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The Serious Play of Mission(al Life)

Child Delighted by a Bubble

Turning to the book of Revelation to wrap up the quarter’s emphasis on mission, the lesson quarterly summarizes:

The message, in a real sense, is the mission. The world needs to be warned about what is coming upon it, and every person will be forced to make a choice, a choice either for life or for death. “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 11:23, NKJV).

Only a few days past Christmas, it is difficult to hear the echoes of “Joy to the World!” in this message. Readers are again informed that church headquarters keeps account of progress in reaching unreached people groups, those that have “no indigenous community of believing Adventists,” a curiously parochial understanding of the everlasting gospel. 

There are hints of an expansive view of mission. Revelation, the lesson begins, “is a missionary book focused on a missionary God who is calling us to be a missionary church.” This echoes how the quarter began with theological promise: “Mission finds its origin and purpose only in God”—a God who longs to be with us, to be with all of creation. 

The mission of God to creation, readers might begin to imagine, compels us out of cloistered, solipsistic, navel-gazing existence into open and vulnerable encounters of mutuality with others, in which we both give and receive, share and learn. 

The lesson, however, remains focused on delivering messages of warning and on the task of remaining pure as “chaste virgins to Christ.” Mission, in these pages, is reduced to ensuring that every people group has at least been given an opportunity to decide for or against Christ through indigenous Adventists so that God can return and fairly judge them—and keeping clean in the process. 

Notably, the Teacher Comments strike a rather different tone and offer an opening for missional imagination. 

Therefore, if we define the mission of God as being God’s desire to reveal His love to humanity and have that love creatively replicated, then God’s mission would have no end, but is, rather, an eternal, ongoing reality. . . .

The new earth, which is not some heavenly realm in the clouds but rather a re-created earth that in many ways resembles our current world . . . is a place that gives the impression of creativity beyond our wildest imagination. God will be there among humanity, interacting with us, creating new ideas, and showing love in new ways alongside us. . . .

When the hope of the Second Coming and the reality of the new earth become part of our way of living, we as believers will experience daily life from a perspective of hope in the midst of a world that can seem hopeless. This perspective can aid the believer in experiencing and sharing joy and peace, which will be manifested in kindness, patience, and gentleness toward others. Such a perspective also can inspire people to use their talents and gifts to creatively live out God’s love, as He intended for humanity from the beginning.

Mission as creatively replicating God’s love here and now in anticipation of the world of eternal creativity and love for which we hope—there’s joy in that, to be sure. And it prompts for me two possible avenues for thinking about the kinds of practices, the kind of spirituality that emerge from such a missional vision.

The first comes from Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, well known as one of the founding voices in Latin American liberation theology. His book We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (1984) is, in part, a response to critiques that liberation theology was merely a social-political program in theological clothing. Spirituality, he argues, is not simply the prior ground from which solidarity with the poor emerges; rather deep spirituality emerges from life lived in solidarity with the poor. A spirituality of liberation, he insists, is not what one forms in one’s closet in order to go out and ‘serve’ the poor, paternalistically; it is instead forged by living one’s life with the poor. To illustrate, he turns to Jesus’s end-time parable in Matthew 25:

But there is something distinctive in the passage from Matthew: it reminds us that what we do to the poor we do to Christ himself. It is this fact that gives action in behalf of the poor its decisive character and prevents it from being taken simply as an expression of the ‘social dimension’ of faith. No, it is much more than that; such action has an element of contemplation, of encounter with God, at the very heart of the work of love. And this encounter is not ‘merited’ by any work; it is the gratuitous gift of the Lord. This is what the passage in question makes known to us, and in so doing it evokes our surprise (“When did we see you hungry?”). (104)

Here the salvific, transformative grace of kin-dom life is found in the missional going out to encounter those in whom Jesus is embodied—the neighbor, the other, the poor, the wretched (les damnés!) of the earth. Here, spirituality and mission cannot be separated—but the robust spirituality Gutierrez testifies to comes not from paternalistic do-gooder (not to mention information-sharing) postures, but from the expectation of being transformed by an encounter with Jesus in spaces and relationships of solidarity.

The second opening that a mission of creativity invites is a deeper integration with Sabbath practice. While mentions of Sabbath alongside mission and Revelation are sometimes reduced to tests of fidelity, if mission is about participating in God’s ongoing creativity and love, then Sabbath is indeed central.

I was fortunate to grow up with a notion of Sabbath as “playing heaven.” Later I learned to apply fancy language to that notion: Sabbath as a proleptic, a present experience of the in-breaking future reign of God for which we hope. But the jargon risks leaving behind the play. And play, I think, is seriously important for both Sabbath and mission. 

Play, as Courtney Goto argues in The Grace of Playing (2016), is a mode of being that disrupts many constricting ways that we often approach communities of learning. Play invites the kinds of risks necessary for vulnerability and disrupts a focus on taking oneself seriously. She envisions teaching and learning as creating holding environments (Winnicott) for playing and experimenting with “ways of being and being together that are not yet habitual.”

I can’t think of a much more inspiring vision for Sabbath or for mission: carving out space for playing and experimenting with kin-dom “ways of being and being together that are not yet habitual”—that ongoing eternal life of divine creativity for which we hope and long.

Solidarity with the poor, the other(ed), with Creation itself—this is serious business indeed; it is, after all, the mission of God. It is so serious, in fact, that it demands and deserves our most skillful, joyous, and creative play.

Joy to the World!

Image by Leo Rivas on Unsplash

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