As I pondered on what to say about “missional,” I decided to use the lens of pastoral theology. So much of what we are and do is shaped by our own need: need to see the impact of our actions; need to be relevant; need to be understood; need to be loved. But God’s goodness flows from a different place. I will speak of mission from John 15:4-6 and then talk about two things that masquerade as missional.
I am going to sing to the Lord God Yahweh as long as I live!
I am going to serenade my God with music as long as I am here!
May my poetry make him happy..
–I, at least, am going to be happy and enjoy it with Him,
the covenanting One! Ps.104 30,31
I’ve been known to whirl and spin my way across the living room. It’s one of those things I don’t advertise. I take a page from Carolyn Arends, “dance when no one’s watching.. nobody but You.”
It’s just the joy of life, and a brain that plays tunes on “random shuffle” in quiet moments, whether Arends, Bell, U2, Cockburn, Doerksen, or whomever. Really, June in Kelowna is stunning in a way unique to desert landscapes in the wet season. Wild flowers and cultivated flowers blossom everywhere, everything is green and vibrant, and now that sunny days have arrived, “the sky is a painful blue.”
One simply cannot not dance and leap and sing in such a world. It would be an insult to the Creator not to respond with celebration. In God’s world there is only the dance, and “we are the music while the music lasts.”
I know.. the connection to missio Dei isn’t quite articulate here. Or is it? If we define mission narrowly as something future or other-worldly, there is no connection. But if we use a different lens we might say that creation is, “the dance of the Lord in emptiness..” a dance all around us here and now. We might take a cue from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove that, â€œThe [spiritual] life is by its very nature â€œordinary.â€ It is precisely the ordinariness ofÂ … life that makes true conversion possible. When a person is no longer distracted by the emotional illusions that passing trends and extraordinary events create, she has the opportunity to cultivate a life of the Spirit.â€ Or we might take a cue from Hopkins and talk about the glory of God shining all around us: “glory be to God for dappled things!”
But the connection I had in mind when I started can be described in a single word: joy, and its near relative, gratitude. If we know these two words in our experience, they result in something spontaneous and profound, something so near to our hearts that when it bubbles up we can’t contain it: praise.
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Let me be explicit about this: mission is the overflowing joy of a Trinitarian God manifest in the material world. It is founded on the spontaneous and extravagant abundance of love and joy in the eternal relatedness of Father, Son and Spirit. It is the river of God’s goodness flowing between heaven and earth, founded in covenant love (“Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”). Mission is the earthly fruition of an eternal dance.
Henri Nouwen comments on John 15:4-6,
Speaking of himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches Jesus says:
“Make your home in me as I make mine in you.” This is an invitation to intimacy. Then he adds: “Those who remain in me with me in them, bear fruit to plenty.” This is a call to fecundity. Finally he says, “I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” He promises ecstasy.” (Lifesigns, 11)
Missio Dei is nothing more than our participation in the joyful, ecstatic, overflowing fruitfulness of God. “Those who remain in me bear fruit in plenty.” Our task in response to this overflowing joy of God is to invite others to dance. In Henri’s words, we invite them to the house of love.
There are only two houses in the world: the house of fear, and the house of love. Even those of us born into caring families soon learn that the world isn’t entirely safe, and that our families are not perfect. We begin to search for a true home.
In this world millions are homeless. Some are homeless because of inner pain, while others have been driven from their homes by war. Others experience homelessness in prisons, mental hospitals and nursing homes. Some of us have experienced it in large congregations while wearing masks that say, “I’m ok.”
And our world is filled with fear. The evening news celebrates it. We ask many anxious questions about the survival of our families, our environment, and our world. Nouwen writes, “We are so accustomed to fear that we do not hear the voice that says, “Do not be afraid…” Yet it is this voice that announces a whole new way of living…” Jesus invites us to the house of love.
Fear prevents the fruitfulness of mission and has two results: sterility, or productivity. Nouwen writes,
“Sterility is the most obvious response to fear. When we feel surrounded by threats we close ourselves off and no longer reach out to others, with whom fruitful relationships might grow. The more afraid we become, the more we withdraw.” (45)
The experience of sterility is like a living death. We are not truly alive, and therefore we cannot give life. Nouwen comments that even in the First World this is a common experience. Many have lost any hope of actively participating in the shaping of a good future. Being bored while being busy is an ominous symptom of this disease. Nouwen relates the story of the woman at the well in these terms. Jesus recognized her spiritual sterility and offered her the possibility of fruitfulness: “the water that I shall give will become an inner spring” (John 4:14). She moves from the house of fear to the house of love and becomes a fruitful missionary to her village.
But the opposite impulse is also born from fear: productivity. A call to live a fruitful life is not necessarily a call to be productive. In our world productivity looks like success. But this is not always the case. Nouwen writes,
“In our world, everything can become a product: not only cars, houses, books.. but also friends.. and important decisions. They can all become something we have “made” [and] gives us a sense of being acceptable [that] we are what we make. Productivity.. takes away our fear of being useless. But if we want to live as followers of Jesus, we must come to know that products, successes, and results often belong more to the house of fear than to the house of love.”
Here Nouwen strips away the veneer of success and the apparent relevance of busy lives. In a world dominated by technos and the myth of progress, we cease to know ourselves except through our acts. But the house of love calls us to a deeper place.
In the same way, joining in the missio Dei is not a call to productivity. It is the call to know and be known and to allow God’s joy to fill us, so that all we do is an expression of his life in us. When we abide in the house of love mission becomes a spontaneous expression of the dance of God in emptiness (it’s no coincidence that Philippians 2 contains an early hymn).
Those of us in any of the streams of renewal, whether it be missional, monastic, or emergent, are tempted to become activists in view of the need for change. But Nouwen would remind us that the world desperately needs “irrelevant” leaders. Elizabeth O’Connor writes,
â€œWe are not called primarily to create new structures for the church in this age; we are not called primarily to a program of service, or to dream dreams or have visions. We are called first of all to belong to [worship] .. to belong to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to keep our lives warmed at the hearth of his life. It is there the fire will be lit which will create new structures and programs of service that will draw others into the circle to dream dreams and have visions. ” (Call to Commitment, 94).
As Merton puts it, “We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds, and join in the general dance.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 297)
Cobus Van Wyngaard