Tag Archives: love

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.

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…

Advent Reflections from a Young Married Man: Love and Power

“In the coming weeks, I will post seventeen short Advent reflections on the Song of Songs from a young man learning to be a lover and a husband, who at the same time struggles to plant his worth as the beloved Bride of Christ.  My guiding question:

How does the birth of God’s Son transform the broken projects of struggling lovers into aspirations for soul mating?

Click here to read the general introduction:

3A: Song of Songs 3.1-5 Love and Power

1. Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul
loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no
answer.
2. “I will rise now and go about
the city,
in the streets and in the
squares;
I will seek him whom my soul
loves.”
I sought him, but found
him not.
3. The sentinels found me,
as they went about the city,
”Have you seen him whom my
soul loves?”
4. Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my
soul loves.
I held him, and would not let
him go
until I brought him into my
mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her
that conceived me.
5. I adjure you, O daughters of
Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!

Advent teaches us about the nature of love.  We learn that love and soul mating is far more about a long faithful search than it is about an entitled scramble for fulfillment.

Love today finds itself in danger.  Every message around us tempts us to stir up climatic intimacy before it is ready.  The season of engagement for many couples, like the two in our Song, often evokes our worst fears.  What if I loose the flame of passion for this person?  What if I never had it in the first place?  We have forgotten that deep passion is often about a long and faithful search.

When the Magi found that for which they were searching, they worshipped the child.  Yet theirs was and ours is a journey that takes us over treacherous terrain and requires faithful endurance.  Herod wanted to find Him quickly, leeching off the hard work of the Magi.  Perhaps he thought he wanted to adore the child, yet his true intention was ultimately revealed as power.  I know many men who confuse adoration and power in their love life.  Much of the Human Trafficking industry, which enslaves up to 27 million persons, bases itself on this confusion.

We all want to find a soul mate on this earth, but we will never arrive there without a treacherous journey of faithfulness. Like the Magi, our journey of love must never be derailed when our partner fails to meet our often-bloated expectations of passion.  There are times, especially in cases of domestic power and abuse, when some need to escape their situation by another route (not into the arms another), but into the hands of a Saviour.   Yet all dramas of great love travel through a cave of darkness.  We enter a long hope for the transformation of that broken person, that Soul Mate, which most of us already have our fingertips.