It all started with a knock at the front door. I opened it to find an eight-year-old aboriginal girl with a tousled hair asking me for an apple. What harm could it do? I asked myself, as I walked to the kitchen to find her an apple.
That interaction began a six-month encounter with some of the kids of our inner city neighbourhood. We had almost daily, sometimes twice daily meetings with a group of up to eight kids asking for apples or bananas. We also had the front door screen ripped several times, our eavestroughs vandalized, our bird feeders destroyed, rocks and mud thrown at our house, and a few uneasy stand-offs with pre-teen boys who liked to model themselves after their older gang-associated siblings.
What started as an attempt to engage with our community in mission became instead a painful lesson in the negative consequences of acting from white man’s guilt. I was forced to confront my own limitations: my selfishness and unwillingness to forgive the emotional neediness and greed I saw in the faces of these kids.
The interactions weren’t all negative of course. There was some reciprocity and at times we even got quite a good feeling from helping the kids with fixing their bikes, drawing pictures on our porch, or planting flowers in our garden. But by the end of the summer the relationship had soured to such an extent that when four of the kids moved we were only too happy to see them go. And we stopped handing out apples.
This experience more than any other got me thinking about the nature of mission and the reason why God has called our Watershed community to live in our inner city neighbourhood. Is it just a historical accident or has God called us here for a purpose? I felt a need to take time and rethink my assumptions about what it is to be involved in mission.
It was at this time that my friend Paul asked me to read John Taylor’s The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission. Taylor’s book was an answer to prayer: a gift of the Spirit allowing me to get a vision of what mission might look like for us at Watershed. Reading this book was both comforting and confrontational. As Taylor writes: "To think deeply about the Holy Spirit is a bewildering, tearing exercise, for whatever he touches he turns inside out."
Taylor reminds us that our look at mission must begin with the Holy Spirit:
The chief actor in the historic mission of the Christian church is the Holy Spirit. He is the director of the whole enterprise. The mission consists of the things that he is doing in the world. In a special way it consists of the light that he is focusing upon Jesus Christ.
Taylor suggests that we have forgotten this fundamental fact and that we have tried to make mission synonymous with what we are doing for God. In the face of so much need we feel guilty and say: "We should be doing something." But Taylor asks us to step back from our plans, projects and activism. He asks us to wait.
Taking our cues from the life of the early church means not acting until we are given a vision. In looking at the record of the early church in Acts 2, Taylor writes: "This is the true sequence of mission: a surpassing awareness of the reality of Christ, corporately shared, expressing itself in thankfulness and wonder, causing the world to ask the questions to which an answer must be given in a form that every hearer can understand."
It is in Taylor’s four-fold sequence that I have come to see a vision for what mission might mean to us at Watershed. Mission begins with a surpassing awareness of the reality of Christ. We usually think that the primary gift of the Spirit is the gift of power, power to do things, or power in the form of spiritual gifts. Taylor refocuses our thinking and states that the primary gift of the Spirit is the gift of becoming aware of the reality of Christ. To be gifted of the Spirit means to have the scales fall from our eyes and to see anew a vision of Christ. It is to go from the blind Saul persecuting the church to the sighted Paul proclaiming the gospel.
We just need to look at the history of the church or the state of the current church, or the state of our own communities to see that this "surpassing awareness of the reality of Christ" is often missing. Taylor writes that honestly reflecting on the state of the church in light of the biblical witness to the early church is a recipe for despair. Yet this despair is not necessarily a bad thing. Something good can come from this if people are willing to openly share their despair and disappointment with one another. Taylor warns however that it must be an honest sharing, a sharing that goes to the heart of things:
But the Spirit does not give himself where our encounters are glib, masked exchanges of second-hand thoughts. Our defenses must be down, broken either by intense joy or by despair. One way or the other we must come to the end of ourselves. So this shameful humiliation of Christians, not only in our generation but at all times is better far than their self-congratulation, for it is the pre-requisite of a renewal of the Holy Spirit. It is worth remembering that the root of the words humiliation and humility is humus. To be down in the straw and the dung and the refuse - Paul’s words - is to become the soil in which the seed of Christ’s manhood falls and dies and brings forth the harvest.
