Missional – You Keep Using That Word…

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‎”What is the church? It is the unifying, sanctifying, reconciling, and proclaiming activity of Jesus Christ in the world. Mission cannot be something separate from or added to the essence of the Church. The essential nature of the local congregation is, in and of itself, mission, or else the congregation is not really the Church.” Charles Van Engen

“…the church is a sign, a servant and a foretaste of the kingdom of God…” Leslie Newbigin

Missional is everywhere it seems but has become something of a Rorschach inkblot in which folks can see whatever they want – or (along with the language of ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ that is now also being co-opted) simply a new label that can be used to repackage whatever a church has always done or the same standard consumer Evangelical pragamtism with a new wrapper.

When this happens I always want to reply back (along with Inigo Montoya),

“Missional … you keep using that word, I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

The missional shift is ultimately not merely another program of the church or a pragmatic response to decreased attendance or cultural marginalization, but a renewed and robust theological vision rooted in the triune sending of the church by Father, Son, and Spirit in and for the world as a sign, servant, and foretaste of the Kingdom…

“Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology, or soteriology. The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: Father, Son and Holy Spirit sending the church in the world.” David Bosch

“The missional church vision is not a programmatic response to the crisis of relevance, purpose and identity that the church in the Western World is facing, but a recapturing of biblical views of the Church all too frequently abandoned, ignored, or obscured through long periods of church history. It is a renewed theological vision of the church in mission, which redefines the nature, the mission and the organization of the local church around Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom. Missional churches seek to respond to God’s invitation to join Him in His mission in and for the world, as a sign, a servant and a foretaste of His Kingdom.” Charles Ringma

Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 2): What Have We Missed?

Yesterday, I posted some preliminary reflections on the need for lament in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like the Aurora shooting. In the wake of this tragedy I suggest that instead of offering words of comfort (however well meaning) up front, instead of offering clichés meant to defend God’s honor or keep other’s faith from failing (ie, ‘God has a greater plan in mind’), and instead of delving into intractable political debate at this time that we…

Stop!

Just stop…

And grieve…

And cry out to Father, Son, and Spirit…

And lament.

To lament is not to offer words of comfort, or to try to solve the problem right now, or even to attempt to come to God’s defense (which raises the question that if God is really as providential and sovereign as people claim, why then is there such a felt need to ‘defend’ God? I really suspect modern apologetics has failed us here). Politicizing the tragedy for political gain is not lament. Delving into a conversation about gun control right now, which in our gun worshiping culture obsessed with violence I think needs to happen at some point, is not lament either.

I want to additionally suggest that many of these things that are not lament still need to be done, but they cannot be done well until we take the time to share the pain of the ‘other’ (incarnation), cry out to God for a creation that is not as it should be, and lament. A couple of people at work today asked me about my weekend. I talked to them about the need for lament. One just looked at me funny … the other was offended and put off. ‘The Lord calls us to rejoice not lament’ they told me … ‘Its not right to question God!’ I wondered if they had ever read the Psalms, or Lamentations, or Romans 12:15.

The language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament.

So, this leads me to the main question at hand in this post: what have we missed that lament is not our first language … that it seems so many do everything they can to avoid lament?

I offer three suggestions (with help from Stanley Hauerwas)…

First, we have missed the inadequacy of our theodicies both formal and informal.

Hauerwas says in God, Medicine, and Suffering (note: I read this book during my year residency as a CPE/chaplain resident and it impacted me greatly, but I don’t own it myself. Therefore, I am having to pull these quotes from the Theology Forum blog)…

Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se” . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.

For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. […]

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune [quotes Rom 5:1-5]. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response. […] (48-52, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas here is pointing out the basic inadequacy of theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and justifications of God in the face of such. In general terms a theodicy is simply an account for why evil and suffering exists. In more academic terms theodicies are attempts at the justification of God in the face of evil and suffering (ie, “If God is love, then why…?).

The study of theodicy can be very fruitful … in perspective.

There are numerous academic theodicies one can formulate as well as numerous ‘folk’ theodicies that come out in response to evil and suffering. ‘God has a better plan in mind’ is an example of a ‘folk’ theodicy. We must remember that theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and theodicies are revealed to be inadequate in the face of the real experience of human suffering and anguish. I have learned both through personal experience (which I will share more of in a subsequent post) and as a hospital chaplain, that no matter how correct we presume our ‘explanations’, defenses, or accounts – in the face of evil and suffering all our theodicies are stripped and laid bare. When revealed to be inadequate and laid bare we are simply left with lament.

Second, we have missed how Christianity actually ‘works’.

Hauerwas comes to our aid again (HT Matt Tebe),

[There] is a deep misunderstanding about how Christianity works. Of course we believe that God is God and we are not and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit but that this is not a set of propositionsbut is rather embedded in a community of practices that make those beliefs themselves work and give us a community by which we are shaped. Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance. (emphasis mine)

In the wake of, and under the influence of modernist impulses, much of Western Christianity is proposition or in the words of Hauerwas, ‘text’ oriented. As such, it often seems that what really counts is just saying ‘true’ and ‘correct’ things about God. With the prominence of such propositional thinking, Christian responses to evil, suffering, and tragedies simply reduce to reading from the script with no variation from the ‘text’ … in fact, many people seem to think it is enough to simply quote Bible verses out of context about the ‘joy of the Lord’ and such – as if a Bible verse a day will keep the grief away.

