Yesterday at odyssey, Alan Roxburgh writes: “So many in our churches and their leaders are just tired of mission. There is a pervasive sense that mission means another project, another strategy that leaves people exhausted, sick and tired of the current Christian ethos. Lots of people are looking for a zone of safety and communion — they are looking for a different kind of Christian life. This is why so many are abandoning existing forms of church.”
Yes! Yes. yes. yes.
And immediately, I feel like pond scum, because acknowledging that I am “tired of mission” seems tantamount to saying that feeding the poor, visiting those imprisoned, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and in general giving hope, support, and succor to the oppressed is just. too. draining. Woe is me. It’s soooo hard having so much wealth and having to figure out how and when to share it. Whaaa.
I think this is, as Roxburgh implies, a question of ethos. Another project, another “mission of mercy” (as Judith Lief puts it — and makes clear that this is something different from compassion), feels like it’s promulgating the same ethos, the one where some of us “do good” to others who need good done, and that interaction seems to be founded on an inequality between individual humans and between social classes that the do-gooders don’t really want to give up.
As I wrote to a friend recently, Christians get points for helping, for looking powerful and self-contained in that way. That has got to be an obsolete model, doesn’t it? Paul comments that we should support the weak and that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35; he notes that Jesus said this, though the gospels don’t record it.) I wonder if perhaps the blessedness of giving lies simply in being able to imitate God, in giving freely, gratuitously, without expectation of acknowledgement, appreciation, a improvement in another’s behaviour, approbation, or reciprocation.
But even so, why isn’t the ability to receive gratuituously just as blessed? I think James Alison makes the case that it is, in The Joy of Being Wrong:
“Grace can be lived only as something permanently, gratuitously received. … One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall: not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only way that we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous.”
All this reminds me of Martin Luther King’s thought, that “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” I would add to this that the “edifice,” in my thinking, is not essentially some external structure — it’s the world what we create and maintain with our everyday, generally acceptable human behaviour … when we act on the belief that “to have enough” means necessarily to have some small degree more than someone else, whether it’s money, approbation, style, looks, happiness, education, intelligence, love …. I believe this all the time; I must, because I certainly act as though I do.
What I hear in Roxburgh’s brief article is that communion could be the ethos that sets right human relationships. And he says that the monastery itself could change the way we think of the missional: “it is about finding the way of the Gospel and when this ethos is being cultivated the missional is being born among a community.”
Of course, “the way of the Gospel” is open to interpretation! But each community, each order, has its interpretation, and that evolving interpretation is the ethos, the churning, soaking waters in which those involved with the monastery float, swim, drift, splash, surf, kick, struggle, and maybe lifesave.
This is heavy reading, but for a glimpse of another ethos, I recommend James Alison’s article, “Contemplation in a World of Violence II: The Strangeness of this Passivity,” in the Easter 2003 issue of The Merton Journal, and excerpted at Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. In it, he contrasts the world we live in as rivalrous humans — whose identity, desire and being is founded entirely on others, although we are loathe to admit it — and the world of eternal life that’s available to us, now — the world beyond rivalry:
“Let me try and set the scene appropriately: someone important comes into the room, a room in which a group of people are gathered, among whom you are. This is someone important who you have been expecting, and for whose recognition you have been hoping. Now when that person comes in, your feeling, sense of worth and so on will depend entirely on her recognition of you. Will she notice me? If she does notice me, will it be with clear pleasure? Will she come over to me? Or will I be to her simply as another anonymous figure who happens to be present? This, I would say, is not something of which you are necessarily conscious, still less do you formulate it. In fact you will pick it up in your body. If her body language is clearly relaxed and pleased to see you, any smile she gives you will be picked up by your body as communicating that pleasure, and you will feel an uplift, your spirit will soar, and you will have the sense “Yes, I really am.” If, on the other hand, whatever her smile says, her body language indicates that she is going through the motions, being polite, wants to be somewhere else, that you are not really important to her, then your body will pick it up, and in the dawning disappointment, part of your self will slink yelping away like a wounded puppy, tail between the legs.”
But in the presence of God, who “is not in rivalry with us,”
“we don’t need to possess who we are as though we would lose it if we didn’t grab it. There is not a scarcity of being or of regard from the other, against which we need to protect ourselves.
“So, the important person coming into the room turns out to be not on her way somewhere else, not harassed at having to deal with all the people who are seeking her attention, desperate for her acknowledgment; not miserly with her regard. On the contrary, she enters the room with full deliberation and has come in to stay, and her regard does indeed give you and me the sense that we are being discovered, that we are being invited to participate in something much bigger than ourselves, in which we will find that there is a real ‘me’ there to be known, one that we could scarcely imagine before. The body language of this important person speaks as completely as her words, its relaxedness, unhurriedness and serenity are quite simply what real deliberateness and power look like, and are picked up as such.
“To shift key slightly, but only very slightly: what would it look like to imagine the Eucharist as the body language of God come into our midst? Wouldn’t it be simply … accurate?”
What if the ethos were this Eucharist, this communion — an evocation, invocation, and provocation of God in our midst? What if we could let go of our need to be, to have, long enough to freely receive the body and love of another human, freely given? And to freely give what we have and freely receive what is offered, with no equation to determine the conversion ratio?
Today I read these words, in a posting about the breaking of bread as a way to break down barriers between people: “Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo speak and he said, “You have two choices in any relationship: you can respond in power or in love.” As simple as it sounds, his statement has held up in my experience. We either do what we do to get our way, or feed our fear; or we create the possibility of deeper relationship by trusting one another.”
To “do mission” seems to be to have power over, often in an undefined, latent, unacknowledged way; perhaps doing good to or for others is the best exercise of power over, but it still seems to place the one giving the help in a position over the one receiving the help. We talk in my faith community about being servant leaders, i.e., that those who lead and help others are the servants of those others, which implies a giving up of power. That certainly seems a good and maybe even subversive way to look at Paul’s exhoration to support the weak. And yet. And yet, sometimes it seems that doing good is a comforting and acceptable substitute for really giving up our power — the power of wealth, of education, of status, of class, of race, of our place as good, missional people. Sometimes giving money and help, and even mentoring someone, seems a substitute for really seeing the other as our equal, someone with whom we have spiritual communion, someone we recognise as the person in the mirror.