I Am Not the Holy Spirit: Reflections On The Go-Between God by John V. Taylor

I am not the Holy Spirit. An obvious statement, yes, and one that I would never deny verbally. In action, though, I often live as if I am the Holy Spirit, and I suspect I’m not alone in this behavioral blasphemy. As Christians, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is within us, guiding us and forming us into the image of Jesus Christ. Often times, though, the Holy Spirit I claim to follow bears striking resemblance to myself. He seems to have the same personality as myself, the same desires, and the same thoughts. From my perspective, it’s not just the Holy Spirit who seems to resemble me. Even as I interact with others, I project myself onto them. I enter dialogue with another assuming he has the same values, the same basic assumptions about life, and the same worldview. I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem, but maybe that, too, is a projection of myself on the rest of the world.

It’s this interaction with the Holy Spirit and with the “other” that John V Taylor addresses in The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission. Taylor was an Anglican bishop and theologian, doing most of his work in the mid-twentieth century. He worked for sometime as a missionary in Uganda, and brings a missionary perspective to his work. The Go-Between God was first published back in 1972, and is now considered a classic theological work. (In fact, the edition of the book I read is from the SCM Classics series.)

Drawing heavily on Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Taylor’s main point of the book is that the Holy Spirit primarily works as a “go-between.” In other words, when individuals meet and converse, the Spirit is not merely “in” each of the individuals, but is His own personality working between them. If life were a drama, the Holy Spirit would be a separate character with his own personality. To use another analogy, used by Taylor, if a conversation between two people were represented by the equation 1+1, the Holy Spirit would be the “+”.

Not only do we need to see the Holy Spirit as his own character, Taylor goes on to explain that the Spirit’s function in the mission of God is to draw people together, to be the “+” in the 1+1 equation. The Spirit does this, Taylor argues, by helping people to see other individuals and entirely “other” than them. To help people to realize that the other person in the dialogue sees the world through entirely different lenses shaped by their own experiences.

Taylor draws out numerous implications for Christian mission. Among them, he writes of the importance of listening when doing evangelism or interfaith dialogue; that before the gospel can be proclaimed by one person to another, the evangelist must understand the worldview of the other. Taylor devotes an entire chapter to the pentecostal movement, and explains that the rest of the Church needs to learn from them in order to become more aware of the Holy Spirit’s personality and action. What I found most striking, though, was Taylor’s chapter on prayer in the Spirit. Taylor first explains, “To live in prayer, therefore, is to live in the Spirit; and to live in the Spirit is to live in Christ… to live in Christ is to live in prayer. Prayer is not something you do; it is a style of living.” And he later continues, “…we are saying that the essential missionary activity is to live in prayer.”

This, of course, is nothing new, but the type of prayer Taylor went on to recommend I found intriguing. He called it the “prayer of stillness.” The first step is to still the mind. (For what it’s worth, Taylor suggests Yoga or Tai Chi as methods to do this.) Next, he says to focus your awareness on another object – a lit candle, a glass of water, etc. When entirely focused on the object, the next step is to begin to think of it as a symbol of Christ – the Light of the World, Living Water, etc. – and then to slowly replace the image of the object in our mind with the person of Christ himself. The value of this type of prayer, I think, is that it brings us into deeper awareness of the Hearer of our prayers. We realize that when we pray, we actually are speaking to someone else. This awareness can then move toward those for whom we’re interceding, prompting us to pray for them without projecting ourselves onto them.

The Go-Between God has been published for nearly 40 years, now. But I think it’s a much needed book for ministers and missionaries today. In my pastoral work, and my campus ministry work, I’m often struck by how eager people are to take advantage of a listening ear. On more than one occasion, strangers I’ve met for the first time have shared with me deeply painful experiences of brokenness from their past, and longings for their future. Our busy and individualized society is increasingly isolating us from one another, and it’s leaving people with the desire to be heard and to be known by others. And I suspect that in the midst of our busy-ness, the Holy Spirit too is calling out for us to listen and to know Him. The Go-Between God paints a picture of the Spirit that just begins to scratch the surface of the Spirit’s personality, and the personality of humanity, and invites us to dive deeply into further exploring the deep mysteries of the Spirit and our neighbors.

The Witness of Tipping

I had a friend in college who worked as a waitress. She once told me that her coworkers would often complain about having to work on Sundays at lunchtime. Their reason why? “The only people who come in are Christians on their way home from church. And Christians are bad tippers.”

