Community Organizing, Contemplative Spirituality

Why Not Be Turned Into Fire

NicholasTangen / January 23, 2018

Last week I was invited to speak about the spirituality of community organizing at a training titled “The World Is About to Turn”, organized by the Minneapolis Area Synod ELCA. Below is the text from that talk. 

There is a false narrative swimming around in the ether that says that our lives are separated into different and opposing categories like spiritual, secular, contemplative, active. I think this a pretty common thing we experience not only in our faith communities, but throughout our culture. Speaking to this very problem, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister, teacher, and contemplative tells a story about one of the desert fathers:

Once a disciple went to see Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: “Why not be turned into fire?

I love this story, and I love this call to be turned into fire. Abba Joseph challenges his disciple to be ignited by the experience and the presence of God, what he may have thought he could only encounter in his little cell, and to let that fire burn and spread in the world. Fire is like that. It can be a challenge to contain it once its lit. It spreads rapidly, and it consumes whatever is in its path. It is a unitive, renewing, purifying, and transforming power and is the perfect image for contemplative and compassionate action, which is what we’ve gathered this week to learn about. I thought about this story of Abba Joseph when I noticed that our time together was called The World Is About To Turn. Honestly, is there a better hymn than the Canticle of the Turning? Especially that chorus: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.” Here we encounter again that image of burning fire as the realization of God’s justice in the world. Why not be turned into fire?

Another characteristic of fire, is that it’s powerful, and we are going to hear a lot about power over the next couple of days. And, for many people of faith this language of power can be incredibly off-putting. We tend to think of power as coercive and unilateral. We think of power as something someone has over someone else. This corrupting power is a symptom of dualistic thinking and our culture’s elevation of the ego. When the ego rules, coercive and unilateral power is king. We can see this playing out today in our political and public discourse. When we are only able to think in terms of the self, and to imagine other people, institutions, and creation as objects for our manipulation and control, then we have acquiesced to coercive power completely.

Furthermore, we hear Jesus in the Gospels telling us to turn the other cheek, to walk a second mile, and to give clothes off our back to those who ask, and we don’t often see this as an appeal to power, or as actions that are themselves powerful. In a lot of popular consciousness Jesus is passive, docile, and submissive. We are happy to think about God as love, and to characterize Jesus’ power as one grounded in love, which is true, but unfortunately, we’ve subconsciously swallowed the narrative that love is weak, or that its power is limited only to our reactions or perceptions. Love often looks like trying not to judge our neighbor, or to change our thinking on something. Maybe I can be more patient if I try to love my neighbor. But we struggle to think of love, or to imagine the ministry of Jesus, as something truly powerful. Something that truly and beautifully shapes and transforms the cosmos, and participates in the creation of a trusting, creative, and just world.

But when we really start to engage with the Gospel text, and we start to practice those spiritual disciplines laid out in our traditions, we discover a different kind of power than the coercive power we’ve come to expect. The power of Jesus is relational. Now, here it might be helpful to just define what we mean by power; Robert Linthicum defines power as the ability, capacity, and willingness of a person, a group of people, or an institution to act (1). Already, that takes a bit of the sting away from our preconceived notions of power, particularly in the context of meaningful political and social action. But, as I said, the power that Jesus and his disciples build through his years of ministry is relational. It is not power over, it is power with. It is shared power applied towards a common vision for the world as it should be. This relational nature is highlighted even in the way we talk about God, using relational language like Father, Mother, Parent of us all, Son, and Spirit. It’s emphasized beautifully in the Psalms in lines like: “In you O Lord I seek refuge” and “Incline your ear to me”.

