Monday, 15 July 2013

Gap Year Adventures

My Gap Year with Tearfund, taken after University, was a hugely life changing experience. I was a new Christian then and I felt like I was learning about myself like I was brand new. I was also laying the foundations in my faith. What would be central to me in this new understanding of the world? Sure, I had connected on a personal level to God but I was still working out what exactly God was like (now isn't that a life time project!) and what calling myself 'Christian' really meant for me.

At the recent IF rally in London I was introduced to the current co-ordinator of the Tearfund Gap Year programme and when she heard that my involvement with Tearfund began there she asked me to write a blog about that journey. It is now up on the Tearfund Journeys blog if you'd like to read more.

A lovely new friend made on my second trip to Zambia

Meanwhile I am off on another journey this month for some well needed rest and a healthy dose of adventure thrown in there to keep me on my toes! I'm signing off then until mid August when I will be back, revived, renewed and raring to go!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Don't Judge a Book by its Dodgy Pamphlet

When I first read any of the New Testament gospels it was from a dodgy looking pamphlet that one of my well meaning, but rather irritating, Christian friends had left lying around my house in an effort to convert me. God bless them, it was a noble effort, but it really wasn't getting anywhere. I ignored the pamphlet of Matthew's gospel for a good six months until a series of events sparked by a rather eventful pub outing lead to me picking it up from its dusty corner of my student apartment and giving it a look.

Needless to say I wasn't reading it in Greek back then!
I immediately had to rip the covers off, far too embarrassed to be reading anything that looked that naff (really, Christian publishers, enough with the dewy eyed lambs already!) and swallow my nagging feelings of annoyance at somehow vindicating my friend for having left it there. I didn't own a Bible except an illustrated childrens one I had been given at Primary School and hadn't even considered cracking that open since it was handed to me age nine.

My reaction, then, to this sad looking pamphlet took me rather by surprise. It actually contained some quite good stuff. It was the teaching that grabbed me first.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? ….So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.' (from Matthew 6)

Good stuff eh? I started to catch a voice in there, of someone really quite interested with a depth and wisdom that I knew I was very much seeking in my own life. As I read more and, horror of horrors, went into a shop and, very red faced, purchased a Bible I heard more and more of this voice, in the different gospels, in the Jewish prophets, all through the book. It was pretty exciting.

It is a strange thing as an adult to come to some of the stories of the Bible in a church that is so familiar with them they sometimes can't even hear them any more. This was the case none more so that the crucifixion stories. I merrily plodded my way through the gospels, drinking in the teaching and laughing (yes, the gospels are actually intentionally funny some times!) at some of the wry remarks of Jesus. I really started to like this guy. He was wise, sure, but kind too. This voice emanating from the page was so very kind. But not in soft, lamb hugging, kind of way. He had a razor sharp tongue and no issue putting people in their place if need be. But he was good, the best really, and like no one I had read about before.

Like a kid watching Narnia and not really getting the whole 'Aslan comes back to life thing' I got to the crucifixion scenes and they knocked me sideways. Sure I knew the story but the narratives are brutal and by now this guy had found a place quite firmly in my heart. I cried a bucket load for someone I didn't even know. I still do in fact, even now when I come back to them for study or in a service, I want to run in like Lucy in Narnia and wrap my arms around him and it make it all ok.

Something in the story sums up so much loss to me. The cruelty of humanity to humanity. How we tear down and destroy even what is good and beautiful. How we are filled with this anger somehow, this alienation and we act it out in such violence and turmoil. And then the loss, the terrible grief that comes with being human. The disciples run away and the women, including Jesus' mother, watch on as he is taken away and beaten and killed. That deep seated horror at the finality of life is summed up in that story for me somehow. That moment when everything is lost.

And then of course comes the resurrection. That great stumbling block that scholars are still arguing about in universities today. I've written my reasons for taking something that seems so utterly fanciful seriously before. But needless to say here there comes up the other part of these stories that has captivated me so very much. They are sown through and sprinkled with hope. At the end of Matthew's gospel I felt like I had been on an epic journey. Met this wonderful new person, learned amazing new things and then horror upon horror lost him in the cruellest way only to find him back again and saying these wonderful words,

'And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age'.

What a story, what a book.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Beating Heart of Community

One of the greatest appeals of church to me is the random hotch-potch of people it brings together. In fact, the more random the group the better. I've never had much time for the church made up of simply 'the white middle'. There has got to be something wrong there and the simplest explanation is that other sectors of the community feel excluded, cannot understand or are unable to participate in what the church is doing. This, of course, would be fine if the church were operating as some kind of suburban social club but it is supposed to be a community bringing God's light and fullness to the earth so in that case it doesn't quite cut the mustard for it to be a homogeneous mass, does it?

Who is locked out of our churches?
It is one of my often banged drums that I am from one of the poorly represented minorities in the church. A recent survey in the Church of England found that only 6% of members came from 'non-churched' backgrounds. It can be easy to gloss over the significance of this but as the number of people with no faith background increases the more interesting this statistic becomes. It speaks rather loudly that the church needs to address the every widening group of people who frankly have no idea what the church is going on about.

Of course the answer to this comes in many guises. I am convinced there is no one size fits all. Some like it formal, some like is casual. Some like drums, some like organs. Some want a hymn book, some want a big screen. That's cool. But more than anything church must have integrity, a beating heart, to be that place of God's light and love. Without that, well, it is dead in the water. Which is why, I believe, that signs of diverse, loving communities are so key.

Being in training to be a future church leader necessarily involves a lot of thinking about how things ought to be done and the best way to structure a service and so on. These things are all extremely useful when it comes to keeping people engaged or even allowing them to hear what us being said in the first place. This said, I still have a real soft spot for a church where it is all a bit random. And you know why? Because people are a bit random.

I like it when everyone in this big, slightly dysfunctional family we call the church gets to stand up and play their part. I like it when people bring their real prayer requests to God rather than the ones the Vicar thinks sound nice. I like it when people bring their old guitar and just have a bloomin' good go. In the same vein I like it when the organist has been there for forty years and misses every third beat. Because it tells me that people matter more than perfect music or eloquent prayers. That community and love and joy is what we are here for, not getting it 'right'.

So how about you? What is the beating heart that you look for in community?