May professional Christians and business men somehow labor side by side. Some workers focused on the gates, while others performed epic restructuring of long stretches of the wall: “Hanun and the inhabitants of Zanoah repaired the Valley Gate; they rebuilt it and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars, and repaired a thousand cubits of the wall, as far as the dung gate’ (3.13). Some worked in relatively common sections, while others worked near the palace and grave of David. People from all classes and tribes suffered together to rebuild Jerusalem. Only the nobles of Tekoa ‘would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord’ (3.5). Lord, let not our nobles be like Tekoan nobility. The author of Nehemiah gives us no sense in this chapter of discord or a sense of self-importance rising from one quarter or another. Almost all put their shoulders to work, and the picture is of great harmony as the psalmist celebrated, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (Psalm 133.1). With such concord, the community would be ready to take their stand against inevitable opposition, coming in the next chapter as a great cloud of sand.

The Heart of Social Presence

An excerpt from “A Spirituality of Social Presence”, by Keith Jagger. (Epiphany Academy Dissertation).

At the center of the Judeo-Christian worldview towers one stubborn conviction: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it and all who live in it” (Psalm 24.1). Yet our headlines fill themselves daily with news of genocide, corruption, rising global temperatures, widespread extinction of species, violence, wasting of resources, and evils far more insidious. The world seems to spin out of control. If this entire place is God’s, then it appears that something is very wrong.  Something sinister has crept in or been allowed entry. The hands that run the machines of our age seem too strong to oppose. And many resort to violence, for one cause or another, confident that they are doing right. Others have resigned themselves to the way things are, as we found them. We are after all each in our own stages of survival. Damned if you care, damned if you don’t. Now, with our spiritual and moral guides muted by the contemporary “wisdom” of progress, and in the face of such deep social turmoil, many ask themselves what they, one small human, can do to fix this world. We forget to follow the advice of the sages and to ask the most important question of all: who am I becoming?

This question poses itself to us all, but I want to ask it here for those interested in social work, community development, or for anyone who still believes that we can we have a role to play in changing the world, not simply maintaining it.

One of my key observations after half of a decade of work in my local community is that doing justice is never about mustering up enough energy or compassion to complete a project, no matter how noble. Rather than fighting the evils of racism, violence, poverty, and ecological ruin with our own power and ingenuity, we need something far more powerful: strong, consistent, and purified hearts. The hidden pride of the human heart can trick even the most spiritual among us. We are a thicket of mixed motivations. We are attached too much to success and to the ideas we think up. At worst, we turn people, even God, into objects that serve our ambitions. God should never become our co-pilot. People are never projects. So time and time again I have had to return to God’s altar. Often I came looking for forgiveness and guidance, the chance to offer God my struggling projects, and the opportunity to express my deep longing to love and be loved. Much of the time, I sought to release some inexpressible weight, collected over the course of too much striving.

What I needed more than strategies and mission statements (though vision is important) was to be schooled in faith, hope, and love and to gain the blessed realization that in the darkest of alleyways, God was there first. He has been working on the toughest issues long before we arrived. And to join him we need to become far more like Jesus than we may think possible. Carlo Carretto, social activist turned monk put it this way: “There is something much greater than human action: prayer; and it has a power much stronger than the words of men: love.”[1] Samuel Escobar, scholar of world Christianity, agrees, “If Christian mission is first and foremost God’s mission, Christians must always conduct mission in an attitude of humility and dependence upon God.”[2] Love. Dependence. These take the pressure off of too much striving. We long to be transformed into true healers, but we must confront our own demons along the way. We long for an authentic spirituality but we find it in an unexpected place, where God is in control and we are along for the awe-filled but unexpected ride. We long, in the end of it all, to be stretched by His loving hands.

