I am beyond excited to announce that Missional Monks once again refers to two people
…instead of one guy using the Royal “We.”
Dr. Wes Magruder is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, is the Director of Missional Community Development for the Missional Wisdom Foundation, and is the founder and director of Daraja, a ministry which works to build bridges with refugees in the Dallas area. Wes and his family served for several years as missionaries in Africa. Since returning, he has worked to cultivate missional renewal in a large congregation as the Associate Pastor, he has helped launch missional communities, teaches a course on “Reading Scripture with Missional Eyes” in The Academy, and has developed incredible relationships with refugees from multiple countries. So, since he isn’t busy, I asked him to partner with me as a Missional Monk.
In addition to working together on the blog, Wes and I are relaunching the Missional Monks Podcast (hooray!) – with the addition of monthly videocasts. We already have several fantastic interviews lined up where we’ll be talking about the collision of the missional and the monastic with people in a variety of different contexts.
Through our work together in the Missional Wisdom Foundation, Wes and I have had multiple opportunities to speak and teach together. The “Bret and Wes Show” as it is often called within the Foundation, seems to work pretty well. Specifically, we have had a number of opportunities to work with individual churches and groups that are interested in cultivating the missional imagination. Missional Monks is the perfect context to continue developing and improving that aspect of our ministry.
As this marks an exciting transition for Missional Monks, you can expect a number of changes coming to the website in the near future.
Please join me in welcoming Wes, because I’m contractually obligated to limit the nice things I say to him personally…and I think I’m already over my quota.
But for now it is time to unveil the first ever Missional Monks Videocast…complete with too many closeups of someone who needs to shave.
For this inaugural episode we visited the Seattle’s Best Coffee in Burleson to tell ’em…”Hi, I’m Bret.”
Check it out.
I preached this sermon originally in 2009. In its initial form it began with a shorter version of the poetic retelling of the story of creation, fall and redemption. This rewrite was an assignment for the class I took in January, 2011. The intent of this message is to remind the hearers/readers that Scripture is telling a story we’re all struggling to hear naturally and to call us to share that meaningful story of belonging with others.
Before the beginning there was Community. God, the Community of Love, which we refer to as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit had a perfect relationship of mutual love and respect. This isn’t to say that there were three gods – there is One God and this God is the essence of Love. Love neither exists in, nor is expressed in isolation; it is expressed in community. This God, this Community of Love is not incomplete; the Trinity is the definition of completion. Community needs nothing, Love lacks nothing. Love is eternally expressed within the Community of the One God in Three Persons.
While the Community of Love is not incomplete, neither is God static. The nature of True Community is expansive. It is dynamic. It is always growing and bringing into itself everything around it. The relationship of the Community, being rooted and established in a deep, indescribable love, is creative. For that is what love is and what love does, it continually creates opportunity for love to be expressed and to give itself away. Trinitarian love is essentially self-emptying.
So God, the Community of Love, created. God brushed away the darkness, stepped into the midst of chaos and brought forth solid foundations. God molded and formed an indescribable, advancing universe, and in an inconspicuous section of all that began to paint, with beautiful strokes, a landscape that was begging to be enjoyed.
God walked in the garden. The Lord knelt down and from the same material that formed mountains, deserts and jungles; the same material that made up the fish and birds and lions and bugs, began to mold something new; something that would see and know and laugh and love. God began to form something that would walk with The Community, that God could teach and love. With The Community’s image as a mold and model, a new thing was brought into being.
This new thing would be the pinnacle of everything God had created. The Lord would be able to point out the sunrise and this new thing’s breath would catch. When a thunderstorm would pass through, it was God to whom this new thing would come running for protection. The Community of Love would hold this small creature and explain that everything would be okay.
God formed this living being. The Community breathed its own life into this thing. The Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the relationship that was full, complete and needed nothing – invited these new small frail children to share this powerful community. And it was so very good.
God could have formed these creatures without the ability to choose their course. That decision had been made with the stars and planets and mountains and streams. None of these had been given the freedom to choose – planets and moons are in their orbit and have no ability to choose to do otherwise. Mountains are tall and strong, but they will never think, “I want to be a valley now.” Gravity does not choose whether it will influence objects or not.
