Tag Archives: spirituality

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.

Childhood and Spirituality

Following up from yesterday’s post… I am reading a book on spirituality called, “Looking for Jesus” by Adrian Van Kaam.  The premise of the book is this:  Jesus’ speech in John 14 is his magnum opus on the spiritual life.  I  came across one of those gotta-memorize paragraphs:

“To live spiritually is to preserve the spirit of childhood within myself, to regain it when it is lost, to restore its power when it is weakened. The opposite is pride. ‘Every proud man is an abomination to the Lord; I assure you that he will not go unpunished.’ (Pv. 16.5) His punishment is the loss of wonder and openness, of the sense of adventure that is the salt of life and love.”*
I was particularly moved by the last sentence.  The absence of wonder, openness, and adventure seem to me all parts of the shadow of discouragement, monotony, and then depression.  Am slowly learning to step away from these damp places. How do you remain in wonder, openness, and adventure?

 

Primitive Imagination and Early Christianity

African theologian Kwome Bediako makes the claim that African religious DNA more closely matches the worldview of the Early Christians.  I am attempting to weigh his six-fold claim.  Here I will deal with the first two: 1. kinship with nature, 2. a deep sense of humanity’s finitude.

Kinship with Nature: St. Francis writes about his brother sun and sister moon, but that is in the early 13th century.  We are exploring the Christianity of 11 hundred hears prior.  Parables with sparrows, a star to guide the magi, speaking donkeys, a Holy Spirit showing up as dove, the list could go on. But one passage sticks out among the rest (Romans 8): “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected in, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Paul seems to think here that we exist with the whole of the cosmos in an interrelated kinship relationship.  When we are redeemed so will the creation.  Our destinies now and in the future are interdependent.

A Deep Sense of Humanity’s Finitude. Of course, we can look to the stories like the Rich man an Lazarus and know that the early Christians experienced vividly their mortality.  But one verse stands out among the rest (I Corinthians 15), “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?… If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” Now, the point is this: the Early Christians lived in a culture where some if not many knew well their fate.  Take note of the quote Paul uses.  They realized that the were not infinite in time or space.  Theirs was a posture of dependency, espeically on Christ’s resurrection.

Primitive Imagination and Early Christianity

In 1978 Walter Bruggemann gave us the Prophetic Imagination.  It is time in 2010 that we explore the Primitive Imagination.

In his book on African Indigenous Theology, Kwome Bediako affirms a six-layered description of what can also be called Indigenous Ways of Knowing or Primal Worldview: 1. kinship with nature, 2. a deep sense of humanity’s finitude, 3. a conviction that humanity is not alone in the universe, 4. a belief that humanity can enter into relationship with a benevolent spirit-world, 5. an acute sense of the afterworld, 6. and a mental structuring of a sacramental universe with no sharp dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. This ‘primal imagination’, heralds Bediako, not only matches with the primal imagination of the early Christians, but as such, “Africans have found a principle of understanding and interpretation which is superior to any thing that a secular world-view is able to offer.”

My goal here is not to thrash the contributions of a secular world-view but to illustrate and affirm the primitive imagination of the Early Christians.  I use ‘primitive’ without an evolutionary framework and with keen sense that we have much to learn from the indigenous imagination.  And, like Bruggemann, I use the term “imagination” not to say “fictitious”.  Rather, I suggest that by the term “imagination” we account for and honor a multitude of metaphysical perspectives on reality written within the history of humanity.

Could it be true that our African brothers and sisters might have an angle on understaning the Early Christians than we European descendants?

Spirituality for the Fierce Man

I once asked a great spiritual director if spirituality was gendered.  Her response: up to a certain point.

It is true that as men and women, we are wired for different spiritual experiences, yet when we move the highest levels of union with the divine, somehow gender realities seem to evaporate.

For the souls our men, we must rethink the soft and hard archetypes that drive us to our knees in brokenness.  We must be driven to our knees in some other way.  We have been offered an image of a fiercely compassionate Son of Man who sometimes unleashes aggression against injustice.  How can we learn to protect ourselves without annihilating or even wounding our enemies?  How can we transform our wounds into the greatest gifts for humanity?  How can we find such confidence in our worth and acceptance from an ancient source? How can our women and children find rest in a situation that evokes their best selves?  How can we learn to love our brothers and stand beside them like the Son of God who became our deepest image of true manhood?