Building relational power begins simply enough; with one person. It’s centered first and always in building relationships. Robert Linthicum says,

“Perhaps the biblical person most skilled at building relationships was Jesus…Each relationship between Jesus and another follows a similar pattern: Jesus would commit undivided, undistracted time to another person…even when he would be in the midst of a crowd. He would listen to that person – not only to his words but also to the passion or pain that lay behind those words. Jesus would affirm that person so that she would feel loved and appreciated by him. Jesus would challenge that person to an action or decision, whether it was to take the next risky step of faith or to act on something he needed to do. A part of challenging that person would be to get her to think through her situation, often in the light of her relationship with Jesus or the call to Jubilee. Finally, Jesus would often use the situation of an intense individual meeting with a person as an opportunity to teach that person.” (1)

That sounds an awful lot like an organizer to me. My point in telling you all this is to simply say that power is sacred, it is integral, and it is something we have together. The narrative that suggests that power is either objectively bad or unavailable to most of us is a lie. You are powerful. We are powerful. And collective, relational, and contemplative power transforms individuals, institutions, systems, and the world. It’s less brittle than unilateral power, it’s malleable and able to adjust, and it isn’t attached to power as something we own, but as something we share. Relational power sparks the fire we have been invited to become.

Now it must be said that power can also corrupt. Often our reluctance to think about power as integral to a life of faith is based on past experience, where we have witnessed or experienced power gone awry. Powerful systems are at play in our world all the time, perpetuating white supremacy, patriarchy, and extraction capitalism for example. Power is a powerful drug, and as we learn this week how to build power in our communities and how to exercise that power towards a vision grounded in our shared values it is important for us to combat those tendencies that might tempt us to reject relational power in favor of coercive power. For me this is where spiritual and contemplative practice comes in.

I’m challenging us to think of community organizing as a spiritual practice. And, I don’t mean that in a trite, you know, everything is a spiritual practice, kind of a way. I mean the building of relational power IS spiritual practice.

I mentioned earlier the elevation of the ego in our culture. I don’t think it can be denied that the most important idea in our culture’s mind is the individual. Now, this isn’t necessarily new, but it is particularly potent at this moment in our history. Our politics is entirely engrossed with the individual. Pundits and politicians appeal to our individual needs, fears, and desires at the expense of the collective, and we fawn over candidates every couple of years, trusting that somehow this individual will be the ONE to finally make the difference.

This is dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinking is incapable of perceiving the world outside of the black and white, subject/object dichotomy. This type of thinking grants subjectivity only to ourselves, and treats everything else as an object over which I can have power or influence. Dualistic thinking isn’t always some great evil. Our brains develop in either/or thinking, our language is the result of binaries. However, dualistic thinking, and the supremacy of the self, that is never balanced with a fuller appreciation for the complexity of the world, perpetuates coercive power and isolation. Unfortunately, this is the default mode for most modern human beings.

Ego believes itself to be the only true subject, the only true observer, in dualistic consciousness. It defines itself in negation. I am this, not that. It thrives in an either/or world that sees control and coercive power as ultimate good. Richard Rohr says that “When we have not met our True Self, our true identity in God, we are content with what we are not. What we are not demands nothing of us whatsoever except putting someone else down, which is supposed to pull us up!”(2). In the context of community organizing and the work of justice in our communities, this false self, this egoic consciousness, can be especially pernicious, grounding our power not in shared values, but in shared negations. This looks like political campaigns grounded in an “Anybody but them” mentality, or obstruction and resistance without transformation. Carl Jung famously said “What you resist persists”, and in the case of this work when we engage practices of social transformation motivated by a desire to identify with this NOT that, we run the risk of creating and sustaining coercive power dynamics.

Thankfully, our religious and spiritual traditions have been pushing back against the dualistic mind for centuries. On Ash Wednesday we’ll read the following from Matthew’s Gospel:

So whenever you give alms, do not sound the trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…But…go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal…put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret…(3)

Prayer, almsgiving, fasting; these are just some of the practices that the Gospel writer expects the community to participate in. Furthermore, the expectation is that they will be engaged in such a way that that the self is not centered in their practice. This is the gift of contemplation, the rejection of the false self and the embrace of the true self grounded in the love of God, and shared with one another. 