This decision allowed the universe to be orderly, but it also ensured that no planet would ever write a song about the Creator. True, God created great beauty in the planet, a beauty which is itself a kind of song, but it isn’t a song that the planet created. In humanity, God has created something which is able to create as God creates – not on the same level; neither as equal nor rival, but as something which understands, as God does, that when love is present beautiful things result. The children could not be like the stars or the trees, they had to be able to choose.
But with the ability to choose, came the ability to choose isolation over Community. Some say that God was disobeyed and so God’s wrath was stirred. I think it’s much more sad and tragic than that. The Lord had created these children to live in the trusting, loving relationship that The Community enjoyed; God had created room for the Community of Love to be experienced. In the moment of choice, the creation rejected both Community and Love. The course of the Story was altered from its intended trajectory.
This crisis was devastating and cataclysmic, but it would not have the last word. It WILL not have the last word. Even in the midst of great crisis, when Creation rejected the relationship of love and community and instead launched into selfishness and isolation…The Creator continued going to creation.
God called a man named Abram and made a covenant with him. The Lord God blessed Abram, changing his name to Abraham (meaning “father of a multitude”) and promised that through him all people groups on earth would be blessed.
As the children of Israel continued year after year to cycle through seasons of confusion and clarity, The Lord kept returning to them, seeking to restore and reconcile community with creation. God patiently taught and corrected and reminded and invited and urged and groaned and pleaded. Community could not stand to see humanity languishing in isolation.
The Lord raised up judges and priests, kings and prophets to speak to the people. Some of these leaders saw relative success in their ministry of calling the hearts and minds of the people back to God. But the success was always short-lived at best.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a coming day when there would no longer be any need to teach one another about God, for the covenant would be written on our hearts. When the time came, The Community of Love yet again stepped into the midst of creation to walk in the garden with creation. Once more the missionary God self-sent, and Jesus the Christ lived among us. Jesus modeled a view of full humanity in full view of humanity.
Jesus gathered a community around himself and continually invited the broken, overlooked, forgotten and oppressed to rejoice because the Community of God was at hand; it was here and they were invited in. Jesus came to reclaim the lost things, restore the broken things and to set into motion the putting to rights of ALL things. Jesus proclaimed the good news that once again God would dwell with creation. And Jesus invited humanity to experience the power of thunderstorms, the beauty of mountains and the joy of life in the arms the Community of Love.
Those who heard this joyous pronouncement were not ushered off into isolation. They were sent to invite others to join the work of reclaiming, restoring and remaking. Jesus didn’t merely come to invite us to the feast, the Word of God called us to join in the mission of preparing the table!
Some say that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection provide the substitutionary atonement for our sins. It is much more beautiful and powerful than just that. To be sure, whatever atonement is required is fulfilled by Christ, but that is only part of the story.
Jesus stepped right into the midst of a continual, systemic, generational and seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence, retribution, greed, power, sin…
And stopped it dead in its tracks.
Never before had anyone had such a singular claim on the right for retribution and justice. Rather than lay claim to these rights, Jesus laid them aside in order to stop the cycle of revenge. Sin and death would no longer have a strangle-hold on the status quo. The deception which had been plaguing creation since the first garden was finally brought to full light. There is hope. There is light. There is Life.
When the time came for Jesus to return to the Father, the Spirit was promised…and then sent. The Spirit wasn’t sent to wander aimlessly, but rather came to form and cultivate community in anticipation of experiencing Community on earth as it is in heaven. The Spirit called for the community of believers to be sent to the ends of the earth; continuing the ministry to which Jesus had dedicated himself, continuing the ministry to which God had called Abraham, continuing the ministry which God initiated in the first garden, continuing the Act that began in the beginning, continuing the character of the One who was Community before the beginning. The missionary God who comes near as Love has sent us as well.
We see it everyday in a thousand ways. Walking down the fluorescent lit halls of our high school, they’re there…whispering, judging, huddled together like the impenetrable phalanx of Spartan warriors. Enter any public space: a bar, the mall, a dark alley…even most church buildings and there they are again. Notice your friends, yourself even, and perhaps you will recognize with astonishment that they are still present…even in the mirror.
