Vol 6:1 Looking in the Right Direction

It’s been almost a year since I last posted on Missional Matters, and it’s about time I got back into a regular habit of reflecting missionally on life and ministry. A lot has gone on in my life in the past year – and though no excuse, I have been sidetracked somewhat from engaging in missional reflection. As I reflect over the past year, I have found myself in situations that would have benefited from intentional reflection – and so all that is to say, it’s good once again to be engaging in this discipline of blogging weekly.

Recently, I was mentoring at a weekend seminar for second-career persons engaging in pastoral ministry, on which the focus was upon missional leadership. The primary presenter, David Miller from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN, alluded to a series of bible studies prepared by Lesslie Newbigin in preparation for the World Council of Churches 1989 gathering on Missional and Evangelism, entitled: Mission in Christ’s Way. Over the next few weeks, my reflections here will focus upon interacting with insights shared by Newbigin in this study.

Newbigin notes that in beginning our inquiry into mission in Christ’s way, that we are confronted with Jesus’ first words regarding the Gospel of the kingdom in Mark 1:14-18. Newbigin invites us to notice six points about Jesus’ statements at the beginning of his ministry.

Today, I focus on Jesus’ statement of, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” Though Newbigin presents his points in a different order, I was most struck by his understanding of repentance.

I realize that when I think about repentance, I am thinking about repentance as a 180-degree turn from the direction I was headed in order to move in another direction, to leave behind a self-centered set of behaviors in order to live in a Christ-centered direction. Repentance is an act of contrition, of seeking forgiveness that brings transformation in my life.

Yet, Newbigin presents a different understanding that opens us up to some fresh understandings about “repentance.” Indeed, the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus presented was the inbreaking of something new, quite different from what people were expecting when they were expecting the kingdom of God to arrive or break-in. And we too have certain expectations of what the kingdom arriving or breaking-in looks like.

And then Newbigin shares this insight: “But you don’t see it because you are facing the wrong way. You have to turn around, do a U-turn – the literal meaning of the Greek metanoia, ‘repent’” (Newbigin, Mission in Christ’s Way, 2). Now I know what metanoia means, for I have used the same terminology – to turn around, to make a U-turn, but what is different about Newbigin’s insight is the first realization of why we need to turn around, why we need to repent – we do not see the kingdom of God “because we are facing the wrong way,” we are looking for it in the wrong place, or perhaps even places.

Newbigin goes on to say that “the TEV translation gives a misleading impression by translating it: ‘Turn away from your sins.’ That might make it look like a traditional call for moral reformation. That is not the point. There is nothing about sins in the text. The point is: ‘The reign of God has drawn near, but you can’t see it because you are looking the wrong way. You are expecting the wrong thing. What you think is ‘God’ isn’t God at all. You have to be, as Paul says, transformed by the renewing of your mind. You have to go through a total mental revolution; otherwise the reign of God will be totally hidden from you’” (Newbigin, 2-3).

It raises the question, where are we looking for the kingdom or reign of God? Are we facing the wrong way, and so we do not see it?

I have come to discover that God’s reign appears or is displayed in ways we do not expect. We have certain ideas of how God ought to act, how God ought to appear, what God ought to be doing – but God and God’s activity in the world – i.e., God’s reign does not come as we expect, nor come from the place we are looking. In reality, we are looking the wrong way, the wrong direction for God’s reign.

And rather than just saying, “Repent,” to see God’s reign is not very helpful, because often we make repentance an act still dependent upon ourselves – we have expectations in the way we repent. What we are called to is to set aside all preconceived assumptions of where we need to look, or where we ought to look, or where we think we ought to look, and instead, realize that we do not know where to look.

It is this realization that yields our lives to God so that God is able to shape us and help us look the right way. In yielding ourselves to God’s Spirit, we ask God’s Spirit to point us in the right direction, for the Spirit to have reign in our lives to move us, move our eyes, our minds in such a way that we begin to see God’s ways, God’s reign – discovering that we see God and God’s reign in the unlikeliest of places.

May we always be praying – “Lord, show me where you want me to look.” And in so doing, we will find ourselves having been turned around from where we were looking.

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