An Ironic Interruption

At church a couple of weeks ago, instead of a sermon, some people were invited to take part in a kind of interview about their lives, their involvement in the church and what God has been teaching them. I was one of those who got to join our pastor on the sofa before the congregation and attempt to condense into ten brief minutes simple questions about how my time the US has impacted me and what my hopes for the future of the church are.

Colin had sent me the questions he planned to ask earlier in the week so I had a rough idea what I would talk about. I wanted to attempt to explain that it was the people in San Francisco – the outcast, broken, lost and forgotten – who had transformed my understanding of so much, not least that we are all outcast, lost and broken but never forgotten by the Lord. I wanted to convey that the “us” and “them” attitude of the world was irrelevant and that breaking it down had brought freedom and new understanding. How ironic it would be, I thought, if one of “them” was to come to church that day. Wouldn’t it be just my luck.

I was the last person to be interviewed. Everyone else had done a fantastic job and shared wonderfully. It was all going very smoothly. But, in the thirty seconds that it took for me to walk from the sound desk at the back of the hall to the sofa on the stage at the front, a man came in and sat down in the back. I didn’t notice, I hadn’t seen him, not until I began to speak and he began to shout over me.

I was trying to explain the work I had been doing in San Francisco and he was trying to explain that “those people” lived real close by too. Some people from the congregation moved pretty quickly to try and get him to be quiet. I froze. I was torn between wanting to continue speaking and realising this as an opportunity to practice what I was talking about. I wanted to engage with him; I wanted to hear what he had to say and show him that someone was willing to listen. My pastor, sat beside me, said to keep going. So I did.

Afterwards, people kept coming to tell me that I had done well despite the heckling. I wanted to shout that this heckler had a name and a story and wan’t someone we should just try to quiet down.
I went and spoke to him. He actually apologised for interrupting me before going on to say that if “those” people were to come into the church there would be a divide, like the red sea, between “us” and “them”. He said that unless you had a degree in anthropology (his actual words, I promise) you couldn’t fit in at CCE. He said we were too comfortable and afraid of having that comfort disturbed.

The whole experience really got to me. A week and half later and I still can’t quite believe that he came in at that moment in that service. And I can’t shake off what he said either because I’m inclined to believe him.
Some of what I shared that morning were plans that we have in the pipeline to engage the church in more work with those in particularly difficult physical/practical circumstances near by. My dream, our dream, is that these practical measures will lead to discipleship relationships within the church community. I wonder if this encounter was a reminder that that is going to be no easy task, on either side. That it is going to be messy; that we’re going to get it wrong; and that it’s perhaps going to bring more change than we are currently okay with.

 

 

 

Humility and Roots

I learned a couple of things about myself as I travelled last month.

The first: that it takes a lot of humility to continually receive hospitality and I’m not very good at that.
The second: I’m no nomad, I need roots.

I loved visiting with my friends. It was . . . well, there aren’t really words that quantify how wonderful it was to see them again and in their natural environments too. To see their places of work, where they go to school, to meet their friends and family members, to visit their churches, and share their favourite eateries, was a privilege I was so grateful for. It’s really great to be able to put people in their contexts and now when we talk I’ll know exactly where they are speaking about!
I did find it hard, though, to continually be the one receiving. I desperately wanted to reciprocate their kindness but didn’t have the means to. If we lived in the same place I would have them round for dinner, or over to stay for a couple of nights but I just had to sit back and accept their generosity.
It was a really humbling experience. The situation makes you vulnerable; you’re completely dependent upon another individual, incapable of purchasing or attaining for yourself by any other means the services which they are fulfilling for you, services which you would be lost, homeless and hungry without. You are at their mercy.
When that mercy is gladly given, it humbles you further. That people would care about you so much to welcome you into their home, to go out of their way to accommodate you, to forego studying for their finals for you(!), you realise how undeserving you are of such kindness and how deeply blessed.