Sometimes they give themselves a name and go to battle against other theys – sometimes with tanks, sometimes with machetes and assault rifles, sometimes with stolen firearms and knives, sometimes with words.
They are us. Humanity. Struggling to find meaning and belonging in the midst of a deeply scarred and broken world. Whether we’re talking about nations, religions, factions, gangs, fraternities or cliques the dynamic is the same. We long for connection and as I once heard someone say, “when we’re dying of thirst we’ll gladly drink water we know is poisonous.”
The story of Scripture – our story – reveals that this longing is natural, it was placed within us in the very act of creation by a God who exists in community. We are the people of this Story. We are the rememberers of the Story of God, the Community of Love. Not only this, we are the story of the Community of Love in action. This understanding of God teaches us how to receive one another, to speak of salvation, to engage in the mission of God and even to praise the God who has come near in order to make community possible.
From Theology to Practice…and From Ministry to Theology
This post is part 3 of 5 in a series on missional and incarnation life. You can refer back to the Series Overview to see the posting schedule. Comments which are going to be addressed in a future post may not be responded to at length until after that post is up. Thanks for reading and engaging in this conversation with me! – Bret
We began this series of posts by considering the problem of church becoming inwardly focused and dedicated primarily to the protection of the institution. We then considered the theological and Biblical foundations for a more missional/incarnational life.
In dealing with this, and really any, issue of our faith we must maintain a certain amount of tension in how we proceed. Some will want to spend time working out the theology, as we have been doing up to this point and others will want to consider the practical realities. Both of these are needed; both flow into one another, and any who would focus solely on one at the expense of the other, in actuality, despises both.
We must move from theology to practice, but we also move from ministry to theology. What this means is that we make a huge mistake if we begin considering an issue based solely on “what works” and not on theological reflection. I believe that “church growth” folks often do precisely this. We study market trends, successful business models, cultural analysis and opinion polls and then move forward democratically along the most supported path – it is the American way.
This model was also used throughout scripture – and it always ended tragically. Solomon in all his wisdom, knew how to study the sociopolitical world of the ancient Near East and he made strategic alliances, building an enormous empire in the process. We thus consider him to be a highly successful king. However, in the account of his kingship we see that he broke every single command that God gave to the people through Moses (in Deuteronomy) as to how a king should behave.
Not only that, he enslaved the Israelites! This people, intended to be God’s proclamation of light to the world; meant to be a message that no longer would the Lord stand by as people were oppressed, were now enslaved by their own “godly” king.
Throughout the remainder of their history, Israel’s kings would make strategic alliances and carefully study the market to determine the best course; they modeled decisions on the highly successful leaders of the time, located in powerful empires and every time it lead them down a path to destruction. Even good king Josiah (our son’s namesake) was killed when he made one of these ill-advised (by God through the prophets) political moves.
Church planters face this risk constantly. So often we are out on the frontier with little or no support or reinforcements. There is constant pressure (from without and within) to make concessions in order to establish self-sufficiency and financial stability. This pressure does not typically stem from theological reflection but rather from “what works.” And this is not the place from which we should make our decisions.
However, we also must move from ministry to theology. Planning out our theology in a closet, choosing to remove ourselves from our context (or determining what we’ll do apart from a context) is never going to be completely faithful. The Church exists in time and space and as such we can only deal with the present state that we actually encounter. We don’t formulate theology apart from the Church – for that would not be Christian theology – and we don’t formulate theology apart from culture – for that would deny the Incarnation.
The Incarnation of Jesus was not a new move for God. God walked in the garden in the very beginning, God came near to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God was with Moses, Aaron and Miriam, God heard the cry of the oppressed Israelites in Egypt and through the prophets regularly called Israel to hear the oppressed in their midst. When “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” as John’s gospel says, he did so just as we’re told that God had chosen to dwell and walk among his people (Leviticus 26) and will one day choose to do fully in the creation of the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21).