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So, for the community developer, how is the heart steadied (faith), strengthened (hope), and purified (love), and what can we expect to change about this world once our hearts are made ready? For starters, we need faith in order to do the work we do, a confident attitude that Jesus is Lord, even today. Next, we must avoid faith’s shadow forms, which include excessive fear on the one hand and the need for certainty on the other. We remember what Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed rather are those who have not seen and yet believed” (John 20.29). Crucially, faith, as it turns out, grows more consistent when in community, not in isolation. When we come to moments in our journey when we lose sight of our confidence, we need others who have experienced God. When we cannot see, we learn to see through their eyes. We turn to Jesus as the primary witness to God’s presence among us. He was intensely devoted to the invisible God, and (as his followers tell us) reflected God perfectly. We also need the spiritual masters who for two millennia have given witness to their experiences of God. And we need to listen in relationship with living saints to these blessedly departed. We need scripture and the masters. We need to become part of this scripture-saturated web of faith. So if you haven’t found a small community yet who reads, and worships, and contemplates on God’s recorded actions and upon his creation together, do so. You cannot become a person of radical faith alone. You need some form of small group and a worshipping community. Then, over the course of time, you will find that the witness of faith we received from others becomes validated by our own spiritual insights.

We also need strong hope. Hope is a steadfast endurance in the conviction that whatever we do in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15.58). The enduring muscle of hope strengthens or atrophies for a number of reasons. Hope atrophies when we loose grip on the meaning of our suffering. We must continually pray and reflect on what formative purpose suffering may hold for us, sufferings that range from small disappointments to outright assaults on our faith or ministry. Also, hope atrophies when we engage in “grass is greener on the other side” mentality. Hope atrophies when we yearn to escape situations that depress us. We must learn to recognize what exactly it is that causes us to pine for other situations, and we must learn then to stay in our own situations that tempt us to escape. We must learn contentment in our present situations, and we must stay faithful to the relationships and work, to which God calls us, unless we begin to crack. Then we prayerful retreat rather than attempt to restore. This is why journaling is so important. It is nearly impossible to know why we suffer until we go through it. It is nearly impossible to learn why we catch ourselves pining for something else if we do not already have a record of God’s past reasons for taking us through previous pain. God never orchestrates evil, but He uses everything for our good, and our hope grows when we have eyes to see that. But, there is something deeper. Hope has a core, and when the world wants to weaken our hope it goes after the core first: resurrection. We believe that Jesus was resurrected in the middle of history, as a first fruits of what will happen to us and as a jumpstart of New Creation. As the psalmist foresaw about hope, we expect to see God’s goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27.13).   Learn everything you can about the resurrection so to put your hope in something worthy of the hope you feel inside.

Love is the most mysterious. We have little control over the purification of love in our hearts. Love purifies when the sins of our heart are drowned, our pride, our envy, our greed, and so forth. God leads this work. So we must abandon ourselves in every minute detail of our lives to God. Learn to make the connections between your trials and joys and God’s purifying work in your life. And when in community you find your spiritual heart beating purely (love), with strength (hope), and consistently (faith), so will you find your reverence for life increasing, your appreciation for people’s uniqueness intensifying, your ability to draw the best out in others around you widening, your willingness to work across boundaries expanding, and your spirit will be filled with the harmony that Jesus demonstrated, with the convergence of justice, compassion, peace and action.

If you want to become this type of person, you need a small community of people to do this with.  And together you need to listen wisely and carefully to the witness of social masters from the past.  You also need to listen to nature.  Together they tell a story about a way of life that we have both lost and have yet to imagine.  You furthermore need to find a way to reflect and contemplate.  If journaling works for you, this is the best proven method. You need to keep track of the meaning in your suffering and keep in tune with the way that your life is being purified by the successive situations you experience day in and day out.   And together, and this is crucial, you need to start serving.  Hope cannot grow in a stagnant community.  You must get outside of yourself and let others bless you in return.  Next, you have to commit to stay in situations that you want out of unless they promise to crush you.  And all the while you need to engage your brain.  Learn everything you can about the resurrection…it is the hope center of Christianity. Resurrection gives life and endurance to communities of change.

