I’ve been enjoying a book in these last two weeks called “May it be So
” written by Justin McRoberts and illustrated by (the, of instagram
fame) Scott Erickson. It’s a selection of simple visual prayers with short chapters on each line of the Lord’s Prayer.
One of the stories Justin McRoberts tells, made me laugh out loud, something I don’t often do while reading books! I laughed because it captured an often-experienced-feeling of missing the mark in cross-cultural missions and the unintended beauty that can emerge when things take their unexpected course. Here’s the story;
“Bob looked around the barn like room and asked, "how many kids are here?” The pastor who had invited us turned and spoke to his translator, who then told Bob that most of the 330 children the church regularly hosted were present.
“Perfect!” Bob barked, clapping his hands together.
After diving through the doorway into the afternoon heat, Bob bounded across the church’s dirt yard to our van and then lumbered back, his forehead glistening with sweat and his arms wrapped around an enormous white plastic bag. He swung the bag onto the hard concrete floor with a loud thwap. “All right!” Bob exclaimed, plunging his hand into the opening he’d just torn in the bag.
What I didn’t no until that moment was that before leaving for India, Bob had purchased 350 beaded bracelets designed to communicate a concentrated iteration of the gospel message. It’s possible you seen something of the kind:
A black bead representing sin and brokeness.
A red bead representing the sacrifice of Jesus.
A white bead representing a new start.
A green bead representing spiritual growth.
A blue bead representing baptism.
A yellow bead representing eternal life.
A clear bead, normally placed over the knot holding the string together, representing the person of Christ, who holds all of it together.
While beaded bracelets may not be the most theologically robust artisitic expression, their value for Bob was in their very simplicity; they served his intentions perfectly; providing a memorable visual way to tell kids who didn’t share his language that they are loved and cherished by the Creator. What he didn’t know was that the bracelets had been sent to him unassembled.
Bags of strings.
Bags of beads.
Bob stood there staring at the tangle of black strings he held in his hand. This was no longer a simple gift. Explaining bracelet assembly to 300 children, some as young as four and all of whom spoke some dialect of Hindi, was not something Bob was trained or prepared for.
He froze. “Um….. I….. Well…”
One of the older girls in the room rose to her feet and approached Bob. Laying her right hand on his shoulder (which she had to reach above her head to do), she opened her left palm beneath the tangled strings. As Bob let go, the strings fluttered downward into the young girl’s slight hand and onto the dirt at her feet. She then reached into the white bag, pulled out a small, folded instruction sheet, and read it over with Bob’s translator. Slowly and thoughtfully, she went about assembling a bracelet on her own wrist.
Sliding the clear bead over the knot, she smiled at Bob and knelt to face a six-year-old girl seated at the edge of the crowd. She opened the bag of beads and passed them on to the girl one at a time. While the younger girl worked the string through the black bead, the older girl spoke quietly about its meaning. The younger girl’s face settled into an expression of surprised sadness. What kind of gift was this? If this bead meant pain and darkness, why should she wear it?
The older girl handed the red bead to her younger crestfallen friend. She spoke quite the again, holding the younger girls attention as she told her about the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus and how nothing in all creation can separate God from beloved ones like her. On and on this went…
McRoberts goes on to describe how this process continued for over an hour as the story was passed on, with the beads, each carefully instructing the next one how to tie the bracelet along with the meaning that had just before been communicated to them. Within an hour each child received the story of the good news communicated in their own language complete with a small physical reminder that they were beloved and that they belonged. In the meantime, one can imagine that the initial enthusiasm of Bob’s presentation melted into a quieter humility that recognised that although he brought the beads, his original plan had been overcome by something much messier, but much more inclusive and much less focussed on Bob.
This is, to me, is a perfect parable of the cross cultural missionary. We come, with our enthusiasm and our stories, but often come to realise in the moment, that we offer this into a context far more foreign than we could have anticipated. This is in turn, leads us to doubt our skill and best preparations. We, in fact, have a bag of unassembled beads.
This is what I have learnt. We need to offer our plans, our best intentions, in humility and submission to local friends who have the inbuilt sensitivities and language to initiate a process that God has intended would primarily involve them and Him. If we are content to bring our beads with humility and look for partnership and be willing to stand in awe at God’s comittment to His life going forth in the world we will be able to play our part.
David Bosch, the South African missiologist opens his magisterial tome “Transforming Mission
” noting that the word “mission” has increased in use and broadened in its meaning extraorindiarily since the 1950’s.
It can refer to sending missionaries somewhere, the area those people work, the agency that sends them, the building missionaries operate from or even a series of services intended to ‘reach out’. All of these uses as familiar as they are to us now are completely and utterly novel in the history of the church. Until the 16th Century the term was used exclusively to speak about the actions of the Trinitarian God. Firstly, the sending of the Son by the Father and then the sending of the Spirit by the Father and Son. For the first 1500 years of the Church there was a recognition that mission is something that God is engaged in. The point here is not to negate the importance of followers of Jesus engaging in the mission of God, it is recognising that it is the Mission of God before anything else. Once we come to recognise the significance of God’s mission, we begin to have the eyes to see our own efforts with appropriate perspective.
When mission gets defined as something I do, it ends up limiting the scope of God’s mission. It limits it to my perspective and gifting within mission which underestimates the fullness of transformation that God desires in the world.
Bosch talks about these limited focusses in mission that then lead to a dimished practise of mission;
1) If I am motivated that mission is about conversion, I emphasise the value of personal decision and commitment-but this tends to, in the words of Bosch,
“narrow my understanding of the reign of God spiritualistically and individualistically to the sum total of saved souls”
While drawing people into an awareness and acceptance of their reconiliation with God is a crucial impulse, it is not, to use a pun, the sole goal of God’s mission.
2) If I am motivated that mission is motivated by the return of Christ then I fix people’s eyes on the end times without considering that God might have an interest in the inbreaking of the Kingdom now in all areas of life and not just then in his return.
3) Thirdly, If I am motivated by church planting, as necessary as a community of discipleship is, I will over identify the Kingdom of God with organised religion and not have the eyes to see the actions of God beyond it.
4) Finally, if I motivated by the improvement of people’s social situation through justice and charity, I over identify God’s reign in the world as an improved society which too often gets defined as a western middle class status quo.
Does God care about lives being drawn in to his Kingdom through conversion? Yes. Does he care about our longing for his return? Yes. Does he care that we gather in communities of loving obedience to His word and Spirit? Yes. Does he care that his love, character and intentions for human life begin to be reflected in the societies where Christians are, yes. The mission of God is far too broad to be sheltered in just one of these emphases. Too often we operate in these areas of emphases because they map onto our gitfings and personality rather than represent the fullness of God’s intentions for a remade world.
God instead is content to be broad in His mission of seeing the beauty, order and abundance of all of his creation renewed and restored through the restoration of his human image bearers.
Both the story of the beads and the narrowing of understanding of mission into one of these emphasis reminds us of the importance of the idea of participation. We do not ultimately lead, initiate or move the mission of God, we participate in it. We engage in what Bosch has named a ‘Bold humility’, a boldness that God is at work, and a humility that comes through the crucifixion of all we have failed to count as loss.