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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.

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Global Community/ Local Service: An Asbury Service Learning Entrée

Global Community Development Mondays: Journal Entry 2.

Monday- June 14th, 2010: Garage Sale

Our next phase in the transformation of the garage included a garage sale to 1. get rid of a number of items that we could no longer use, and 2. make a few dollars in the mean time that will go toward the refurbishing of the garage.

We started with an all-day prep on Friday.  10 volunteers showed up throughout the day, though one intercultural moment particularly caught my eye.  We rented a dumpster (now just about full) for the weekend.  At one point we had four men carrying a monster of an air conditioner long dead to the dumpster.  Two hands belonged to a Kenyan, two to a Zimbabwean, two to a Ugandan, and two to an African American.  As we continue to search for beloved community, I saw a sparkle in that moment and watched the community grow closer as they participated in something as simple yet profound as a shared mission to clean up a garage.

The next day brought about 40 community members to Cox’s in search for treasures and furniture’s we were selling.  We made, in total, $111.00.  Though not our goal of $200, there were a few elements of the day simply priceless.  The sale itself brought together our local community and our global Asbury Community.  Not only were the patrons given a chance to mingle with folks from Korea, Kenya, and Singapore, but the event allowed for peoples from all social classes to connect.  We ate lunch after with the totality of our volunteers (about 8 in total), and again every social class (except of course the wildly rich) were present.  As I will continue to testify, the energy at Cox’s has the power to divide our community and the power to bring us together.  It also contains the most intercultural potential I’ve seen on campus.

One conversation stood out to me the most.   There was a North American, Kenyan, and African American standing together helping oversee a portion of the sale.  Their conversation started in small talk but led to a robust discussion on initiation rites and manhood.  The two North American men lamented about the lack of initiation rites in the US while the Kenyan man reflected on his 2 month wilderness passage and how it laid out the expectations for manhood very clearly.  Though it was just one conversation, it represents hundreds of conversations I’ve heard over the course of five years.  While we can have these conversations over lunch or as we walk together, I have witnessed these intercultural interchanges as a usual circumstance when our global community finds herself in shared local missions.

The Mission Continues: every Monday, including tonight (October 4th) 3.30-5.30pm,   at the Global Community Development Center, next to Cluckers.

Global Community, Local Service: An Asbury Entrée

Global Community Development Mondays: Journal Entry 1.

Monday- May 31st, 2010

This past Monday represented the initial phase of our mission.  27 community members showed up to Cox’s (Future Global Community Development Center) to help prepare its infrastructure for our fall launching.  I was pleased to see the international makeup of our shared missions with diverse representation from Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Europe, and North America. It was truly a global gathering.

Except for next Monday, we will meet every other Monday in the summer to begin gathering our global community in shared local missions.

Last Monday, in particular, we were able to pack up and move all but a few linens, dishes, and cookware over to our Turkington unit.  These items needed a better shelter.  We hauled 5 truckloads of materials.  Next steps include organizing the Turkington unit as a sort of storefront, completing the inventory, setting aside at least 10 household setups worth of items, getting the linens bagged up, organizing the furniture, prepping for our garage sale on June 5, and preparing the west bay for meeting space.  I expect this to take most of the summer, so that the space is ready come September to network the community in shared missions.

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Now, in the end of September, I am so happy how this has all gone.  We finished the setup u. 40 came this last week. We helped out a local restaurant owner decorate and get some things in order, we gave away two beds and a washer, we helped a lady who works two full time jobs with housework, a prayer team went out among the city, and (my favorite) we visited 3 widows.  One family visited a beloved 93 year old lady. The young boy that went along gave her a silly band.  Classic.  She had no idea what it was, but she gladly received it. Stoked to get to pioneer this work.

Come every Monday, including tonight (September 27th) 3.30-5.30pm.  At the Global Community Development Center, next to Cluckers.

The Place of our Glory Days in our New Global Future

Isaiah 43
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.

When I think of the importance of the New Testament for God’s global church today, I think also of Isaiah.  It really is the fifth gospel.   And in this tiny passage we can see why.   I especially love the imagery of a stream in the wasteland (think: urban jungle, suburban sprawl, or natural disaster).  We all need a cool drink of water and some hopeful guidance for a better future.

Well, there is no doubt that a new thing cannot be understood apart from reference to the old, but Israel is told here to get her mind off the old and on to the new—because it pertains to a new reality and not to an ancient memory of failure, and because the new thing God had in store was more dazzling, more overwhelming, more massive than any old memory. Biblical faith is geared toward the future.

So as we think about the future, should we forget the past?  New things are part of our DNA in the West. Our culture is fueled by new things, innovation, and the next generation of technology-x.   So,  it is not hard to get along with God’s word here for Israel.  Hey, if someone came along and said: Keith, forget your past, all the ugly and dark pieces, I would say: wow, done.  I like that message. But on the other hand, my past is important to me, and let’s not forget that in Genesis, God in the end “Turned everything that was meant for evil into good…into the salvation for many.”

So, what do we do when we are heading toward a future that looks painfully like the past?I think about our American story.  I especially think of the rhetoric these days that wants us to go back to the past.  In response,  it’s easy to look ahead and say, “forget what was in the past, and look ahead.”  In the end that’s fine, but we can’t forget historical lessons that warn us of human capacity for evil, American capacity for evil.  And we cannot forget that even after this message in Isaiah, some in Israel still killed the Landowner’s son.

God did a new thing in Jesus, but many in Israel rejected him.  God’s new thing is always massively good. Our future is bright.  But we must learn to join God in transforming historical injustice into future good.  God’s point in Isaiah is this: we simply can not let our past failures prevent us from His future.   We must get on board with God’s new thing for the 21st century, whatever it is, knowing that it will likely mean redemptive suffering for the past, the present, and the days to come.

Global Community Development

In a wounded and globalized world, our hope rests not on the skills of world leaders but on the heart of its 5.9 billion people. Where it is no longer possible to avoid boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, gender and where the inhabitants of this earth lie bloodied in the ditches of injustice, we need masses of humans who can move beyond a mere respectful lack of engagement to a reverential and intentional willingness to call forth the hidden nobility in every person one meets.

This is my occupation. Right now, I actually get paid to do Global Community Development.  Most days are not so vibrant. But there are moments when the European American woman rocks the small boy from Benin asleep as his parents work side by side serving the local community. And then I know that the future is upon us.

The story of the Samaritan, taken from Jesus’ ancient parable, tells of an integrated heart that exerts compassion and justness, action and peaceability. In fact, as the literature of Early Christianity suggests, the Samaritan’s Heart is Jesus’ heart. The final words of his parable include a call to ‘go and do likewise”. Jesus knew that the future of the world would rest on integrated hearts. If we hope for a world where brown and white skinned brothers and sisters walk hand in hand in the massive parks of our flourishing cities, we their grandparents must open our hearts to become Samaritan Hearts. We need to fill this broken world full of faith, hope, and love. Read on in this blog for some guiding lessons I have learned along the way.