Why a Church Student Worker is marching on Demo2012

I work part time for a church in North Wales as a Student Worker. Most of the time I am paid to support our student group, offer pastoral care to students and explore ways we can engage with more students. I also go to meetings and am involved in things at church. In practice this means I am paid to drink a lot of tea in our uni coffee shop. When people ask me what it is I do, the first answer I give is that I am paid to be nice to students. That is the one line version that summarises all the stuff I do.

It also works well because it incorporates a lot of the motivation behind what I do. As a Christian I believe in a God of love, who limited themself to human form in order to demonstrate that love. Jesus’ life and ultimately his death demonstrates the nature of God as one who cares for other people, giving of himself out of his love for them.

It is because of the example of Jesus and because I am employed to be nice to students that I am joining our Student Union’s contingent going down to London on 21st November.

How can I say God, the Church, or I love students if I stand idly by when existing students are facing horrific debt and crippling cuts and other when university applications are falling? How can I hear students express their overwhelming fear of never repaying their loan, or that they will have “invested” all this money but be one of the growing number of under 25 year olds unable to find employment?

I can’t. It would destroy my integrity, it would make a mockery of the work I do and be a very poor representation of the God whom I follow with my life.

I care deeply about students. The ones I work with, the ones I will work with in the future, the people who have been put off being a student, and so I am called by the loving God to turn that love into action. To speak out against the fees and the cuts. They weren’t right two years ago and they still aren’t now. They are still hurting students. They still have to stop and so I am going to march to tell this to the government, the media and the country.

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Impetus gained by a moving object

I am now back from 5 days of an Evangelical-Charismatic Conference for Students and 20-30yr old sorts called Momentum, which is run by Soul Survivor.  In which my femmy brain went into over-drive.  Therefore … I am an announcing a forth-coming mini-series of blogs around themes of feminist theology inspired by my time there.  This is possible slightly brash, we shall see.  But, as they say, which this space.

Because they will for a series I hope that the posts will be shorter than usual; they should cap about the 700 word mark.  Also, I intend to have a clever title for my series, but suggestions are welcomed!

Privilege and Persecution

Yesterday I popped along to the evening service of the church I went to on my gap year.  I don’t tend to go back there these days; my church-hood and spirituality have changed a lot over the last 3 years, but I didn’t go to a morning service and I try and pop in once a summer holiday to see which folk I recognise.

Not quite in this language, but in essence the preacher touched on Christian privilege and persecution and, sadly, I was horrified by what he said and the position from which he spoke.

His starting point was that the Church is to expect persecution; something I wholeheartedly agree with.  He also did not fall into the trap of claiming the British church is persecuted.  He acknowledged we have it easy for which I was very grateful.  (He didn’t quite go as far as saying we sometimes abuse our privilege, but oh well!)  So he started well, and many in his place would have done a lot worse.  I am sick and tired of being told the Church in the UK, or the Gospel, is being persecuted.  Bishops sit in the House of Lords, Schools are obliged to carry out acts of Christian Worship etc etc but explaining in utterly labourious terms how the Christian community in this country has it easy will have to wait for another time.

The preacher’s attention then turned to the genuinely persecuted church.  We were told an horrific tale of police brutality and institutional mis-treatment. My paraphrase  follows below:

In a central Asian country there was the daughter of a pastor. When the rest of her family was out she was visited by 3 police officers.  She refused them entry to her home, the police went to her family’s car, and fearing they would plant incriminating material to provide a pre-text for arresting her/them she tried to stop them.  In response the police grabbed the girl and repeatedly smashed her head against the vehicle causing brain damage.

Her parents returned home to find her body.  They sought medical attention for her at a state hospital but they were reluctant to treat her because her injuries were dealt by the police. When the hospital found out she was a Christian they discharged her.  She tried a few other hospitals but all were reluctant to treat her.  Eventually her parents decided to go private but even the private sector was reluctant.  She is currently in a Russian hospital being treated and is slowly regaining use of her limbs.

This is a horrifying story of vicious persecution, but also of oppression.  It is not a tale of a one-off attack against a woman, but a snap-shot of a police force without due care for its countries citizens, a state that permits its law enforcement agencies to commit civil right abuses, it includes state medical institutions that fear the state more than they care about providing quality care (not that I can blame them).  It is also, therefore, a reasonably safe bet that it is not just Christians who are subjected to this treatment.

