Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Ancient And Healthy Tension

reposted from

Tastes great, less filling
One of the longest running and most successful advertising campaigns of all time was produced by the Miller Brewing Company celebrating their famous Miller Lite beer.  The tag line was “tastes great, less filling.”  They would feature all sorts of celebrities engaged in arguments over which claim was greater.  Did Miller Lite taste great or was it less filling?  (Those of us of an older vintage will remember a similar advertising campaign about Certs.  Was it a breath mint or a candy mint?)  Now the obvious point behind this advertising campaign is that both claims can be wonderfully true (unless you’re a beer snob).  A beverage can both taste great and yet not fill you up.  There is no need to have an argument over it.

Living with the tension
But we like arguing over such things.  We are often not so comfortable with the tension of competing values.  Many people enjoy living in a more tidy world where everything is either black or white, right or wrong, this way or that way, democrat or republican, right or left, tastes great or less filling.  Yet, when we reflect carefully on our lives, we realize that it is hard to ever capture a situation, or a truth, or an experience, or almost anything with such hard-edged and air-tight categories.  Life is more nuanced than that.  There are many facets to the diamonds of these lives we live.  One of the more important life skills we can develop is a deep appreciation of the tensions in this world.  We can learn to carry competing values with a curious and discerning mind.

Missional versus Formational

Which brings us to a current tension in the religious world today: the competing values of being missional while at the same time attending to the spiritual formation of our lives with God.  The missional people are those who argue that the driving focus of the church must be directed towards the needs of this world and the people of this world.  We are to give our lives away for the sake of the world.  On the other hand, the formational people are those who emphasize that in order to give our lives away, we must first have a life that is worth giving away.  In order to effectively bear witness to the goodness and grace and transforming power of God, these truths must first be a living, authentic reality in us.

And so the argument goes.  Missional people will call the formational people self-absorbed navel-gazers who are content to let the world go to hell in a hand-basket while they light candles and chant the psalms.  Formational people will call the missional people shallow activity-junkies who jump on every popular cause that comes along as a way to ignore their own disordered and fragmented lives.

An ancient tension:  The contemplative and the active life

Fascinatingly enough, there is nothing new with this tension.  It is the ancient tension between the contemplative life and the active life.  This tension has always been a creative dynamic of the Church.  From the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries to the missionary movement of the nineteenth century, contemplatives and activists have called the Church either to a deeper, more transformative life with God or to a more courageous, vigorous engagement in mission and evangelism.  The truth is obvious.  We need both.  And from time to time the Holy Spirit will call the people of God to a needed corrective of either contemplation or activity, being or doing.

We will find this tension in our own lives as well.  We will discover seasons where we are called to pull away from all the activity and doing and learn how to sink our lives deeper into God.  At other seasons we will be called to get up off our knees and roll up our sleeves and engage fully in service to this world.  To go
do something.  To make a difference.

The crucial role of the church

The most beautiful and ideal place where this ancient tension can be creatively and wonderfully lived out is the local church.  In every church there will be those who are primarily called to formation and others to mission.  In other words, some of us will primarily be contemplatives while others will be activists.  And here is the crucial truth: we need each other.  It is possible to live well with this tension.  It will take maturity and historical grounding to do this well, but it is entirely possible to learn how to do this.  We can argue vigorously for the importance of our particular calling, while at the same time celebrating and realizing our desperate need for those whose calling is different than ours.  It appears that this is how God has designed and built his Church, so it would be wise for us to joyfully receive this gift of each other.  There is no need to argue here.  The church can both taste great and be less filling.

Suggestions for further reflection or next steps:

For the Activist:

  1. Go hang out with someone who leans towards contemplation and ask them to speak in detail about their life with God.  Listen closely and learn.
  2. Go on a day-long private retreat and just be alone with God and see what happens.
  3. Read a book that emphasizes contemplation and spiritual formation: “Way of the Heart” by Henri Nouwen; “Renovation of the Heart” by Dallas Willard

For the Contemplative:

  1. Go hang out with someone who leans towards activism and ask them to speak in detail about their life of service to others.  Listen closely and learn.
  2.  Go serve at a soup kitchen or get involved in some activity where you are working hard to accomplish something.
  3. Read a book that emphasizes activism and mission:  “Friendship at the Margins” by Chris Huertz and Christine Pohl;  “Compassion” by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison;  “The Hole in our Gospel” by Richard Sterns