The Inseparability of Contemplation and Mission

In fact, for the past 12 summers or so, I’ve drowned myself in the mystics, sitting at the feet of St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Reformed mystics such as the a’ Brakel’s, or Thomas Merton.  This summer, I’ve been spending time learning from Rainer Maria Rilke, Meister Eckhart, more of Merton, and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr.  Rohr, perhaps more intentionally than any other, has connected for me the inseparable marriage between the contemplative and the active, between mysticism and social justice, between meditation and mission.

This ‘marriage’ is perhaps more important today than in any other day.  It’s no surprise to people who know me that I believe Lesslie Newbigin is the most important missional visionary in the past 100 years.  A prophet of sorts, Newbigin returned from his work as a missionary in India to become a vocal spokesperson for Western culture’s unsettling entanglement with the Gospel.  A strong ecumenical voice, Newbigin could see through the polarizations of his day, and cast a new vision, a kind of ‘third way’ as some call it, which would unite divided Christians.

Yet, the psychologist in me sees a man comfortable with tension and paradox, a man able to see-through and see-beyond, a rare gift.  Indeed, it’s the gift of contemplatives.  Newbigin’s affection for the overall narrative of Scripture, and our mysterious participation in it by and through the Spirit, makes me certain he had mystic sensibilities, even if they were not realized in classic ways.  And the centrality of Christ, and union in Christ for Newbigin, leads me to believe that living in India allowed him to break out of the slavery of modernist rationalism, and to see with new spiritual eyes.

Let me explain how this impacts us.  Until recently, we lived in a Christendom reality…a world in which Christianity was fused, sometimes in indistinguishable ways, with medieval, Renaissance, and modernist worldviews.  We’re emerging from a long marriage to Western modernism, rationalism, and individualism, with values that are as entrenched and unquestioned as the 10 Commandments.  Indeed, the ’emergence’ from this most recent version of Christendom leaves many alarmed, warning of the end of Christian culture, and for some an almost certain sign of the end times.  Instead, I believe we’re living in a time full of possibility, a time much like that which the early church experienced, rich in contemplative and missional ways, inviting us to “follow Christ” more simply, humbly, and vibrantly.

This is because missional engagement requires a kind of contemplative stance – comfort with paradox, radical dependence on a living and active Spirit, a unitive theology and spirituality.  When we’re engaged deeply in mission, we lack time or energy for the typical culture wars, the maddening polarizations, the rationalist nit-picking.  Indeed, because contemplation majors on ‘being’ rather than ‘thinking’ (a modernistic idol), one is called to be deeply rooted in God, known by God, in union and communion.  Real presence with God means real presence to others, and this constitutes mission, as we embody Christ in the world.  (read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, for a real, early church example of this.)

I’m encouraged by the level of interest and excitement around mission that I’ve seen, particularly over the past 15 years or so.  However, mission can become empty activism without contemplative depth.  Or, in another way, it can become a tool for a bully pulpit in the form of a kind of ‘missional rationalism’ without contemplative depth.

Mission requires we sink deeply into God, rooted so firmly that we can live freely and lovingly no matter where we are.  With that in mind, I’ll be sharing more on this in upcoming blogs, particularly as I introduce you to some of my favorite contemplatives…

Chuck

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