May 14, 2009

Grace vs. Law vs. Infant Formula

I once described one of the core jobs of a missionary to be “sharing grace gracefully.” (That’s not my phrase.) And I think that’s still accurate. But lately I’ve been wondering where law comes in.

We distribute infant formula at our baby clinic on Tuesday. I’ve written about how frustrating this can be. One aspect of the frustration is the mothers who claim they “can’t” breast-feed when more often they don’t want to. They don’t want to for any number of reasons I won’t explain here but none of them are very legitimate (in my not-so-humble opinion).

What does grace demand in this situation? Grace is often closely associated with love. I remember during a Bible study on the Great Commission during my mission training, one missionary saying, “I just think we are called to love everyone” over and over again. And she was right, of course. But is that it? And what does love look like in this situation?

If I give the mother who doesn’t want to breast-feed infant formula is that an act of grace? I don’t think so. It’s doing long-term damage to the baby’s health and well-being and wasting resources when they could be used someplace else. The mother in this case needs to learn from law. In this case, that’s the idea that - as it says on all the infant formula - “breast-feeding is best for your baby.”

Love is not handing stuff out. It is not charity in the non-King-James sense of that word. But that’s the easiest kind of mission and one so many of us are so quickly drawn to because it makes us feel like we are having an impact with a minimal amount of effort. And the people getting the stuff often appreciate it and that makes for great pictures and a lovely moment. But what happens when that moment is passed? And where do you find the resources to keep creating those moments?

I’ve come to see the grace we need in mission as an active concept and one that doesn’t necessarily make situations comfortable. In fact, it should make them difficult. Being graceful and loving can’t be divorced from the fact that the law exists and exists for a positive and salutary reason. Somehow the two are tied together.

In the lectionary reading for this Sunday (John 15:9-17), Jesus closely follows his commandment to love one another with a comment on the sharing of knowledge. “I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does do not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my father.” Somehow the missionary is called to - gracefully - share knowledge of the law so that we can all move more closely to right relationships. In a cross-cultural context, that requires building meaningful relationships and finding a common vocabulary. It’s a lot harder than handing out tins of baby formula but it’s so much more right.