We live in a time when different parts of the Christian Church seem to have quite radically different views about what the purpose of the Church is. Many local congregations are feeling burdened and tired as they try to fulfil a whole range of different purposes, and to fit in with some strategic idea about what the church should be and do. Too often, the goals of church congregations are enmeshed with cultural perceptions of value, such as success, size, power, and personal happiness. And, while most churches speak the language of care and service, and do many good works, some are operating with such a narrow vision of Christianity that they stunt the development of their members as human beings. When that happens, whatever the righteous causes are that are being embraced within their communities, it remains questionable as to whether the dream of God for our whole groaning creation has been advanced very far at all.
Too many people still equate the mission of God with the 'great commission' of going into all nations to 'make disciples', as we read toward the end of Matthew's gospel. But dotted throughout the teachings of Jesus are images that give a very different take on how God brings change and transformation to the world. These images are drawn from the ordinary – the farm and the household – and they paint a much more organic and mysterious picture, than the intentional mission strategies that we might be more familiar with.
Here is one of my favourites:
[Jesus] also said, 'This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come.'
This parable honours the mystery of the activity of God, and the limits on human industry in achieving God's purposes. The man scatters seed. Then he gets on with the rest of his life. He rests, he sleeps, he does whatever he does in his waking hours and the growth of the seed goes on...through a process he doesn't fully understand, and that he has no power to effect, hasten, or determine. It is the land that 'of its own accord' produces the crop and the man's only role is to reap what the land has given.
The kingdom of God can be understood as an unseen and mostly unexperienced, and yet present realm, where the rhythms of God's generosity and love are freely and fully enacted. Part of our job as Christians is to 'clean the lens of our perception' so that we can learn to recognise more readily where these rhythms are currently unfolding, and what our role in supporting that might be.
But the full flowering of God's kingdom, or to use the language of the parable, the coming to maturity of the crop ready for harvest, happens by way of a hidden, intrinsic power that is God's Spirit subtly transforming and re-creating. We may be invited to be co-partners with God in generating change, but always the mystery of the change process itself is in the hands of God and not our own agency.
There is much that we do not know or understand about how God works in the world. We in the churches can probably afford to be a bit less strategic, and a bit more cautious about our conviction that we have a “job to do for God.” Perhaps it is not for us to engineer the circumstances by which God will engage with this earth and bring about the germination and flourishing of new life.
This is a hard saying for those of us who have an activist bent to our spirituality, and who have a strong sense of idealism or a reforming drive. For us, who often have an acute sense of what is wrong and broken in our world, a vision of God's activity in the world has to include 'making things better.' And it's hard to accept that there may be very little that we can effect that is genuinely God-shaped by means of our own diligence. For us, we need to be careful never to subordinate the Gospel of God's love to an ideological 'ism' – any plan for improvement, any utopian vision of how the world should be that's not grounded in the longing and 'groaning of all creation for God's children to be revealed'.
I was very arrested earlier this year by a quote from Maggie Ross: 'Action that does not proceed from stillness is mere technique and diminishes those acted upon.' My sense is that a lot of what passes for action within the church is 'mere technique', and that therefore where we hope we are doing good, we are actually diminishing the 'objects' of our compassion or concern. Whenever we substitute strategy for mystery, technology for prayer, mastery for discernment, we are taking it upon ourselves to transform by our own mettle the cells of the seed into the miracle of the plant – a task that will lead us to burn-out and futility. I find it striking that the verb 'fix' - the word we use to describe healing and restoring broken things - is also a word that has to do with holding something still, keeping it in place, preventing it from moving or being pliable. How many of our attempts to 'fix' things are actually acts of control, attempts to stop the forces of death and entropy from invading our lives?
Having said all that, God's kingdom is intended to unfold and grow and we are invited to participate in that process. Here is another image that might help us to grasp the nature of that participation:
He told them another parable, 'The kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour til it was leavened all through.'
The image here is of hidden influence, and of something very small – a pinch or spoonful of yeast – that affects a large amount of flour and causes the whole loaf to rise. Throughout the Scriptures, God seems to be concerned with remnants and small things – the seemingly insignificant having influence beyond their size or visible reach. What Jesus seems to indicate here is that life and freedom are infectious without being managed or coerced. Rather than change coming about by way of planned activity, it comes about by the mystery of being – and society as a whole can undergo change as a result of the transformation of only a few of its members. When someone is being transformed – either for good or for ill – there is a kind of vortex that draws others into the sphere of transformation and effects change in ways that most people can't see or account for. To stay with the organic imagery, it's a process of osmosis.
Richard Rohr talks about this in his book The Naked Now: 'Tipping points and leavening is apparently God's way, a God so humble that she is willing to be an alternative in her own world... Human beings attract other human beings to the same level of awareness – just by being, as St. Irenaeus put it, 'fully alive'...It comes down to this: transformed people transform people...In the presence of whole people, or any encounter with Holiness itself, we simply find that, after a while, we are different – and much better! Then we wonder how we got there.' (Rohr, Naked Now, 86,88,114)
To be leaven, then, is to attend to our own process of transformation, our own opening to the invitation of God to heal and convert us. Bernard Lonergan says that 'conversion is the experience by which one becomes an authentic human being.' (Rohr, Naked Now, 86) To be leaven is not to be morally pure – in fact, Jesus did a lot of dismantling of the purity codes of his religion. It is to be awake, and semi-permeable...able to hold pain and conflict within ourselves rather than projecting or inflicting it – a kind of cultural dialysis machine. Or, as one of the slogans at Occupy Wall Street goes – “first occupy your own heart, with love rather than fear.” To be an agent of change, it may not be necessary to do a lot. It may be more important to be something. And this is on the level of individual lives, and our life together in community.
