Yesterday, I related Mary Jo Leddy’s analysis of the “center of the world” mentality of North Americans, which, in her opinion, even permeates our spirituality. This analysis, which she relates in her book, The Other Face of God, is somewhat critical of the way North American Christians…well…the way we tend to see ourselves as more important than we are. And honestly, I’m okay with critical…IF there is a constructive element to the criticism. Thankfully, Leddy’s book contains that positive corollary. In contrast to a delusional, “imperial” spirituality, she portrays a Christian life that is aware of its limitations and that seeks to act within its sphere of influence. Here is what she says:
What form of holiness is appropriate for this moment? What can make our lives whole, can save us from the empire of self?
The search for such a spirituality will have to begin with more modesty, more humility, with the willingness to accept the limitations of what is possible at an in-between time such as this. And to find this worthy and significant.
My reflections thus far suggest that we must listen for the calls that summon us out of our self-centeredness:
- The cry of a child.
- The call of the stranger and the newcomer focuses our lives.
- The call to do good work.
- The craft or art or sport that can discipline a life and shape it according to its material.
A spirituality that saves us from an imperial religion will have to involve a spirituality of limits, of modesty and humility. This will not be easy, for it goes against some of our dearest dreams: the hope of becoming better, the hope of more, the hope of changing the world, the big hopes for the transformation of the church.
To become centered and focused is also to choose limitations joyfully, willingly. It is the choice to locate your life. Not just for a moment, but forever, it seems. Your life can no longer float around the universe, jet around the globe in the name of justice or peace or “the environment.” It is easy to walk away from justice as a cause but much harder to walk away from the person who has knocked at the door (67-68).
In many ways, this passage stepped on my toes, and in other ways, it gave me great comfort. Her comment on our dearest dreams falls in the toe-stepping department; the fact remains that I do hope to become better, and I do think that God has prepared good works for me that do have a purpose and that will make a difference. At the same time, I really believe that I understand the limits of idealism, even though I am sometimes “accused” of being an idealist. I maintain instead that I am a realist, albeit one with idealistic yearnings. I long for God’s kingdom to come, His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. I fantasize about it, I pray for it, I try to imagine what it would look like. However (and this is where her comfort comes in), I am learning to content myself with my little lot of life that God has given me. I find great meaning in my physical church body, in our little neighborhood of saints and sinners, among our wonderful, rowdy “Y.E.S. kids.” It is so small, just a little wisp of Nashville, but embracing this limited, physical neighborhood has helped center my life.
Furthermore, even though she tends to focus on a physically limited sphere of influence, I also think of my few little Compassion kids in the same way. Even though we are spread out among the Americas, I see our choice to sponsor them as embracing my limitedness. Of course, I would love to save all the children, and I do pray for all the children. But since I can’t save all…since I can’t save any, in fact…perhaps I can make a small bit of difference for three. And while I pray for all the children, I will sponsor three. While I dream wonderful dreams for all the children, I will write letters to three. It’s tiny (sometimes I even believe that it is too tiny), but more and more these days, I rejoice in the fact that I can do this little bit.
Leddy goes on to describe the life and philosophy of Wendell Berry, a man who has greatly influenced her beliefs. She sums up his outlook this way:
What he has articulated is a spirituality of knowing our place in the world, in creation. It is a spirituality of being in place, of knowing one’s particular contribution, of seeing oneself as part of something greater, as a participant rather than as a master and captain of the universe…
This is not someone who is out to change the whole world. It is someone who remains faithful to a particular place and a people. It is a slow way. And it does make a difference (70).
I love that description of ministry. Like Berry and Leddy, I long to “remain faithful to a particular place and a people.” I don’t mind that it is a slow way. And I do believe that it makes a difference. My prayer to God is that our little church in our little neighborhood can be that place and that people for me.
And if I can also help a few kids in other countries along the way, that would be great, too.
What is your ministry?
Leddy, Mary Jo. The Other Face of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011.