Before I left for California I had a conversation with one of my pastors around commitment to a place. I talked about my desire for adventure, the part of me that longs to leave everything behind and just set off into the sunset, not knowing where my feet might take me. Such a dreamer. In my head I thought I would be the nomad, the lonely wanderer picking up friends along the road. My pastor suggested that it was more natural, and more necessary, for us to have a centre of gravity, a place from which we could flow. He described people he knew who had tried to maintain two centres of gravity over a period of time but found it incredibly difficult and ended up choosing one place over another. So what, I thought. Doesn’t mean I won’t be successful in having no centre of gravity but simply floating as though on a cloud. (I hope you’re sensing the sarcasm here).
Just two weeks of spending no more than two nights in any one bed was enough to teach me that I am not a natural nomad. I do not thrive on that.
I want to be in one place for a significant amount of time and really be there. I want to know its secrets, its hidden gems. I want to know what makes it tick. I want to feel it. And I want to be in a place with purpose. I like to get involved, to know what’s going on in the community and contribute. Otherwise, I never really feel at peace in a place.
It’s not an easy realisation for me to accept. It sounds to me like I’m going to have to settle down in one place and there is nothing that I want less. The idea of settling, accepting less than adventure, horrifies me. Yet I have to hold that in tension with a desire and need to put down roots. Deep.
I wrestled for a lot of my trip with whether or not I would ever repeat it without returning to Scotland. I guess I partly went out to get some answers on that front. After a lot of wandering round San Francisco, whispered prayers and shouted grievances, conversations with people wiser than myself, I think I hear God saying that I’ve to go ahead and put down roots as deep as I like here in Edinburgh. I need not be scared that in a year’s time I’ll painfully have to pull myself out again, either because I’m not leaving or because, when that time comes, He will have prepared me.
The door to the USA is not closing tight. It’s got more of a revolving thing going on. And being here does not mean settling or saying no to adventure. It’s just a different kind of adventure. San Francisco may prove to be a place of refreshment and learning in the time ahead but it will not be home in the foreseeable future.
My roots are planted here.

Jesus had Blue Eyes

You have got  to read this post over at Deeper Story

While I was making payment this beautiful, bedraggled old man turned his blue eyes to search my brown eyes fully and asked, “Would you like to sit and eat with me?” And right there in the middle of Froyo World, with a few dozen college students intensely watching our exchange and the cars and pedestrians making their paces outside and the employee standing behind the cash-counter (waiting, it seemed, for my answer just as much as the homeless man was), I wanted to fall on my face and weep my shattered heart out. Because I knew that I knew that I knew that Jesus was asking me to eat ice cream with Him and what I said past the tears clogged in my own throat were the same words this old guy had just said to me a few minutes before, “Well SURE!!!”

Pierced. My. Heart.

It’s a story that I could tell.
So. Many. Times.
All the blue eyes, brown eyes, worn hands, wrinkled skin, drawn faces, toothless smiles, knotted beards and foul odours.
But there He was, stood before me, asking love and compassion, a kind word and a gentle smile. There He was sat beside me teaching humility, giving hope, exuding grace and stirring up faith.

Sometimes I forget and ask God where He is and somehow it can so quickly feel like He was never there. And I’m scrabbling around inside for that peace I know I had or that joy that burned like Holy fire and I think if I can just pray hard enough I can conjure it again. Then I’m reminded that it was not in a textbook, a sermon or a prayerroom that I really discovered who He is. It was in Patch’s calloused hands, Chris’s caring touch, Mike’s childlike energy and Sylvia’s righteous anger. And it was there that I learned who He made me to be, who I am in Him and I remember why I feel this discontent. Then I hear Him whisper, “Not long now”.

Jesus Had Blue Eyes (or, “Plus One”) by Erika

God the Woman?

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) will be familiar to the majority of us, as will the use of it’s imagery to portray God as a loving, providing, merciful Father.

The three verses preceding the story read:

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
(Luke 15:8-10 ESV)

I must have heard this story countless times and again heard the emphasis on a God who seeks the beloved. But never, not once, have I heard any discussion around the fact that here a woman is portraying God. A woman.

Another example might be that of Jesus description of the Kingdom of Heaven. One of his best known analogies is that of a mustard seed which a man plants and it becomes a huge tree (Matthew 13:31-32). The passage continues:

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
(Matthew 13:33 ESV)

A woman kneads yeast into three loaves of bread until it all rises. A woman.

