Theology as prophetic orientation

In Christian traditions, God is the primary prophet. He tells us about himself, then has others convey this knowledge. The prophets in the Bible rarely, if ever, are saying something new about God. They remind the people what they already have learned. After the Torah, the rest of the Bible is mostly commentary, and warnings, and revitalizing.

So, then, what does God tell us about his own self? What does God tell us about creation? What does God tell us about salvation, judgment, promise, redemptions? What does God tell us about the Spirit? Who is God? A simple one? A multifaceted unity? A complex unity of three persons? How does that work? What does God want us to do? Be? How are we to gather together? Who is included? What is the human condition, the human struggle, human failings? God tells Moses that he is the God of their forefathers and the I am for all generations? So, that’s history, what can we know about God’s work in history?

The challenge in these questions is to take the insight of many different narratives and teachings and speak of God in a way that is coherent with God’s revelation and has meaning for us in this present experience so that we are oriented with integrity to God’s continued work that reaches to us from the future.

It behooves us to get this right. It’s a challenge and a task to speak of God that relates the I am to who we are.

The sermon notes (now from a couple weeks ago) continue to help me orient the discussion:
The Profaning of God’s Name

  • When the delivered Israelites go to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the third commandment is that they “shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
  • Ezekiel describes what the Israelites have done as a kind of corrupting or defiling of the nature and character of God. Because the people failed to enact justice and mercy but instead followed after power and the worship of idols, then the name of God was defiled. The people around Israel did not know YHWH as a God who hears the cries of the oppressed; instead they associated YHWH with the life of all the other gods.

That telling about God involves both a relationship and a study. A delving deeply into the revelation and considerations of God from those who have wrestled with his reality, living it out and filling out themes along the way. It is a spiritual task that involves the heart, mind, soul. There is no anti-intellectualism in Scripture, there’s no rejection of learning or study, indeed these are celebrated again and again, with the warnings coming in regards to false study or, often worse, ignoring God’s being or nature. Ignorance of God is no excuse, and intentional ignorance is worthy of judgment.

When we name God, we do not control God. When we call on the name of God, we are orienting ourselves in a situation of dangerous possibilities. God works, but God is who God is, not who we want God to be. God responds, but is not all things to all people. If we name God, then speak falsely of his character, values, goals, we are liable to judgment. It’s not mere strong language that’s being condemned in Exodus 20. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” Misusing God’s name is about making God seem to others something he is not. It is abusing the relationship for our own power or benefit or pleasure. When we teach about God things that God does not see as true, we are misusing the name of God. The Jewish scholars sought to bypass the danger by no longer using the name of God, using ways to get around saying the name, lest they say it vainly. Jesus was not convinced by this workaround.

We are given the Name and we are given the name so as to encounter this God who is, walking rightly, with justice and mercy, in truth. Who is this God? What has this God done? What is this God doing? What will this God do? That is the prophetic task, and it is the task of those who claim to be theologians to find coherent ways to speak of these realities, teaching who God is to each generation, ever deeper so that the people may go ever farther in the calling this God gives.

So we need theologians as prophets. But that doesn’t let theologians off the hook. False prophets, after all, do abound.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

So opens 2 Peter 2. Jeremiah 14 has this to say:

Then the Lord said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. Therefore this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine. And the people they are prophesying to will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and sword. There will be no one to bury them, their wives, their sons and their daughters. I will pour out on them the calamity they deserve.

If I’m commending the role of theologian as a prophet, then I can’t ignore the warnings that comes with such a task and such a title. To be a theologian is not a casual affair, though many have treated it as yet another among many academic specialties. Maybe for some it is. For those who take this God seriously, it is a serious task and calling.

Many in the past tried to get around the warning about wrongly using God’s name by no longer using the name God gave Moses. Instead of the Name, they used the title Lord or God. In most of our translations, the name of God is translated as LORD in all caps. Jesus wasn’t convinced by this false show of piety. It’s not the name that’s the issue, it’s what we’re representing as relates to this name. If we do oppression as Christians, the name of Christ is brought into the service of the oppression, and we are making wrongful use of the name. If we condemn or alienate in ways that aren’t aligned with God, we are misusing the name. We are appropriating God’s authority for our own purposes. That’s vain. And that’s dangerous.

Academic theologians are quite a bit in this danger. I’m not only talking of the ones that are more freely indulging in heresy or don’t believe in God at all. They’re liable to judgment, sure, but not really more than everyone else. There an obvious target. In the model of Romans 1, however, I’m more interested in looking closer to home. What about the theologians who speak the words of God but are primarily oriented in systems that have, to say the least, other concerns. The academic system, for instance, in which theologians are obligated to God somewhere five or six steps down the list. The academic system leads theologians to seek academic honors and gratification, to frame the discussions so as to please academic colleagues, to be respectable in their institutions and respectable in their guilds and respectable in pursuing the theoretical fads of the moment. Being an academic is a very privileged perch, after all, where one relies on the money of those going into debt to pay for a protected status.

Again, the danger in response is an anti-intellectualism. So, we have the intellectuals on one side who serve idols of status and power and vanity. On the other side, we have those who serve the idols of ignorance and whatever whims of religious culture they might be part of. Who are the ones who seek God first, who speak deeply with learned discernment about who God is and what God is doing?

If a theologian truly is in the role of a prophet, then it’s not really feasible to find theology entrapped in the power structures of either academia or the church, where the systems dis-orient the message so as to co-opt the name.

That’s not to say that theology can’t be truly prophetic in academic or ecclesial circles. It’s just it’s a dangerous and difficult task. To be worked out with fear and trembling rather than arrogance. We don’t have idols of gold or silver or wood. We do have idols of conferences, tenure, publishing, and collegiality. Or for those of us who are on the underside of academia, we have idols of jobs, of networking, of benefits. What does it take to get those things? Sometimes it seems like we need to co-opt the name of God, use the language and message of God, living our calling vainly, in order to gain a place at the table.

We associate YHWH with the life of all the other gods of our time. And people then realize the theologians have little or nothing to say about God himself.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

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mission accomplished

From a student paper:

Contemporary Christian Theology seems like such an academic topic, I was a sophomore, and my faith was incredibly new. I walked in, looked at the class, and saw I was way in over my head. But, as this class ended up teaching me, as well as the blog, I was completely in the right place allowing the spirit to work through me. Words like eschatology, Christology, and pneumatology were words that I never thought I’d grasp, but what I came to learn was that these concepts were ideas already stemmed within in me and were things that I had views on . It was amazing to hear different denominations’ viewpoints as well as speak on Catholicism as I haven’t really have not had the opportunity to share it in biblical studies and Christian theology classes before. Perhaps what I most understood through this class was the idea that theology isn’t about knowing everything, it is about using your life, understanding each other’s views, and knowing that at the end of the day, like everything, it is about Christ.

The class is Contemporary Christian Theology, a gen ed I teach at APU. I’m not sure I would have phrased it like this, but this does come close to my goal. And that I’m teaching students who are not going into further theology studies or ministries is even better. I translated academic theology in a way that helped. That’s something. Maybe not everything, but it’s something.

We’ll see where God leads in my pursuit of communicating all of this. My contract with APU was only for a year, and they are looking for someone with different background for next year (and the permanent position). So after this next semester? Do you need a theologian? Maybe it’s not only academia that needs more theologians… Maybe that’s part of the problem in a lot of respects.

For now, and for this season of life, I’m learning a lot in this present foray of academia (the positives and the negatives) and it is encouraging to know I’m helping others learn as well. What will the next season hold during this time of continued wilderness?

I await the Promised Land, keep walking forward, find strength and hope in the face of discouraging news, find renewal and encouragement in hearing very positive affirmation from others. I’m tired, to be honest, but the cloud hasn’t rested yet, so I, we as a family, seek what God has in store, further up and further in.

To live is Christ.