Here is a practice that comes out of another faith tradition that is an example of how sheer being can change things:
In ancient times, and probably today in a few places, the Taoist priest was called in if there was a problem in the village. If the community was not getting along or there was turmoil of some sort, he or she would be invited. So, he would trot off from his hermitage and go to the town and say something like, “Give me a quiet place, give me a cabin, and leave me alone.” There he would sit down and open himself to the chi of the environment, to the energy. Now that's great compassion because when you open yourself to the environment, if it's out of kilter, you are going to feel the out-of-kilter in your own being...The Taoist priest would sit there in the cabin and just open himself to the chi, or the energy of the environment – feel it, experience it, and then open the chi to the light of his own consciousness. It could take a day, a week, sometimes a month...but the energy would start to rectify itself. Then people in the village would start to feel better and get along for a while. That's why scriptures have advised us to hang out with awakened beings...expose yourself to them...and this rectification happens; this harmonization because of their state of consciousness.
(Adyashanti – Emptiness Dancing pp30-31)
If we believe that all things are ultimately interconnected, and that our personhood is one node in a great web of relations with all things, human and creaturely and of the earth, then to me it follows that one person 'waking up' will have an effect on the whole system regardless of how active, vocal, or strategic they are.
Jesus also uses another set of images that are probably very familiar to us:
You are the salt for the earth. But if salt loses its taste, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people's feet. You are light for the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people's sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.
What is the taste of salt in our world? I believe not the taste of purity or rightness or correctness, but the taste of authentic humanity. The 'good works' then, the light that is meant to shine 'for everyone', is not just a case of arbitrarily adopting causes to reform the world according to our ideas of what is good, but about being continually inwardly converted, which means able to see where God is already at work...in ourselves and therefore in others. When we learn to recognise the invitation of God's love for ourselves and our vocations, we can also be on hand to name and celebrate it in others, or to appropriately grieve and offer healing where it has been lost or buried. We have a calling to spiritual maturity, which includes the ability to discern what we 'must do' because it is God's call to us, out of all that it is possible for us to do, and out of all that we could do, or might do.
That is, our task is to wait until God compels us toward something because it is the right moment in sacred time for it to bear fruit. The quality of what we 'do' will arise out the quality of our ability to sit still and listen, and out of the quality of who we 'are'. Our action can only transform others, or the earth, if we are in an ongoing process of being saved. We have to learn to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others.
The lovely thing about all of this is that it's not a one size fits all approach. What is ours to do and be in the world requires us to be exactly ourselves and not anyone else, which is why it's not self indulgence to say that our 'mission' includes becoming more authentically ourselves. I'm not talking here about the false egoic self that we are continually invited to sacrifice, but the self that is 'hidden with Christ in God.' We are a unique part of the body of Christ and so only we can bear the love of God into the world in the precise way that fits our specific journey. This is not always a pleasurable process – to be who we really are is the narrow, not the easy way, and often involves much pruning and pain. For Jesus, it meant living in a way that scandalised others and ultimately led to his death. There's a weird little bit in the gospels where Jesus points out the 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' bind that his detractors had him in, when it came to his lifestyle.
What comparison, then, can I find for the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children shouting to one another while they sit in the market place:
We played the pipes for you,
and you wouldn't dance;
we sang dirges,
and you wouldn't cry.
For John the Baptist has come, not eating bread, not drinking wine, and you say 'He is possessed.' the Son of man has come, eating and drinking and you say 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.
What matters is not so much the external factors of our lives and choices that others may call virtuous or not virtuous. John the Baptist was an ascetic hermit in the desert and was therefore an offence to those who felt confronted and judged by his message of repentance. Jesus didn't observe those ascetic practices and mixed with the perceived low life and so was an offence to those who liked to tell others how to live. There are different ways to be a child of wisdom, just as there are different ways for different groups and churches to express the love of God.
I like this passage from Maggie Ross's book 'Pillars of Flame':
The process of becoming focused on the Face of God is different for each one of us. There is no possible way to legislate the process. We can catch ourselves looking enviously at someone who walled herself up and lived on three prunes and a locust a day for seventy years, but for most of us to live like that would be destructive to our creatureliness and to miss our own mystery...
What we have to learn is to start where we are and be who we are and do what we are able in a particular moment, and we have to consider carefully how our efforts affect others, all of this in the light of aspiration and obedience to the word God wishes to speak through us... Often in the initial stages of being wildly in love with God the greatest penance is to simply stay where we are. (p 149)
So, taking all this into account, what might we say about the mission of the Church, or more specifically any given local expression of the church?
I think simply this: to have no goal beyond being a visible icon of the transforming love of God, in whatever way is authentic and particular to the people and the community involved.
To become this icon is to receive first and foremost our own transformation - to be daily converted into spiritual maturity. Then any actions that proceed from us will arise from wisdom and discernment rather than flowing out from our own needs...such as the need to be 'doing something', or to 'fix things', or to offset anxiety about the future of the church or whatever else from our unconscious may be propelling us. As we have seen from countless activist movements, if you fight the dragon on its terms, and without a life of prayer, you will almost inevitably become the dragon. Only those actions that are grounded in the deep well of contemplation and experience have love and non-violence so embedded in them that they can participate in the kenosis movement of God.
What I take from these parables of Jesus is that God is doing what God is doing, in hidden and organic ways. The kingdom of God is unfolding sometimes within and often beyond the Christian church, and is not beholden to any human strategy. Our task is simply to learn to receive and give love, to mature as true human beings in relation to the Divine, and to rest in a state of poise and readiness for those moments when something specific is asked of us. When we do this, we are, in ways we cannot see or know, being yeast and salt and light, in the mystery of God's renewal of all of creation.