In the end, as we move into the heights of spiritual experience, and as our gender fades, union with the Son of God becomes that which can pull us out of the pride-stroking power vacuums of this world.  As we embrace our destiny as a great bride, we feel our veins pumping with vibrant strength.  We turn our gaze back to this warring world and learn to suffer for a peace never won through violence.   We have been transformed from the savage man into a son of the most high Wild Man himself.   Can I get a testimony, my brothers?

Gender Week

It is gender week here at “TaL”.

That means I am pulling out my “Battle of the Sexes” playing cards, Mars/ Venus textbook, and resurrecting the ole’ camp motto “We have pink and we have blue. Now no making Purple!”

In all seriousness, we have come in our age to a global gender crisis.  Sexuality has been replaced with Genitality, such that when you inquire about someone’s sex, they usually respond either “active” or “not”.  This is a change from 50 years ago.  They would have responded “male” or “female” and ascribed a web of social expectations.

What I’m not talking about this week is sexuality as we know it.   This week we will dive into the jumbled world of gender expectations and roles.  It is just as unclear today what it means to be a “real man” as it is a “real woman”.   And for many, we unknowingly live day in and day out in the fog of gender disorientation (one among a hundred factors that sap our vibrancy in this global age).  I know many men and women who long deeply to release their authentic man or womanhood.

The emancipated woman has come a long way since Jesus and St. Paul planted the seeds for Western suffrage.  Now, two thousand years later (in the West), women’s roles continue to evolve blessedly giving us women CEO’s, women politicians, and women’s voices at the center of our civic consciousness.  But many women I know still feel disoriented, especially as diverse global expressions of womanhood challenge the American definitions of “emancipation”.  For the most part women are still expected to happily birth, nurture, and nanny their little ones while retaining Barbiesque sexuality for their men.

On the other hand, definitions of manhood generally adopted by our fathers and grandfathers have proven bankrupt.  The stoic father and emotionally absent husband no longer satisfy the awakening sensibilities of our women nor the rebellion of our young people.  In response, notes historian Robert Bly, a type of soft male has emerged: “The male in the past twenty years has become more thoughtful, more gentle.  But by this process he has not become more free.  He’s a nice boy who pleases not only his mother but also the young woman he is living with.”

We need help!  In the next four posts (except tomorrow’s) I will offer some observations and insights that might produce some real emancipation for men and women in our global age.

Who is the Bride of Christ: Part 3

The image of the church as Christ’s bride contains striking implications.  It smacks of purity, chosen-ness, beloved-ness, togetherness, mutual reverence, and more.

Take for example:

Ephesians 5:31 “Husbands love your wives just as Christ  loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

With all my newfound responsibilities, the 30 minute devotional was bankrupt for me.  I had to discover a new way.  So, along side my then 3 years working with students in the areas of mercy and justice and global community, I enrolled in an academy for spirituality and encountered the thinking of Father Adrian van Kaam. Father Adrian was set to graduate from his Roman Catholic seminary six months prior to the Nazi occupation of his home in Denmark.  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 and rooted in the ancient 2000 year old Christian tradition.

For missionaries to North America and for Community Developers, life is never easy.  They have been called into some of the deepest issues possible.  And in the darkest alleyways they gain the blessed realization that God was there first. He has been working on the toughest issues long before they arrived.  And it is with him there that they find our motivation, the relationship, and the the willingness to go on.  Yet, what happens when they cannot sense him?  What happens when they feel that he has abandoned them? How does a missionary avoid spiritual burnout? How does a Community Developer tap into a holistic spiritual life, rather than simply trying to beef up his or her life of devotions?  How can we tap into the 2000 years of spiritual teaching that widens our view from isolated practices to a whole-life spirituality that leads us back to a quiet time like a thirsty deer to abundant streams?  How can we say “yes” to the bridegroom who is calling his beloved even in the ugliest of moments? That’s what this blog is about.