Failure to Launch?
When my oldest daughter was a baby, she was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing treatment, she was a given a "bravery necklace"—a strand of beads, each representing an aspect of her journey: chemo treatments, blood transfusions, anesthetizations, hair loss, central lines placed, and displays of bravery. The necklace meant nothing to her at the time, but now, as a ten-year cancer survivor, she knows that this necklace tells part of her story, and it is a treasured gift.
Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church is a like a strand of beads—a collection of essays that tells a developing story about the church in the twenty-first century. Each essay emphasizes something different (the drama of Scripture, cultural engagement, worship, justice, lament), and the string that ties them all together is a cord of two strands: the strand of mission and the strand of spirituality.
There is the danger of the hypocrisy of the un-acted-on contemplative life, but it is the problem of the unanchored active life that drew the attention of this Dutch, perfectionist workaholic.
Recognizing that these words "mission" and "spirituality" mean different things to different people, Nathan Finn and Keith Whitfield define them carefully. According to them, being missional means living a life shaped by, directed by, and sent on the mission of God. And spiritual formation is "the cultivation of grace-motivated spiritual practices and habits, drawn from the authoritative Scriptures and the best of the Christian tradition, that the Holy Spirit uses to foster spiritual maturity in the life of the believer for the glory of God, the health of the church, and the sake of the world."
Nearly every contributor to this collection finds a way to talk about the necessary connection between the missional life and spiritual formation. True spirituality leads to, is married to, is integrated with, is central to, is shaped and directed by, flows into, prompts, animates, and bears the fruit of the missional life. Susan Booth uses the geometrical metaphor of the vertical and horizontal axes of spirituality and mission. Diane Chandler reminds us that "remaining attached to Christ in communion, while simultaneously extending Christ's witness through personal service in the world," is like the relationship between breathing in and breathing out. Anthony Chute and Christopher Morgan point to the biblical images of salt and light. Like salt and light, our spiritual connection to God makes us stand out over against decay and darkness. However, the distinctiveness of salt and light is not distinctiveness for the sake of itself. Our distinctiveness is for the sake of our mission to bring purity, flavour, and clarity to the world.
The spiritual life and the missional life are best lived when we are oriented toward God in all of who we are and in all that we do. We must turn and return to God as the source and the goal for all of our spiritual formation and missional work. This turning and returning, in my understanding, is the life of worship—both worship-as-all-of-life and worship concentrated in liturgy. Insofar as the contributors to this volume grasp the centrality of worship, they find the centre of the intersection of these threads.
While reading Timothy Sheridan and Michael Goheen's essay on cultural engagement, which unpacks Proverbs 4:23 (out of the heart flow the issues of life), I was reminded of the philosophical anthropology of neo-Kuyperian thinker Dirk H.T. Vollenhoven. Humans are, at our centres, hearts, which can be directed toward God in obedience to his mission or away from God in disobedience to his mission. Obedience and disobedience manifest themselves in and are expressed through our "functions"—thoughts, behaviours, feelings, beliefs. "‘The heart, which, corrupted after the fall, lives again when it is made alive by the grace of God'; in that context the functions can be appreciated ‘as mutually irreducible channels for the issues of life.'"
Although it is certainly true that our thoughts and behaviours flow from the direction of our heart, Gary Tyra names an important dynamic in Celtic monastic communities. (This dynamic is found in many places, but observed and treated here in connection with the work of George Hunter on the mission of St. Patrick.) Sometimes the direction of the heart (authentic spirituality) is transformed through God's use of the "functions" of life. Tyra writes,
This Spirit-empowered, relationship- and experience-based approach to evangelism occurs when spiritually hungry people not currently professing the Christian faith are encouraged to "belong in order to believe"—that is, to participate with a missional community in its praying, indwelling of Scripture, worshiping, serving the poor, and so forth, essentially giving the risen Christ the opportunity to reveal himself to them by his Spirit in the process.
Sometimes we think and feel ourselves into new ways of behaving, but St. Patrick's work capitalized on the fact that other times we act ourselves into new ways of believing and feeling. When we join God in the rhythms of worship and service and invite others to do the same, we may just find ourselves (and those we invite!) developing a belief in and a relationship to our co-labouring God.