But though this move is not unique for God, the incarnation of Jesus is a seminal moment for us in so many ways. Not the least of these is that time and space are shown to be valuable to God. Jesus did not appear in a universal form when he came near. It wasn’t just into humanity that Jesus incarnated, it was our way of existing – in a place at a certain time. Jesus took on the cultural forms and language of the occupied Israelite people in the midst of the powerful Roman Empire. He spoke their language, wore their clothes, observed their way of moving about (we saw when the people tried to press in on him and he “passed through their midst” that Jesus could have moved about as he pleased.)
So therefore theology, if it is to be Christian theology, must take into account The Other (God), one another (the Church) and the others (society).
Theological reflection begins with God calling us to ministry in a particular time and place. Our practice of ministry begins and continues in that theological reflection. That tension (and harmony) must be maintained.
Changing Everything and Changing Nothing
The need to move from ministry to theology and theology to practice can be seen in pretty much any issue that we undertake. For our purposes here, allow me to address two particular ones that we’ve dealt with/are dealing with in our context.
In the midst of conversations about emphasis on and participation in missional church planting we’ve come to a few conclusions. One is that community needs to be an important value in our life of faith. However, if we conceive of community apart from an actual ministry context it is very easy to romanticize the whole concept. This can lead to a naive love of the idea of community more than the thing itself.
Community is often spoken of as a nice, warm, secure experience – and to be sure these can be among the benefits of community. But the reality is that community is difficult, painful and messy. It requires sacrifice, patience and compassion beyond what we’d often like to give.
Similarly if we take the concept of community without reflecting theologically on the idea we can end up with something that in reality falls short of true community. We may look to facebook, fraternities or social organizations and develop a set a shallow connections to lots of people; good for potluck meals but useless in the midst of crisis or confusion. We may talk constantly about the importance of community, but we couldn’t tell you what “it” is or why its important…other than it seems kinda Jesusish.
However, if we start by reflecting on the understanding of God as Community; a relationship of love and mutual submission, an emptying of oneself on behalf of another, we get a more complete view of community. We can understand the “why” – we are created in the image of God and God has been revealed to us in the form of unified community of Three-in-One. We can understand “how” – we submit ourselves to one another, not putting our own desires at the top of our list; we recognize that Christ has a claim on our life and isn’t merely a commodity to be added to our already busy schedule. The specific “whats” can then be worked out in our context.
Similarly, as we deal with a missional approach to church planting we seek to connect with disconnected people, reenter our neighborhoods as agents of God’s Kingdom and encounter God through participation in relationship rather than passive receipt of goods and service. We offer a needed (and hopefully loving) critique to models of “church” that fail to emphasize the call to be transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others. We talk about spiritual formation for the purpose of joining God in the ministry of reconciliation in our community.
In the midst of our fervor, we may set about changing everything and end up changing nothing. We may move to a house church model, we may begin meeting in a bar or coffee shop, we choose not to meet corporately at all. And yet if all we change is the location where we passively receive religious goods and services, we’ve changed nothing.
It is easy and tempting to focus our critique and call for change on things like structure because they are tangible aspects which are easy to see – and they may very well need changing. Even so, we need to think theologically about what it is that really needs to change. We’ve talked before about the disappointing possibility of merely changing our emphasis on “church as place” in the sanctuary or coffee shop to “church as place” in the living room.
Must change occur? Yes, I believe so – or at least, it needs to continue occurring. But change needs to happen in our assumptions about the purpose and function of “church” and what it means for us individually and as a community to give our life to Christ. If my concern is what my personality needs for worship; if our focus is making everyone happy then we still need change…regardless of where we meet.
If we’re able to “do church” without feeling the pinch of Christ’s claim on our busyness, finances, choice of leisure activities or commitment to the oppressed; if our change only affects our formal (or apparently informal) gatherings without calling us out on the rest of our lives then we haven’t changed anything.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t practical issues of form and structure which can and should be considered – only that those issues come out of the deeper issue of who we are being transformed into.
In the final two installments of this short series (of long posts), I would like to consider some of these practical issues. Specifically I want to sketch not only a working definition, but a somewhat tangible description of what “missional” and “incarnational” life may look like, and then I want to address the issue of “sustainable models in ministry.” Neither of these posts (and not even the series of posts) can possibly come close to saying all that needs to be said about these topics.
My desire is to provide, for some, a starting point and for others, a place to continue the conversation.