When my parents and I appeared on a now long-defunct TV show, (so defunct I cannot remember the name of the show ) in New York City, the host was quite amused at having a nine-year-old from Michigan in the audience. In his pre-show visit with the audience he asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I immediately responded, “A missionary!” Bemused, he patted me on the head, commented on my lovely red purse, and quickly turned back to my parents. My announcement surprised my parents and began a life long journey of understanding being a missionary.
As a young adult, I saw that Jesus demanded three things from his followers: I loving God, becoming and making disciples, and serving “the least of these.” Then I was challenged by the work of Elizabeth O’Connor as she wrote about Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Saviour in Washington D. C., a church that still takes the “inward/outward” journey seriously. I yearned to be there and learn how to live that life.
In the decades of the 60’s and 70’s, I observed the Western Church battling over which is more important: evangelism or social justice. The battle seemed to demand my taking sides. I chose social justice. I supported the Southern Poverty Law Center as it fought for legal fairness for the poor. I supported my cousins in Florida as they organized and participated in “sit down” demonstrations in Woolworth’s – and went to jail. I founded and led a community-based literacy program which still exists. I put in more than 2,500 hours of volunteer tutoring in reading, much of it in the county jail. I recycled and talked to my friends about climate change. I volunteered at a food bank and at a monthly food distribution at church. These “social justice” activities were challenging and interesting and even fun.
But I began to see that the three directives Jesus asked of us, (becoming like him, telling others about him, and serving where we are called) were to be done in concert. I wondered: Why doesn’t the Church recognize that these three things are all important and not mutually exclusive? Why did churches seem to specialize in one of the three when Jesus obviously saw all three as interdependent?
THE QUESTIONED ANSWERED
Decades have passed. I no longer do battle with what’s more important, social justice or evangelism. I do still struggle with lukewarm or arrogant churches that miss the vision for the body of Christ that the Bible describes. But now I see a holistic view of the Christian life which I strive to attain. I have learned that my spiritual journey is a “long obedience in the same direction” as Eugene Peterson said, not just an intellectual assent to a set of doctrines or perfect attendance record at church services. I found a way to express that as I struggled to write our church’s mission statement: “transformed lives transforming our world in Jesus’ name.” Now I thrill to a commitment to a life-long journey in the Kingdom of God, available now and coming.
My time spent teaching the Apprentice series taught me that I also need to be in community with others who are growing and sharing and holding each other accountable. That community reminds me of my identity in Christ. It helps me to love, accept, and forgive – even the people I don’t really like. It teaches me how to be vulnerable and more trusting. It was here that I recognized that “we are holy, and yet we are learning how to be holy” (The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith,p. 133).
And I understand what prophets and writers have been telling us for years. Following Christ does not necessarily serving him as a “missionary” across continents or oceans. As Richard Stearns, president of World Vision US, beautifully explains:
Our role as disciples [missionaries!] is “about the thousands of daily twists, turns, detours, and choices that make up the very fabric of our life. It’s about a life well lived for Christ by those who know their destination and seriously the role God has given them to play as full participants in his kingdom work. . . . God offers all of us the amazing opportunity to join in this sacred work. We have the great privilege of being the hands and feet of Christ in a hostile and hurting world, and there are countless ways to participate. We can work with joy in the face of difficulty, speak the truth in a place of deceit, choose integrity when corruption is the norm, offer comfort in a time of grief, challenge injustice to protect its victims, and offer forgiveness in the midst of brokenness, . . . These are sacred things, privileged things, kingdom things profoundly meaningful and significant, deeply human and moral and right” (In Unfinished, Filling the Hole in Our Gospel)
Decades after expressing my longing to be a “missionary,” I am learning to become the “aroma of Christ” to other. I see myself collaborating with God in God’s sacred work in our world. I am understanding how to bring my particular “light” into a dark, hostile, and hurting world. That is the kind of missionary we all can be!