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“Name it, claim it”: Theology as prophetic insight

What is prophecy? A popular understanding sees it as telling about the future, doom or glory, with a prophet more like fortune teller. Indeed, that’s what a lot of “prophecy” that’s out there in popular Christian circles is really modeled after, it’s a way of giving people a cue to the, or their, future so as to 1) make money 2) give the speaker some level of power 3) tickle the fancy of wayward hearts. Which isn’t to say that everyone who is interested in prophetic movements are bad, more often than not they’re desperate. And desperate people eager to hear a word from God in their difficulties fall prey to those who leech off desperation.
Holy-Prophet-Moses
I’m also not rejecting prophetic movements or people in general. I have Pentecostal influences and still see myself in that tradition in many ways. I’ve had people give me helpful counsel, reminders of God’s call, insight into how God is working, and I’ve appreciated that in deep ways. I think there are people out there who really are sensitive to the work of the Spirit and speak words of truth in contexts where the words are important. Such words aren’t just limited to future-telling. Prophecy is a speaking of God, words concerning God, utterances of God’s interests and values. In this way, in Christian tradition, we say that the primary prophet about God is God himself, who reveals himself to people, initiating the conversation.

As I continue my musings from the message notes of last week’s sermon, here’s what comes next:

God’s Unique Name (Exodus 3)

  • God is the “I AM” who is present with his people in their suffering. Thus it is the “I AM” God how has sent Moses to Pharaoh. And now Moses will go as YHWH’s representative and he will be “like God to Pharaoh” (Ex 7:1)

So, we can see the task of prophecy and the task of theology here in God’s introduction. God describes himself. He describes himself as one who is paying attention. He describes himself as attentive to the current issues. He describes himself as being willing to engage the situation. Have hope.

He also tells Moses his name. God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
jk_prophet
Names are important. In naming something we identify its purpose, meaning, and situate a form of control. Calling someone by name is both endearing and influential, when we hear our name we turn and respond. The ability to use a name, then becomes a source of subsequent power. Bothering me? I know a guy I can call. We use names to create contexts of interaction and, often, bartering. Names imply domains, both in the internet and more broadly. So many gods, all have their names, all have their areas of specialty. Want thunder? Thor. Wisdom? Athena. Flavor for your food? Huixtocihuatl. Trouble with water? Suijin. Need to write? Seshat. Name him, claim him. Name her, claim her.

The Jewish God gives not so much a name as a statement. What is his domain? “I am”. What is his speciality? “I am”. Who is responsible. He is. For everything in essence, but not in a generalized way, in a distinct, purposeful, willful way. Who is this God that gives such a name? Not a god you want to cross. Not a god who is going to put up with distortions or being subverted. That’s what the prophets are about in many ways, God feels slighted and God feels like his people have taken advantage of him, dismissed him, played around with others, while the ones in charge use the name of God to institute perversion or oppression or corruption. The Name claims it all, and judgment is the result. When we name God, God claims us. God calls us to live in light of his claim.

Prophecy then is a telling about God in light of the fact God is particular about his name, his ways, his priorities, his values. He reveals himself and it is not up to us to distort the revelation. However, what the prophets do is relate God’s revelation to contexts, addressing situations, addressing ideas and concerns. Moses asks what he is to say. God tells him. Moses tells Pharaoh and all the people. Prophecy is not an easy task, and it is not a task to be treated lightly.

It is the task of theology. We speak of God. Deeply and thoroughly as we can.

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Theologian as Prophet

As my PhD in theology is still somewhat fresh, and my career is in what might be best called a nebulous phase, I think a lot about what it means now to be a “theologian.” I’m a professional at that, after all, so I should really know what that profession is about. I’m still wary, honestly, about using that term as it seems so, well, grandiose. But, what else would I say?

That’s what my professional education and training is in. Evagrios of Pontus would suggest that a theologian is someone who prays truly and someone who prays truly is a theologian. I’d like to think that I fit that, or at least I fit that better as I go along in this life. Is that it then?

