Saturday, June 05, 2004

Contextualized Mission

Contextualized Mission? Yes! Right here and right now (in Southern California)!

Here's some fodder I'd like to develop later; a lot of it's still at a highly preliminary stage:

As 21st century consumers we know commercial marketing of all kinds offers us endless menus of almost infinite consumption choices, but the kind of *marketing* of the Gospel we do as missionaries and evangelists actually is the call and the work of God, and in the power of the Spirit, God also makes possible our response. Since God initiates the mission, we need to be in constant communication with God, the boss and the let the Holy Spirit of God lead us! Furthermore, it means we can run our own ideas past God, but God has the final say about what actually gets tried. We need to do the kind of prayer that's a whole lot more listening than it is talking and yakkin' ...nd studying scripture to learn how God historically has spoken and acted in parallel situations. Some of us engage others by becoming missionaries and evangelists, bearers of "Good News," in home and foreign mission fields, sharing and teaching the Gospel, teaching adults literacy and life skills, digging wells, distributing food and clothing or providing medical care. Recently I read the most elegant and eloquent phrase: the community of those who are commanded and who observe. Besides that celebrated primary proscription against idolatry, most of all God commanded and enjoined the people to show hospitality to the stranger and the sojourner:
  • Exodus 23:9
    Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
  • Leviticus 19:34
    But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
  • Deuteronomy 10:19
    Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
...and for us as Christians that's also one of our primary calls, so God calls every one of us to show hospitality to the stranger in our midst, as in this neighborhood, right here and now.

The Wolf Shall Dwell cover Wherever we're living these days, those strangers, those *different* folks are right next door and directly across the street. We've gone way beyond the horror of Christendom's culturally imperialistic Bad News so sparely disguised as evangelism; by now we've finally at least started to learn about contextualizing our proclamation and service so it's culturally appropriate when we're sent to countries and neighborhoods that are visibly different from ours; we usually learn their spoken language and their social customs and popular culture to some extent, so no longer do many Americans or Northern Europeans confuse Christianity with American (or Northern European, or whatever) culture and customs. We still need near-constant awareness of our own cultural idiosyncrasies and of the culture of the evangelized and we need all the time to get and our agendas (esp those agendas of imperialism and colonialism, with still keep happening subtly and not-at-all-subtly) out of the way! This is an important place for some formal courses in cultural anthropology and probably some "training," for lack of a different word. Although there are many available resources, Eric H.F. Law has provided a pair of exceptional books, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community and The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed: Developing a Multicultural Community Through Dialogue and Liturgy in this area; I've spoken to groups and used some of his ideas in limited ways. Despite growing up in an effectively multi-cultural setting, I still make far too many assumptions, both about the "other" and about my own capacities to integrate, understand and fully include others' perspectives and experiences within my own still-limited frame of reference.

But now that most of us (like me, of course) are so sensitive and so savvy, we imagine we'd never ever stereotype anyone or any situation, and I've seen educated people who don't lack life experience say and do the most obscenely horrendous things. The Bush was Blazing coverFor example, when I'm with my neighbors: simply because they live in my ZIP code and even in my condo complex, there's no way I can assume therefore they're like me and would respond to the same expression of Christianity that speaks to my experience. We all live in southern California and we have every ethnicity and lifestyle and family configuration right here, right now. You (I, one) cannot assume anything whatsoever from appearance, and I'd say even less so in 2004 than in prior years. And because we truly have learned so much about other cultures we think or imagine we really know and understand, now we've got to be particularly careful not to stereotype. It's extremely challenging!

It's easy to let our human desire for power and control come close to consuming us, as well, that will to power that in so many ways evolves from a desire for security and belonging: knowing who we are, where we are, and what our particular role is and letting every else know, in no uncertain terms. And we need to let go of our human thinking the only way - or maybe the best way - to accomplish anything is through force or strength in the usual meaning of the word.

I mentioned the human desire for power, meaning an element of force, coercion or even control, but then there's the power of storytelling, proclaiming the Gospel as it has happened in our own lives, in our own private and public worlds, as the story of Jesus, and Spirit and re-creation emerges as a narrative that can engage our neighbors! I'll admit it's often easier for me to teach or preach on an epistle or other less immediate passage than on a more immediately accessible narrative or a parable, but our lives are about "story," and it's in the midst of our individual stories and the relationships and the historical communities into which our stories send us that God acts to challenge, restore, renew and redeem us back for God's own purpose and praise.

In this context I need to refer to the sacraments (yet once) again, since not only does God come to us with specific and special grace in the sacraments, as well as helping us remember Whose we are and heal the distortions in our lives, but the Eucharist particularly forms the model of the ways God enters our world in common, routine and everyday things and ordinary, day-by-day actions - like breaking bread and sharing a meal, and common, routine events like meeting our neighbors and other strangers.

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