Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Missionary Position

Okay, I couldn’t resist using this title for an article about religious missionary ventures. But let us begin.

I still remember Shahila’s laughter. The time was during the summer about 13-14 years ago, and the place was a first nations reserve in eastern New Brunswick, in Canada’s Atlantic region. That summer, as well as on 3 or 4 other occasions, I along with about a dozen other teenagers and adults, traveled to the reserve and spent about a week and a half living there. We went to share our Christian faith. We spent much of our time holding Bible clubs with the children, and when we weren’t doing that, most of our time was spent just playing with the kids. The environment that many of them lived in contributed to many of the kids craving attention. We would walk around the reserve together. Often, the smaller kids – and sometimes not so small! – would climb on our backs and we’d continue on our way. There was one little girl particularly who stole my heart. Her name was Shahila and she must have been only 4 or 5 at the time. She climbed up onto my back and giggled as we walked around together. It is still a deeply cherished moment of my life.

So what is the point, or should be the point of missions?

From as far back as I can remember, I was taught that the only way to be connected with God was to be a Christian. My understanding of Christianity was that we were naturally sinful (which I thought of as being ‘bad’) people, and that since God (which I thought of as kind of a super man in the sky) couldn’t stand to be around sin, he set up ways that people could gain his acceptance, and be saved from eternal judgment and punishment. First, his people could attain favour through various laws and animal sacrifices (i.e. a lamb,) and then he sent his son, Jesus, to the earth to be the sacrifice, replacing those laws. If one simply believed that Jesus died and literally, physically rose from the dead, they were saved from judgment and given the assurance that one day when they died they would be in God’s presence, in a perfect heaven. Jesus was the only way to be connected to God.

Once a person believed these things, it became their responsibility to ‘pass it on,’ to tell others about the way to God. Words or phrases that I was familiar with and used to describe this act included witnessing or going on missions. I was fairly enthusiastic about mission work (although as a kid it could be difficult to stay enthused or awake when missionaries would come to speak at church and had pictures from far away lands.) When I went to Bible college, I enrolled in the missions program, thinking that perhaps one day I would be involved in mission work full-time. I thought I’d stay in Canada, though, thinking back on it, I should have considered somewhere farther away, like Zimbabwe. It’s a fun word to say, Zimbabwe is. Try saying it a few times…can you really be sad while saying Zim-bob-way…? Anyways, I digress.

What do I think of missions today? After all, I no longer believe that a super-man-type God in the sky sent his son down to be sacrificed for our sins. Nor do I believe that we are naturally unacceptable to God. God, to me, is not a person who turns his face away from you and I unless we accept a certain belief.

So what, if anything, should missions be all about? I believe that a good place to start in re-thinking the whole matter is to stop seeing life in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms. I believe that everyone in existence is connected; we are part of the human family. Along with that, we must recognize that the people we previously may have wanted to introduce to God already contain truth within them. Combining these two thoughts, world mission is not about ‘us’ bringing the truth to ‘them.” It is not about us who are right correcting those who are wrong.

So what is salvation? I believe that it is about wholeness in this moment, rather than a guarantee for a heavenly afterlife. All around our towns and cities, all around our world there are broken people that are in need in some area of their life, whether that be physical, emotional, or psychological. People face a lack of food, abuse, disease, all sorts of things. Our responsibility is to help our brothers and sisters in their area of need. And I do not believe that one size fits all. Our job is not primarily to present a set of theological beliefs to someone. Why? I believe it is, again, because people are already connected with the divine. Indeed, I believe that each person has the light of the divine in them, and even that each of us is a unique expression of the divine. We are God in the flesh, living and breathing, whoever and wherever we are. The person next to me here at Starbucks looks unfamiliar to me, but he and I are made of the same stuff, and we are connected. This is new to me, (though I’ve suspected divinity in the barista’s here for some time now, because they make a heavenly vanilla soy latte.) :)

If people find wholeness and divinity within them through Christianity, then we should encourage that. And fundamentalism is not the only lens through which one can view and experience Christianity. Whichever religious beliefs help a person become more whole, they should be encouraged to follow them and see their life enriched and enhanced. I like how the Dalai Lama emphasizes that one should not convert to another religion if they are experiencing spiritual fulfillment through their traditional faith. But I doubt that Christianity, at least the fundamentalist view of it, is for everyone. For some, even many, embracing this Christianity might be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If a person has a real desire to paint, and it is a gift inside of them and a way of expressing themselves, you should buy them a brush and a canvass, don’t show up at their doorstep with power-tools or a guitar. If a person finds that another view of Christianity, or that Buddhism or Judaism helps them to see God within themselves, they should be encouraged to follow those paths.

Salvation needs to be a personal thing. If it does not ring true within yourself, it is not worth having. God is not someone separate from us, imposing truth on us. God is born in us and experiences life through our eyes and ears. Knowing God and knowing yourself are intimately linked, indeed, they are the same thing.

In conclusion, wherever you find yourself today, and whatever beliefs you cherish, may you know wholeness in this moment, and may we help others to be whole as well. And from my viewpoint tonight in a coffee shop in Uptown Waterloo, that is the missionary position.

2 comments:

Anduril Elessar said...

Hey Mark!

mmm vanilla soy latte. I'll try that next time.

(BTW, Susan Deefholts here--the silly blogger thing won't let me post under my name rather than my username).

I enjoyed your post. The explorations you're undertaking are resonant and, IMO important. Thanks for sharing!

The one thing I would respond to, though, is your interesting point about need.

As a result of a few recent encounters, I've come to feel that there are (at least) two different levels of need, from what I can see. The most superficial one is usually the one we can see. And when that surface need is excessive, it is often just a symptom of the deeper need. That superficial need can manifest in ways that end up being destructive (to the self and to others)--and often, that superficial need (be it for food, for attention, for recognition, for invisibility, for control, etc.), can be insatiable precisely because it masks a deeper need/wound. For those around the person doing the needing, it can quickly and easily become really unhealthy to feed that superficial need.

Yet, though the deeper need might be clear to us, the person doing the needing must face up to that often painful, underlying need, before they can begin helping themselves and asking those around them for help in finding that inner fulfillment. And, in the end, it's up to the person to take those steps--to admit the need, then take the steps to heal themselves and fulfill it.

And that's where the recognition of the sacred within ourselves comes in, isn't it?! The person who does the needing must uncover the divine and the marvelous within him or herself and learn to accept it, with love. :-)

I just bought a book from Costco (!! That source for All Things Spiritual ;-) called the Seeker's Guide. It looks pretty interesting.

Take care, and thanks again for sharing!

Mark Andrew Alward said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Susan! I couldn't agree more about a more obvious need masking a deeper need. It's a painful thing when you finally realize that no one and nothing outside of you can fulfill that. And we need to stop running around looking for something or someone else to fulfill it. When you finally encounter the divine within you, it can be a shock. But accepting that you have this power within you is the beginning of healing. I think that healing, as well as salvation (a salve on a wound) needs to be a personal healing and salvation; then it is deeply affective and more thorough.

Thanks again for your thoughts.