The Practice of Service

Brandon Paradise Part 11 of 13

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Are We Safe?

In Philippians, St. Paul writes, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:12 NIV).

Similarly, the late Christian philosopher, Dallas Willard, wrote “This present world is a perfectly safe place for us to be.”1 But, clearly, the world isn’t safe, and to be content sounds like we ought to ignore the suffering caused by the pandemic and racial injustice.

St. Paul and Willard’s statements are not at all about the denial of reality or inaction in the midst of oppression. They speak, instead, of a spiritual safety and contentedness in Christ. Such a life in Christ yields as its fruit empathy, compassion, and service toward others.

The Danger of Our World

The emergence of COVID-19 has caused worry and anxiety to fall upon much of the globe. For most people, the world does not feel safe. As of the time of this writing, in the U.S. alone, coronavirus has already claimed over 100,000 lives; jobless numbers have reached 40 million; and the current outrage and pain in American streets over the murder of George Floyd reminds us of the ever-present original sin of our nation, the sickness of racial bigotry.

The world is most certainly not safe.

Safety In Turmoil

If the world is not safe, then what are we to make of St. Paul’s statement that he is “content in any and every situation” or of Willard’s that the world “is a perfectly safe place to be?”

The key to understanding these statements is recognizing that neither St. Paul nor Willard are calibrating their ideas of contentment and safety in the ways that we usually do. St. Paul does not mean that we should let hunger go unaddressed. Nor does Willard mean that the world is safe in the sense that neither we nor our loved ones are invulnerable to death from COVID-19 or from being murdered.

Rather than ignoring or turning a blind eye to the challenges of this world, St. Paul and Willard are speaking of contentment and safety in our life with Christ amidst great turmoil, even to the point of losing our lives. They are referring to the safety we have in the larger spiritual reality in which this world is set even as great sorrow and difficulty can play out within our lives.

We come to know firsthand the contentment and safety of which St. Paul and Willard write through orienting our entire lives, often through specific spiritual disciplines, toward progressive formation into the mind of Christ, the fruit of which is his peace. Acquiring the character to deal adequately with the threat of COVID-19 and the problem of social sin, such as racism, requires a life dedicated to discipleship to Christ.

Although discipleship to Christ includes a variety of spiritual practices (i.e., fasting, prayer, silence, solitude, and many others), amidst a global health crisis and massive outrage and pain in response to police violence, it is especially fitting to emphasize service as the fruit of a deeply rooted spiritual safety and contentedness in Christ.

Service as the Fruit of Our Life in Christ

Our ability to serve grows with the realization of spiritual safety. As we come to understand that we don’t have to protect ourselves (God does that) and as we grow in our capacity to love we find ourselves far more concerned about the suffering of others than with our own security.

Christianity introduced to the ancient world this new social philosophy, in which care of the poor and the vulnerable gain a high priority. Upon this new philosophy and with state support, Christians, such as St. Gregory, St. Basil, and Eusebius of Caesarea established the world’s first hospitals.2

In his 14th Oration, the early church father, St. Gregory the Theologian lifts up charity as the most important command, exhorting compassion, outreach, and care of lepers. In condemning preoccupation with one’s own health, Gregory writes, “[k]indness is the gift we must, as human beings, proffer our fellow humans whatever the cause of their plight . . . . All alike deserve our pity and look to our hands just as we look to the hands of God whenever we are in need of something.”3

Willard puts it similarly, “we must, then, strive to meet all persons who cross our path with openness to service for them . . . with ease and confidence born of our vision of our lives together in the hands of God.”4

There are now profound signs of suffering in every direction, some prompted by COVID-19, some, like racial brutality, that go back to the beginning of our nation. Formation into the mind of Christ enables us to settle our sense of threat and instead respond outward by giving rather than protecting.

As we learn to situate ourselves in a spiritual reality in which we are perfectly safe, we also come to feel the needs of other people more than our own. As we “Learn to do right; seek justice [and] defend the oppressed” (Isa 1:17), we serve one another as Christ served the human race. This is the culmination of the Christian life: becoming his co-workers—those who sacrifice for others—in the kingdom of God.

 

How to Practice Service

Like other disciplines service can be practiced. The key thing is that we gradually grow as sensitive to others’ pain as our own. Though the virus constrains us in some ways, there are many acts of service that are essential:

  • We can use our phones to actively offer comfort to people suffering from isolation, sickness, or grief.
  • Tangible work. We might deliver groceries to those who are at high risk, volunteer (with appropriate precautions) in soup kitchens or prisons, or offer financial assistance to essential workers.
  • We can help our church communities consider which of the vulnerable they are most called to (the poor, those without healthcare, the elderly) and help them become effective advocates for those people.

When we look in one direction, there is immense suffering resulting from COVID-19. When we look in the other, there is the illness of racism that plagues our body politic. Here too, Christians are called to serve by actively working to end racism. Among numerous possibilities, acts of service to treat this social disease can include:

  • We can present our pain and that of people on every side of this issue to God—asking for his assistance to understand the divisive issue of racism.
  • Study. God is Truth and truth seeking is a godly activity. We can develop our understanding of racism and police brutality by stopping to listen without threat to those who are hurting most, by reading literature on racism, and seeking to understand its full history. This documentary is very helpful.
  • Advocacy. We can join advocacy efforts by learning from, volunteering at, and offering financial support to local and national organizations dedicated to ending police brutality and racial inequality. We might also develop avenues for churches to be deeply involved across racial lines. For more information on advocacy efforts to address police brutality see: https://www.joincampaignzero.org
Footnotes
  1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 230.
  2. John A. McGuckin, “St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Love of the Poor (Oration 14),” in The Ecumenical Legacy of the Cappadocians, ed. Nicu Dumitraşcu (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2016). See also: https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/basils-house-of-healing.
  3. Gregory of Nazianzus. Select Orations, Oration 14, trans. by Martha Vinson (Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 42–3.
  4. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 184.
Brandon Paradise is Associate Professor, Rutgers Law School, a fellow of the Martin Institute’s Cultural Initiative, and a McDonald Distinguished Fellow, Emory Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He holds degrees from Yale Law School, Union Theological Seminary, and the University of Southern California.
Listen to all parts in this 12 Spiritual Practices for the Pandemic series