Action: CPR for dying faith

by Kristin on August 3, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo courtesy of Cushing Memorial Library

Do you ever have so much to clean around the house that you do nothing at all? The same can be true when you wake up one morning and realize your garden has become a jungle of weeds, or when you come back to work after a week away and find a frightening number of emails filling your inbox.

I am the type of person who thrives on being busy and having deadlines, but the moment “busy” crosses the line to the land of “overwhelmed,” I’m paralyzed. Even if I have a half hour to devote to making a dent in whatever mountain is looming over me, my available time and energy is like a speck in a very big picture. It’s easier to just set that picture aside and distract myself with something else.

An even bigger picture: The kingdom of heaven on earth

This is what it can feel like to be charged with bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. My faith has been transformed in many ways the past few years by the understanding that heaven is not something we simply long for at that time when we die, but it’s something we should long for here on earth—day-to-day harmony and orientation and rightness between real people and God, as well as all creatures and fields and sky. That’s what Jesus was talking about when he prayed the Lord’s Prayer: “…on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s why he was put on the earth in the first place.

“Overwhelmed” is the word that best describes what I feel when I start contemplating the complex, deeply-rooted tangle that is formed by so many societal problems and justice issues. I definitely experience waves of compassion, but they are followed by tsunamis of helplessness.

A small part of the kingdom, coming into focus

Sometimes, though, in that enormous sea of neediness, something comes into focus, drifting directly into your life. It’s a confluence of circumstances—the particular heart you have, finding itself in a certain place at a certain time, with just the right combination of need and inspiration and support.

That’s the sort of thing that’s happening right now for Jason and I, and some members of our small group from church. It started when we became friends with Jesse, who goes to our church and started a tent community called Safe Haven as an alternative housing option for some of the growing number of homeless people in our community.

In the past week, though, a series of events have really spurred us on toward action, rather than just encouraging words. We attended a Safe Haven open house, went to a court hearing, invited Jesse and others over for dinner to continue the conversation, and learned that Safe Haven lost its zoning appeal. This past Friday, July 31, was the last night the members of the community could set up tents for the night on the Catholic Worker House property near our church.

Yesterday afternoon, six of us attended our church’s council meeting to discuss how we might be able to do something for the homeless community, which, in our town, is centered in the half mile radius directly around our church building.

The point, really, is this: There are 15 human beings, currently without other housing options (for a variety of reasons), who are trying to be creative about practical solutions, all the while building a true community in a world that has largely left them feeling very cold, afraid and alone. And here we are, at this particular time and place, with these eyes and hearts. The perfect mix of need, inspiration and opportunity doesn’t present itself every day. And although the need is big, the ways we could help feel significant, yet manageable.

Faith without action is dead

As the backdrop for all of these events, it’s probably no coincidence that our small group chose to spend the summer studying James. (Incidentally, the choice was made in May, before the tent community was even formed.)

Going into it, I was feeling like James is one of those books I know all too well from my college days. It even struck me as a bit of a Bible study cliche.

But I’m at a very different point in my life, now, so the book I encountered is a very different book. My own struggles and heartaches have been my crash course in compassion, allowing me to approach the poor and needy in different ways, and also allowing me to understand a bit more what this faith I have is all about.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. ~ James 2:14-17

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  • CherylEnsomDack

    Wow. Can’t wait to hear what comes next in this story. I don’t know how it feels from the inside, but from the outside, hearing the background, details and the flow of events/information/preparation, it sounds like one of those wonderful “Esther Stories.” You know…”…for such a time as this” kind of things? It sounds like a saga that you didn’t start, that is happening in that deep, loving, alive Kingdom-level places, and that therefore has a life of its’ own, if you will. Lately this kind of situation has begun to feel like a rushing river; I can fight it, frantically paddle for shore, OR I can lay back and be swept along. The place it takes me is always “real” and always “familiar” in that “I always wanted to be here” kind of ways. But the most amazing part of it is that that place I get swept away to is someplace inaccessible by roads or walking paths; I never could have gotten there myself. Sounds like you’re being swept along in something incredible and it is sure to end up someplace you never could have arranged to go.