The Christian faith is not simply a repeating of the ‘text’ of the Bible. It is rather like a performance of the story of the Bible – a performance of the drama of our liberating King. Of course this will include propositions, but propositions are not the main thing here. They are instead ‘storied’ and embedded within the faithful performance of the Jesus story and biblical narrative. Propositions without fitting improvisation and faithful performance by a community of practices simply leave us with moral theory and abstraction unable to withstand the weight of the experience of human suffering, grief, and despair. Instead of treating the Christian faith like a ‘text’ we ought to commit ourselves to fitting improvisation and faithful performance – even in the face of evil and suffering. We must recover the cruciform practice of lament.

Third, because of the above we have missed our proper ecclesial response to suffering.

Hauerwas continues from God, Medicine, and Suffering

Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil. Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations (53, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas contends that what is needed is not a ‘solution’ to evil or a theoretical account of suffering but the proper response. And Hauerwas contends that this proper response is in essence an ecclesial response – a response of a community of care (ie, the church) able to absorb suffering and the ‘destructive terror of evil’.

The upshot here I think is at least two fold…

1) That lament itself is the most fitting response, improvisation, and performance of the drama of the Jesus story in the wake of human suffering (ie, it is intensely incarnational).

2) That this response, improvisation, and performance of lament, while personal, must also be communal (ie, that is intensely ecclesial).

Lament is something that we do even when we are alone, but not something we can simply do on our own. I propose that we must recover lament as a cruciform, sacramental practice both as a daily discipline and as a weekly corporate performance. We must learn to lament weekly as incarnational communities of our liberating King Jesus.

Lament is not optional for those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus. We cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus when, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King. Let me restate: the language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament. May we seek to take up the practice and performance of lament as a cruciform people of the kingdom in the coming days.

A prayer of lament:

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.

Imagination, Story, and Kingdom: (Late) Reflections on the Third Week of Pentecost

The Gospel Text for the Third Sunday of Pentecost, Mark 4:26-34 (TNIV)

26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

I’m still playing catch up, and still a week behind on these – yet being late has turned out to be providential for me. I had followed my normal routine for the lectionary passages. I had done my readings of the passages, oriented my private reflections around them as usual for the week, looked at some Greek, read some N.T. Wright, and so forth … normal stuff for me. But when I went to write nothing flowed. However, this morning with our Crosspoint community, within ecclesia, over the communion table of our Lord’s body and blood, in conversation and community, and through the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (much thanks to the Rogers family for leading us), the fog it seems was cleared and there was clarity. (Note: it works both ways – sometimes our experience helps us sort out what we know and have studied; and sometimes what we know and have studied helps us sort out our experience. Its never one or the other, but the two existing in interrelation and interdependence.)

Parables and Priorities

Before getting to the text at hand, we need to back up a bit and talk about the use of parables by Jesus. Now, it is common when we hear a sermon on the parables for the preacher to systematize the thing by breaking it down into parts (and, most importantly, sermon points) with the seeming purpose of relating it to each of us directly and individually. Thus the common questions: does your individual heart represent the hard ground, the rocky ground, the thorns and weeds, or the good soil? But this is to almost entirely miss the point from the very beginning – to miss the context of the kingdom.

This is not to say that the parables have nothing to do with us, they certainly do – its just that we aren’t the main subject. The danger here is that if we act like we are we are liable to substitute our own kingdom for the kingdom of God. Here is a general ‘rule’ I go by when dealing with the parables: they first and foremost tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God and the identity of Jesus before they tell us anything about us. Or we could say that whatever they tell us about us, they tell us about ourselves in relation to Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus and the kingdom of God first, us second.

Parables: Revealing and Concealing

This is all a carryover from the previous scene in chapter 3 where Jesus began using parables to respond to the religious leaders. Whether one understood the parables or not, and one’s reaction to the parables indicated how much was really understood of Jesus himself and the inbreaking kingdom. In chapter 4 we find Jesus again teaching by parables, in this case, the parable of the sower (vs 3-9). This parable was a teaching on the establishment of God’s kingdom in Jesus, the great eschatological moment of renewal that had been promised. For those that had ears to understand this was a message that God was making the land fruitful again. But as this parable shows a great many don’t get what Jesus is saying, his disciples included! They question Jesus and he responds with an explanation (vs 13-20) which, ironically, apparently wasn’t understood much better. The parables both revealed and concealed. And my suggestion here is that Jesus himself is the hermeneutical key to understanding the parables.

