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,

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