Practicing Theolocal Spirituality: Prayer

In a previous post, I discussed our theolocal imagination and what it means for us to bear witness to the Spirit is already active in the world. I want to also describe some of the practices which shape us and enable our theolocal witness.  Prayer is fundamental to it all.

I say this as a lousy pray-er.  I would be the world’s worst mystic. I try to practice contemplative prayer, but am sabotaged by my frenetic ADHD. It’s your world and I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut to move your butt, to the dance floor now your butt’s up. Wait what?

When I sit to pray. I am immediately distracted. This is doubly difficult because I am an extrovert who works at home. Alone. I crave interaction. Personal prayer is difficult for me and I suck at it. I need to admit this up front because as a faith blogger and erstwhile pastor,  it is easy for me to cast myself in the role of expert. Not in this post, I am describing a practice which is still a major growth edge for me. Below I am describing aspects of prayer and spirituality I believe and long to grow into.

If you want (as I want) to know the Theolocal Spirit—our God-come-near we need to set aside time to explore and grow in prayer. As I see it, prayer is necessary to the theolocal practice because it changes who we attend to, our attitude in the moment, and awakens us to where the wind of the Spirt may be blowing.

Paying Attention to God

Have you heard of confirmation bias? It is a social psychological reality which describe how naturally, each of us tends to overvalue evidence which confirms our preexisting set of beliefs. It is the reason why those on the far Right are able to put a happy face on a Donald Trump’s presidency (for the way he drains the swamp, takes on the lying fake news, stands up for the little guy and promotes economic growth) and those on the Left see corruption, collusion with Russia, careless speech, misogyny, and treason. Both the Left and Right are looking at the same guy, but they pay attention to different things, emphasizing the facts (or alternative facts) which confirm their bias. Neither side sees the whole picture.

There is much more to be said about confirmation bias (such as the need for epistemological humility), but how does any of this relate to prayer? On a basic level, confirmation bias is paying attention to the truths which matter to us. I believe wholeheartedly that God is living and active in our communities, constantly at work—the wind blowing where it will—whether we mark His Presence or not; however those of us who carve out serious time for prayer, and prayerful activities (such as Lectio Divina) will see evidence of his Presence everywhere. Prayer primes the pump. Our prayer awakens a habit of mind where we see the Divine in daily life. This is the Confirmation bias of Prayer.

As a young adult, I was part of a faith community which emphasized personal evangelism. We used to pray for ‘divine appointments,’ opportunities to share our faith with others. When they happened we called this answered prayer. Perhaps, but if I am honest I also have gotten into many spiritual conversations without praying in advance (I also missed more than a few).  If we cultivate a life of prayer, we are more likely to see ways God is at work and make the most of the opportunities which come our way.

Do you see God at work in your neighborhood and in your community? What about in the lives of friends and neighbors? 

An Attitude of Openness

My guiding theolocal conviction is that wherever we are, God got there first and is already at work. When this conviction guides our prayer life, we parse our ecosystems differently. We don’t just look for the areas of distress (e.g. addictions, pollutants, destructive behaviors, isolation or whatever) but we look to others in our community with an expectancy to see the hand and face of God.

We come to a neighborhood, not with the hope of bringing the Kingdom of God but with the expectation that we will bear witness to the ways the Kingdom is already there. We don’t go into the world simply to seek and save the lost as the incarnate Christ once did (Luke 19:10) but we go expecting to identify the altar of the unknown God (Acts 17:23) and ways the Spirit of Christ is there calling out to human hearts.

As we pray, we pray for an attitude of openness to see how and where  God is at work.

Awakened to the Wind of the Spirit

In prayer, we cultivate attention and an openness to God, but we also are awakened to see the ways God’s Spirit is moving.  This is the fruit of learning to attend to God. We recognize where God is, and at work. We also see when God is on the move.  How do you reach a community with the love of Christ and bear witness to the reality of God’s Presence in our midst? What is the missional strategy that you should take with your neighbors? In your community?

The answer is different for different places and different people. There is no missional strategy or fancy acronym that will bring the world to Christ. The Spirit of Christ is already there, in the world. Get theolocal and learn to attend to the ways God-Came-Near is moving.

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The Theolocal Imagination

This post was born out of a typo. Responding to a friend on Facebook, I tried to type on my tablet the word theological but my fat fingers produced instead theolocal, evidently too anarchic for an autocorrect fix. I did fix it before pressing send but it got me thinking, “Theolocal—what a lovely way to say God came near!” I was set on a path imagining what it means to reveal the theolocal God in my everyday life.

Incarnation vs. Bearing Witness

John tells us in the introduction to his gospel that the Word, who was with and is God (John 1:1), became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), or as every missional preacher, church planter or Christian community development organization reminds us, ““The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. (The Message). In Jesus, God was theolocal—he moved into the neighborhood. God was not watching us from a distance, but entered into our humanity, completely and fully. He suffered and was tempted by everything we suffer from and are tempted by (Hebrews 4:15). He was hungry and thirsty and experienced, for the first time in an eternity, what it meant for Him to be weak. The Incarnate One—Our Theolocal God.

Jesus’ Incarnation is an important clue as to how we ought to engage in mission. Certainly, we want to be Christ’s hands and feet, and incarnate Christ’s presence wherever we go. But unfortunately this is some people’s entire missional strategy: imitate Christ by trying to incarnate him wherever we are. In a significant way, the Incarnation has already happened and if this is the only we can imagine making the theolocal vividthen we will be pretty patronizing in our mission.

Jesus is theolocal in a way we will never be. If we incarnate his presence it is because our soul has been mystically united to Him through the cross. Incarnation is a once and for all event which we participate in,  but it isn’t something we make happen through block parties, neighborhood outreaches, church planting or bringing your neighbor a plate of chocolate chip cookies.  When we think about revealing the theolocal-ness of God, Incarnation cannot be our primary approach. God is still near, but not incarnated in the way  Jesus was. Instead, the Spirit of God goes before us and is already active wherever we go.

At Jesus’s Ascension, he said these words to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These words come to fruition in the next chapter, a rushing wind, tongues of fire and Peter’s testimony that the ‘Spirit was being poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). On that day the disciples were empowered for mission and their mission was to bear witness to what God was doing and had done.

Like the first disciples, our mission is to “be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  However, if we see ourselves primarily as the incarnation of Christ coming to the neighborhood we are likely to reach out in paternalistic, condescending and ethnocentric ways (see the history of Western Christian mission). If our job is simply to be witnesses we can imagine new theolocal possibilities.

Instead of us bringing Christ and his kingdom, we arrive and discover that the Spirit of God is already at work, that there are already signs of the Kingdom and Resurrection. Because we have eyes to see, we bear witness to what we see God doing in the neighborhood, city or place. We also bear witness to where we have seen God at work in our own life but we are primarily witnesses—observers who tell others what we see.

If we are to be missional people, then we need to cultivate our theolocal imagination. In some later posts I want to press into this a little more and explore what kind of practices help us make vivid our Theolocal God, but mostly this is about cultivating our spiritual senses so that we can see which way the Wind blows, and know that wherever we are the Lord is working, long before we got there.