Tag Archives: faith

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.


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.

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.

John 4 and Begging for Miracles

When faced with evil beyond our control or illness beyond our technology, Christians often struggle, not knowing how to pray as we should.   If one helpless response is forcefully to demand a miracle, the other is to start counting our losses. We tend either to double down on top of our prayer efforts or we begin preparing for the worst (wishing somewhere in the back of our minds that God might do something drastic in our favor). Neither route does justice to the miracles we find in the gospels; neither can guide us Christianly in our efforts of calling down power from on high.

When I was a young Christian I temporarily lost feeling on my left side. My face went numb on the left, my left hand fingers, and my left shoulder. There was a sharp pain behind my right eye socket. I attended a gathering of charismatics, who prayed for me, and the numbing immediately left. For good measure I had an MRI, and there was nothing to be found. The doctor thought it was a passing virus. I have a hunch that it was a miraculous healing. When facing a wicked sinus infection, my friend went to a healing conference. When they prayed for her sinuses, she felt warmth and a popping, and whatever it was moved into her ear. She contracted her first ear infection of her life at the age of 30. I’ve never prayed for somebody to be healed dramatically, or to be raised from the dead, though I tend to believe in the many reports of modern miracles, though not all reported miracles are genuine. So what are we to do when we need an urgent intervention? Is there a formula? Should we seek out a healing conference? Is there any advice in the scriptures?

The healing of the child in John 4.46-54 proves helpful for anyone in need of an urgent and extreme miracle. For Christians, if our founder and Lord worked miracles, we should pay attention to the details of those accounts, which the gospel writers have left for us. At whatever point this young child fell ill we do not know, but John writes that the dying child’s father, an official of Herod, left his son’s bedside expecting either to return to a dead child or to a miracle. He searches Jesus out and asks Jesus to come and heal his child, and though there are a couple of ways to understand Jesus’s response, it seems to me that Jesus actually is less than straight forward with him. We might even say that Jesus is calculated. “Unless I do a miracle”, Jesus laments, “you won’t believe in me”. But this man didn’t come to Jesus to enroll as a follower. He came for a miracle. And he got a miracle, but the point is not that Jesus only works miracles for those who subscribe to his blog.   Something much deeper is going on. When Jesus says “Unless I do miracles you won’t believe in me”, it seems that he was saying something more than the words John has recorded. It was as if he were looking unflinchingly into man’s eyes and saying actually, “I will heal this boy, but wonder if it will only embolden and harden you? Will you see in his restoration the pre-tremors of my world to come, or will it merely contribute further to the old way, a titillating story to amuse Herod, a stumbling block for the countless souls who have begged for a miracle to the silence of the heavens?” Jesus has dropped a smoke bomb in this desperate man’s face, and when we listen carefully to the man’s response, it seems to me, we are stumbling upon a revelation about the mysterious secret of miracles.

The dying child’s father did everything humanly possible to put his son into the arms of God, and when all is said and done, he held together in one grip a tenacious hope and a very simple faith. He left his son’s bedside, searches Jesus out, asks for a miracle, endures when Jesus’s answer is not straightforward, and believed Jesus’s words.   Asking for a miracle today involves all of these things, putting ourselves or loved ones into the arms of God, asking for a miracle, enduring when the answer is not straightforward, and accepting the outcome. Miracles after all are not like lucky numbers or a formula. Following these “steps” does not require anything of God. Neither does ensuring that our motives are pure and faith is present. Miracles are about one thing only: windows into a world yet to come. We cannot conjure them, but we can appeal for them with a steadfast abandon. Miracles can happen, because the earth will someday quake into newness; today we see the pre-shocks of new creation, which has begun. But our need to control these quakes will only deepen a divide between us and God. As one commentator put it “a faith based on signs or works will not only prove insufficient but in due course will turn into rejection”.[1]The secret of miracles is that while they are all around us, and we can and should learn to open ourselves to them, though we must not confuse these signs with what they point to.

God cares for our loved ones and for us far more than we can ever match. If God wills a miracle and we’ve asked for it, it will happen. Many times the miracles will come even if we don’t ask. Usually he wills miracles when his name is at stake or when it will spur on faith. Otherwise we are bound to a grieving world, and we must learn to be part of it.  God requires tenacious hope, which is a steadfast immovability as we peek open the doors of the emerging new creation through prayer. He also requires simple faith, which embraces the resurrection of Jesus as miracle enough for us. When we embrace the resurrection, we begin living in this world as if something changed when Jesus rose. So bring your sicknesses to Jesus, seek him out.  He is nearer than we know.  And come to him with simple faith and not an ultimatum.

[1] Witherington, Ben (1995). John. Louisville:WJK, 126.

What You Have in Common with Dr. King

So, I am devoting this week to Dr. King, his honor, and his unfinished business. The Reverend King was a once in a generation man who happened upon a once in a lifetime historical moment.  He was a man exuding with appreciation of life, the grandest will to love, and full of wisdom. We honor a hero and a lodestar for a world even more in turmoil than the one embraced and challenged by the preacher from Georgia.

You’ve got it in you.  You have the spark, which molded this magnificent man.  But how can you learn to use it?  How can we learn to become like Joseph, like Dr. King, like Jesus?  How can we become a person who, with God, transforms what was meant for evil into the salvation of many? That’s the real question.

It starts personally,  this walk to the Everest of peace, brotherhood, and justice. I think this is what our African American brothers and sisters, any group that has been historically oppressed is trying to tell us.   We can never forget the past or move past it if the type of hearts that oppressed them in the first place still beat in the chest of the masses.

Joseph displayed the transformed heart in glory with his brothers that day.  It starts with the skill that the spiritual masters have been trying to teach us for centuries: transform what was meant for evil toward you into the salvation for many.  Some call it appreciation; others call it perspective, or thankfulness.  Dr. King called it the value of unmerited suffering.  He writes, “as my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force…recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue.  If only the save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform my self and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains.”

This is perhaps the simplest and hardest work in all the universe.  Can you take your greatest disappointments, your most horrific unmerited suffering and abandon them into God’s hands?  Can you learn to let your hands loose and give to God your most cherished self-narrative and receive in return the chance to fulfill your greatest desires? If so, you begin the painful labor of your best self, full of faith, hope, and love.  This is where Dr. King’s and Jesus’ dream takes us…