Somewhere in Christian history we latched on to one idea of the nature of God and neglected the other. Were we right to do so? How different would our faith story look if the prodigal son had returned home to his mother? Is it possible to hold the images in tension? 

I found a lie inside my heart today

i found a lie inside my heart today.
it reeked of cleanliness and perfection.
that i’m better now,
that i’m better than i was.
another lie answered back
i found comfort in the familiarity of its grip
that i’m just as broken as before
and that i’ll always be
all these things i crave
that they’ll never leave

i ache to agree
to choose my pain
but i ache greater to be at peace

all i know of lies
is that they distort the truth
all i know of truth
is that it is you

lost between
i resolve to know nothing
i remember i know nothing
but you

and

i remember where to find you
because i know where i am
we are between my heaven and hell

this?
this.
this is love.

– Lauren @ Deeper Story

An Advent Scrapbook

Having exams immediately before Christmas really makes you understand the “waiting” aspect of advent. You’re longing for that moment when you walk out of an exam hall, finally free and able to relax again. And this semester has been so relentless that it genuinely was the first relief I’ve felt from that pressure for almost thirteen weeks. It would be a serious understatement to say that I was happy!

I want to share with you some things I’ve been dwelling on this advent, some things that have made the meaning of it all really come alive for me.

Mamamonk has been posting a series of poems for the season but my favourite is definitely this one: Darkness. I think it captures beautifully the humanity of the birth, the messiness of it that we don’t see in our carols and lessons.

Sarah Bessey has also posted a beautiful piece over at Deeper Story about the messy humanness of the incarnation: Incarnation

But we keep it quiet, the mess of the Incarnation, because it’s just not church-y enough and men don’t quite understand and it’s personal, private, there aren’t words for this and it’s a bit too much.  It’s too much pain, too much waiting, too much humanity, too much God, too much work, too much joy, too much love and far too messy…

The guys over at 24/7 Prayer have been posting prayer spaces videos all through advent for daily reflection. I particularly enjoyed last week’s ones on Joy and looking at both Mary and Simeon’s songs of praise in Luke.

And finally, another wee video that beautifully portrays the humanity of this whole Christmas thing.

So there you have my advent-y scrapbook. Somehow  the whole thing seems more real to me this year, more mystical and wonderful. Jesus came, he is here still and I love it!

Anticipation and Advent

I love the build up to Christmas. The decorations, the mince pies, the snowfall. The transformation of the city with it’s lights and markets. I love the songs and carols that come in to use at this one time of year. I love the excitement and the anticipation that you can feel building as the days count down.

I’m thoroughly prepared for the day itself to not be quite as spectacular: presents, a nice lunch, the Queen and Doctor Who on the telly, don’t quite live up to all this hype. But there is something about this season of waiting that I think is wonderful.

We await the celebration of the coming of the King.

It’s like waiting for the bride to enter at a wedding, when you don’t know whether to focus on her and the dress or him and his face as he sees her. It’s like those days when everyone is talking about the arrival of the baby and “it’s just bound to be any day now”. You get restless, anxious in a good way. You can’t sit still or stop smiling. It’s so exciting!

It’s a time for joy because you absolutely know the miracle that is coming next.

It’s got me to thinking. What was the first advent like? Not even for Mary and Joseph (who I think spent most of it on a donkey) but for God?

Can you imagine Jesus in Heaven waiting for His time to come to earth? Can you imagine the Father’s excitement that soon it was going to be done once and for all, the way would be made? Or the Holy Spirit anticipating the power He was going to reveal?

Do you reckon God got antsy? Paced a little? Do you think there were moments when He just wanted to jump up and down?

If this is my excitement, how much greater God’s must have been!

And I don’t think it was just that one time. I think that every time God knows that one of His children is going to return to Him, He gets excited in the pursuit. Scripture says there’s a party for each and every lost sheep return home, so why not the time of eager anticipation too.

