And yet I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.8 Love never fails. (1.Cor:13)
It seems to me that we may accomplish all the best re-structuring plans possible but without love what have we gained? We can craft the most erudite ‘mission’ programs possible but without love where will they take us? We can build the best of all possible budgets but if we do not have love then what is the point?
I’m not trying to be preachy, or provocative, or even resistant to change – but simply trying to express something from the heart that is really troubling me. From everything I have read and learned about faith, God’s missio dei is all about love. As a church we are called into and caught up in the whole enterprise of loving the world as God loves it. And to do that we are invited to also work out what it means to love one another and to love ourselves.
A little while ago I was involved in a pastoral conversation that gets to the heart of my own missiological angst. Let me share the essence of it with you. It is a true story but think of it as hypothetical.
Recently I gave an ‘address’ reflecting on something that has underpinned my understanding of mission for most of my faith-life – missiology as pastoral theology. Someone in the audience came to see me quite some time later to talk about it. Let me call her ‘Mavis’. Mavis is a real person and there are many people like Mavis in our faith communities.
Mavis is the elderly wife of an elderly retired minister ‘Eric’. Eric was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago. Many of us know or can imagine what the journey of that particular illness is like for each of them so I won’t go into that aspect of the conversation. What I do want to share with you is her experience of her own faith community. It has not been good.
They are members of a large and fairly ‘vibrant’ faith community. Like many congregations, it’s in the process of developing a mission plan, but Mavis and Eric have become invisible.
Mavis has asked her minister and chair of the pastoral committee several times for support – could someone from the congregation just come and sit with Eric for a couple of hours while she goes out either for a walk around the block or just sits and has a cup of coffee in a café?
Her world, along with Eric’s, has shrunk beyond recognition. Over the past few years a couple of people have visited – but only once. It’s not easy spending time with someone who doesn’t remember very much. No-one, except another retired minister, has come more than once.
Mavis and Eric go to church every Sunday – the liturgical rhythm is comforting for Eric but not for her. She listens to the sermons (“reflections they call them now”, she says) about love and community but never experiences it. She sings the songs but the words catch in her throat. She joins in the prayers but only finds herself getting more and more angry with God and the people with whom she is worshipping.
“I might have all the right language for church life, but if I have not love then I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”.
I can’t help thinking that unless the missional response of the Church to God in the world is built on the principle of love then we need to pause for a while, while we learn to love again – even if it is as if for the first time.
The little but poignant story of Mavis and Eric captures the primary pastoral but missional theme of the Gospel – love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and spirit, and your neighbour as yourself.
By David Pargeter