Jeremiah

I like Evagrios’s comment but I mig ht make a suggestion, one that incorporates that and extends it into a profession. Dare I say calling? Is there a charism fittingly labeled as “theologian” in our era?

I tentatively think so. I’ve been considering this for a while and my musings got a spark in the sermon notes printed in the church bulletin this past Sunday. (For the sermon, here’s a video)

There’s four sections in the notes, and so I’m going to do a post per section, adding my musings to the comments by Scott Daniels. I think the role of theologian can (though certainly not must) fill the role of prophet, and as such this gives theologians both a calling and an orientation in the church, something both theologians and the church have often ignored.

From the notes:
The Work of the Prophet: Deconstruction and Reconstruction

  • The prophets fulfilled a very important–if dangerous–role in the nation of Israel. Generally speaking, there are three key leadership roles in the OT: prophet, priest, and king. The problem with kingship (and the prosperity it represents) is that it seems inevitably to erode the radical uniqueness of God’s people in the world.

Who serves the role of “king” in a Christian sense? Jesus, of course. As savior and lord, Jesus is the head of the church, he is king of kings and lord of lords. There can’t be two heads and while we may certainly have power structures in churches and society, there’s only one in charge of the mission. It’s a messianic mission empowered by the Holy Spirit. Messiah and Spirit and Father. The king in the OT was a cultural accommodation, meant to provide a visible headship, an immanent analogy. Of course, a king hates being limited to analogy so often took on airs of absolute power. Nowadays, there’s none that can or should serve that role.

We have immediate access to God through the Son in the Spirit, and any hierarchy is more parliamentary than royal in function. That being said, kings represent the temporal order of things, the political and legal systems in this world. We do have those systems and wherever else our allegiance might be, we participate in these systems. Who is our king? Who defines our status and participation, who is included and excluded. That’s a big question, but moving away from the present one. Let’s move on…

  • Priests take care of the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people and administer the worship taking place in the temple. Priests, however, tend to be status-quo kinds of leaders. They are no less prone to corruption than are kings. Too often the priesthood becomes a religious prop for the reigning monarch–whether they are good or bad.

Priests are the key players in the religious system, a system that involves making connections between the transcendent and immanent, between the ethereal and earthly. It also involves navigating perceived paradoxes in life, giving meaning to our role in the universe. The trouble is that in this system, there is the expectations of the system. People expect the system to function in a predictable way. Priests (or pastors) are conditioned to performing their duties in a predictable way. The establishment of a rhythm is itself part of the system. But in times of corruption or issues of life or faith that are outside the orientation of the system, a person can find emptiness, desolation, exclusion.Prophet-Elias-Grk-ikon

I encountered this in junior high and early high school, during a season of extreme financial stress in our family, coupled with major health issues, there was no resonance in the churches or youth groups. They were oriented towards middle and upper middle class religious system.

Meanwhile, my family was struggling to eat and pay rent and struggled with knowing where God was in the midst of a crisis in which almost all our family and friends were Christians but we were left to struggle alone. For the most part–I had very close friends during this time that were sustaining influences, true community, even though I didn’t know then how to express my hurt or need. It was just life as it was and it had nothing to do with church.

The religion system just didn’t reach into our lives, and the religious system is also susceptible to corruption. Arbiters of heaven and hell, transcendence and coherence, can use this power for their own benefits, financially, socially, psychologically.

This is a big reason why I struggle with the emphasis of church as the kingdom of God. It leaves no room for critique. It also prioritizes the religious system as the whole experience of life. If you’re finding value or success in that system (as does, for instance, people Stanley Hauerwas) it makes sense to commend it. If you’re on the outside, then you’re told to get on the inside, because that’s where you’ll be filled. jesus_scrollThis isn’t to reject the religious system, but rather to suggest there needs to be a critical voice, one that calls the church (and its leaders) towards deepening, towards refocusing, away from tendencies that are not values of Christ’s mission or the Spirit’s work.