It astounds me to think that God was waiting for me. Knowing full well His plan, he was excited for its fulfillment. And He still waits, and He still hopes, and He is still excited over me and over you. Incredible.

I want to dwell in this period of anticipation. To savour it. To allow the excitement to seep down into my bones so that I can carry it all year, knowing this is the longing of God’s heart too. And so that the coming of Jesus is never ordinary. That the incarnation is as wonderful and mystical as the word itself sounds.

Come all you weary

I’ve been looking for this song since I got back from SF but was unable to remember the name of the group or the song and only had one short line of lyrics to go on. I’d given up after a fruitless google hunt. Stumbled upon a random guy’s blog today, scrolled down half a page and there it was. Boom!

You’ve been spurned at fine restaurants and kicked out of church
Got a couple of loaves sit down at my feet
Lend me your ears and we’ll break bread and eat

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).

Change

My theology has changed a lot in the two and a half years since I came to university. Some of it has changed a lot in the last six months. You may once have been able to fit me into a nice little labeled box but nowadays the “conservatives” could call me liberal and the “liberals” would call me conservative.

It hasn’t been an easy journey and it isn’t over yet but I am glad to have taken it. If there’s one thing this degree does, it’s to make me question what I’ve been told and figure out what I really believe. But the majority of my theology changing has taken place outside of the classroom, as I follow Jesus and experience God, meeting with Him in unexpected places and unexpected ways. I love that the Holy Spirit is inspiring me to seek Truth and I feel like I understand God better than ever before, whilst also comprehending just how much more there is that I will never fully know.

There’s been some discussion among my friends recently about a lack of objective fact being proclaimed in our church. Less “this is what you should believe” and more “this is what I think it says, go see for yourself”. But it’s precisely that “this is what you should believe” of my past that trips me up whenever I face a new understanding of the complexities of God. Every time I edge towards a change of opinion, I feel guilty. I fear being labelled as “unbiblical”. I expect accusations of “unGodliness”. And then I begin to believe those labels and accusations. This propositional model has lead to more crises of faith than it has prevented and I’ve waded through a lot of doctrine to find a simple faith in a living God.

When you have built a relationship with someone, have known them for a time, when you love them and care for them, when you understand their very character: a revelation about their actions or a change in one aspect of their being does not shatter the foundation that you have already. A change in your friends belief system doesn’t change how much you care about them. A change in you wife’s mental health doesn’t change how devoted you are to her. A revelation about your child’s sexual orientation doesn’t change how much you love them.

The Church should be a place for theological exploration. We should be willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that the majority of the ones we do have are probably wrong. And then we should search for them some more. Discovering the vast mysteries of God can be a  joy and not something which is feared.

I secretly love being un-label-able and certain that God is holding me in His, I’m able to hold my theology in a more open hand.

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

SF2011: The Children in the Streets

I wrote this for the church magazine in Aberdeen, which was published this morning, so now I can post it here:

At the beginning of my time in San Francisco God gave me a verse. That morning we had gone for a walk in the Tenderloin; we were supposed to be finding the treasures that the neighbourhood holds behind the drugs and violence that are the face of it. But as we walked we just became more and more broken for the area. We already loved it and we ended up just sitting on the pavement, unable to face the pain that we were burdened with. That afternoon we spent some time praying individually and as I stood at the back of the room I asked God how I could bear this burden. How could I possibly be expected to carry it when it was just so heavy? As I stood there, a Bible reference came to mind, as though it was on the tip of my tongue and I wanted to speak it out loud: Jeremiah 6:11.

“I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary of holding it in. “Pour it out upon the children in the streets” (ESV)

It was a real acknowledgment for me that God understood exactly what I was feeling because He feels it too. In fact, it was His burden first. For a long time, I had been praying that He would break my heart for what breaks His, and yet had been surprised by the pain. But here I could hear Him say that this wrath within me – a wrath against the injustice, against their pain, a love that is all-consuming – is His wrath. And having been wrestling with it for years I was so weary of holding it in; weary from trying to work it out for myself, weary of trying to fix the world in my own strength. But here was God saying that it was time to pour out that ferocious love upon His precious children who call the streets of the Tenderloin and San Francisco home.

