Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Missional Church, part II

As I mentioned in my last post, I feel confident that focusing on Jesus, as he actually is, is foundational for a church. But is there a focus that Jesus himself had that we should also acknowledge? This is where I recalled the substance of a very short book I read a few years ago called How to Find Your Mission in Life by Richard Bolles. (The book was originally published as an appendix to Bolles' longtime bestselling job hunting / career path book, What Color Is Your Parachute?) The thrust of the book is that each of us have 3 missions in life, or one mission with 3 parts, depending on how you view it. The first two missions are shared by everyone, and they are what Jesus called the greatest commandments. Each person's first mission is to "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength." "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever" is the way the Westminister Catechism puts it. Once we begin this mission in earnest, we will be drawn inevitably into the second part of our mission, which is also shared with every other human being, and it is to love other people. On this point, a caveat is in order. Just as we have a tendency to remake Jesus in our image, so too with love, especially when it comes to loving other people. We tend to think that we are loving people, but thanks to Jesus, the term 'love' now has more definite content. "A new command I give you," Jesus said. "Love as I have loved you." Just as Jesus is "the visible image of the invisible God" so he is the revelation of what love is. "This is how we know love" the scriptures say, and then point to his actions for us. As we pursue our first two missions of love, we are no more free to reinvent the term than we are to reinvent Jesus and the God he represents. He has given us, in word and deed, the definition of love that he is asking us all to participate in with all of our being.

According to Bolles, the third part of our mission, that we will discover as we pursue the first two parts in earnest, consists of those things, unique to each of us, that God has gifted and placed us to be and do. To me, this encompasses the longer-term 'missions' like my calling to be a husband to Kim and father to Ruby. No else has the opportunities that I do in those ways, and I am designed for these missions. To a slightly lesser extent, my work as a lawyer and professor and friend to others gives me other aspects of my current mission in life. The key is that the first two missions continually serve as the foundation, the reason, the fuel, the plumbline, for the third. Anything that isn't logically related to the first two missions simply isn't my job to do. Mother Teresa said of her work that it was "something beautiful for God." Of course, there are still lots of decisions between lots of good options: Do I marry this person, someone else, or no one? Is this job offer God's will for me? Where should I live? Etc. And this is precisely where being in community with other 'missionaries' who are also learning how to hear from and follow the living, functioning Christ can be most helpful. Also, in addition to these longer term missions, there are the countless other smaller opportunities for being a human representative and instrument of God every day that make up our unique mission in life. This third part of our mission includes the natural--giving a cup of cold water to _______, and the supernatural--letting God use us as instruments of his loving power.

So, after discussing this with the church that meets in my house, we've decided to let these 3 missions be ours, as continually defined and refined by Jesus himself:

  1. Love God with all that we are and have;
  2. Love others as Jesus has loved us;
  3. Be faithful to discover and complete the missions unique to each of us.

These are our missions. We'll ask each other about how we're doing in them, and do things together to train ourselves for our success in them. The point, though, isn't just to understand these missions or even Christ's teachings as a whole, that is just a necessary step. I've had too many encounters this year with thoroughly evil people who teach Sunday School every week. Fulfilling the mission is the goal.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Missional Church, part I

For a few months or so I've been wondering and reading (hopefully with God) about the little group that meets in my home. Specifically I've been wondering if there is any appropriate way to focus our individual and shared lives to help us all progress in the goals God has for us over the long haul. Our group is very informal, and we know that we're a church, but that's about the extent of the 'focus' week to week. Would a greater degree of focus be helpful? If so, what should it be?

As I thought about these questions, the first place my brain stopped with any degree of confidence was with Jesus himself. Conceptually, this isn't hard to accept--a (Christian) church focuses on Jesus. Learning his priorities and view of things is foundational; it's what makes us "Christian." But I wondered some more, "Is that enough?" Not whether Jesus is enough--he absolutely is. But, as many have noted, we humans have a penchant for being sloppy, highly selective and even partisan in our perception of Jesus. Our ideas about Jesus vary widely. As Gordon Cosby has said, "My Jesus may be your Jesus' worst enemy." Different aspects of Jesus' life and teachings get explained away or ignored in bulk by different parts of the church: Some avoid his supernatural commands and practices that he passed on to the church, others avoid his teachings about tangible mercy, others avoid his teachings regarding the cost of following him, others, the bits about loving and giving to those who wrong us, still others ignore his contemplative (or celebrative) practices, and we almost all avoid his warnings about money. So naming Jesus as our focus should be done with recognition of the widespread practice--within Christianity--of reshaping Jesus as we see fit. Relatedly, the goal God has for us isn't just to learn about Jesus and his teachings--though that is necessary. The goal is to physically embody Jesus and his teachings. I believe it was Kierrkegard that said Jesus has many more admirers than followers. We want to be people whose admiration is such that following is the only logical course of action.

