Over the next few months, ESN will be running an article series on what James Davidson Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” might look like in our present time in the academy and in our fields of study. InterVarsity Regional Ministry Director Lisa Liou recently gave a talk on three images of faithful presence that is a wonderful way to introduce this series. Look for these posts each Friday.
In the last few months, I have heard Christian leaders describe the society and times we are living in as â€œchaotic and confused,â€ â€œdisintegrating,â€ and as a â€œgray zone.â€ I feel this. I do not have answers for the problems we face as a society. I do not know what is ahead. My children are facing a society that has changed and continues to change rapidly, without a lot of hopeful signs that the local church will be vibrant in their generation. The challenges at colleges and universities reflect this same reality. I have never been more desperate for Christâ€™s renewing work in the world, but what do we do as we work and wait? We focus on being a faithful presence. What might that look like? What should inform us? I would like to offer three pictures (or scenes) from the scripture that could inform our faithful presence.
The feeding of the 5000 as depicted in Matthew 14:13-21 (as well as the other gospels), has informed me on a foundational level since 2017. I was stepping into a new leadership role that was beyond my natural capacities and became convinced that I was to live and act in light of the abundance displayed in this story. What if every time I saw a hungry crowd and a small lunch, I chose to notice Jesusâ€™ presence and enact abundance instead of scarcity, believing that he could feed us all? What if I gave freely and did not hoard? What if I chose not to put a yoke of scarcity on the people I lead, but displayed faith in the truth of scripture that there are enough resources for all when we do not clench?
Imagine what faithful presence while living out abundance could look like. Fear would have no place in our systems. It is not only a faith in advance of seeing how Jesus will multiply, it is about choosing to live into the truth of Christâ€™s abundance even when we do not see evidence of its reality. We enact the reality of abundance.
My commitment to enact abundance:
I will enact the abundance of Godâ€™s kingdom resources. I will share. I will not hoard. I will not clench. I will practice generosity, equity, and justice. With Godâ€™s help I will reject participating in systems that reduce humanity to property for production, commodities for control. I release what I have, and I depend for what I do not have, in the community of Godâ€™s people and the overflowing goodness of Godâ€™s economy.
When Jesus sends out his disciples in Mark 6:7-13, he tells them not to take an extra cloak, food, or money, but he sends them with his authority. They go out in vulnerability, depending on Godâ€™s power and the hospitality of those who receive them. As a result, they are effective in their ministry to drive out demons, heal the sick, and preach the word. This passage has convicted me. Christians talk about depending on Jesus, but we do so while packing a lunch and throwing on an extra cloak.
If you were to look at my practices, you would observe how I am trying to make my own plans and claim dependence on Jesus. But this is misguided. It represents my own need for control and my inability to release my life to the one who gave me life. If God is trustworthy, why do I need to depend on myself? Why is it so hard to live out dependence on him? If I am honest, it is embarrassing to be weak or vulnerable and the pandemic has made me uncomfortable. My anxiety has skyrocketed, my typically thoughtful parenting approaches were reduced to day-by-day survival, and my work performance fell below my usual standards. I am human and pretend to be God, but I need to learn that I have access to Christâ€™s power in my weakness and need nothing more. Our weakness and vulnerability is good news because it is not in our own strength and power that we experience freedom and life.
My commitment to embrace dependence:
I will enact dependence on Christ. I will not despise my weakness and vulnerability, but I will offer it to Christ, who gives me strength, who is pleased to dwell in broken vessels and make use of ordinary ones, our brother and friend in pain and affliction, who released his life to his Father. I seek to resist the temptations for worldly power and abuses of spiritual power. I do not need Godâ€™s plan AND my own plan. I surrender to the one who holds my life his hands.
Where do you lay down? Where do you spend your time? I am challenged by the physical postures I see in the story of Samuel (1 Samuel 3) and his mother Hannah (1 Samuel 1). In deep anguish and weeping, Hannah stood up and moved her lips in prayer at the temple. Amid the spiritual blindness of the priests at Shiloh and the people of Israel, Samuel chose to lay down and sleep next to the ark of the covenant. Meanwhile, priest Eli slept in another room as he actively turned a blind eye to the sins of his sons Hophni and Phineas. In a passage rich with symbolism, God encountered Hannah and Samuel in these physical places, which represented their own faithful presence. Hannahâ€™s prayers were answered, and she surrendered her son, the answer to her prayers, back to the one who she cried out to, dedicating him to the temple. That son, Samuel, learned to recognize the voice of the Lord as he responded to the Lordâ€™s invitations to him where he laid down. As a result, he was given a ministry as Godâ€™s prophet, speaking against the spiritually blind leaders, and bringing Godâ€™s word back to Israel. God promised not to let any of his words fall to the ground.
Both our personal challenges and our global context will continue to cause us despair. We are living in a time of great spiritual blindness, inside and outside the Church, and just like in Samuelâ€™s time, our spiritual leaders have lost their eyesight, making visions and clear teaching from the word of God rare for Godâ€™s people. As the leaders go, so the people go. But God is not inactive! And we can choose our posture. As we lay down to hear Godâ€™s word, some of us may be the Samuel God is calling to bring revival and renewal. Many of us who have been part of the religious establishment (like me) may need to accept that we are not the Samuel and make room for the new young voice God is raising up to correct us. I believe we can all be Hannahs.
My longing for a posture of faithful presence:
I long to enact the posture of Hannah, who took her despair to God in cries of desperation that preceded the surrender of her own most precious gift. In so doing, her prayers birthed and released the prophet God called to a blind and wandering Israel.
I long to enact the posture of Samuel who slept on the temple floor while the lamp of God was still burning. Surrounded by blind and permissive spiritual leadership with evil disregard for Godâ€™s glory, Samuel tested the voice he heard until he recognized it as the voice of God himself. He responded with willing obedience, delivering the hard words needed for the people of God and the end of a corrupt line so that Godâ€™s people could eventually be renewed and revived by Godâ€™s holy word. God promised that none of his words would fall the ground.
In a world of Elis, Hophnis, and Phineases, I confess how I have turned a blind eye, becoming dimmer, or mixed service to God with my own benefits and misbehaviors. And I participate with a people of God who have gone off track, making spiritual clarity rare and spiritual blindness the norm. Oh God, as our ears tingle with your words of judgment over us, may we respond, repent, and make room for the young Samuels who will be your mouthpiece to us. While we long to be the Samuels in this chaotic and conflicted culture, we do not presume to be.
Friends, I leave you with this commissioning for your faithful presence:
As you go to colleges and universities, neighborhoods and cities, congregations and householdsâ€¦
May you be empowered to enact the overflowing generosity of the Abundant One
May you surrender to vulnerable dependance like the Crucified One
May you find courage to pour out your tears at the temple in prayer, and surrender those same answered prayers to the One who heard themâ€¦
And courage to lay down where you will hear the word of God, not as you wish to hear it but as it isâ€¦as the Spirit speaksâ€”
both calling us to correction and correcting us to our calling
With Godâ€™s help and power
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit