Monday, July 26, 2010

Mission: the Transforming Agent

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
James 2:1-13
Matthew 25:31-40

Pit bull dogs are among the smartest of all canine breeds, but they have such bad reputations because of that breeding that many towns have made it unlawful to own them within city limits. Cesar Milan, the "dog whisperer", says that owning pits is "advanced dog ownership" because they have to be well trained. It is not merely "ideal" as it is with all dogs; it is of the utmost necessity! These highly intelligent dogs have a natural instinct that is strongly bred into them so that if they are not taught how to behave and obey, their stronger and more dominant inclinations will drive everything they do. They will function according to what they've been bred to do, which is to attack and fight.

It's sad to say so, but in many ways people are no different. We are born with certain God-given tendencies and inclinations as well as a baser animal instinct to survive. As we mature we are oriented into the world in which we are born. We are taught certain social skills according to our parents' norms and standards - or we are neglected and left to figure things out for ourselves. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, because some kids come from good homes and families and then made stupid decisions while others come from marginal homes and families but choose to rise above it all. For the most part, however, animals of all species function not as they were meant to function, but rather as they have been taught or trained or conditioned to think, act, and behave.

It is important, I think, for these things to be understood or at least acknowledged before the Church can effectively be in mission because we will always and everywhere encounter so many different people from so many different backgrounds and from so many different cultures and sub-cultures. There will never be any two who are exactly alike. Even though we know there is only one Gospel just as there is only one God, one Lord; we must necessarily recognize that our approaches cannot always be just one particular standard.

I am told of a local priest in the Philippians who was coordinating mission activities there. He was speaking to a group of most western missionaries who were all preparing to "change the world" by their missionary efforts. Before he sent them out, he told them to never forget: "Our poverty does not exist to serve your needs."

To think of such a statement in real terms is to come to an understanding that while we of the faithful do possess a certain "need" to serve on at least some level, we must always be mindful that it is not our "needs" that are to be fulfilled when we embark on a particular ministry. We think of mission primarily as going to the deepest, darkest jungles and actively working to minister to "pagans" and "heathens" - uncivilized savages all. We perceive a need, so we step up to the plate to fulfill that need, but we do it more out of a sense of duty and responsibility rather than as an opportunity. Either way, the biggest mistake most often made by missionaries - local or foreign - is dealing only with the "surface" issues; that which can readily be seen with the eye. People are hungry, so we feed them. Children are walking with shoes that cannot keep their little feet warm and dry, so we shoe them. And the list goes on.

The challenge for us, then, is to look beyond the "surface" issues because if we do not, we do not fully "engage" (the first component of mission) ourselves in the lives of those we propose to help. More than faithful, we are typically more practical. These "surface" issues are what evidently require our attention, so we go to it. It is practical to take care of what needs to be taken care of. Failing to fully "engage" ourselves in the lives of our charges, then, we subsequently fail to "enact" (the second component of mission) the certain reality of the Gospel: that the Kingdom of Heaven is near in Christ Jesus. This they need to know. This WE need to know.

Here also is the trickier part. If we are not fully "engaged" in this certain spiritual reality ourselves - that the Kingdom of Heaven is near in Christ - we then are unable to "enact" this spiritual reality in the lives of others. We feed them, and yet they remain hungry. We clothe them, and yet they remain naked. We've left the heart of mission undone because we are not fully "engaged". The fundamental question left for us to answer, then, is this: how can we transform lives and make disciples of Christ if we ourselves are not transformed as disciples? It is important to realize that we are not there to "save" them; we are there to "engage" them in the Gospel, the Good News, of the Lord! But we must first be "engaged".

It goes far beyond simply being a "good person". To be transformed is to be fully "engaged" first in a genuine love relationship with the Lord God, as Moses reminded the Israelites, giving the Lord EVERYTHING that constitutes our very being, holding nothing back. In this it becomes necessary to appreciate the words of James when he cautions us to avoid "being double-minded" (1:8); that is, having as much a mind toward our own desires and our own pursuits while pretending to keep one eye toward the Lord. We deceive ourselves when we become convinced that such a thing is even possible because our baser instincts, absent the full "engagement" to and with the Lord, are geared toward ourselves, our own well-being, and our own needs. If this is where we are, we are not fully "engaged" in our relationship with the Lord. We are "dead or alive" according to our engagement.

There is a lot to be said for and about mission, not least of which is that mission is not strictly limited to a trip to the Sudan to feed orphans or to the Gulf Coast to help those displaced by a hurricane. Our mission begins the moment we say "yes" to the Lord. Our mission begins the instant we walk out of the doors where we choose to worship together. Our mission is defined not by what we see but by our love relationship with the Lord; it is indeed the very essence of Christ's Holy Church. Mission is the very reason the Church was established in the first place. Christianity is more a "movement" of the faithful than a dead, lifeless institution in which we become comfortable in our double-mindedness and our social setting.

Even within the worship setting itself, James reminds the faithful that there is mission to be done, that the Church is not a social setting in which "engagement" is limited only to those whom we personally are pleased to engage with, showing our preferences and prejudices rather than true and genuine hospitality and failing to "enact" that which all of humanity needs to know: that the Kingdom of Heaven is near in Christ.

Let me end with this final thought. Though we are witnesses to the Truth and the Good News of the Gospel of Christ, are we "representatives of Christ" or are we "servants of the Lord"? The difference is profound and the answer may reveal a little more than we might be comfortable with, but this compelling question will also help us to perhaps better understand what mission is really all about; indeed what Church itself is really all about. To transform lives - including our own - to make disciples - in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Peace be with you and yours,

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Reaping the Harvest

Galatians 6:7-10
Luke 10:1-11

For the last two years at least, the prevailing theme at Annual Conference has been "change" in response to a continually declining membership in the United Methodist Church. Of course other denominations are experiencing the same declines overall with fewer professions of faith and an aging congregation, but we are focused more on our own mission to a culture that is seemingly more and more alien to us. Bishop Crutchfield suggested we are perhaps not unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, experiencing a world that is unfamiliar to us. That may sound depressing, but the bishop also reminded us that, like the Israelites in the wilderness, the Lord God is still leading the way. It is simply a matter of whether or not we will choose to listen to Him and follow His lead - or perish on our own in that wilderness.

Social activism has, in my humble opinion, because more the focus of the United Methodist Church because such efforts are relevant not only to us but more so to those who find themselves on the fringes of society, struggling to keep their heads above water, and wondering when or whether someone will come along to remind them that they are of sacred value, as much as anyone else. These immediate physical needs are much easier to identify and much easier to address because we can clearly see what is needed at any given moment. And we work to fulfill those needs.

Yet the United Methodist Church declines as it has - and still does - because we've lost our heart for evangelism. Worse still, we have forgotten how to speak the language of evangelism. And make no mistake; social activism is not to be confused with evangelism. Evangelism is for many just a word, a task that falls on someone else, primarily clergy, so it is not for us to concern ourselves with. We don't need to know about evangelism because, well, that is the job of the "evangelist".

Doing "good works" suits us better not only because we can see almost immediate positive results but also because we can feel good about what we do. We can go about such good works not only because of how it makes us feel about ourselves, but because we can pick and choose these works according to what we feel like doing, according to whatever suits our particular style. If something is particularly unpleasant or uncomfortable or just plain hard, we reason that the Lord is simply not leading us there, that this particular task falls to someone else. In other words, the essence of our faith - sacrifice - as a key element of evangelism is lost because the language is as unfamiliar to us as the "wilderness" was to the Israelites.

It seems to me that social activism on behalf of any church or denomination substantially misses the mark of evangelism because in the end, we teach by social activism that man - perhaps specifically government - is the answer to their problems and prayers. We tell them they are forgotten because man has forgotten them, and that Uncle Sam (or man or a particular political party) can make their problems go away almost immediately. It gets tricky here, though, because we do have social and moral responsibilities as a people and as a nation - most certainly as the Body of Christ - and we are required to feed those who are hungry and tend to those who are sick, lonely, and afraid.

As we can see with Jesus' charge to His disciples, however, there is that important element missing: the Kingdom of Heaven has come near but we fail to make this message the primary focus of our efforts. It becomes incidental to what we do because we gravitate toward that which is more familiar to us, and unfortunately partisan politics is much more familiar to us than evangelism. We resist the "wilderness" experience because we can see no real reward for such discomfort, for unnecessary suffering on our part. We can clearly see there are a lot of people out there who are hanging by their last thread, a lot of people who are hurting, a lot of people who are delicately teetering between despair and utter hopelessness, but we are unwilling to share in their suffering, choosing instead to tell who is to blame for their sorry lot in life. This is the danger inherent to social activism.

Notice something. Notice the implied openness of Luke's gospel, and what I mean by "openness" is the suggestion that those who receive the messengers "in peace" (but not necessarily in faith) will have peace bestowed on them. "You reap what you sow." In Luke 10:16 Jesus simply states that "whoever listens to you listens to Me" BUT "whoever rejects you rejects Me ..."

It seems to me, then, that men and women instantaneously falling to their knees and embracing Jesus as Messiah by our visit is not necessarily part of the equation, yet this is what we have come to expect because, I think, we overthink evangelism and thus make it harder than it really has to be. We take much more upon ourselves than we are entitled or called to. Such a conversion will surely come in the Lord's time rather than our own, and that is an important factor too many of us fail to comprehend because we all function in our own time. We simply cannot comprehend "eternal" time.

Instead, by our faithful efforts seeds are being planted and relationships are being developed. There are those who are at least willing to listen to what the messengers have to say, but there may be a suggestion that the disciples who are sent are expected to keep their message simple and sweet. They are not called upon nor directed to inject their own commentary or opinions or formulaic prescriptions for what the listeners must do immediately upon hearing from them. 'Say to them what I tell you to say', Jesus says. He gives them a Message. And this is the simple task of the evangelist, the messenger. It is the essential language of the Message itself.

This is an interesting perspective given the frantic mindset of the urgency that you and I must "save" souls. We cannot do such a thing, that power is not within us, but we can be "agents" of grace. We can be examples of faith, but we cannot - MUST NOT - try to take on the role of religious "enforcer". It is historically clear that people don't respond well to such tactics. And besides, are we "agents" of grace or "agents" of fear? It makes a world of difference and does have a direct impact on how people will respond because if we impart grace, they can make a direct and honest response to grace. These are good seeds. If we impart fear or man-made doctrine according to our particular traditions, however, they can only respond to that because that's all they're being offered. These are bad seeds. If we make the mistake of telling them what they MUST do, they will more likely respond just as you or I would respond: fight or flee.

We United Methodists believe it is our call as part of the Church Universal to "make disciples of Christ ..." It is our mantra, it is the Great Commission, and it should be the driving force behind everything we do as the Body of Christ. But we must also acknowledge our limitations and a certain reality in understanding that we alone cannot "save souls", but we can by our faithful and earnest efforts "make disciples" if we understand that a disciple is a follower, a student, an observer, a seeker, but not necessarily a believer; at least not initially. But as a disciple learns more, a disciple desires more. And that desire comes from what John Wesley called "prevenient grace", the Holy Spirit touching their souls; the Lord our God acting FIRST.

We must remember that "no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). And because the Holy Spirit is the essence of the Holy Father, the Holy Spirit works in His time. What we can do in our time is to make a simple proclamation: "The Kingdom of Heaven has come near", and then choose to live as though we actually believe that because that is what they will see and that is what they will respond to! The consistent if universal message, however, is not contingent upon their response. It does not matter what they say; it matters more what WE say. No argument should ensue, and no spiritual threats or curses must be uttered. The Lord alone will determine whether His peace rests upon that person or not, but WE simply take our "staff", shake it off, and excuse ourselves. They need only to know that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. What may also be present is the implication that the absence of peace may suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven has just passed you by.

If the harvest is to be truly fruitful for the Kingdom of Heaven, we must be mindful of what kind of seeds we sow. Are we telling people what they need to know, or are we telling them what we think they ought to know and to do, or are we leading them in the wrong direction altogether? They will not find Christ in the halls and processes of government programs, nor will they find grace in our insistence that they must follow our prescribed formula for salvation. Our actions, our demands, our insistence upon A-B-C being followed; quite frankly, we are reaping to the flesh rather than to the spirit, not unlike St. Paul's insistence that one does not HAVE to be circumcised to experience the joy and salvation of the Lord. But when we make demands we are not imparting grace; we are imposing religion like the "Judiazers" or advocating Uncle Sam as "savior". And I firmly believe that grace will beget grace but if we insist upon a certain "formula" for salvation or the "end" being the government, we will betray our calling and ultimately lose our way in the "wilderness".

The Harvest will come and the Promised Land is within our grasp, but before the Harvest must come the sowing. It is incumbent upon us to sow Kingdom seeds made of pure Gospel - the GOOD NEWS of the Lord: that Christ has died for the sins of the world, that Christ is risen by the power and mercy of the Lord our God, and that Christ will come again to call His faithful home. This is the work and the language of evangelism, it is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is the good pleasure of the Holy God, all by way of Christ our Lord.