I hear stories like this and I become angry, I guess some people might say my heart breaks.  Not because a Christian sibling is being persecuted but because fellow humans are being oppressed.  I get angry because a chain of humans in this central Asian country failed to see anything of themselves in this woman and so abused and then neglected her.  I get angry because countless other humans, my self included stand by and allow it to happen.  I think that God gets angry too.  I think he gets angry that anyone, Christian or not, is treated this way.

The preacher wasn’t best pleased by this story either.  He said it broke his heart. But institutional violence and systematic abuse didn’t anger him, what angered him was that a Christian was a victim of these things.

When will we wake up?

When will we see the bigger picture?

When will we stop caring about ourselves?

When will we start being people’s neigbours and “the creed and the colour and name won’t matter”?

As he told us how his heart broke, the preacher spoke from a very privileged position, and us in the congregation (predominantly, but not solely, white and middle-class)listened from one.  Christians in the UK do not suffer from religious persecution and we live in countries with a National Health Service who’s mission is to provide free, accessible health-care at the point of need, and do so without fear.  We in countries where our human rights and civil liberties are protected.  Yes, things could be better.  There is police violence, there is institutional discrimination, the privileged continue to oppress the less-privileged.  But he and we have it OK.  Our neighbour is unlikely to have their head smashed in by the police.

I think this blinds us slightly.  I think our privilege blinds us slightly.  We struggle to acknowledge the wider travesty that the story points to, because we cannot relate to living in a country where such things could happen.  So instead we focus in on how outraged we are that it should happen to someone we like because they share the same faith as us.

The Church needs to stop.  And it needs to wake up.  We cannot claim that God makes all humans with value, worth and dignity and yet only be angry when Christian’s rights are curtailed or only when Christians are abused.  Jesus came to “proclaim freedom for prisoners and …. set the captives free“.  We need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start opposing the wider, deeply-rooted injustices.  It won’t be easy, it won’t be fun.  We might look political, we might look to be buying into the agenda of modern, democratic liberalism, it might look as if we like civil liberties and like human rights, it might mean challenging earthly authorities.  SO WHAT?!  If challenging a country is political, so be it.  Human rights and civil liberties are good; they are one way of giving people value and worth; something Christians believe is important and Godly.  Yes, we’ll challenge authority, but Jesus did that too.

So, please, please can we stop feeling sorry for Christians and start protecting humans.  Rather than looking at stories of persecution as one-off attacks against a person’s faith and start seeing the real depth of the problems and the way the affect all of a country’s society and please, please can all of these injustices, regardless of the victims, break our hearts in the same way the cause God to grieve.

“forward planning”

One isn’t supposed to do forward planning, one ought really just to plan, because what other direction might one plan, backwards-ly?  We tend to call that regret or hindsight!  But the thinking I am doing at the moment feels like very forward planning.  I have started to consider where I want to be and what I want to be doing in 13months’ time.  My chaplain at uni (I suppose now he’s not my uni chaplain he’s my colleague -oooh!) sent me an E-mail semi-seriously suggesting that I consider applying to stand as the Methodist Youth President.  I am tossing up whether to stand for a different representative position from 3Generate; the Methodist Children and Youth Assembly (which, by the way people should book onto!) and am mulling over standing in the election to go to Methodist Conference to represent Wales Synod.  All of which need decisions soon, but won’t take effect for nearly a year.

I’m not sure I like making plans for after a post that I haven’t even started yet!

If anyone who thinks I might value their opinion has pearls of wisdom they would be accepted!

Progress and Paperwork

The distinct lack of writing her has not been a conscious decision, but more a mix of laziness and a lack of things to write and then being quite busy, but things now move on a-pace.

The first notable thing is to say that I have graduated!  I suppose I am now technically Mr. Paul Parker BD, although I would much prefer it if people used this term of address and little as possible!  I graduated with a 2:2 which was what I was expecting and which I was pleased with.  Most of my theology friends graduated with First Class degrees and I am very pleased for them.