Someone once told me that our drop in-centre was essentially a day-care for grown-ups. He was right. As one of the few facilities of its type in the area, the Ellis Room provides sanctuary for all kinds of people from the street. Everyday the same group of men will sit and play chess, while another group will stand around the pool table waiting for their turn to show off their skill. Another three or four guys come in to play table tennis everyday. Some come to read, to play dominoes or cards. Some come for a safe place to get a couple of hours sleep. And some come just to sit. But I think it would be fair to say that what draws them all to our place in particular, and what keeps them coming back, is a sense of community.

Maybe we never grow out of that childlike need for love and attention. I think it is probably a part of being human; of being created in the image of a communal God. And whether they receive that from their peers in the centre or from the staff, the people who come into the Ellis Room are desperate for it. Many have been abused, abandoned, ignored. They get a shock when you want to have a conversation with them and genuinely want to know about who they are. They aren’t used to such attention without negative consequences. Like little children they need to be taught again how to love and be loved and the best way to do that is to lead by example.

They’re also like children in the way that you care about them. You begin to feel a sense of responsibility for them. You get defensive over them. In the same way that a child will, these people, who society has rejected, will capture your heart.

I quickly learned that the treasures in the neighbourhood, which we had been sent out to find that morning, are not in quirky little stores or amazing cups of coffee. They are in the people. The people who are so easily concealed by appearance or addictions but who have beautiful, sweet spirits that you can’t help but love. And in the brokenness, the pain, the bitterness and fear, you see the very image of God etched upon their hearts and you know that these are His children upon whom He longs to pour out His love.

SF2011: An Education

I learned a lot in San Francisco. A lot about God, a lot about myself and a lot of practical things. Here are a few:

God’s Providence
This is something I’ve struggled with a lot in the past year but I think I would have to be blind to be unable to see His hand at work controlling all of this. From getting me to SF, to the weeks I was in the Kitchen, to the encounters I had on the streets. He IS in control.

God’s Power
He did mighty things, every week, regardless of how “well” I performed. I regularly felt like I was being held back so that I could simply sit and watch Him at work before. He doesn’t need me; he chooses me!

Humility
Philippians 2:4 “He humbled himself” rattled around my head for the majority of the time that I was there. It was amazing to relent control completely and admit that I am completely incapable.

I had to humble myself before people as well: keeping my mouth shut when something wasn’t being done the way I would do it or accepting (constructive) criticism without being childishly bitter. I had to unlearn the word “mine” – someone could take something straight out of my hand (a cup of juice for example) and I would be completely okay with it.

Vulnerability
It is so hard but so worth it. It’s scary but brings glory to God. It’s risky but allows deeper relationship. Reveal your own heart and allow others to impact it.

There’s an element of it in encouraging others too but there is something beautiful about speaking truth into one another’s lives. It encourages positivity.

Positivity
Knowing that God is in control, letting go of the little things, actively seeking to encourage others and gleaning more of God’s heart for other people led me to a more positive outlook in general.

I know now that there is such beauty in seemingly dark places. I know that the goodness of God can be seen in any circumstances. When you begin to rejoice in the smallest of things and see every good thing as coming from the Lord, you realise just how much there is to praise Him for. What right or reason do I have to be downcast when friends of mine are sleeping on the streets and are some of the most joyful people I’ve ever met, still worshiping and giving glory to God for what they do have?

Joy
“the joy of the Lord is your strength” – Nehemiah 8:10.

Ultimately all of this leads to a deep rooted joy in the Lord. And I think that that itself comes from a new depth of love for Him. Everything that I listed being thankful for and so much more leads me to be continually praising Him. As we were taxiing from the gate in the airplane, I wrote in my journal that even though I was heartbroken to leave, there was nothing left to do but worship God for an amazing summer. I am grateful. And I love Him more because I have a better understanding of Him and can see His love in His goodness to me. God is joyful! He rejoices over His creation. He is glad to give us the good things we desire. He loves to surprise us. We are filled with His joy.

There are some more things which I want to give individual posts to so that I can expand more but I think this is a good start.