The Church, after all, may always be pointing towards a kingdom, but it’s not always the kingdom of God. Sermons, for instance, can be very powerful messages of God’s word. They also, however, can embed distortions and symbolize unfortunate power structures and disoriented theology (by prioritizing one person and one medium as the expression of the Spirit in a church setting). The pastor, for better or worse, is part of the religious system that is the church so reflects the values and priorities of this system, sometimes more than the people who are present, who are the people Christ values and the Spirit is working through.

The sermon notes continue:

The prophets, on the other hand, come from outside the political system (they are usually weird and antisocial in some way) and speak the word of the LORD to the king and to the priests. This is why they often are persecuted because they speak from outside the system, to the system. The word of the LORD from the prophet is therefore often hard for the people to hear. When the people finally are able to hear the deconstructing word of discipline from the prophet they are then able to hear the reconstructing words of hope from that also flow through the prophets.

To the system, but not of the system. That seems a great description of the role theologians can play. The idea that the prophetic must somehow be anti-intellectual or unlearned is a great mistake. Often it is the people who spend the most time with the texts who are able to discern the trends, the “signs of the times,” the message of God for a moment or generation. The Holy Spirit works in spontaneous ways but also in deeper gifts, charisms of learning and teaching and discernment.

The trouble, of course, is that theologians may give their allegiance to other systems. The education industrial complex system, for instance, which creates structures of power, meaning, identity, success that often orients a person’s passion into patterns that buttress the system rather than lead to truth or transformation. So, the idea of a theologian as prophet might be both a call and a challenge, for both the church and those who have made it their life to study and teach the ways of God.

There are more notes to muse on, so there’s more to come.

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contextual incarnation

If I really wanted to live as Jesus lived in my context I would move up to Lake Tahoe and go around to various parties and such, getting to know people and telling them how hard it is to pursue God, but that it’s still terribly worth it. And then I would spend a lot of time in the forest alone because I didn’t like crowds. I would also be supported by rich women, as I gave up my full time job in order to go around and talk with people.

A few times a year I would come down to Los Angeles and raise a ruckus for a week or so, then walk back to Tahoe.

Of course to make it completely analogous, California would have to be ruled by China or Iran or something like that making the whole lot of us Californians a mite bit rebellious and looking for some practical freedom.

Incarnational ministry is always described somewhat different than this.

Something I wrote in 2006, and came across. It made me laugh, which is good.

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hope in faithful insecurity

“When a community lets itself be guided in its growth by the cry of the poor and their needs, it will walk in the desert and it will be insecure. But it is assured of the promised land–not the one of security, but the one of peace and love.  And it will be a community which is always alive.”

~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 142ff.

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experiencing the Kingdom of God

A transformative experience led the earliest Christians to become transformed in the power of the Spirit of resurrection and respond to the world as transformative people.[1]

This orients life within a “horizon of expectation.”[2] God’s people become oriented within the process of his eschatological work, while continuing to experience the contradictions of determinative history in their contexts—yet the hope in the transformative work of God allows them to live within the word of promise, which gives meaning to their participation and contexts.

The expectation, then, is not in vain but in keeping with God’s creative interaction and commitment, a commitment that seeks complete correspondence with heaven and earth.[3] The resurrection is, then, a “historical hope for the future” that is concerned with “the future in the lives lived by those who belong to the past.”[4]

The resurrection is not, however, a spiritualized hope, a vague embrace of otherness that imbues people with a sense of security in the midst of transitory, and often unfortunate, reality. Christ lives. This is a bodily resurrection that orients toward a physicalized salvation. The experience of the Risen Christ points toward a process of transition, one oriented eschatologically and experienced within its processes.

This is the Way. “Just as Moses led the people of Israel out of Pharaoh’s slavery into the liberty of the promised land, so Christ leads humanity out of the slavery of death into the liberty of the new creation.”[5] Those who participate with Christ participate in this way, entering into the process of God’s renewal of all life and becoming a liberating presence of Christ.