My primary spiritual practice is Centering Prayer, which I am sure a number of you have experience with. This is a practice that is completely invested in letting go of our attachment to self, to the stories we tell about our world, and to the narratives that convince us that we are alone and powerless. In centering prayer, we use a sacred word or image as a place holder for our intention to sit in restful silence with God. When we notice that we have attached ourselves to a thought we return to the sacred word, letting the thought and the word fall away. What we experience in this practice are moments of objectless awareness. This sounds complicated but really what it means is that we for the briefest of moments we stop perceiving the world as a subject, as the only observer, encountering an object. In those gaps between the thoughts the “I”and the “Not I” are experienced as one, rather than two distinct entities. This has an effect on our brain and on the way we perceive the world and engage with one another. Contemplative practice builds muscle memory and allows us to practice holding the tension of opposites. It deepens our capacity for compassion, empathy, and acceptance. Cynthia Bourgeault says that this is like upgrading to a new operating system where we are able to experience the world as both/and, rather than either/or. We are able to transcend the egoic self, because we are no longer finding identity in negation but in unity (4). This unity is all-encompassing and grounded in the love of God. We find ourselves acting from a place of wholeness with a vision for the world as it should be, as Abba Joseph instructed, turned into fire.

Every good contemplative practice seeks to provide this operating system upgrade wherein we perceive the world differently, and my suggestion to you is that this is precisely what we encounter in the work of community organizing. Community organizing is nondualistic in its nature. It is self-emptying. Those guidelines for building relational power that I mentioned earlier, that Linthicum highlights as central to Jesus’ ministry, get right to this. Jesus first provides undivided and undistracted time to another person, to another subject, even in the midst of a crowd. This is evidence of contemplative engagement, seeing and hearing the other subject to subject, rather than subject to object. This is an encounter of one Beloved to another.

To affirm someone else’s Belovedness, and to give of ourselves to another person, requires that we know our self; our values, our interest, our skin in the game. We can not give that which we don’t know we have. So, when we talk about self-interest in community organizing, we’re not talking about selfishness or self-centeredness. We are talking about knowing and experiencing our own Belovedness and affirming the Belovedness of another, and holding those two things in tension and in harmony at one time. Because, as I mentioned earlier, contemplative and spiritual practice builds the capacity for holding things in tension, and for understanding that two opposing things can be true at the same time. For example, organizers must be able to be present in the world as it is, while simultaneously (good Lutheran word) anticipating and working towards the world as it should be. This capacity for both/and is deep in the bones of our faith tradition, and is what we mean when we talk about death and resurrection, law and promise, sinner and saint. A commitment to faithful action and to spiritual engagement helps to facilitate an upgrade to our operating system through the love of God, and the encounter of the other. And, honestly, we need this upgrade for our work to last. Social justice without this reflective and spiritual component can so easily become just another tool for coercive power to pass hands, perpetuating those narratives that tell us that we are not powerful, that we are alone, and that our action is impotent.

We have an opportunity this week to learn about and to engage in this spiritual and contemplative practice of community organizing, to encounter and affirm one another’s Belovedness, to envision a world overflowing with creativity, compassion, equity, and justice. Our encounter with one another, and with our communities is sacred work. This is not simply a tool that we can add to our ministry toolbox, it is the central way in which we build relational power that looks and acts like Jesus. In my mind this work is how you and I are able to become those fires of God’s justice, articulating a vision and a center, and engaging one another in compassionate action. I’m grateful to each of you, and for this opportunity. I’m looking forward to the learning we’ll glean together. And I’m excited to see the ways in which every one of these fires spreads in your communities.



  1. Linthicum, Robert. “Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference In Your Community”. InterVarsity Press. 2003
  2. Rohr, Richard. “Dancing Standing Still”. Paulist Press. New York. 2014
  3. Matthew 6:2-4, 5-6, 16-18 NRSV
  4. Bourgeault, Cynthia. “The Heart of Centering Prayer”. Shambhala. 2016.

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