I’m guessing that we Christians can owe part of our bad reputation among wait staff to the fact that many of the after-church restaurant patrons are elderly individuals who may just have a set habit of tipping a dollar or two, despite the fact that a dollar or two gets you considerably less than it did thirty. But the problem isn’t limited to our elders. I remember once being to dinner with a group of friends from high school on a visit home from college. They weren’t all Christians, but one was a rather outspoken Christian. And this outspoken Christian, after we had all chipped in our share, insisted that we leave a smaller tip than what our contributions were adding up to. “You’re just supposed to double the tax, and that’s the tip,” she said. In Pennsylvania, that amounts to a 14% tip, not even the expected 15% minimum… and there were nearly 10 of us that this waitress served. I’m not sure how she convinced the rest of us to take pack some of our contribution, but I remember wanting to leave quickly before the waitress picked up the money off of the table because I was so embarrassed.

What motivates us as Christians to be so stingy? Are people trying to be good stewards while ignoring Scripture’s exhortation to give generously? Christians need to realize that tipping is an act of witness to a waiter or waitress; and the waiter or waitress is going to make judgments on your character based on how well, or not well, you tip. Trust me. I’ve worked for tips before as a pizza deliverer, and that job completely changed my opinion of one church near my home after they tipped me very poorly (something like $1 on a $50 order), and my opinion wasn’t, “Well, they’re just trying to be good stewards.”

A few practices that I try to keep:

1.) Always tip at least 20%.

2.) Don’t “punish” your waiter/ress for bad or disappointing service with a smaller tip. Instead, show grace.

3.) If you give your waiter any reason to think you’re a Christian (being well-dressed on a Sunday afternoon, praying before your meal, faith-related conversation at the table, etc.) know that there’s a good chance that you’re representing the Church and maybe even Christ to your waitress, especially if s/he’s not a Christian him/herself. I once left a restaurant and realized 30 minutes later that my table forgot to leave a tip. On top of that, we had our Bibles out and open on the table. I went back, found our waiter, apologized and gave an even bigger tip than I would normally give.

4.) Take time to get to know the person waiting on you, especially if you’re a repeat customer. I’m still not too good at this one, but want to improve. Waiters and waitresses expend a lot of energy trying to make their customers feel good. It’s a very selfless act. Building a relationship with them and providing the conversational space for them to say now they’re doing or share from their life outside the restaurant could be a breath of fresh air.

 

Prayer: How Specific Should Our Prayers Be?

A while back, I felt convicted that as a pastor, I wasn’t praying enough. It was hard for me to see prayer as something I was supposed to do “on the clock.” If I wasn’t talking with someone, writing a sermon, answering an email, preparing a Bible study, I didn’t think it was ministry. I came to realize through conversations with more experienced ministers and through reading Scripture that prayer is what I’m supposed to be doing more than anything. So, I started praying more.

This has developed into praying very specific prayers. For example, in my InterVarsity work, I’ve become convicted that God’s vision for grad students at Carnegie Mellon is for there to be a network of witnessing communities in every college at CMU. Since Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered, he’s there with them, I decided that at least two missional grad students in each college at CMU was a reasonable expectation, so that’s what I’ve been asking for. Likewise, I’ve realized recently how great it is to have “divine appointments” – moments in which I can either share my faith or hear someone else share about their faith. I felt convicted to pray for a divine appointment every day, and have been amazed at the frequency with which God answers those prayers.

Some of the responses I’ve gotten from fellow Christians about this praying have been interesting. When someone else in a prayer group heard me ask God specifically for two missional Christians in every college at CMU, he responded, “So you’re a person who prays numbers? I’ve been told that when you do that God will do one of three things, he’ll either give you less than what you ask for, give you  more than what you ask for, or give you something completely different.” Translation: If you ask God for something too specific, there’s no chance that he’ll grant your request to the “T.”

Likewise, when another colleague learned of my asking for a divine appointment each day, his response was cautionary. He reminded me that the reason those prayers were being answered wasn’t because God was doing anything different, but because I had simply made myself more open to divine appointments happening. Translation: Prayer is less about asking God to do something and more about making us more attune to what God is already doing.

It’s hard to pray specific prayers. In fact, it’s hard to ask anyone, whether God or a fellow human being, for something specific. In my support raising for InterVarsity, I’ve been encouraged to ask for potential donors to give specific amounts of money. Mustering up the courage to do this is extremely difficult, and I’m rarely able to find that much courage. Asking for something specific is scary because it increases the chance that our request will be rejected. The same is true for prayers to God; the more abstract our prayers, the less likely those prayers will go unanswered and the less likely our faith will be shaken.

At the same time, though, the specific prayers that I’ve been praying have been increasing, not decreasing, my faith. One of the influences on me in praying these specific prayers has been my InterVarsity training materials. InterVarsity’s Chapter Planting Manual encourages planters to ask God to bring specific numbers of students to various events, and when it does this, it says to only ask for the number of people you can pray for in faith. In other words, when you pray specifically, don’t pray for more than what you believe God can do. I don’t take specific prayers lightly. Praying in this way has forced me to reflect on my own faith and to think through what I truly believe my God is capable of.

Also, praying for “divine appointments” has, in my opinion, done far more than simply open me up to what God is already doing. I’m always amazed at how often God answers this prayer when I pray it, and how often divine appointments don’t happen when I forget to pray this prayer. I think God is teaching me something in this experience about his own heart for those whom He loves. God longs to gather His lost sheep, and He longs to do it through the voice of his people. Praying for divine appointments is showing me the heart of God in a very intimate way.

Specific prayers are dangerous. They make us far more vulnerable before God. But when we take them seriously, they also make us more honest with God about our own faith, and they open up for us the opportunity to experience God in ways far more vivid.

Giggles, Groans, or Mission?

Recently, I preached the same sermon in two different locations. Part of the sermon talked about our changing context due to the constant development of technology and shifts in population growth. To explain this, I read off a bunch of statistics that I found in this video:

What fascinated me was the differences in how each of the two congregation responded. The first church was the Upper Room, the church I’m planting. This group is comprised mostly of young adults living in an urban context. They responded to the statistics in the video mostly by giggling. The second church I preached this sermon in was a suburban church with an average age that’s a bit older. As they heard these statistics, they groaned is disbelief. Some even told me how sad the statistics are.

This got me to asking myself two questions. First, why these differences in reaction? I can think of a few reasons. The Upper Room’s members live in the city, and thus in a significantly more diverse environment than the suburbs of Pittsburgh. The shift in population demographics is right in front of the every day. They’ve also grown up and been educated as this shift has developed, so their educations reflects, at least in part, a preparation for these shifts. The older, suburban congregation has lived without these shifts for some time, maybe they feel as if they’re actually losing something.

The second question I have may be more difficult to answer. What are the consequences to reacting in each of these ways? The title of the sermon I preached was “You Are Stewards of the Gospel,” based on the first half of Ephesians 3. The sermon explained that Paul understood the gospel as something entrusted to him, that God has revealed the mystery of Christ to him not merely for his own benefit, but also so that Paul might proclaim it to others. The sermon challenged the congregation to think of themselves as stewards of the gospel, as people entrusted with the message of Christ so that it may be proclaimed, and then reflected on how we do this in our changing global context. In light of globalization and developed technology, we all ought to adopt a missionary mentality.

The folks in the suburban church may not be prepared for this shift. Their groaning may reflect a refusal to acknowledge these shifts and to respond accordingly. However, I also wonder if those of us who giggle when we hear about these changes are also unprepared. Imagine the missionary work someone like Paul could accomplish in our age of Iphones and Blackberries, when we literally carry the entire world in our pocket. Perhaps our giggling is a sign that we take these changes for granted? Perhaps our education and context has so eased us into this much more connected world that we actually fail to see fully the opportunity that lies before us.

Our present context presents us with opportunities for mission that didn’t exist even 1o years ago. If only the whole church would seize the fullness of these opportunities…

Missional Catechesis

Back in November, I got to perform my first baptism. (Yes, I’ve been meaning to write this post for that long.) The candidate (Shi) and I spent time in “catechesis” for about 40 days leading up to the baptism day. We met once a week and worked our way through the Heidelberg Catechism together.

Even though this was my first baptism, it wasn’t my first time doing catechesis. When doing the English Ministry (i.e. college ministry) for KUPC, 4 students sought to be baptized, and a fifth sought to reaffirm his infant baptism. I wasn’t ordained at the time, and so the baptisms were done by the senior pastor, but he gave me the responsibility and privilege of doing pre-baptismal counseling.

So, I had some prior experience in leading catechesis and I mostly knew what to expect. In addition to reading the Catechism, I also require baptism candidates to write their own statement of faith. I intentionally leave the assignment somewhat open-ended so that no one can reproduce what they think I want to hear, and they’re forced to use their own voice and perspective. The results are always fascinating and creative (and orthodox :-)) Some have simply translated the ancient faith into their own words. Others would include paragraphs on how they planned on living out their faith after being baptized. What Shi wrote back in November, though, was the most original and made me completely rethink the purpose of the exercise.

As Shi and I talked about how he would write the statement, he decided that he would write his statement as if a nonChristian were reading it. I thought this was a great idea, and I was even more surprised when I learned that Shi was writing it with a specific nonChristian in mind: his brother. The result was a statement of faith that was beautiful, honest, and very passionate. It ended with an invitation from Shi to his brother to follow Jesus. Shi wrote it with the intention of giving it to his brother after the service.

Typically when we require people to write statements of faith, we expect them to write with good, clear theology that shows their knowledge of church language. Whether it’s candidates for baptism or candidates for ordained ministry, requiring such statements implicitly tells people that what’s important is learning to speak “our” langauge and learning to fit into “our” church. What if we spent more time asking candidates to write statements of faith for those who don’t know church language? What if we expected them to do as Shi did, and write the statement as a letter to a friend who doesn’t know Christ and then give that person the statement?

Then, maybe, baptism wouldn’t only be a rite of passage into the church, it would also be the annointing of an evangelist.

Easy Evangelism

Last Saturday, I had an unexpected witness opportunity. I had planned on walking that morning to the Tango Cafe to get some work done, and then on to Chris and Eileen’s to interview some intern applicants. Those plans were altered, though, when I saw the fire at the Burton Hirsch Funeral home. The fire kept me from going into the Cafe, and instead I spent some time with other bystanders watching the largest fire I’ve ever seen.

Then came the witnessing opportunity. I stood on the corner of the street, and shouted at the crowd, “Listen up people! You see those flames?! Well, that’s what in store for you lest you repent….”  Just kidding. Besides the fact that I’m way too bashful ever to attempt something like that, it also probably (I hope) goes without saying that methods like that are inappropriate in any context. What did happen though was an unexpected conversation with a young woman.

She and I along with a couple others were talking about the fire, when I said, “Well, I’m walking to my friend’s place, and he lives up there, so I need to find an alternate route.”

She replied, “Oh, me too. How can we get there.”

So we walked together and made small talk for a while, talking about jobs and living in Squirrel Hill. Eventually it came out that I’m a pastor starting a new church in Squirrel Hill. She responded, “Oh, so you’re a pastor? Can I ask you some questions?”

From there, she shared her hesitations about faith and religion and why she considers herself an agnostic. Her concerns were honest and well thought out. In fact, she’s probably thought more about faith than most people who claim to be Christians have. I shared with her some of my own, similar struggles, and how I’ve worked through them. She said she found the conversation helpful, and even expressed interest in visiting “my church.”

As I reflected on this conversation, one of the first things I thought was, “That was easy!” The opportunity for witness came naturally and seemed to be leading to results. I think there were a few reasons for this:

1.) The conversation was on her terms. I never had to ask loaded questions or force the conversation into matters of faith. She brought it up and was never uncomfortable in the conversation.

2.) I was myself. As she was sharing her struggles, it was tempting to search my “apologetic memory bank” for a clever answer that would try to simply God and faith into logical reasoning. Thankfully, I resisted this temptation. She wasn’t speaking from her mind as much as she was speaking from her heart, and so I responded my sharing mine. We don’t speak to people’s hearts by logical reasoning, we do it by sharing our heart.

3.) The “evangelism” was more about listening than sharing. I never thought to myself, “Okay, Mike, squeeze in a good word for Jesus.” I eventually shared some of my own story, but most of the time I just listened to her. I think effective evangelism is just as much about being silent and listening as it is about proclaiming Jesus.

Pray that these conversations can continue!

“Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays”… part two: the issue isn’t persecution. it’s effective witness.

Last week, I began reflecting on the “battle” fought every December over whether the greeting “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is more important in public discourse. I questioned whether Christians ought just to give up the battle and begin seeing the “Holiday Season” as a holiday completely different from Christmas. You can read it in its entirety, along with the comments, here. The post generated more comments than anything else I’ve ever written on here (granted, soliciting comments through my facebook status probably helped that). Based on people’s comments, and on my own further reflection, here are some conclusions I’m coming to:

It’s simply erroneous to imply that stores instructing their employees to say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas” is anything resembling persecution for customers who happen to be Christian. Not to mention, doing so would also be insulting to those saints from previous ages and currently in other parts of the workd who have faced actual persecution and even martyrdom. That being said, if a store clerk wanted to say “Merry Christmas” and faced negative consequences from his employer for doing so, that would raise some free speech issues and be closer (but still probably not equivolent) to persecution.

The fact that this battle is happening, though, does raise contextual issues for Christians seeking to give faithful witness. Christmas has been commercialized. So much so , I would argue as I began to do in the last post, that the result is a completely different holiday bearing little-to-no resemblance to its original significance. The problem is that most Christians have responded one of two ways. Either they’ve completely given in to the whims of the culture and no longer celebrate Christmas as a Holy Day, or they just complain a lot and expect the culture to change back to the way things were. Actually, most Christians, paradoxically do both.

Christians need to find a new way to respond. For the church to simply go along with this cultural change is to give up on giving faithful witness to Christ. For the church to try to change things by flexing the flabby remnants of its influential cultural muscle is simply delusional, and borderline unethical. Christians need to respond in a way that is subversively counter-cultural, not for the sake of winning back Christmas, but for the sake of showing the world the value of following Jesus.

So, what does that look like? I have a few ideas, but I”m more curious to hear what you all think? How do Christians faithfully celebrate Christmas and subvert our culture’s commercialized “Holiday Season”?