The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…. full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
In the late 70s when punk rock was in its heyday on the streets of England, I moved to the East End of London.
With my freshly minted seminary degree I was ready to change the world! My instructors had filled my mind with missiological theory and my heart with the gospel imperative. I wanted nothing more than to plunge headlong into my new missionary setting.
As a Christian youth worker living and working in one of the most challenging neighborhoods in Britain my task was to connect, befriend and share my life with alienated and disenfranchised young people.
But I quickly realized that my spirituality was going to be stretched if I was going to be effective in sharing the good news of Jesus.
I remembered how Irenaeus – an early church father – following the apostle Paul’s teaching said that Jesus ‘recapitulated’ the story of humanity in himself. He embraced the full story of human existence and redeemed it. I knew that being like Jesus required me to do the same. And so I dressed and spoke and lived like those I was hoping to reach with the gospel.
The local pub was where much of that work took place. After long days and nights I would return to my small Council flat with my clothes smelling of tobacco smoke. I felt that if I was ever going to effectively reach these young people I had to ‘be’ where they were and so however unpleasant it seemed, it was important that I smelled like my missional context.
But the external pressures of connecting with this ‘world’ were nothing compared to the internal pressures of remaining distinct and clear in my witness.
Connecting – ‘making my dwelling amongst’ those amazingly colorful young people – while at the same time remaining distinct – holding true to the call to be holy – was my first experience of how my call to mission shaped my spirituality.
I found my heart constantly stretched by the need to remain open and accessible while at the same time trying to be pure and honest in my thoughts, words and deeds.
Maintaining a clear witness without coming off as judgmental or aloof put me in the crucible of God’s refining fire more than anything else I’d experienced up to that time.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll defined the lives of these young people and stepping into that world felt like a huge risk. But love always comes with risk and loving these young people and loving the God who I believed had sent me to them required the risk be taken.
The ‘heart-stretching’ was immense. I often found myself wrestling with God about how I should effectively build a relationship with the young people of that community. As I sought to connect with them I remember often having to return to the Cross through repentance to seek forgiveness for ‘stepping over the line’.
I remember wrestling over what was the appropriate kind of language to use – was crude language ever acceptable? I remember praying about whether I should I drink alcohol at all and if I did how much? How should I handle the colorful descriptions of people’s sex lives that were so casually shared?
This wrestling and stretching slowly strengthened and grew my ‘inner life’.
As I constantly returned to God with these questions I found that his grace and truth became the key to understanding how I should act among my new friends.
I knew that I needed the grace of Jesus whenever I ‘stepped over the line’ of the right kind of behavior. And I knew I needed his truth to keep me from always excusing myself.
Of course as I constantly received his grace and truth I became more familiar with the dynamics of applying them to my own life and so became more competent in applying them to other people’s lives.
To be effective as a missionary I needed to be able to always extend the grace of Jesus to those who needed him and I needed to be able to share his truth, lived out in my own life, so that they might understand him.
What became very apparent was that I could only ever share from a life that was first transformed by his grace and truth. I can only proclaim what I had first experienced.
Grace and truth worked like the crosshairs in the rifle sight I needed. Held in tension, they helped me to stay on track, and on target, in my missional calling.
Recently, I reconnected with some of those young people whom I got to know all those years ago. It was an incredible joy to discover that many had continued to live a life of discipleship. Some had become church leaders and missionaries, and others still had lived lives of faithful service in other vocations. Grace and truth had held them firm all these years.
Previously Published OCTOBER 25, 2016