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!

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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

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.

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)

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!)

50 Days

Fifty days to go today.

7 weeks tomorrow and I’ll be moving to Edinburgh.

You probably think I’m whinging about nothing and really wish I’d shut up about the whole thing.

Tough.

I’ve been being very nonchalant about it all, primarily because I was. I was excited and looking forward to it and, apart from a few minor freak outs months ago, have generally been very happy about it all.

The fear hit a couple of days ago though and now I just don’t want to leave.

I am so happy right here, in my life right now, I can’t bear to think it’s going to end.

I don’t want to leave my friends (who, by the way, continue to be far better than yours). I don’t want to leave my church. I don’t want to leave my family.

I know, I know, I’ll be back and all will be well but it’s never going to be the same.

I do want to go to uni, I do want to learn new stuff and I do want to meet new people.

It’s just that I don’t want everything else to change too.

So, do me a favour, make the next seven weeks suck and then maybe I’ll be happy to go.

Thanks.