As I enter “retirement,” instead of focusing on the transformation I have seen in others’ lives, I’ve been reflecting on how 47 years of ministry in France has transformed me. Two words emerge from my reflections: mystery and diversity.
Embracing the mystery in God’s work
When I first went to France in my mid-20s, I encountered a story of an old priest who was asked to summarize all he had learned in a single phrase. The priest replied, “I have learned that I am not God and that God exists.”
“Well, that’s rather evident,” I thought. “I’m only 24 and I already know that! Why did it take him so long to figure that out?”
But now, I find the priest’s words profound. They summarize well what I have learned.
How often do we act as if we are all knowing like God when we become adamant that we are right and the other is wrong? What are we implying when we attempt to control others and act as if everything depends on us?
It took me a while to learn that my mission was to be attentive to and discern what God is doing in another’s life and to assist that work, rather than trying to bring about what I thought “should be.” As a young missionary, I had a lot of precise ideas about what “should be.” In time, I discovered that it is when we are faced with situations that we cannot control or even understand, that we are forced to stop acting as if we were God. It is then that the virtues of faith, love and hope can truly develop in us.
God’s work cannot be boiled down to a process or an assembly-line product. The mystery prevents us from putting God’s work in a box and marketing it with our name in bold letters!
God, the principle actor
In Mark 4’s parable, the farmer is clueless about how the growth process took place. Seeds are scattered on the ground; kingdom values are sown in different contexts. The seeds grow as we go about our daily life. There is no coaxing of growth, no pushing or pulling. We trust that God is at work deep beneath the surface of our lives to bring about new creation. When we become aware of the growth, it remains a mystery as to how it all happened!
We are all called to partner with God in scattering kingdom seeds – words and actions that bear witness to God’s reign and the new creation. Sometimes the seeds seem so insignificant: a listening ear, words of grace, concern for justice, or an act of compassion. The seeds seem so small compared to the resulting growth. Though what we do and what we give are important, we recognize that we are not the principle actor. God is.
In Vincent van Gogh’s, The Sower, a lonely figure is portrayed as faithfully scattering seeds in the soil. But it is the huge sun in the center of the painting that illuminates the sky and radiates light and energy. As we go about scattering seeds, we must not forget the life-giving Son, a source of hope and joy in our lives and ministry.
Embracing diversity in God’s church
Our congregation of about 40 people in Lamorlaye, a suburb of Paris, is a real mosaic. We have people from about a dozen countries. We are also diverse in our spirituality, the way we understand and live our relationship with God.
Some of us place considerable accent on the Holy Spirit’s power and gifts in the church, as does the book of Acts. Others underline the necessity of working for social justice and caring for the most vulnerable, as does the Gospel of Luke. There are those who put accent on a contemplative spirituality with God who dwells within us, individually and as a community, as does the Gospel of John. Yet others stress a radical obedience to Christ’s teaching and the importance of living holy lives, as does the Gospel of Matthew. Correct doctrine and fighting the good fight to defend the faith are the focus for some of us, following the apostle Paul’s example.
Relationship of unity and diversity
During my church experience in France, I matured in the way I understood unity and diversity. At first, I had a secret desire that everyone should think like I did and relate to God like I did. I wanted unity without diversity. It seemed so much easier and more peaceful that way.
Later, I envisioned the church as one body that overcame the barriers of diversity, unity despite diversity. However, I was still seeing diversity as a thorn in the flesh, something that hindered unity.
I next moved into a more relaxed position of unity in diversity and, finally, arrived at unity through diversity. Our differences are not something to be tolerated. They are essential to the growth of each person and the community.
Unity: a result of diversity
When I bake a cake, I don’t do it despite the flour, or despite the eggs, but rather through, or as a result of the combination of different ingredients. The final, delicious taste comes from the integration of all the different ingredients.
Our human tendency is to create unity by erasing differences. We try to transform the other into our likeness or exclude the presence of the other who is different in culture/theology/spirituality. We often fear differences because they call into question who we are. This can be destabilizing.
However, when God creates unity, it is through diversity. We see unity through diversity in God’s own nature, the one God in three persons. We see unity through diversity in the human body with the diverse organs and muscles making human life possible. We see unity through diversity in The Bible, one book made up of 66 books with different literary genres and very different authors in different historical contexts. The unity of the biblical story is composed through the diversity of each story.
It is in welcoming the strengths of each form of diversity that keeps the church balanced and provides checks for potential pitfalls inherent in each expression. We need each other with our differences in order to grow into fuller Christ-likeness, into the “measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13).
I began my mission assignment in France preferring understanding, accomplishing, and a certain degree of uniformity in the church. After nearly half of century of ministry, I rejoice in God’s mystery and diversity.
Mission Network worker Linda Oyer and Louis Schweitzer lead a class on spiritual direction with Compagnons de Route (Companions on the Way). Photo by Anne Schweitzer.
Linda Oyer, with Mennonite Mission Network in Paris, speaks at a women's leadership conference. Photo provided.