In the last two blog posts, I said that this season of “stay home-stay safe” could be a season for short-term mission teams to focus on their spiritual growth and reflect on the meaning of mission. Some groups might do this through a Bible study. Others might use a book for mission teams like A Mission Journey. Some groups might decide to each pray at the same time every day, so that they are praying at the same time in spite of being physically separated. What all of these have in common is that they are ways we “do theology”. What exactly does that mean, to “do theology”? Isn’t that something that only seminary professors or pastors do?
Faith Seeking Understanding
Saint Anselm says that “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.” Further, he says that God gives understanding to faith. This idea is often shortened to “faith seeking understanding”. People believe in the grace of Jesus Christ and the love of God and because they believe, they seek understanding of God’s love. The United Methodist Book of Discipline describes theology as “our effort to reflect on God’s gracious action in our lives” which is very much like faith seeking understanding. The word “theology” really just means people thinking about God’s love and actions in the world, people talking about how they understand God working in the world, or a person quietly reflecting on God’s love in their own life. “Theology” is not just for specialists!
Faith seeking understanding means that we think about God’s love in our lives and how God is calling us to join in God’s work of justice and mercy. I have often heard United Methodist volunteers in mission say that they “don’t do theology” or that they only do mission, not theology. But when they talk about their Bible study group or their Sunday school group and how they felt God calling them to go and do something to help people, they are describing “faith seeking understanding” – theology! That is, they talk about faith with their friends, they pray and study with friends, and then because they have talked about faith with others and have heard the call of God to be hands and feet of compassion, they “do mission”.
Seeking Understanding Through Study and Sweat
Years ago I taught a small group of preschoolers. Some liked to sit and listen during storytime. Some liked to play with blocks or other small toys. Some liked to play outside on the playground. Our little school always tried to find ways to teach concepts in ways that the children could learn best. Hearing a lesson on the alphabet worked for some children, but others learned better when they had sidewalk chalk and could trace over the letters drawn outside. We drew a big “J” and then jumped on the letter, saying “jump! jump! jump!” People learn in different ways. As people of faith, some can reflect best on their faith when they read complex texts. Others reflect best on their faith when they talk with their friends after a long day rebuilding a porch, replacing siding, or digging a well. Faith seeking understanding can happen through study or through sweat.
In this season of waiting and rescheduling our mission trips, we have an opportunity to focus on the study side of faith seeking understanding. As people who are dedicated to being in mission, it can be difficult to switch focus like this, to move from action to contemplation. We can take encouragement from looking at the whole of scripture as God’s gracious mission for the world. Christopher J.H. Wright says that the “…Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.” We can use this time to read again the story of God’s love for the whole creation, which comes to completion in Jesus Christ – and from that story, we can find our burdens lightened, our sins forgiven, our hopes encouraged, and our faith strengthened through seeking understanding, preparing us for our next mission trip.
Soon those of us who like to reflect on God’s love (doing theology) after a day of helping others (doing mission) will be able to reschedule our mission trips. Soon we will be able to pick up the shovels and hammers that we use to show our love of God and neighbor through action. Until then, may God bless our learning and seeking.
Quote from page 22: The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher J. H. Wright, published 2006 by InterVarsity Press.