Although the active and contemplative life are created to be one and the same, they may at times become divorced from one another. There is the danger of the hypocrisy of the un-acted-on contemplative life, but it is the problem of the unanchored active life that drew the attention of this Dutch, perfectionist workaholic.
Booth notes that in our drive to join God in God's worldwide mission, we are often tempted "to head off in all directions at once, attempting to establish God's kingdom on earth through one's own efforts." Craig Bartholomew cites a Catholic document on the consecrated life, naming the possibility of being "swallowed up in frenetic activism." Soong-Chan Rah uncovers the true poison: "If the missional impetus arises from a truth-possessed assumption that leads to exceptionalism and triumphalism, missional ecclesiology will be thwarted." Rah goes on, "The term missional has the negative potential of becoming a hackneyed and ambiguous term that perpetuates a hubristic self-perception for the American church."
All of the God-directed life is worship, in the broad sense. It is, however, the centring force of the rhythms of liturgical worship that I need to mitigate my tendency toward freneticism and triumphalism. We can't do all the things. We can't be all the things. We are not God. We need corporate prayers of penitence and petition, frequent cries of lament on behalf of ourselves and the world, and the celebration of the sacraments to remind us of our place and of God's place in this complex story of the world.
Gordon Smith offers an antidote to our frenetic triumphalism. "We are not called to do everything," he writes. "Worship, true worship, frees us from the need to be little messiahs, little heroes. Rather, we better discern how we are being called, for such a time as this, to be the people of God in our world."
While for Smith the key to counteracting frenetic triumphalism is discernment in worship, for Rah it is lament in worship: "Missional spirituality requires the embracing of lament in order to offset an entrenched triumphalism and exceptionalism." And further on: "Even as we strive to be missional, we may ignore the stories of suffering and oppression. We have a deficient theology that trumpets the triumphalistic successes of American Christianity while failing to hear the stories of suffering that often tell us more about who we are as a community. This deficiency is to our great loss as a Christian community."
While Western Christians may have reasons enough to lament for themselves, Rah and others remind us that our practices of worship should draw us into the story of the global Christian community. Sometimes we need to lament with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world because of their suffering. "Communal lament calls the ones living under the blessings of celebration to engage with those living under the pain of suffering." In this vein, I have recently encouraged my congregation to be careful about over-personalizing and over-spiritualizing the psalms of lament and imprecation. Although cancer is certainly an enemy and although narcissistic bosses can absolutely be bloodthirsty men, these readings should not obscure the fact that there are those who fear for their lives in war-torn countries and who live under tyrant leaders. We must learn to read and sing and cry these psalms on behalf of and in solidarity with them as well.
The story of suffering is our story too. After all, is it not the pain of the cross and the suffering and passion of Jesus that is the centre of all these stories? Sheridan and Goheen see the shape of the cross in our lives of mission: "Christians believe in a God who entered our world, who came and suffered with and for us in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not detached from our pain and suffering, but enters into our suffering with us."
The missional living movement and the spiritual formation movement, when divorced from each other, only tell a part of the story, but together they bring us into the big story. Nathan Bierma, in his book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, says that
to live every day in the hope of heaven is at least a six-step process. We must recognize the gap between what the world is and what it was created to be; lament that gap; realize that Christ's cross served to close that gap in part for now and in full eventually; anticipate this by starting to close this gap ourselves; be frustrated by our inability to do so in any decisive way; and let this lead us to long for God to close the gap for good with the coming of heaven, the return of shalom on the new earth.
We need all of these feelings and efforts and recognitions to live deeply into the spiritual and missional life. This collection of essays is a collection of "yes, and." Yes to the missional life, and the call to deep spiritual formation. Yes to rejoicing, and the call to lament. Yes to individual discernment, and the call to communal recognition and sensitivity. Yes to doing things one way, and the call to wonder about doing things another way.
There is no single way to live this spiritual and missional life. There are many ways and means, depending on the context. Rah references F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, a commentator on the book of Lamentations whose reflections could be expanded to include the varied stories in this excellent collection of essays: "These very concrete and specific instances of suffering [and celebration . . . and mission and spiritual formation] have been intentionally gathered together, each strung, as it were, like individual pearls on a necklace . . . ensur[ing] that they mean [something] cumulatively as well as individually."