The Missiological Necessity of Presence: How Being Gives Purpose to Our Doing

In all honesty, I don’t always love being in Africa. I do love the people we work with and I love the work we do. But Africa itself can be a taxing place to live. This past week was a good example of the challenges, ranging from the mildly frustrating to the somewhat terrifying. On Tuesday I spent hours trying to stay online long enough to do something as seemingly simple as book airline tickets. Then, we spent the next two days running back and forth to the clinic because our daughter had malaria. In the midst of all this, I found myself asking…

…Could we not be more productive in a country with slightly better infrastructure and a little less malaria?

After thinking about this for sometime, I’ve come to the conclusion that productivity is perhaps the least important reason we should pack up our family and move to a foreign country as missionaries.

In missions, we are often driven by the need to do. Sending churches want regular updates telling, not about what we have thought about, prayed about, or read about, but rather what we’ve actually done. Because of this, cross-cultural missions work tends to be action-oriented. Plus, I think as Americans, we’re sort of wired that way to begin with (at least the adult versions of us are).

But Jesus taught that presence is more important than productivity. And I think there is a significant missiological implication to this.

In the Gospel account of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), we find a discussion that well captures the importance of being. While Martha is busy making preparations, she becomes agitated with her sister Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet, listening carefully to what He has to say.

The point of the story is not to make Martha out as the bad guy for being productive. Productivity is a good thing and is commended in Scripture (Prov. 10:4). Rather, there is a cultural dynamic that one might easily miss in this passage. In Jesus’ day, women were not usually considered worthy of receiving religious instruction, and instead were usually confined to domestic tasks. As one commentator observes, “Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”[1]

Jesus though transforms this cultural norm. Martha, in her busyness, has missed a golden opportunity. She was looking for her sister to provide a little temporary relief from her domestic burdens, not realizing that Jesus was offering that very thing in far greater measure!

Mary would surely at some point return to her domestic chores. But she would do so as one who had sat at the feet of Jesus, heard his words, and been transformed by them (cf. Luke 6:47–49). She would never again be simply a woman going about her duty in a society that had little regard for women. She would be a woman forever born along by the transformational Words of her Lord. She would return to her work knowing that her work did not define her as it seemed to define Martha. Rather, Mary would be defined by the radically different door to self-understanding that Jesus had opened to her. She was now one worthy of instruction in the things of God, and not just somebody who set out the coffee and doughnuts for others.

So what is the point of the story then? I think it’s this: Presence gives greater meaning and greater significance to our productivity. Otherwise, we can be very productive in a lot of things that really don’t matter very much. But spending time with Jesus transforms us and gives us clarity about who we are and what we should do. This is true of us spending time with Jesus, and its true of Jesus’ disciples spending time with each other. Our being with Christ should compel us not to busyness, but to community:

“By entering into fellowship with Jesus, who emptied himself and became as we are and humbled himself by accepting death on the cross, we enter into a new relationship with each other. The new relationship with Christ and the new relationship with each other can never be separated.”[2]

So what precisely is the missionary implication of this? I believe the key is exactly the point made by the story of Mary and Martha: effective doing depends first on effective becoming.

What I mean is that when we spend time with Jesus and with fellow believers, we become defined (like Mary was) by his transformative words rather than by cultural definitions of success or significance. For cross-cultural workers, this means we cannot know our task or even ourselves until we know Christ and the faith community to which we belong.

Remember, Jesus’ missionary commission to the disciples was followed by the promise of His presence: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Likewise, Paul frequently spoke of the necessity and importance of being with those he served. To the church in Thessalonica he said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Therefore, we need not only time in the presence of Jesus through personal devotion, but time in his presence through fellowship with the saints. We need to be with each other in order to be truly for each other.

Whether living in West Africa or the West Bank then, our reason to be there must first be about who we become in the shared reality of togetherness. Only when we have through the power of community become who Jesus wants us to be, can we then begin to do what Jesus wants us to do.

[1]Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), n.p.

[2] Henry Nouwen, et. al. Compassion (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 48-49.

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