So it is in a shared vision of Christ or a shared despair at the lack of that vision that a way forward is experienced. The way to Christian mission then involves a deeper inward journey with others. It is one of the tenets of Taylor’s book that it is in our togetherness that the Holy Spirit possesses us. Jesus is to be found where two or three are gathered. The fire of the Spirit remains alight only as Christians gather together. We can not do this alone. We need the Spirit gift of awareness corporately shared. This is the second part of Taylor’s sequence of mission.
The corporate experience of the Spirit expresses itself in thankfulness and wonder. As people begin to see the Spirit at work in their lives and the lives of their friends there is a natural sharing of this with others. The key to the third part of mission seems to be our willingness to share with others what is happening in our Christian communities. By speaking out we witness to another way of living.
The style of living that Taylor advocates can best be called "Christian presence":
The mission of the church, therefore is to live the ordinary life of men in the extraordinary awareness of the other and self-sacrifice for the other that the Spirit gives. Christian activity will be very largely the same as the world’s activity - earning a living, bringing up a family, making friends, having fun, celebrating occasions, farming, manufacturing, trading, building cities… Christians will try to do these things to the glory of God, which is to try to perceive what God is up to in each of these manifold activities and will seek to do it with him by bearing responsibility for the selves of other men.
Taylor invites us to see mission not as something that we tack on to the rest of our lives, something extra that we do when we have the time. Instead, he encourages us to see our everyday lives as the place where we live to the glory of God. Mission then is more about being than doing, being the people we have discovered ourselves to be in Christian community.
One of the gifts of Taylor’s vision is that he believes that when we enter the world with open eyes we discover that God’s Spirit has already been there before us. The Spirit works in all people and can be experienced anywhere and everywhere because God’s Spirit floods all of reality. Our task is not to create mission but to try to listen for how God is already working in the world and then to work alongside Him.
Taylor’s book confronted me on many levels. He made me ask myself about the depth of my relationship with Christ. He questioned me about how timid I am in telling others about my experience of Christ in community. He challenged me to look for God in the midst of my everyday experiences. He reminded me that my first responsibility is to nurture my relationship with Christ. He comments: "To realize that the heart of mission is communion with God in the midst of the world’s life will save us from the demented activism of these days."
As I have worked through his book I have noticed subtle changes taking place in me; my perspective on mission has changed, my questions have changed. At the beginning of the process I was asking why God has called us to our inner city neighbourhood if not to do something here. I realize now that this question comes out of guilt at my privileged position amidst so much need. Taylor is not saying that Christians will never respond to the needs of others. In fact he says that one of the gifts of the Spirit is the ability to be aware of others and then to act sacrificially for them. But the primary focus is to become aware of the way God is working in our lives and in our world and then to act with God. So my questions have changed to where have I seen God today and how can I cooperate with God.
This change of vision has led to changes in behaviour. I have started to be a bit more open with others about my life in community. I find myself sharing stories of our house church or talking about the things I am learning in our studies together. The other day at work as I was painting a wall I found myself answering questions from an electrician who was working with me. Over the past months I have been talking to him about a course we are studying on Stoic philosophy. We at Watershed are studying the Stoics as a way of looking at how our disordered desires and emotions create so much chaos in our lives. In dialoguing with these ancient sages we are finding much that is helpful. My conversations with the electrician caused him to wonder what I was about; he asked me why I was studying the Stoics and did I find it helpful. This seemed to me a replication of the experience of Acts 2 where the church shared their experience and the world asked a question. It seemed a very natural experience, one that came out of living my life in the world.
I find myself grateful for the gift of awareness that the Spirit has given me through this book. Taylor has pointed me back to the one who is the Lord of the mission and he has invited me to pray with him this prayer which he wrote :
Lord Jesus Christ
alive and at large in the world,
help me to follow and find you there today,
in the places where I work,
and make plans.
Take me as a disciple of your Kingdom,
to see through your eyes,
and hear the questions you are asking,
to welcome all men with your trust and truth,
and to change the things that contradict God's love
by the power of the cross
and the freedom of your Spirit.