I then wondered if there's any topic worthy enough to be placed immediately after 'Jesus.' And further, what does it mean, practically speaking, to follow Jesus today? Does adding anything at all to 'Jesus' immediately misdirect us to lesser goals? That's my next post.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

And now for something completely different . . .

Congrats to Ohio State and Florida for getting to the "big game" this year. There has been a lot of talk this year (again) about why we need a playoff for college football. "We need to know who the best team is!", it is said. "We need to eliminate, or at least lessen, the role that opinion plays in deciding champions!" And, then--my favorite--"College football is the only major collegiate sport without a playoff!" To all these deft arguments I say, "Baloney, hogwash, hooey, horsefeathers, piffle, poppycock, rubbish, tomfoolery!" (I know, strong language for college football.) But here's why I say so:

To work backwards, who cares if college football is the only collegiate sport without a tournament? It's also the most popular collegiate sport--by far. And it's not just the post-season that draws crowds, viewers and plenty for everyone to comment about (the present controversies included), but the regular season is do or die every week--also unlike every other college sport. Why, exactly, is Ohio State unquestionably deserving to play in the title game? Because they didn't drop a single nail-biting game in the regular season. As USC just demonstrated, that ain't easy--even the weaker teams can and do beat anybody. All the teams know that blanking the loss column is the best possible way to get a shot at the title (and Auburn has most recently proven that even going undefeated is no guarantee--more on that later). What does that must-win-every-game reality do to the regular season? It absolutely electrifies it. Both national and conference titles routinely swing on a single loss. The stakes are high every week. The college football season can be described in three words: drama, drama, drama. Now, if we go to a tournament at the end of the year, does each regular season game matter in the way it does now? I don't see how it could. Sure, people will still go; teams will play hard. Will a tournament, though, be the same, or better for the regular season? As other sports will attest--it's all about the playoffs. 'So long' to the only regular season that has post-season flair.

Now, what about reducing the level of opinion currently in play in determining who plays in the big game? Guess what? First, a tournament will reduce it, not eliminate it (Who gets invited to the tournament and why? Who gets seeded where?) But secondly, WHY BOTHER DOING THAT? Seriously, why do the arguments about SEC vs. Big Ten (and everyone else) rage on year after year? Because every season, like any good drama, leaves so many unanswered questions with a vague, tantalizing hope of solving it next year, or the year after that. But each year just generates new questions as it answers others. Would Michigan have beaten Florida head to head? What about Boise State? Would LSU have won it all if they had gotten to play a tournament? What if Auburn had been chosen to play for the title a few years back when they went undefeated instead of Oklahoma who got embarrassed in the title game? (And Auburn absolutely should have played for the title.) What if, what if, WHAT IF!? Is this kind of 'injustice' and lack of total resolution bad for college fans or the game? Isn't it more like the painful tension for any good ongoing story? Isn't this the exact ambiguity, this unique ambiguity, that mixes with school spirit to make college football so much fun compared to every other sport--even other collegiate sports? (On a side note, the sports media that is currently so bent on complaining about the bowl system are only doing their job. It's literally their job to fan each controversy into flame. Believe me, they will all be harmonizing in lament if the bowl season becomes just another tournament--because that will be the 'controversy' then.)

Which brings me to the final point: "We need to know who the best is!" Really? I know college football is big business now, but college football is still also college football. Those are (by some definition) students on the field. If 'knowing the best' was a goal worth pursuing at all costs, then we should have each team that's matched up in a tournament play several games (or at least for the championship)--like in the NBA--since everyone knows that blowing one game to an inferior team happens routinely. If you want to know the best, that's the path. Do we really think that the best teams never lose a single elimination tournament? But instead of going down that road, let's look at what the afor mentioned "unique" bowl system currently does (aside from usually giving us a settled champion): How many other sports have multiple good teams that end their season with a win in post-season play? Probably as many as have a bowl system. Again, if it was pro ball, who cares about post-season-ending wins for 'losers'? But for college programs, I think this is a major plus. Is the bowl system antiquated? Absolutely. And, like all antiques, that's part of it's charm and a lot of it's value. College football isn't (yet) 100% about beating everyone to be the undisputed champion of all. It's also about (sometimes silly) traditions, songs, ugly mascots, parades, weird ways of clapping, fight songs, conference lore, rivalry games, odd trophies, school pride, nostalgia and formational times in people's lives. Why make college football into the pro game, when we already have the pro game?

So congrats again to Florida and Ohio State for making it to the final game in my favorite big-time sports event--college football--and for adding to the story along the way. And congrats to LSU, Boise State, and Texas Tech for adding to the lore with great and storied farewells. May the stew of college football be as spicy, rich, surprising and messy next year; and, of course, GO GATORS!!!