If we refuse to center our identities around Jesus and his kingdom, the parables become stumbling blocks. We may grow tired of having to wrestle with truths we feel should just be explained ‘clearly’ (see the disciples in verse 10). Or we may feel threatened in our position or status. Or we might conclude that we aren’t getting what is due us, that Jesus isn’t bringing in the kingdom the way we want him too. People responded in all these ways and more to Jesus and his parables, indicating whether or not they were part of Jesus’ ‘true family’ (3:35). The kingdom of God is a ‘mystery’, not a puzzle to be solved. We don’t deduce the kingdom by adding up clues. The word ‘mystery’ here is the word for God revealing something previously hidden and that otherwise we would not have access too. While our heads may certainly be involved – it is equally as much (or more) a matter of our hands and hearts as well.

Developing a Kingdom Imagination

While this may sound strange coming from someone with formal theological training (of the systematic type even) I firmly believe that we cannot ‘systematize’ ourselves into the kingdom! Jesus did not bring in the kingdom along with a systematic theology. Instead, he drew from the familiar and organic images the people knew and he told stories, lots of stories. The kingdom of God contains a surplus that can never be contained in an instruction manual. Attempts to make Scripture either an instruction manual or systematic theology demonstrate a lack of understanding of what the kingdom is and the manner in which God forms a kingdom people. We are by necessity storied into the kingdom and storied into a kingdom people by the conversion of our imaginations.

This is what following the church calendar is about – through doing so we narrate ourselves into the life and story of Christ. This is what our weekly liturgy is about – storying ourselves into the kingdom by the shaping of our imaginations. One of the ways that we do this is through taking Communion as a community each week. Through the Eucharist we narrate the gospel, the story of Christ becomes our own defining narrative, and we are formed into a cruciform, kingdom shaped people (as I have said before, I don’t know how churches get by without taking Communion weekly).

In addition, there are at least three other ways that come to mind for me with which we could shape ourselves as a kingdom people. The first is the regular corporate recitation of the Apostles or Nicene Creed, not merely as an ‘indoctrination’ into a supposedly dry, stale Trinitarian dogma, but as a way to convert our imaginations to the activity and story of Father, Son, and Spirit in the world in which we are brought to participation. The second, is the regular practice of corporate lament for those places in our lives, community, and the world where the kingdom is not manifest. I am convinced we cannot call ourselves a kingdom shaped people unless we lament and grieve well … together.

Now I expect some possible pushback on the first one, even from those that may have (re)discovered an appreciation for the church calendar and liturgy. Some may even think I’m nuts for bringing it up. And I expect that the practice of lamenting and grieving together will be too intimate for many (for us it was something we were thrust into and couldn’t avoid). The third thing I have in mind though is the corporate reading/recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). Now, this prayer could just as appropriately be called the ‘Disciples Prayer’ but the designation that really captures my own imagination is the Lord’s Prayer as the ‘Cry of the Kingdom.’ Everything we need for the formation of a kingdom shaped people is in the ‘Cry of the Kingdom.’ I was blessed by our saying of the prayer this week and I believe we would be served well to say this prayer communally on a weekly basis. (I have other ideas but we’ll leave it at these three for now.)

You might say that the formation of a kingdom and Jesus shaped people takes (communal) practice – the sharing of the Table, the reading of the biblical story, shared lament, and the recitation of the prayer (and even the Creed) – by this we narrate the Story in multiple ways. And we do these things weekly, we do them and then we do them again. We do this because, as my grandfather told me, in repetition there is learning. But developing a kingdom imagination is not just about the head. We find also that in repetition there is living – a kingdom imagination involves the hands as well, the formation of kingdom practices. Finally, we find that in repetition there is loving/longing – and imagination of the heart as well, the desiring of the kingdom. At the intersection of the formation of our head, hands, and heart is a kingdom shaped imagination.

Go Small, Go Slow, and Go Home

It seems clear to me that the majority of Evangelicalism as a conglomeration is captured by a malformed ‘go big or go home’ imagination (browsing the shelves at any Christian retail store will confirm this). I expressed my frustration with this way of thinking, doing, and loving in my last post.  So, what shall we say as we try to imagine the kingdom through the lenses of the parable of the growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed (as well as the parable of the sower)? The first thing that jumps out is that all these parables involve the planting of something small, a seed. Second, we find that the images used here are all from the normal, everyday, local experience of the listeners. Third, we find that the image of a seed is both organic and slow.

Allow me to suggest that rather than the ‘go big or go home’ imagination, we are better served for the kingdom of God with a ‘go small, go slow, and go home’ imagination. Go small because the little things of the kingdom are what subverts the injustice of world systems. Go slow because the kingdom is more like a fruitful harvest that grows over time rather than have it your way fast food. Go home (or local) because the locally incarnated kingdom of God redeems the comings and goings of our mundane, ordinary, and everyday localities. There seem to be many who have a disdain for mundane, but if the kingdom is not manifest locally in the mundane it is not manifest at all. This is what the presence of a Jesus shaped people with a kingdom imagination (ie, ecclesia) is all about.

May we be such a people.

May our imaginations be captured by our liberating King Jesus this week!

Prayer for the Third Sunday of Pentecost

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.