  • Daisy

    Overwhelmed can become Burnout which can become Inaction. I’m glad to hear your group is addressing the big issues in smaller yet productive ways.

  • Jeb

    Hi KT…
    Faith is a pretty inclusive word these days, and I’m happy about that. It applies to a wider group of people, all facing varied circumstances.

    My faith is not your faith…we’re seeking different things. But it all applies. Whether you define faith in religious terms or otherwise…faith in one’s abilities, in the future, in an ideal, in the basic goodness of others…none of it carries with it any weight until we’re helping to do the heavy lifting.

    For me, faith requires thought first. Because action must be preceded by mental discipline. But if we never transition…we’re dreamers at best. I like to dream of something better, but if I never get to see it, well, what have I accomplished?

    You’re always a wonderful example KT…thank you.

  • Lance

    Hi Kristin,
    Faith…is not religion. Faith is something that comes from deep within us, that connects us to our God. That’s not something I always believed. I used to see going to church as being faithful/spiritual. Thats not what I see now. Oh, it can be. What I really believe, though, it that too many people come to church because it “looks good”. Their one hour on Sunday…and life is good. Or maybe they have membership at a church, so they can say their members…without even having to go to that place.

    Faith is so deeply tied to compassion. And I believe that because when we really connect with our faith, with our own spirituality – on a deep level – that’s when compassion comes to life. And projects like this you’re working on get started. That’s compassion at work…doing good…for all our brothers and sisters in this world…

  • Kristin T.

    Cheryl, just hearing your perspective as an outside observer gets me even more excited about the confluence of recent events surrounding this homeless community and members of my church community. I love that you call it an “Esther story,” and the river analogy is wonderful—especially this part: “…that place I get swept away to is someplace inaccessible by roads or walking paths; I never could have gotten there myself.”

    Daisy, burnout is always an important thing to keep an eye out for. It can hit when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or when you’re driven by so much energy and excitement for *what* you’re doing that you lose track of *how* you’re doing.

    Jeb, you pointed out that “my faith is not your faith…we’re seeking different things.” I think that’s true for everyone—even those who go to the same church and ascribe to the same basic set of beliefs. We all approach faith at different points of readiness, with different motivations, hopes and needs. And I completely agree with this: “action must be preceded by mental discipline.” The key is not to be a perfectionist about it all. At some point, we just have to get out there and DO something.

    Lance, I’m so glad to be a part of a church/ community (and even geographic location) where lots of people go to church because it “looks good” or is “expected.” I’m sure there’s some of that, but I bet it’s more prevalent in other churches and other parts of the country. Also, I completely agree that “Faith is so deeply tied to compassion,” but I worry that the two are drifting farther and farther apart in the minds of much of the country.

  • Jason

    I’ve been reflecting lately about what makes the difference between times when we’re full of energy and are able to accomplish big things and other times when even menial tasks seem hard. The starting point was reading a few chapters of this classic book – Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. (chick-sent-mih-high) So far his idea is that People are happiest, most satisfied when they are working hard toward a challenging but attainable goal. It is at this moments when consciousness about self and time fade to the background and you have boundless energy to keep working toward your goals.

    This seems to fit perfectly with your post, the idea that until you can “see” a way to help that is attainable, (helping these 15 people, not all homeless) that we feel invigorated, capable of helping, and that its a pleasure to do so.

  • Kristin T.

    Jason, that’s really interesting—that perfect balance between being challenged by something that’s attainable. When I’m focused on something that fits that description, I really do stop focusing on my immediate self and my needs, and can focus more fully on the larger goal. The fact that it can all come full circle, and result in a greater sense of happiness and contentment inside me, is such a great setup!