The blessedly-departed Father Adrian van Kaam was a Spiritan Priest who was set to graduate from seminary six months prior to the Nazi occupation of his home in the Netherlands. He spent seven long and hungry months sheltering and caring for terrified Christians, Jews, and Atheists from all walks of life. That experience convinced him that our world needed and would need a practical spirituality that translated across many barriers for the sake of the gospel to be rooted in the ancient 2000 year old Christian tradition.   His vision of 21st Century Christian social presence included:

consonant people who stand up for human rights demanded by the potential for human splendor. Their presence is marked by a personal respect for each person they meet. Therefore they emit a powerful appeal, evoking the best in others. Many feel uplifted by them. [3]

What if we committed to becoming this type of person? What if our communities were filled with these types of people? How many of these hope-filled, purified, strong people would it take to confront sufficiently the evils we experience around us? How many would it take to free those around who are enslaved by a host of modern captors?

The best of Christian spirituality works. But it does not strive. Nor does it flail. God invites many, including prophets and activists, into his light through his means of grace, not simply to transform communities but so that the insignificant many can become beacons of light that help others become their very best versions of themselves as possible. We can do this, we can become steadfast luminaries even in the darkest of situations, through which many struggle today.

[1] Carlo Carretto (1972). Letters from the Desert. tr. RM Hancock. Maryknoll: Orbis, xvii.

[2] Samuel Escobar (2003). The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 94.

[3] Adrian, van Kaam (2002). Formation of the Human Heart. Pittsburgh: Epiphany, 280.

Prayers of the Psalms

Psalm 28

1 To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.

2 Hear the voice of my supplication, as I cry to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.

3 Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.

4 Repay them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward.

5 Because they do not regard the works of the Lord, or the work of his hands, he will break them down and build them up no more. 6 Blessed be the Lord, for he has heard the sound of my pleadings.

7 The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.

 

9 O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever.

Prayers of the Psalms

Psalm 27 

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.

9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

10 If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

11 Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

Prayers of the Psalms

Psalm 26

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

2 Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind.

3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.

8 O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.

9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty,

 

Book Invitation: A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda

Book Invitation:

We are all of us passing through cycles of resurrection. Old patterns of life die. We linger in the dust of the grave. And we wake up one day and find ourselves finally new. God is working on us, even if we can’t see it. Our faith must therefore imagine our souls as a frozen river with a current raging beneath.

Just in time for Holy Week, this new book on the pattern of death and resurrection in the Christian life,  A Glorious Dark, offers a fresh accounting of faith in the contemporary world. In this book, author, pastor, theologian, AJ Swoboda guides us through the story of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection.  Throughout Swoboda teaches us to embrace the Christian life with all of its mysterious discomforts.

I’ve come to believe that there truly is abundant—one might say, bottomless—life in Jesus. However, this life isn’t found on Sunday alone. Life is found in all three days—pain and death on Friday, doubt on Saturday, and resurrection on Sunday. To follow Jesus as we’re created is to simultaneously enter the whole weekend. Today’s Christians, lamentably, almost never embrace the totality of the weekend in their personalized versions of Christianity. Most remain selective, prejudiced, discriminatory, choosy: we’re picky about the one day of the weekend we desire to experience. And once we’ve landed on our favorite day, we rarely budge until we’re forced to. Incomplete, this makes for three cheep knock off versions of Christianity (p. 3-4).

Full of pastoral wisdom and with a constant eye upon the culmination of holy week, the book weaves through topics such as denominational exclusivism, the Bible, hypocrisy, divorce, social media, faith and intellect, scripture, addictions, entertainment-church (“entertainment is what the church does when it isn’t satisfied in God”), shootings, pornography, Sabbath, virginity, Atheist consumers of the Eucharist, and the resurrection. I had to drop my reading twice to run and read these following quotes to a friend. The first is about imperfect fathers,

The dream died for those who have deadbeat dads, distant dads, dads in the room who aren’t in the room, dads who left to go be with a younger, hotter version of Mom. Even dads who have died… Living life without God is like having everything you’ve ever wanted but having no father in the room to celebrate with (p. 36-37).

The second spoke into the recurring theme experienced of late by my circle of friends, who are searching for God’s direction in life:

What if God’s will is for us to do all the freaking out we’re doing trying to find God’s will? Searching out God’s will is God’s will for my life. It’s a ceaseless pilgrimage we all must make. It’s God’s will above all, that we should wrestle in finding God’s will (p. 52).

I love it when we get glimpses of the way forward in faith. This is it. I’d recommend picking up a copy and reading it before Easter.