Spirituality…grown or groan?

St Patricks Day – time for a Guinness and a time for deepened sense of spirituality.  I’m blessed to have drawn on Celtic spirituality and practices for more than a decade…practices that have sustained me over the past decade, without them becoming religious rituals.

Without wanting to polarise, and definitely not categorise, with apprehension I write this current blog.  It’s in light of yet another catastrophic Cyclone, this time Pam hitting Vanuatu.  There will be some who may suggest it’s evidence of God’s wrath; for others it’s just haphazard weather patterns. Perhaps it depends on one’s take of Darwin’s watchmaker?  Whatever your view I have some questions and food for thought.

For those who are religious, is it time to redefine our understanding of mission?  For those who are spiritual, is it time to redefine our vision of what part we play in this world of ours?

I grew up in one of Melbourne’s Bible belt middle class eastern suburb churches, one with a strong emphasis on “mission”.  I went to school at Carey Grammar, one of Australia’s elite private schools built on the name and legacy of the great Baptist pioneer of “mission”, William Carey.  I’m thankful for the heritage, yet not beholden to its limits.

So how did I end up working for an aid agency?  Perhaps more importantly, why do I work for one? Especially when this may be seen by some as an adjunct to mission, or perhaps viewed as “social gospel”, a liberal, left-wing, or even a barrier to the true mission of the gospel.

This morning I read through Luke 9 where Jesus gives power and authority to his 12 disciples before sending them out into neighbouring villages, if you like, on “mission”. The story goes that the disciples returned amazed at the demonstration of their new found spiritual power.

Immediately following this spiritual display and demonstration of life transformation Luke records that Jesus fed the 5000. This is no metaphorical, merely philosophical, or even existential activity of spiritually feeding those gathered.  Jesus literally, mysteriously and marvellously provides the most pressing needs of those around him, the very needs raised as a concern of wellbeing by his own disciples.

Was Jesus unaware of their needs? It’s possible that in the heat of the moment his heart for those gathered pounded only for the sick and those listening to tales of the Kingdom. And yet, he was unsurprised when the disciples came to him.  He comes up with an orderly plan of distribution to ensure no-one missed out, something every big-picture strategic thinker goes “yeah, nice move”.

Luke concludes that everyone ate their fill and there was still enough left to fill 12 baskets.

If Jesus was merely concerned with mission as a spiritual exercise, of drawing people into an “other-worldly” existential experience, why would he have a concern for the here-and-now physical needs of those to whom he spoke?

We live in a world of abundance, yet sadly not everyone eats their fill. To invite people to Jesus, to faith in Him, yet not address their physical wellbeing is to deny them of the truth Jesus himself declared: “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness”. Such an approach leaves them starving and us empty.

Starvation, malnutrition, disease and poverty are generally a result of decisions made by those with power who are driven by greed, pride, selfishness and lust for more. What if we saw “mission” in terms of restoration and transformation not only of the spiritual realm, but also the physical realm, perhaps even the social and economic realms that perpetuate isolation, exclusion and maintain an “us-and-them” divide?

I’ve walked streets lined with underpaid workers in textile clothing factories in Bangladesh, shared spaces with those sold into slavery and the sex trade industry, smelt the stench of slums in Cairo, and met with Christians in fear of their lives because of the faith they share.

I’m absolutely convinced that there’s no hierarchy of need in God’s Kingdom economy. God sees it all, knows it all and cares for it all.

I believe its well-past time we did away with an inherited false-dichotomy and dualistic worldview that separates the spiritual and physical realms.  All humans are image-bearers of a loving God, invited to share life in the fullness of His creation.  We know not everyone eats their fill.

God’s mission was Jesus’ vision:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come”

Jesus remaining life was spent living out that vision as His mission.

Let us embrace the good news that Jesus attends to our needs; but let’s not be seduced into thinking this is limited to our spirituality.  Our invitation is to join His mission and see restoration and transformation: emotionally, economically, relationally, physically and spiritually, especially for the least of these.