Recently heard a talk by the chaplain of the Robben Island prison during Nelson Mandela’s time there. Apparently Mandela said to himself, when he finally regained his freedom, that unless he left the hate and bitterness behind, he would remain in prison, but this time in one of his own making.
(From My Place in God’s World)
A command to ‘preach the good news to all creation’ (which as we know is the last command Jesus gave on earth) can, for the Christian, awake our inner geographer. Where has the gospel not yet gone? How is it that people not been offered this meal, this treasure, this healing oil?
Yet at the same time the New Testament seems more devoted to how we live than where we preach. The church should ‘grow to become in every respect the mature body’ and this sends us deep rather than wide: caring for our own souls and for the souls of those around us.
So: spread good news through the world or try to foster justice and compassion in ourselves and in the community around us? Wide or deep? Obviously both, and both elements are covered by the word ‘disciple’ which Jesus used when he left us with the command to ‘make disciples of all nations’.
(From ‘My place in God’s world‘)
As if it were a cure for cancer, we Christians are urged, as far and as fast as possible, to spread the news of Christ’s resurrection and the new hope it fires up.
Or are we?
WEC International, the NGO in which I serve, has in its foundation documents ‘the evangelization of the world in the shortest possible time’. This is a Biblical idea: ‘run … the race marked out for us’ says the Book of Hebrews; ‘make the most of every opportunity’, wrote Paul. Jesus told us to pray that workers would be ‘cast out’ into the harvest field. ‘Look forward to the day of God and speed its coming’ says 2 Peter. It is scandalous that the Universe has changed—Christ is risen— and many people have yet to hear.
At the same time, slow mission is also scriptural. Seeds take time to grow. Harvests await their season. No Christian has ever matured overnight. However much we try to speed things up with discipleship courses or fast-track leadership, God takes his own sweet time with our souls, and with his work. God’s kingdom seems to move forward not like an army, but like a family, at the pace of the youngest child. Most of us spend ordinary days doing ordinary things. Are we just marking time? Or is the collective quiet goodness of God’s people in itself a force for transforming the world?
To understand our place in God’s kingdom, probably we have to appreciate both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, in a mix that is unique for us.
Slow is beautiful
None of the big things hurry. Tides don’t hurry; seasons don’t; sunrises and sunsets don’t; love doesn’t. It takes two decades to turn a baby girl into a young woman. It took 10 billion years to create the earth, then four billion more for the earth to nurture self-aware and God-aware creatures. God doesn’t rush. Jesus never rushed. There is a time and a season for every activity under heaven.
‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?1. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’2.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’3.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.
But really, a walnut tree has two jobs. If at the end of its long life, just before being shafted by a fatal bolt of lightning, a walnut tree could note that (a) it’s been a good walnut tree during its time on earth and (b) it can see five younger walnut trees thriving around it, then it’s OK.
Along the way, it has nurtured dynasties and empires of squirrels and an ecosystem of bugs and birds. Lovers sheltered from the rain and carved their initials on its bark. Families picnicked under its branches. Perhaps it served a makeshift cricket stump. Its lifted people’s hearts, magnificent in the landscape. During the first week in October for five hundred years, generations have gathered its nuts. Even after its death it might have become an interesting line of coffee-tables or (for a certain vintage of male human) a must-have car-dashboard.
During its long life, then, it was fruitful in all kinds of ways that seemed slow and a distraction to the main task. Yet this indiscriminate fruitfulness was its successful ‘strategy’. Those five young walnut trees probably grew because squirrels took some nuts, buried them, and then forget where they left them.
So with ‘slow mission’. We understand Christ’s last command, make disciples of ourselves and of all the nations. But our ‘strategy’ is indiscriminate fruitfulness: being what we are, where we are, as best as we can be. In God’s economy, forgetful squirrels, and time, will do the rest.