How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a missionary?
I was invited recently to talk under the heading “Mission to the Marginalised”. (I frequently wrestle with the appropriateness and definition of words like “mission” and “marginalised”, but at least the other two words in the heading were pretty straightforward)
I decided that the best way to approach the task was to tell my story, so that the listener could determine for themselves whether the heading was a fitting one.
The current state of this “mission” is that I sit with my friends for several hours every Tuesday, just “doing community” (this is, as it happens, indistinguishable from “loitering”). Also, on a Wednesday night I go to a house which is formed to provide support for people on Disability Support or similar programs. Again, my presence there is indistinguishable from a social visit.
Is that a “mission”? It all depends how you tell the story.
Four years ago, I and my family left Sydney to move to Queensland, for family reasons. This meant leaving behind a very precious church community in which I learned an incalculable amount. For the sake of the story, a couple are particularly noteworthy.
One of my dearest friends in Sydney was wheelchair-bound, and constrained by cerebral palsy. The condition made her everyday life very challenging, but she overcame all that to pursue a rich and full life, right up to her death in 2012. She inspired all who knew her, and I found her to be a great mentor and spiritual teacher. I had the extraordinary privilege of spending a huge amount of quality time with her over a couple of years, and I learned (at least) two very important things from her: What to pray, and how to pray.
<Edit>I later preached on exactly this topic, in memory of this lady. You can read about the details here: How to pray, when life’s not ok
What to pray
My friend told me a story about a journey to a Christian “healing room”. This is a place where people are ready to pray for others, seeking God’s healing mercy for them. She described the encounter in characteristic form, which I will approximately quote:
As I was coming in the entrance, two bright young things came bounding up to me, laid hands on me, and started excitedly praying that I would leap up out of my wheelchair. It took me a little while to calm them down, and to explain that I had come for prayer about some ulcers on my legs, because they were very painful!
This story opened my eyes. Suddenly I knew that I could never again presume to know what someone’s “problem” is. People of all walks of life now approach me and I am able to hear their actual need instead of assuming what it is. Just because someone has been violently assaulted, for example, does not mean their central concern is that assault: it could be the welfare of their estranged child. And just because someone is a drug addict does not mean that this is their central concern: it could be that debt is a crushing burden in their life.
How to pray
This friend attended church almost every week, which was a Herculean effort. It involved coordinating several carers and two taxi drivers, all on a Sunday morning. It often fell apart and she couldn’t be at church.
When she could come, she would routinely come forward for prayer support. I found myself attending to her almost every time, even though a number of other people were willing and available. It was important to me because she was teaching me.
What does one pray, for someone who has suffered for years, and has not found relief? What prayer can be formed, which expresses hope and trust in a provident God but recognises the brutal reality of ongoing suffering? What prayer can assuage the question, “Am I being punished?”
I sure did learn a lot about prayer. I would cry out on her behalf, openly complaining about her suffering. I would declare that she had suffered long enough, and that it was time for God to intervene. I would beg God’s mercy and compassion.
Having done all that, I started to reflect, in prayer, on what we know of God. I acknowledged in prayer that we know God to be good, and kind, and merciful. I acknowledged that God has done amazing things for my friend, indeed for us all, in the past. I gave thanks.
Finally I reflected that the privilege of praying at all is an extraordinary one, that we place these things in God’s good hands, and that we are satisfied with God’s assurance of his presence.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that this form of prayer is precisely what the Psalmist adopts when in dismay! For a couple of examples, see Psalm 6 and Psalm 13. Ever since, I have been content to adopt this general form of prayer, openly crying out to God, placing complaints and laments at his feet, and concluding with confidence and trust, based on my experience of his character. The people I pray for invariably find huge comfort in this, because after all, this is “faith”.
The Missionary paradox
During our week there, I was asked to share my story of having come to faith. My story resulted in one of the missionaries approaching me to help him with a personal problem that he had wrestled with for some considerable time. I shared my insights and prayed for him, and he experienced the freedom he sought.
That encounter taught me something critically important: the difference between a “missionary” and an “addict” is perhaps merely a question of who has been caught-out. It taught me not to regard people according to their status, but to consider their character, and to listen to their heart. This has resulted in highly unusual encounters, in which some who would be labelled “sinners” find themselves praised and congratulated for their faith, and some who would be considered “important” finding themselves confronting their own shortcomings and seeking my help.
“God is not a respecter of persons“, it is said, and neither am I.
When we arrived in Ipswich QLD I set about finding how to “get involved”. I had thought that would mean being active in the local church, but God had other ideas. I became involved with a local Salvation Army church which ran halfway houses. I was placed in charge of a Bible study group there.
On my initial contact with that group, I had this encounter, which I have written about separately. Click on the paragraph to see the whole story:
I was aware that my friend had been grieving the death of her adult daughter, who had been murdered by White Supremacists. They left her hung by the neck, in a room covered in blood from obvious signs of struggle. The police declined to investigate, deeming it a suicide.
My friend is an Aboriginal Australian. Understandably she doesn’t trust white people. She also doesn’t trust men. I’m both male and white, so you might imagine the tone of her first question to me (in front of a small crowd): “you tell me this: why do innocent people suffer?“
From that encounter I learned a number of things, as you will find if you read the whole story. Importantly, I learned to trust God with people’s hearts, and that the identity of God is the most important thing anyone can know.
Through that group I met some Aboriginal men who had decided to start a youth group. I attended their first meeting, and was astounded to see seventy five people there! I immediately committed myself to helping them in any way I could. That began a very long and powerful relationship.
I learned a lot about how differently I think, compared to, for example, Indigenous Australians. The way by which I conceive of my identity in such atomistic, individualistic terms is foreign to them. For them, their identity is bound up in their family and clan relationships. This difference is profound.
The most important thing I learned from two years of working with a couple of people in particular from the Indigenous community, is that there is a sense in which the whole community needs to reform. A single individual in such a community who adopts different values from their peers is faced with constant tensions, or alienation.
This does, in fact, accord with some of the concerns of those who heard Jesus’ teachings, and Luke 14:26 is part of discussing that phenomenon. But it is not the only word on the matter! Paul formed strong local communities of people who shared the radical Christian values so that they could encourage and strengthen one another. This “unity” of God’s people, against the culturally imposed barriers of the day, is one of the central concerns of the whole New Testament.
So I learned the importance of Christian community.
A poem about the Chat Room, composed when we got the news that this facility would close, describes my heart for the people there. An encounter with someone at the Chat Room describes just one of the remarkable experiences I had there.
As the facility was coming close to closing, I was interested to find out what was causing the regular attenders to feel so unsettled and upset. After listening closely, I discovered that it was the sense of community there, that they would sorely miss. Their reaction to this was, in some cases, a real kind of grieving!
So when the Chat Room closed, I simply told my friends that they would find me in the Ipswich Mall every week, ready to hang out and chat. I blogged about my observations on week 1 and week 2, and various other later observations and reflections as well.
As you will see from those blog posts, I continued to learn about the value and importance of community in revealing and manifesting God and His Kingdom.
I also found an opportunity to meet up with the residents of an assisted-living house once per week. My role there is more or less that of a chaplain, but I have no official title. I mix with the guys, develop relationships, offer wisdom and, where necessary, spiritual guidance. Again in this setting, I have been observing the power of the community, for better or for worse depending on how healthy that community is.
Mission to the Marginalised?
Is this a “mission to the marginalised”? Some would say so. Others would say that I am just hanging out with my friends, or even “reclining with sinners”!
Whatever it is, these activities have been richly fulfilling for me, and represent a lot of value to everyone who comes into contact with them. God is at work in all this, not least, in teaching me ever more about His kingdom and its enduring power for transformation in individual lives and in communities.
I have plans for how this all develops from here, but I’m not ready to blog about that yet… When it starts to happen I’ll be sure to be blogging my reflections on it. I will only say this: it has to do with the theology of communities.
<Edit> Some of it has now started to happen. Read more on that here: It Starts: The Kingdom of God is Germinating in Ipswich
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