My friend Michel emailed me recently:
“I sometimes get lost in the magnitude of our neighbourhood’s predicament:
…Am I doing enough?
…Why continue a struggle that just will not end?
…Why bother when I’ve only got 25ish years left?
…In a way, our faith communities don’t add up to much…”
Michel knows the pain of our community through years of addiction and intermittent homelessness. Though he has found freedom and faith in the last two years, he has no illusions about the saving power of good intentions.
Addiction, poverty, violence, depression, broken family and alienation are pervasive and powerful, and not just in our neighbourhood. Michel’s frustrations are vitally important to a truthful expression of faith – recognising the enormous distance between how things are and how things could be.
This is a type of truthfulness and doubt which is unwelcome in many Church settings. We give lip service to doubt; it is fashionable to piously announce how doubt-y we are. But this can often be more concerned with our own problems than with the troubles of a Fallen world.
Our personal experience matters, but it must be weaved into the larger context of our relationship with God, others, and Creation.
Annie Dillard wrote:
“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
Michel’s feeling of being “lost in the magnitude” acknowledges that there is both an interior and an exterior reality to confront, and that our own resources ultimately are insufficient.
We cannot fix everything, and the belief that we can will burn us up. Our world is finite; our efforts are limited; our knowledge is partial; and our experience of the Kingdom of Heaven is anticipatory.
And all of this is ok.
It is good to be poor in spirit. In fact, Jesus told us it is blessed.
Our powerlessness is the only genuine starting point of faith, the sole launching pad for prayer. Seeing that something is beyond us reminds us that there is a beyond us.
This is the opposite of the modern idea that we can control every aspect of our existence, God included. That philosophy allows no room for mystery or for free, mutually-giving relationships.
Embracing poverty of spirit means letting go of our desire to re-make the world in our own image and submitting to the re-making of our hearts in Christ’s own image, an image that includes crucifixion.
The “answer” is to set our eyes on Christ and to refuse to look away. Not as some supernatural fixer who solves all the problems, but as one who is with us right in the middle of our fear and pain.
Jesus doesn’t just know about the world’s predicament, he experiences it first hand.
That is why prayer is so important. It involves us in a relationship with the God who took on the fullness of the human predicament. It permits us acknowledge that we can’t find resolutions for the overwhelming trouble of our world on our own, but also to trust that Christ is present and powerful in the pain.
And within that trusting relationship we are gradually transformed into the likeness of Christ, so that we can embody his presence in the predicaments of our neighbourhoods. By this we participate in Christ’s sorrow in the world, but also in his overcoming.
So, learn to “read” your neighbourhood (check out this guide for tips). In the same way that you might contemplate a biblical text, you can draw meaning out of your community. This involves prayer, but also intentionally listening to your neighbours’ hopes, fears and dreams.
My Lord God
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
This blog is part of our 2019 Focus on Jesus series.