As I look about the spiritual landscape of American culture these days, several things quickly become apparent. First, there has been an explosion of interest in all things spiritual over the past 40-50 years. Whereas earlier in the 20th Century the fascination with the spiritual life existed mostly on the periphery of our culture, during the second half of the century the search for spiritual meaning in life became increasingly mainstream. A trek through any major bookstore will bear this out as one sees a plethora of material on everything from Fundamentalist Christianity to Egyptian Deities to instructions on how to go about trance-channeling Elvis.
It is not my intention to discuss the varieties of spiritual traditions available to seekers these days. There are more options than can be reasonably covered in the short space of this article. Instead, I want to focus on an issue that I believe to be of foundational importance to spiritual seekers of every stripe. I want to explore a couple of themes that I feel are generally missing from the spiritual agenda of most writers and groups in these exciting but challenging times.
As I mentioned at the outset, the range of topics available to spiritual aspirants is mind boggling. If one is diligent in exploring the shelves in bookstores, he or she will most likely find something related to their interest. However, I have noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, two highly significant topics seemed to be given little print when compared to other subjects. What are these two topics?
Character and Service.
I suspect the primary reasons these two vital themes get so little coverage has to do with our culture’s near-epidemic narcissism and self-absorption. Granted, there are many book titles related to “self-development” and “spiritual growth.” One could make the case that these topics are related to character development in some ways, but I believe that is really avoiding the issue. The fact is, real character development involves several requirements that most Americans had rather avoid than deal with head on. I am talking about things like morality, discipline, self-control, delayed gratification, and other-centeredness. You might find a few books that deal with these themes, mostly from a Christian perspective, but more often than not, these are written from a legalistic, fear-mongering point of view. If you are not a good girl (boy), God’s gonna getcha or worse, you’ll wind up as the guest of honor at Beelzebub’s weenie roast and you’ll be the weenie!
Most other books these days, whether of a New Age bent or a psycho-spiritual point of view, rarely deal with character development and personal morality. Rather than helping seekers see the necessity of putting limits on their behavior, most often these writers tell us we need to “follow our bliss.” If our bliss happens to trample a bit on the toes of someone else, well…, they should have had sense enough to get out of the way.
As far as books on service are concerned, they, too, are few and far between. As with works on character, most of these titles on service to a hurting world come from the pens of Christian authors and Christianity should as a faith be commended for at least addressing the need for service to others. The Church universal takes a lot of heat these days and it is rare that the mainstream press gives credit to organized Christianity for its selfless contributions to social improvement. The fact is, Christianity does more in the social arena in America that all of the other faith traditions combined.
Even so, however, we need to see more emphasis placed on character development and loving service. New Age advocates, for example, could do significantly more than they do to help those in dire need. Unfortunately, many New Agers are too self-absorbed to take the time to, say, feed the hungry or visit the sick. And what’s more, they have a great explanation for why they are not more involved.
Laura is a good friend I have known for about a dozen years now. She is a disciple of a New Age teacher and states that she has become significantly more spiritual since studying with this guru. And I must say that in many ways she has. She is far more patient, tolerant, and much less abrasive than when we first met.
My friend Laura tells me it is the mission of her group to “spread light and love across the globe and to help people everywhere find their bliss.” When I pushed her about the kind of service projects her group was currently involved in she flatly told me that she was involved in only one project, but it was the greatest project on earth. When I quizzed her as to the details of this wonderful project she explained that she and her fellow aspirants were working on “finding their true selves” so that they could then “spread light and love to the masses.” According to Laura, the greatest service a person can give humanity is to “be who they really are.”
“Until a person learns to live in the Light,” said Laura. “Any service they give is tainted and therefore not really service.”
“I see,” I responded.
I wonder what would have happened if the people living in New Orleans would have had to endure had volunteers told them they would have to wait until they “found themselves” before coming to give aid. Perhaps the would-be rescuers could have gathered on the remaining levees and chanted an invocation for light, while hundreds died in the putrid water below them.
I don’t mean to sound so harsh, but I think my friend Laura is symbolic of a process that has been going on in our country for several decades. With the emergence of the “Me-Decade” of the ‘70’s, we seem to have moved down a slippery slope of self-absorption and social apathy. And even though Christians have been less guilty of this phenomenon, they have not been without their own absence of sensitivity. The rise of the Religious Right and the joining of the Evangelical faith to the hip of the Republican Party has also resulted in a less than Christian response to many people who are hurting badly. While the New Agers chanted to their Spirit Guides and the Republican Christians sat idly by, waiting for the wealth of our nation to “trickle down,” the erosion of our nation’s ethical core went on unabated right beneath their collective noses.
I cannot speak to the New Agers, only to say that perhaps they could take a break from seeking their “inner child” long enough to open their ears to the cries of despair going on in our inner cities. For Christians, the message is simple. Just return to the ministry Christ called you to.
For Christians, the definition of true spirituality should not be a mystery. The meaning of the word, given to us by Jesus with alarming clarity, may not be the answer we are looking for. The definition of spirituality provided by the Lord had nothing to do with esoteric philosophical speculations, nor did it encompass the need for expanded knowledge of a multi-dimensional universe. On the contrary, Jesus told us what real spirituality was in a very direct and precise manner. He didn’t explain it to us; he showed us.
Jesus gave a new definition of what true spirituality consisted of when, as described in the 13th Chapter of John’s Gospel, he shocked his disciples by performing the lowly act of cleansing their dirty, dusty, and most likely, fetid feet. In this act, Jesus then said that he had provided an example. In his words:
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you… (John 13:14)
As Christ-followers, we are called to no less. We are called to the ministry of the towel. For the Christian, that is the meaning of spirituality. We are to be of service. Everything else, no matter how profound, is superstructure.
At its most fundamental level, proactive service, motivated by love and compassion, is what incarnational Christianity is all about. No matter what setting in which we find a need to be addressed, we are to obey and go. No matter how filthy, grimy, or smelly, we are to take up our towel and basin and hit the ground running. This is our calling and this is our duty. This is what Christ did and we are to do no less.
Even as sincere believers with a genuine desire to manifest active Christian love to our hurting world, we often complicate this issue of service to an extreme. “What is my true mission?” we often ask ourselves. “Is helping with this situation something I am gifted to do?” Other times we vacillate by comparing ourselves to others. “Are there other people far more skilled than I to help with this?” Moses tried this approach and God didn’t buy it. Although there is nothing wrong with assessing our talents and gifts, we need to realize in any situation, there is some type of service we can provide. There is at least some need we can meet. Just about anyone can fold chairs, clean a kitchen, drive a van, or deliver food.
At the end of the day, this issue of Christian service boils down to one word: availability.
We must each look into our hearts and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, ask ourselves: Am I available to be used by God? We need to be rigorously honest with ourselves in answering this all-important question. If we answer in the negative, then we need to explore the reasons why we feel we cannot currently follow Christ’s call to service. If we answer in the affirmative, then we need to find a place to serve, a way to serve, and get on with it. It is of vital importance that we keep in mind that we are Christ’s representatives here in this broken world. We are his hands, his feet, and his heart. And, we are his ambassadors no matter where we are.
© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved