End of a Streetwork Era

Since the middle of my first year at university I’ve been involved in a ministry of the campus Christian Union called Streetwork (not to be confused with a charity in the city that goes by the same name). Almost every Friday night a team of students would go out with hot chocolate and biscuits to meet with those begging on the streets and show them the love of God through a simple conversation and listening ear.

It’s been a pretty major part of my life ever since and for the past two years I’ve been one of those responsible for its week to week running. However, after some careful consideration, the decision was made a couple of weeks ago that we would not continue with Streetwork in the new academic year and last night we ventured out one last time.

It’s been an odd ministry to run. It doesn’t really fit with the CU’s vision or come under their remit so we’ve pretty much had free reign at their expense. While this does have some advantages it means that there’s little driving force behind the whole thing. We’ve been fortunate to have a small group of very committed volunteers but outwith that small circle there’s been little vocal enthusiasm. Also, it has been difficult at times to discern our purpose or motivation. Our hope is to share something of God with those in need by meeting a relational and spiritual need often not met in soup kitchens or food lines but it sometimes feels that we as volunteers may be getting more from it that those we are supposed to be serving. Maybe that’s okay? Maybe it’s not? There is also little to no way to build on what we do: we can’t plug them in to other more practical programs and there’s only so much of a relationship you can build on a chance meeting every couple of weeks.

A friend once told me that if you’re going to finish something, you’ve got to finish it well. So, rather than just let streetwork peter out as the semester came to an end as we tried to scrape by, we gathered as much of the team as possible last night and went out in style. It was surreal but wonderful to gather for orientation, to go out together, to debrief and pray together one last time. There is pain in it but also joy because God has been so faithful throughout it all and done such work in and through us all.

There are so many nights I won’t forget quickly. Like meeting L, she was thin and pale, couldn’t have been more than 21. She was very quiet and conversation wasn’t easy but someone else on my team ended up doing press-ups on the pavement beside her and when we joked with her her smile could have lit up any room. Or one night when we were on North Bridge speaking to G and his huge boxer dog. All was peaceful and we were having great chat when next thing we know we’re surrounded by about six guys, all looking for hot chocolate and some attention. Some people were praying, some were talking, all in this big guddle on one of Edinburgh’s busiest roads. Or J, sat outside a store one night, so high and out of it, telling us his plans to move to Barbados. I saw him a few months later, selling the Big Issue and getting his life sorted. Only last semester I was able to get to know T over a few months and the last night I saw him, the day before his court date, we discussed issues of God and faith and he shared his real name with us. Or my friends S and S who’s attitude towards us has transformed completely in 6 months so that now we can sit with them for thirty minutes each while they pour out their hearts.

We have been in positions of incredible privilege these past few years. I know that our hearts have been transformed, that God has not once let us go home unchallenged or without revealing more of Himself to us. And, as I look to careers in housing and homelessness, my life has been irrevocably changed by all of it.

Praise be to God!

Do you mean what you say?

I should be more careful about what I say.

This is a means to an end.

Grades aren’t important.

Really, Rachael? Do you mean that?

God has a plan, He’ll make it work out.

Are you willing to live like that?

I got some grades back last week that I was pretty disappointed with.

It’s easy to say that you’re not bothered by grades when you’re getting a steady 2:1 but it turns out a 2:2 is one of my biggest fears. And now I’m having to look it straight in the eye. My mum will tell me to work harder. My lecturers have told me I’m more than capable. But I’m not a machine and there are times when you’ve worked to capacity. I don’t function in isolation and there are more important things than deadlines sometimes.

I’m never going to be an academic. I don’t have a mind that can tear the theories of others to pieces. I can’t be concise: I will always write the same way I talk. I am always going to take courses that are interesting over ones that guarantee good grades.

I know that God absolutely has a plan. I know that my being in Edinburgh and studying theology as I do is a part of that. But He never said anything about grades. This is a period of trust, of walking the walk that I’ve talked (and maybe working just a little bit harder).

Rich and Poor

“the persons who become rich are, generally speaking, industrious, resolute, proud covetous, prompt, methodical, sensible, unimaginative, insensitive, and ignorant. The persons who remain poor are the entirely foolish, the entirely wise, the idle, the reckless, the humble, the thoughtful, the dull, the imaginative, the sensitive, the well-informed, the improvident, the irregularly and impulsively wicked, the clave, the open thief and the entirely merciful, just and godly person”

– John Ruskin Unto This Last – Four essays on the first principles of political economy, London, 1903, p128

Exclusion

As part of my practical theology class this semester, we looked at the work of Miroslav Volf on Exclusion and Embrace.

It’s a fascinating topic because it is so easy to apply to our personal situations.

His model for reconciliation as embrace is very clever. It is a means of thinking of reconciliation as being much like a hug. With open arms we invite the other party into communication, we do so of our own accord and show that we are willing to reach for the other. Then we wait. We wait for the other party to return the embrace, not invading their space but inviting them too to open their arms. Then both parties close their arms, conveying the need for reciprocity but not assimilation: boundaries are maintained. Finally, we open our arms again: the two do not become one, we must let the other be other and ourselves be ourselves.

Of course, if you know a particularly violent hugger or you’re someone who doesn’t really appreciate hugs, the weight of the model might be a little lost on you but I’m sure you get the idea. And Volf says that when we look to the open arms of Jesus on the cross we can see the reconciliation of God and humanity at work through embrace.

I’m sure we can all think of a time, probably many, when we have felt excluded. An element of exclusion is inevitable within any gathering of people because as each inclusion takes place, an exclusion must also occur. It’s becoming ever more apparent that to create an “inclusive” society, you must exclude as well. Volf calls this the modern “barbarity”. Sometimes this exclusion is obvious: we eliminate those whom we don’t want to have to include. At other times it can be more subtle: assimilation (you must become like us), abandonment (we keep you at a safe distance) or symbolic exclusion (through language, media etc).

An very interesting exercise that we as the church should regularly be doing is considering how our meetings might exclude people. Think about your church’s entrance. What in that foyer/ doorway/noticeboard could someone interpret as exclusive? Is it open and inviting or does it suggest already that you have to be “one of us” to belong here? And when someone sits in your sanctuary/auditorium, are they invited in to all that is happening or do they only see many backs turned to them? What about the way the service is presented: the use of language, media, technology, even how people are dressed and the gadgets that they are using give an impression of who is welcome in our congregations and who is not.

I’m not suggesting we go to the length of removing the crosses from our churches, as some have done to make their buildings “seeker sensitive”, or that we make everything as bland and basic as possible. We should still be open about who we are and what we stand for and how we do what we do. But we have to mindful that Christian circles are hard ones to crack. That not everyone can see or read the projection screens. That someone struggling to pay the bills might not appreciate being surrounded by iPods/iPads or having the offering basket stuffed under their nose. What provision do we make for families, or, perhaps more pressing, for single people? What are we doing to welcome those with disabilities? How are we welcoming people from every class and background?

When you walk in to church on Sunday look at it as though for the first time, as someone who has never been to church before, and look for the points of exclusion. Then find someone you’ve never spoken to or maybe even seen before and ensure that they are included.

Kendal

After handing in three essays (three days early!) on friday, I set off with friends to one of their parent’s houses in Kendal, in the Lake District.

It was a little odd to head south rather than north – I don’t think I’ve actually crossed the border (and flying into Heathrow doesn’t count in my head for some reason) in about three years. I’ll be a little cheeky in admitting it felt like venturing into enemy territory and to be surrounded by even more English accents than when in Edinburgh was a tad surreal. However, whilst their lakes and mountains aren’t quite as pretty as Scottish ones, they didn’t do half bad.

On Saturday we took a bus to Windermere and had a wee dander around the edge of the lake. We stopped at a very picturesque spot for our picnic lunch before carrying on through the town of Bowness and then up over a wee hill back into Windermere to get the bus home again. It wasn’t a very long or difficult walk but it was sufficient to test my severe lack of fitness and reminded me how painful walking ten miles is going to be in two weeks time!

After a lovely roast chicken dinner, cooked for us by Marty’s parents, we embarked upon quite an epic game of Risk. I’d never played before and you could kind of tell. I was doing pretty well in North America for a while before Marty decimated me and then I backed myself into a corner in Australia. Ed was soon in control of Europe but there were just too many borders and not enough troops to defend against the impressive Marty/Katrina alliance. Even Antonia, acting as the UN, couldn’t ensure Marty didn’t monopolise the whole thing and he soon took the victory as Katrina and I admitted defeat, holding on to only tiny bits of Asia and Australia. Then we played pool for a while and once again Marty and Katrina beat me quite easily before Ed came and showed us all how it should really be done.

On Sunday we went up the castle ruins in Kendal. It was a gloriously sunny day and the views across the valley were beautiful. There were many silly pictures taken and a game of Pooh Sticks (which I won!) too before it was time to return to base for lunch and then catch the train back to Edinburgh again.

I needed out of the city this weekend – cabin fever was setting in once more – and (other than Skye) I don’t think there could have been a more perfect place to go. It was lovely to spend quality time with friends who usually just put up with my moaning and nagging about one thing or another. And of course, we have another set of stories to reminisce about for years to come!

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Year 2 Semester 1

Now that I’ve returned home to Aberdeen, semester 1 of 2nd year is officially over. Crazy times. It’s flown by so fast and so much has happened. Here is the almost obligatory list of things I did/learned in the past three months.

First major thing from this semester was living in a flat, like a “grown-up”. This involved all kinds of learning curves. For example, setting up electricity/gas/internet/telephone suppliers; “how to act like you know what you’re talking about in front of tradesmen”; cooking (my standard meals list has increased from 3 to 10 . . . not bad I think); and “how many layers it takes to fend off hypothermia inside a freezing flat” (the answer is no less than 8).

The biggest thing I had to learn in the flat this semester was how to be a flatmate, and this one, I know, I still haven’t quite mastered. It turns out that I’m a complete neat freak. And I’m very stubborn. And I like everything to be done my way. These things are not conducive to a happy living environment when you’re living with two people who are really quite different to you. However, we have all made it to the end alive and, as far as I’m aware, our friendships are intact (I know they read this sometimes, so I’ll soon be corrected if I’m wrong). I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut; to just get on and do it; to let others get on and do things their way – I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t be tricky!

I’ve learned some pretty great things at uni too. I now know all kinds of things about the 2nd and 3rd century church (martyrdom, worship, interaction with Roman society, heretics, apologists – it’s been good) and a little about philosophy in the last two thousand years (a significant amount about Descartes in particular). With Old Testament, well it’s maybe better that we just don’t go there . . . There have been many discussions about women in ministry, about the nature of scripture, the nature of the church and how to live “radically” for Jesus. You know, you’re usual light lunch time conversation. Perhaps the most useful thing I learned, and my mum will not be impressed when she reads this, is that I can write an essay (2000 words) in 3 hours, the day before it is due, and still get a very decent grade. That’s a very useful stroke of luck to have in a moment of desperation skill to know you have up your sleeve.

The thing I’ve learned about God this semester is that his love for me and my commitment to following him are not determined or altered by my emotions on any given day. He is bigger than that and my covenant with him is bigger than that. There have been some amazing highs this semester, “mountain-top moments” Christians like to call them, such as the 24-7 Prayer International gathering, my baptism, the student weekend away. There have also been some really crappy, painful lows. But neither changes the awesomeness of God, how deserving he is of worship, or that I should be listening and obeying him.

That’s a lot to learn in 3 months. Definitely time for 3 weeks holiday and a lot of sleeping!

It’s Cold

I hope you’re impressed that I haven’t complained about the snow yet.

There is a crazy amount of it but it hasn’t bothered me too much. One of the  joys of living in the city centre is that everything is still walkable. It’s been quite entertaining watching all my non-scottish friends marvelling at it – they’ve never seen snow this deep before! Unlike most of them, I was thoroughly prepared for it and can cope reasonably well – it just takes me twenty minutes to put on half my wardrobe before I can leave the house.

What I do not approve of however is this:

ICE.

On the INSIDE of my window.

So. Not. Cool.

(Well, too cool actually, but you know what I mean)

And as pretty a pattern as it may make, it means it’s SUPER cold, INSIDE.Where I am!! (It was -12C in Edinburgh last night)

All blankets, hot water bottles, extra socks, hoodies and fleecy pyjamas have been conscripted to battle against this and for the moment we are winning. I’ll let you know how our defences hold up.

I’m a growed up now

Last Monday was a big day: moving day!

You’ll remember the drama of us trying to find a flat and the joy when we did, well, it was finally time to move in.

Having only viewed the flat once (and rather quickly) there were some nerves about whether or not it was as good as I remembered. Rocked up at the estate agent’s (late, thanks to my mother) and spent an hour and half (!) reading tenancy agreements, asking questions (such as, can we nail things to the wall? and what happens if the landlord’s mortgage falls through?) before finally being handed the keys.

It is BEATIFUL!!!

So, I’ve spent the week pretending to be a grown up. Cooking, cleaning, paying bills, shopping for things for the flat and generally getting organised. It’s a bit weird. I keep expecting a real adult to walk through the door and tell me I’m doing it wrong. Does it ever feel real?

It is fun though. Turn’s out I’m very houseproud and, when there’s no TV to distract me, I’m quite happy to get on with houseworky stuff. The best bit is having the space to have people over for dinner or even just coffee. Cooked cottage pie and baked a cake for five people last night!! The mountain of dishes afterwards wasn’t quite so appealing, but, again, you just get on with it , don’t you.

I’m learning a lot about controlling my control freakishness as well. I think my obsession with tidiness and cleanliness is somewhat scaring my flat mate. And it’s tricky for me to keep my mouth shut when something isn’t being done as I think it should, but I’m learning already. It’s also tough being sociable all the time: I’m quite used to escaping to my own space and now there’s someone in it most of the time. I guess we’ll all adjust with time.

So, if you’re ever in the vicinity, do just pop in. There’s bound to be a cake or fine piece waiting.

14.1

Today was a joyous day!!

After two failed attempts last year, I had all but resigned myself to forever having low iron levels and never again being able donate blood, but today I returned once more to a donating session and reached above the magic 12.5 required – in fact, it was 14.1!!

Donating blood is so simple but so important. I met some ladies today who had returned to donate, having not done so for almost twenty years, because of the extra time blood and platelet donations had given their mum before she died earlier this year. Blood transfusions save lives and you’re more than able to spare a pint every 3 months!!

Find out when your next session is on the ScotBlood Website.

Edinburgh folk, you can expect me to drag you along when my three month wait is up on November 4th!!

Theology

I’ve had reason to question lately why I bother studying divinity. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it, but is that enough?

I always say I that I couldn’t spend four years studying anything else. Sure I’d love to do a few courses in just about everything – the geek in me wants to learn it all but there’s no way I could spend four or five years doing medicine, engineering, politics or geology.

Why is theology any different?

Theology is defined as “the rational and systematic study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truth” (Princeton WordWeb). There’s a key phrase there: “it’s influences”.

Your theology, whether it be Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Pagan, Communist, Scientific or even Financial, affects everything you do. It’s in these things which you find your purpose and your ethics. They will affect everything from what you do with your time and money, to how you raise your kids and contribute to society.

I study the Christian faith because it supplies my theology and the theology of approximately 2 billion others. 2 billion people who could change the world for better or for worse. If we’re not studying and interpreting scripture appropriately then our theology will be skewed and our actions won’t be honouring to God. If we’re not continually assessing and re-evaluating the theologies that have already been written we can be following blindly that which is wrong. If we don’t look to the history of the church we can’t learn from its (many) mistakes and be inspired by its triumphs.

I heard that, according to UNICEF figures, if everyone in the world who currently calls themselves a Christian was to convert one person a year, the world would be converted in two and half years. And, if everyone who calls themselves a Christian was to tithe ten percent of their income, we could immediately irradicate world poverty, do everything we already do in financing the church and still have 76 billion dollars left over.

That’s a lot of power in the hands of 2 billion people and why we are all responsible for theology. It has to be studied and challenged and learned and taught.

It might not be as immediately obvious as medicine or environmental engineering or social work but theology changes the world too.

Even in the past two hundred years alone, it’s been part of the abolition of slavery, the resistance against the Nazis, the relief of the poor throughout South America, the Civil Rights Movement in America and the abolition of Apartheid. But it was also used to defend slavery, to legitimise Apartheid, it was partially responsible for the plight of the poor in the first place and many churches just stood by as the Nazis ravaged Europe.

You cannot say, in light of this, that theology is inconsequential.

Good, accurate, God-honouring theology is of paramount importance.

That’s why I study it.

(HT to Kieran for the UNICEF figures)

Tension

As I’ve studied theology over the past few months, it has become more and more apparent to me that one of the key aspects of theology is the need for tension.

In almost every issue or topic we cover I’m struck by the two seemingly opposite extremes of resolution which seem equally necessary.

Something as supposedly simple as the nature of Jesus, for example: his divinity and humanity must be held in tension. We cannot claim him to merely be a man, for then his death would have been in vane and his resurrection a figment of the disciple’s imaginations. Neither can we say he was entirely God and was never afflicted with suffering or temptation, as then there would have been no death and, therefore, atonement or salvation. The church argued over this question for centuries and, at times, still has minor disputes or disagreements about it. However, I think most would agree that we now must accept that the divinity and humanity of Jesus must be held in tension.

Similarly we must also see that God’s compassion and anger, love and justice can co-exist.

In the church we have to acknowledge that if it becomes too word focussed, it forgets to be missional and if it becomes too focussed on social issues, it forgets to proclaim the gospel. If it is too outward looking, it becomes indistinguishable from the world and if it becomes too insular, the world forgets that it is there.

The trinity is another example of this: Father, Son and Holy Spirti, three-in-one, all equally real and present, held in tension.

It is also present when we discuss the freedom which God has given us and take in to consideration our insistance that he is omnipotent and in control of all things. As human beings we are given the gift of free will and the ability to use that as we wish, however, we must also acknowledge that Scripture tells us that God has a plan which he will ensure is fulfilled. Freedom vs. being under God’s control, held in tension.

I use the phrase “held in tension” and not “balance” purposely. “Balance” suggests that we stand at a distance as we add weight to one argument or another, until we get it spot on and can step back, satisfied with our answer. “Tension”, however, suggests to me that we are in there wrestling with these issues, as though taking part is some heavenly tug of war, and that if we’re to find an answer we must continue to fight both corners. Both sides of an argument are correct but to lean to far to one side or another will end in a spectacular fall in the mud. Both must, therefore, be considered at every juncture.

Something in me loves that this means there is never a final answer. Instead we can argue/discuss/consider the intricacies of these things until the rapture. Maybe its just the theology geek in me who likes that there is always more to study!

Flat Hunting

One of the *enter sarcastic tone here* joys of coming to the end of your first year at university (“the end” – so not cool) is the need to find somewhere to live next year.

It’s a huge deal.

First of all there’s the drama of who to live with. Thankfully, I’ve had this sorted since approximately the end of fresher’s week.

Once you’ve got that down you need to focus on the where. And this is where it gets particularly crazy.

People panic (lots) and freak out (completely).

You turn up to viewings and people have taxis booked and waiting outside to take them to the agency so they can claim the flat.

Thirty people charge in to on little property and you’ve only seen the storage cupboard when the guy who got in first is already out the door and on his way to put the deposit down.

You see an amazing flat at one price, then another a few doors down in a far worse state but a higher price.

You set your heart on somewhere only to get a call an hour before you view it to tell you its already gone.

You’ve got to make some very grown-up decisions, very quickly, without mummy and daddy.

Basically, its one of the most stressful things I’ve ever had to do!

It got to a point last week when I was ready to give up. I was sick of trawling websites and calling agencies and fighting with people to get in the door and getting my hopes up only to have them smashed and was ready to call it a day and find myself some nice cardboard boxes.

But you’ve got to keep going.

So I made another viewing appointment for a place on Friday.

We went. It was perfect. We got it.

I have a flat!!

The relief and joy as we left that office on Friday was huge. We skipped down the street, jumped around a lot, shouted, sang, laughed. Giddy doesn’t go far enough.

And it’s beautiful, in a perfect location, bang on budget.

All those one’s I had my heart set on before clearly weren’t meant to be – God had this one up his sleeve the whole time!

Events Week

So I’m very behind on everything that has been going on around here but a few weeks ago was the Edinburgh Uni Christian Union Events Week.

This is a week where the CU puts on a heap of evangelistic events in order to share the gospel with as many people on campus as possible. This year there were lunch bars galore, an acoustic night in one of the clubs, a sports quiz in the student union, a black tie dinner in a posh hotel and, of course, we mustn’t forget the messy olympics in the meadows. Every event includes a gospel presentation of some sort and this year we even had the “professionals” in as teams from Christians in Sport and UCCF joined in the fun.

As well as all this, the accommodation small groups were encouraged to host a few events to invite people in halls to. We had a dinner, a pancake evening and held small group in my room one night in order to make it a little more accessible.

In the weeks running up to events week there were lots of challenging discussions at CU about how to share your faith and the immensity of the message which God has given us to share. At small group we each committed to praying for three of our friends every day and were continually encouraging one another to have the, sometimes difficult and daunting, Jesus conversations with our friends.

This was a very exciting time and God answered so many prayers.

It stupidly bemused me when he did so but we all know I’m a little slow on the uptake with these things. I found that God would come up in conversation a whole lot more, that friends were suddenly asking bold questions completely out of the blue, one friend ended up at an event and heard the gospel completely by accident and on the friday everyone from my group of friends in halls came to the dinner and heard the Good News of Jesus.

I realised, however, more accutely than before perhaps,  that inviting my friends to an event isn’t witness enough, nor is it going to introduce them to Jesus. Instead, it probably just gets rather irritating. I came away from the week challenged that the times my friends learn the most about Jesus is when we’re having a conversation about him. Its when I’m with them in the pub and he comes up in conversation and I’m not too chicken to talk about it. Inviting them to things has a time and a place but there’s a lot of ground work to do before that.

I think the week was a great success, though we may never know its full impact until we stand in Heaven and meet people for whom it was just the first step.

Praise God, that he answers prayers and equips his people when he sends them out!

God: He/She/It?

At the end of my theology tutorial yesterday our tutor told us that we shouldn’t use gender terms when referring to God in our work, nor or are we to use Man but always humanity.

Another instance of political correctness gone mad? Or just good scholarship?

I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do it – referring to God as He is just so natural. I know that technically he (see I did it again!) possibly doesn’t have a gender but in my head he (stuff it – I can’t help it!) is Father, therefore, male. He certainly has characteristics which we would perhaps consider to be more stereotypically feminine – compassion, caring, peace – and Jesus even compares himself to a mother hen (Luke 13:34). Are we wrong in labeling God as male? Surely not when the Bible (and Jesus) refers to him as Father time and again. Is that merely for the benefit of aiding our understanding of our relationship with him? If so, why shouldn’t we honour it?

All seems like madness to me!

(. . . Much like using BCE and CE (Before/Common Era) instead of BC and AD – but thats a rant for another day!)