The praxis of Christ leads to the praxis of the Spirit in the praxis of the people. This is the experience of resurrection hope. This praxis is the expression of love realized in the flesh, the “transcendent perfecting of love.”[6] This love is itself the orientation of the resurrection, leading life to be expressed in love and it is this life of love “that will rise and be transfigured.”[7]

Such love is oriented by the Spirit, opening up, steering, even limiting the way toward the fullness of life that is expressed, making what is not present or even seemingly possible come into being.[8] The energies of the Spirit is the power of the resurrection among us, and the new way of living initiated by Christ is “the anticipated rebirth of the whole cosmos.” A life lived without expression of this resurrection is a life that is devoid of the horizon of expectation that includes the resurrection of Christ.

[1] See Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 236–45.

[2] Ibid., 238.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 239 and 240.

[5] Ibid., 257.

[6] Ibid., 262.

[7] Ibid., 263.

[8] Ibid. Molmann writes, “The horizon of expectation make the sphere of experience accessible.”

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holistic theology

“The task of reflection performed by theology interacts with the praxis of practitioners, one not dominating or dismissing the other, but rising like incense to the heavens, carrying with it a sweeter aroma of God’s holistic work in our holistic existence

This method, then, assumes that a particularly Christian theology must be a theology that is with and for the church, listening and speaking, and so with this in mind I argue that such a theology must include elements that are not traditionally seen as systematic theology.

For systematic theology to be truly systematic about its role, however, it must relearn how to communicate with the church, and for the church to regain its theological moorings so that it has integrity with its history and its context, it must find a way of reintegrating the insights of systematic theology.”

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Foundations of a Transformative Church

“To live is Christ,” Paul wrote to the Philippians. While this statement may take on various elements of meaning, I argue that this is not merely an ethical exhortation or a religious orientation. This is an ontological transformation in those who are participants in Christ through the Spirit with the Father. We do not lose our identity, we gain it.

In becoming transformed into the likeness of Christ we become most fully who we truly are, our identity enlivened inasmuch as it is rooted in the source of all identity, that of God. The process of this ontological transformation is the process of salvation and sanctification.

The mode of this transformation is participatory and communal, initiated by God, oriented by God, inviting us toward responsibility in responding to this transformation.

It is participatory in that we are not passively formed but formed through our contextual practices, practices that shape our response to this world, to God, to ourselves in ways that either lead us toward fulfillment in God or dissolution away from God.

This is not a salvation by works. Grace continually sustains and orients us, a free space within which we can find real freedom of being.

It is communal in that our participation is never isolated but always involves other people, and it is only in the context of other people that we learn what it means to be free as a person in the fullness of God’s identity.

~from Patrick Oden, The Transformative Church, 9-10

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the road to resurrection of people’s gifts

I often find in communities members who are suffering because they feel they have been put aside; after years of carrying responsibility, they have difficulty finding their new place in the community. They are grieving the loss of responsibility. These people have to discover that we are all in community not because it is wonderful and brings human fulfillment, but because we are called by God.

It is to be hoped they will discover that through their pain they are being called by Jesus to a new and deeper intimacy with the Father, and that this is their gift to be lived at this particular time. Is this not finally the ultimate gift for each person?

If they do not realize their new gift; if they do not discover the road to resurrection through humility and inner pain, then they may remain simply in the bitterness and humiliation of the cross.

Sometimes when people are taking on responsibility ‘successfully’, and when the yare admired and looked up to, they may forget that communion with Jesus and the Father is our goal, our source of peace. They can in some ways by-pass a certain quality of trust in God; they can replace God by community. Community is then no longer a place of love flowing from God and to God, manifesting his life, but becomes an end in itself. This manifestation of the life of God always flows through our own poverty and feeling of helplessness.

But of course community leaders and councils must not spiritualize their own error and injustice or lack of love by saying that these people who are suffering must obey, bear their cross and pray.

No. Leaders must learn to rectify their errors and injustice if they have committed them; they must see that these people find the spiritual help they need, and the opportunity to continue to exercise their gifts. For this, leaders need to be truly compassionate and creative.

~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 55

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