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The Heart of Mission

crashWhy does a film like Crash get hold of our hearts and minds, and move us in ways that a textbook on racism never could?

How is it that a week-long camp experience sends young people home with a deeper desire to live out their faith, where conversations about faith at home sometimes falter?

Why does a random encounter with a community organizer in New Orleans send young people home to tackle issues of injustice where news reports and statistics go in one ear and out the other?

And why is it that if we stop at abstract conversation about issues of injustice, we get no closer to redressing the wrongs on our own doorsteps?

Perhaps it has something to do with the way in which film evokes guttural, heart-felt response. Perhaps the camp experience has something to do with a community of people all hoping to go deeper. Perhaps that surprise encounter has something to do with being caught off guard, removed from the safety of our day-to-day routine.

As I think about these things, my sense is that these instances do not merely connect with us at the level of intellect, but more deeply, at the level of the heart.

As humans created in the image of God, we encounter images on the screen and we encounter one another “on a wavelength that is perhaps somehow closer to the core of our being.” That’s how philosopher James K.A. Smith puts it in his most recent book, “Desiring the Kingdom.”

I recognize that’s some pretty heady stuff for a blog post that claims to be concerned with the heart.

And yet, when in the final act of his episcopacy, Bishop Charles Jenkins of the Diocese of Louisiana visited a group of us in Ottawa, I felt my heartstrings being tugged.

Spending the day with a man who has been hollowed out by the plight of his people and wearied by the constant battles with unresponsive government agencies, hit me in the gut, more than the head.

It certainly spurred me on to think about ways to help others both near and far away. But such thoughts were not rooted merely in an intellectual response. Rather they were spurred on by a deeper, more guttural reaction to this man and the story of his own life.

Here’s the thing: I can intellectually affirm that the people of the Gulf Coast have gone through a lot. I can rationally explore the many ways in which such catastrophe might affect me, or another human being.

But it’s one thing to assent to certain propositional truths, and another entirely to see the pain in someone’s eyes, to hear the aching in their stories, to feel that longing for home in their embodied presence, and then to lovingly respond.

We can talk about the poverty of children in our villages and cities and towns. We can talk about the importance of a living wage for all people. We can talk about the dignity of all God’s children.

We can do all of those things and more—but until we look another child of God in the eye; until we sit in their presence long enough to be changed by their stories; until we are opened to God’s transforming power that does more than we can ask or imagine, we will find ourselves to be nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

We are called to love the Lord our God with our minds, absolutely. Yet it does not stop there. In that famous passage in Luke’s gospel, we find that in addition to our minds, we are also to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength.

Sometimes our hearts need to be awakened from their slumber. Sometimes we need to be caught off guard, removed from the monotony of our daily routines for such resurrection to take place.

Each year, hundreds and thousands of pilgrims head out on “missions trips,” “exposure trips” and other such journeys – sometimes during the summer, sometimes during spring break. My hope is that those experiences, whatever they are, will be experiences of transformation – for all of us. We can never predict where God might show up but maybe, just maybe, we will encounter God right where we stand.

When Bishop Jenkins came to visit us on that cold December day, he shared with us about our work: “It’s not simply about rebuilding houses and hospitals and schools. It’s about all those things and more.”

At the core of it all, Bishop Jenkins suggests, “It’s about changing hearts.” May each of us be open to the gospel’s unrelenting power to change hearts.

Starting with our very own.

About Andrew Stephens-Rennie

Andrew is an Anglican lay leader who loves pioneering responsive, contextual solutions to the challenge of being church in the 21st Century. He serves as an assistant to the rector for Evangelism and Christian Formation at Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver and is a founding member of the emerging St. Brigids community (www.stbrigid.ca).
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