Backyard Fence Conversations
On most summer days, my neighbor tended to flowers in her back yard. A fence, which divided our properties, was the perfect height to lean upon for conversations. One afternoon, the fence drew my neighbor and me to its boundary. We exchanged greetings then exchanged questions about our families. She talked about the joys of retirement and inquired of my place of employment. I shared about my current job as a mission director. Unlike other professions, such as doctor, teacher, or nurse, the job title of “mission director” often needs further explanation. I described how my job involved planning and serving alongside mission groups to reveal God's love with people at thirty different non-profit organizations in the city. Similar to former conversations, my neighbor had a difficult time grasping the job description of a mission director.
However, her response differed from the head nods I had received in the past. She asked, "Do these mission groups knock on doors?"
She followed her question by indicating that as a Jehovah's Witness, mission involved knocking on doors and followed by sharing the message. She asked, "Is that not what you call mission?"
I defined mission as meeting people at places such as a homeless shelter, food pantry, daycare, or backyard, and sharing God's love through words and deeds.
My neighbor asked again, "No doors, huh?"
Then her face glowed with excitement as she described serving in mission. She said, "You see, when my friend picks me up during the week, we go to the Jehovah's Witness Hall. The Hall has a room set up full of doors. We practice going to a door together, knocking on the door and then practice sharing the message with the person on the other side of the door."
As she was talking, I imagined the many fellowship halls I had walked through filled with tables and chairs. No wonder Jehovah's Witnesses excel in evangelism, they not only knock on doors in the community on a regular basis, but they practice their mission every week.
I complimented her on the dedication of practicing and living out mission each week. Then I attempted to reveal my excitement of mission by eating lunch with a gentlemen at a rehabilitation center and playing games at a camp for at-risk children. She attempted to understand, yet she could not comprehend the absence of knocking on doors in mission. We ended the conversation that afternoon by talking about her beautiful flowers and rose bushes.
Later that day, from my kitchen window, I saw a car pull into my neighbor's driveway. I watched with a smile as my neighbor left with her friend to practice mission in a Hall full of doors. Joy continued to bubble up inside of me, knowing the next day, I too would be serving in mission alongside a mission group as we shared God's love in the city. This backyard conversation began broadening my understanding of how people defined and incorporated mission into their life.
Intertwined in the stories of scripture reveals mission. Ruth's commitment of care toward her mother-in-law Naomi has always left an impression on my faith.
After the loss of their husbands, I imagined Ruth, Orpah, and Naomi walking along a deserted path with rocks and rolling tumble weeds. At the path’s intersection, the three widows engaged in yet another hard conversation wrapped in grief. After the death of a spouse, the amount of decisions can weigh heavy upon a soul. In the middle of nowhere, Naomi told her daughters-in-law to leave her and to return home with their families.
Perhaps after a long awkward pause, Orpah turned back, yet Ruth stayed. Ruth said, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you." (Ruth 1:16-18)
Ruth committed her life to caring for her mother-in-law. Her words and actions defined mission which led her to a new land, a new people, and a new God. For Ruth, mission was not a yearly, monthly, or weekly obligation but a daily choice to love and care for another.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus defined his ministry as he stepped out of the wilderness and into his hometown. He proclaimed in the temple the familiar words from the scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus's hometown address banished him from his hometown. He focused on religious standards that cared more for people than laws. Jesus defined mission in his ministry by coming alongside an individual in compassion, teaching kingdom truths, and showing forth his Father's love.
My definition of mission has widened and deepened over the years as I have leaned heavily upon Micah's prophetic words, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?"
Micah ordered the phrases in the verse; to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. However, in my life, the phrases work best in the reverse order; walk humbly with God, love kindness, and do justice.
Jesus and Ruth found humble beginnings in Bethlehem. A child was born and placed in a manger. A widow gleaned in the field and found provision from another. Their beginnings depended upon the strength and care from others for survival. At the beginning of their lives, Ruth and Jesus leaned upon someone who was greater to go further in the kingdom than mere human steps allowed.
The most humble days and experiences of our lives, have nothing to do with us. A day that begins in humility endures a piece of sacrifice with the cost of letting go of something we hold dear such as time or treasures. Once we let go, God's presence takes root and shapes our lives with loving kindness.
Micah used the Hebrew word “hesed” for kindness, which includes an element of mercy within its meaning. Additional words appear beside kindness in different versions of scripture to highlight this truth, for example, love kindness, love mercy, and faithful love. Kindness infused with mercy shows up consistently throughout scripture. We learn through characters such as David, that the kindest of actions are shown to those who least deserve it, who do not expect it, and who may never return it.
David succeeded King Saul and was described as a man after God's own heart. Most kings eliminated all heirs to the throne, however David invited Saul's heirs to the table. David embraced faithful love by ensuring a lifetime of provisions for Saul's grandson, Mephibosheth. Society viewed Saul’s grandson who was lame as the least deserving of kindness, yet David saw the grandson through the lens of his best friend, Jonathan who was the boy's father. Mephibosheth expected evil when he sat at the table and yet he received gracious hospitality instead.
Abiding in loving kindness transforms a person toward seeking the power of justice. Micah's used the Hebrew word mishpat for justice in his writing. Mishpat holds together the justice for equality in punishment of wrongdoing while at the same time providing care and protection for those wronged by society.
In scripture, over 140 verses include the word mishpat. More often than not, justice in scripture emphasizes misphat which seeks to provide care and protection to the oppressed. Throughout scripture, justice is reflected by walking with, standing up, and speaking out for the oppressed.
In our world, justice appears in the news and is written on protest sings. More often than not, justice in the world emphasizes mishpat which seeks equality of punishment for wrongdoing. Lady Justice's scale is out of balance often due to structures, bias, and lack of change. A balanced view of justice is required which emphasizes first, to provide care and protection for the oppressed through access to food, education, healthcare, home ownership, safety, and opportunities for advancement in employment. As needs are met, and services are provided, our world may realize the decrease need to emphasize providing equality in the punishment of wrongdoing.
We need to live out this second defining quality of justice to bring healing to our world by standing up and speaking out on limits placed upon the shoulders of God's oppressed children. We need to listen and learn from others who have a different story than ours so we can see from a greater perspective and show forth God’s love together rather than apart.
If we want to experience God in our lives, in our communities, and in our world, we need to balance justice on our door step, show forth merciful love, and let humility lead the way.
Our lives are shaped by the way we define words such as kindness, justice, and humility. Whenever we define words such as mission, we identify essentials, set boundaries, and focus on particular qualities. Definitions are concise reflections displayed in our life through words and actions.
I want to challenge you to define mission. Write a definition of mission using simple or complex words. If you are a person of faith, be sure to include words that display the transforming love of God in your life. As Christians, our identity rests in Christ who directs our steps and helps us discern the way. In defining our life in the image of Christ, we know which choices to decline and which choices align in our journey. As the definition forms on the page, let the words unfold in your life.
Write your definition of mission.
My simple definition of mission is love God and love people. Simple definitions do not mean easy answers to problems or less time spent serving in the world. Over the years, Micah’s prophetic vision has expanded and transformed my mission definition to be; Embrace mission with joy by taking a stroll with Jesus and neighbor by loving kindness and doing justice everyday.