After my tireless and at times seemingly disjointed efforts at spiritual study and practice over the past 40 years or so, I have come to several salient and universally applicable realizations:
- The flows beneath the seemingly different surfaces, a common experience among all religious traditions. This is not to say that all religions are the same – because they are not. What it does say is that deep down in that space where it really counts – deep down in that part of our being that intrinsically knows the truth – lies the same experience and it is an experience of mystical unity. The only other common thread that I see running through almost all religions is less savory – all religions eventually seem to reach a point where they become the major impediment in the path of their followers finding truth and enlightenment.
- Even in the newer, more non-religious spiritual groups, there is a marked tendency toward self-absorption and this, in turn, tends to foster the problem of ego domination rather than solve it. Although the path of spiritual growth and personal development requires a significant amount of focus on oneself, this self-reflection must always be balanced with service to a cause larger in scope than one’s own petty concerns, however significant they may seem. As a result of these realities, many New Age groups devote little time and or energy to community service. Much lip service is offered but little legwork is proffered. For a degree of validation of this point, next time you are browsing the spirituality section of your favorite bookstore, see how many books you find on “service” or “community enhancement.” Also, look at the table of contents in most spiritual books. Normally, there may be at most a section on something like “Creating a Better World” tucked in at the back of the book. Even some of our most cherished spiritual writers are guilty of this. I say this not in a spirit of condemnation, but just of non-judgmental observation.
I must admit that I find this trend somewhat disturbing. I guess part of my reaction stems from the fact that I was so radically guilty of the same crime. It took more than a few personal crises and at least one divine pummeling to bring me to my senses, at least marginally. Fortunately, as time passed I began to see things from a broader and more global perspective, coming eventually to the cosmic realization that everyone and everything in the universe, in fact, did not orbit my being.
This personal epiphany eventually led me to see that in an overall grander scheme of things, I was, in reality, fairly small potatoes. Over time, thanks to coming in contact with several significant spiritual teachers in ways that can only described as divine synchronicity, I came to view a few of the more important issues we all face in life in a decidedly different light.
In retrospect, one of the most enlightening insights that I came to was that no matter how we may choose to frame the reality, the ultimate goal of working with any system of spiritual growth is to awaken in ourselves the desire to make a positive contribution to the world beyond ourselves. Ideally, each of us should strive to find ways in which we can bring light, joy, and relief to others. It is no overstatement to say that the entire framework of my spiritual odyssey has since been to place myself in a state of being where I can not only be good – but good for something.
As Christians, we need look no farther than Jesus to locate a perfect example of this kind of life of compassionate service. As scripture so plainly tells us: He went about doing good. Even the most superficial reading of the gospels will verify this reality beyond any question.
Jesus Christ was not a man of compassion; he was a man of radical compassion. From his voluntary mission to this broken world, to his mysterious ascension back into the heavenly realm, there was no theme he stressed more in both word and deed. From his opening salvo quoting Isaiah about bringing release to the captives and good news to the poor, to his words of grace uttered on the cross, “forgive them for they know not what they do,” Jesus exemplified a compassion far beyond what the world had seen before. Indeed, it was and is a radical compassion.
Radical compassion is compassion with legs; radical compassion is a verb. Just as the Bible tells us in the Letter of James that faith without works is dead, also, compassion without concomitant action is a lifeless phenomenon. Many sincere aspirants have the mistaken notion that the ultimate goal of the spiritual path is enlightenment. Although a sincere desire for motivation is one of our most treasured possessions, it is actually penultimate. The real aim of the spiritual journey is simply this – Sacred Service. All that we do is dedicated to the greatest good of all beings in all parts of our global society. Our gain is their gain, our loss is their loss, our advancement is their advancement, and it is to this sacred reality that those that would be so bold as to take up the title of Christian world must offer their hands, their hearts, and their prayers.
In order for compassion to become more than just a nice idea or a sentimental feeling, it must flow out of the internalized wisdom of the ages, particularly as related to the reality of “interconnectivity.” The idea of interconnectivity, now confirmed by the field of quantum physics, has been around for many centuries and is at the core of interspiritual mysticism, that one aspect of world religion that seems to transcend culture, time, and especially theology. It is a mystical connectedness that promotes compassion and engaged action to make the world a better place for all who dwell here. In essence, it is a deep wisdom that gives flesh to grace. The great spiritual writer Kahil Gibran spoke of this interconnected reality when he said:
Your neighbor is your other self dwelling behind a wall. In understanding, all walls shall fall down. Who knows but that your neighbor is your better self wearing another body? See that you love him as you would yourself. He too is a manifestation of the Most High.
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 agents no matter where we are. Gary Thomas explains how this has come to work in his life:
“Once I begin surrendering my body to be transformed, I become a living and breathing center of possibility. I become a force that God can use to impact the world. This truth teaches me to see my life as a call to represent Christ wherever I go, whether it is at a high school basketball game, a family get-together, the dreaded Department of Motor Vehicles office, a local Starbucks, or my own home. Regardless of my location, I can live with a sense of offering myself up to God so that he can encourage his children and reach out to the lost.”
Individual Christians are not alone in over-thinking the issue of service. Entire congregations can do the same thing. Instead of diving in and providing immediate relief or help to those in need, churches often choose to conduct exhaustive investigations and hold endless committee meetings, trying to design a program that will address a community need. Again, research and planning are essential, but not at the expense of allowing people to suffer while we weigh our options. Jerry Cook, in his informative book The Monday Morning Church, strikes at the heart of the issue:
“I am convinced that as Christians we are not about programs. We’re not about bigger or better blessings. We’re about responding to people who call for help because their world is falling apart. These individuals aren’t looking to be converted – they’re looking for help! Being their help – by being the presence of Christ in their lives – is the only thing we’re about. Everything else we do is secondary and can even detour us from carrying out the true purpose of the church…You are filled with the Spirit of God. You are living in this window in time called the last days. You are where you are because God has strategically placed you there. The question is, are you open for business?”
Cook makes a poignant statement here and asks the pivotal question, a question that each of us must answer with truth and honesty: Am I open for business?
Each of us must find somewhere to begin his or her own unique mission, in whatever setting God has placed us. So, again, where do we begin? Why not start where Christ himself began? As he picked up the Holy Scriptures in the synagogue at Nazareth he spoke clearly and without reservation, echoing his Father’s words from the 61st chapter of Isaiah. Christ said he had left his comfort zone in the spiritual realm and incarnated on this fallen planet in order:
To bind up the broken hearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives
To comfort all who mourn
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
Surely, these words pertain to someone or some situation you are aware of. Are you aware of anyone who is broken hearted or held captive by some form of addiction or behavior? Do you know someone who is in dire need of comfort at this time? Is there anyone in your family, your church or your neighborhood who is in need of a little beauty and joy in life; maybe someone who needs help with depression or some other type of spiritual heaviness?
As stated earlier, the first salient question is not so much “How shall I go about doing good?” No, the question is, “Are you open for business?”
Are you ready to become someone God can use? Are you ready to become, in the words of Gary Thomas, a living and breathing center of possibility?
(c) L.D. Turner 2010/ All Rights Reserved