The Heart of Social Presence

An excerpt from “A Spirituality of Social Presence”, by Keith Jagger. (Epiphany Academy Dissertation). This post works like an introduction to what I would consider Discipleship 101. This is what I would tell a new Christian to spend their first five years practicing. 

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  something is very wrong.

So, many resort to violence, for one cause or another. They are confident in their special commission to judge the world. Others have resigned themselves to the way things are, to leave things just as they have found them. We are after all, they thing, 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.

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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 (as we are known to do), we need something far more powerful: strong, consistent, and purified hearts.

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. Christian faith is 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 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.

For faith, 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 long for.

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: the convergence of justice, compassion, peace and action.

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 needs a practical spirituality that would translate across many barriers for the sake of the gospel but 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. They are called not simply to transform communities but, first, to be transformed.  They must become beacons of light that help others become their very best. 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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