At milestones such as this I often get a bit reflective and so I have been thinking back over the last three years (with much gladness)!  How I have changed, how I have grown.  What if anything I have changed.  It has been a slightly mixed but generally wonderful experience, which I doubt I would change much at all.  I have affiliated a society to our Students’ Union, been a Society President, fallen in love with climbing, been on a national demo, failed an exam, done very well in an essay I started two days before in Costa, lived with and visited some incredible people, stayed up all night supporting friends, spent numerous hours at ballot boxes, counted for a Union election, helped run the first online election in Bangor’s history and experienced our highest every election turnouts, I have started training as a Local Preacher and have stuck with our fabulous department as it has started winding down its existence, I have fallen deeper into the snare of Connexional Methodism and I love it, I have cried when an old housemate has been called back into work, resigned from a society, moaned about sending E-mails, screamed at people I love dearly and had dear friends leave.  Some of the time I ought to have been doing uni work rather than what I actually did, but if I were to do the whole thing again I’d still stay up, I’d still climb rather than revise etc, it may be the reason I got a 2:2 rather than a 2:1 but I’d rather have all these experiences and have been shaped by them than get a 2:1.

So that is a bit of progress.  Then comes some paperwork, which is, I suppose, progress but mainly just feels like paperwork!  Me and my family spent the week of my graduating holidaying on Anglesey, which was lovely, but involved a day trip to Bangor to look for accommodation for next year which involved some forms, I looked around a few places, decided to go for one, which involved even more more forms!  But several questions and very few easy answers later, I am paying the deposit for a lovely bungalow in Bangor next week! So I suppose I pretty much have a place to live!  That ought to count as progress, and I am looking forward to making it feel homely and stuffing a cupboard with tea!

I have also been filling in Methodist paperwork! An application for a little bit of Grant Funding for next year to supplement the District and Circuit Funding and a form so that my wage goes to the right place!  This second form in particular came as a massive surprise, but is a bit reassuring.  So again, paperwork but also progress!

So September and the “next chapter” fast approaches, but the getting ready for it also continues and a pretty nice speed!

Aldersgate/Wesley Day 2012

As Methodists we don’t have a huge pile of important days outside of the main liturgical feasts; the really big ones like Easter and Christmas but a day that does tend to be marked in one way or another is Aldersgate day (24th May).  Here is why:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death” – From John Wesley’s Journal, 24th May, 1738

A Trip to Llandaff

A few weeks ago now (sorry, other things got in the way of blogging about this) I went on a day trip down to St. Michael’s Theological College run by the Anglican Chaplain here.  The idea being to give people considering ordained ministry, a flavour of what “vicar school” is like.  Given that this blog will still function to be a public forum for my thoughts as I consider vocation, and what mine might be it seems appropriate to share some key snapshots.  This won’t be an extensive narrative of the time.  If you desperately want to know about the teashop on the way down or what the lasagne was like, get in touch!

Some background
St. Michael’s College (St. Mike’s) is the Church In Wales’ training college, with Methodist Ecumenical links and a good relationship with the Baptists.  It is based in Llandaff, Cardiff.  It has a mix of residential and non-residential students who hail from a range of Christian backgrounds; welsh-language, English-language, Charismatic, Anglo-Catholic, Low Church, Reformed, not-so-reformed, Conservative, Liberal etc.  It offers training at a number of academic levels depending on an ordinand’s ability and background. So on to the realisations …

Their approach to “formation” 
We arrived for lunch (very nice) and then after that the first port of call was an introductory talk by the vice-principle (a very lovely man who was very gracious and seemed to take a genuine interest us as people).  One of the main thrusts was their view on “formation” which made a lot of sense.  Like other similar institutions there is an emphasis not on imparting knowledge, or training in skills (although both are integral) but about developing people.   Stephen Roberts gave such a better explanation of this.  You’ll have to settle with, “I was very impressed with the approach they took for their students”.

On small communities
When I was choosing where to study my undergrad degree the size of the student body was a key factor; I wanted somewhere not overwhelmingly big, but not so small that it felt invasive.  I would hold that the size of the student body will be a factor in the order that I rank my preferences for training institutions (assuming I candidate and am accepted and that the single “Hub” Methodism is planning doesn’t exist by then).  If you’d asked me the day before going down to St. Mike’s I’d have said that I accept none of our colleges are huge, but the bigger the better because I’d find a small community to claustrophobic.  The community of students at St. Mike’s felt tiny (maybe 20?) but it didn’t feel claustrophobic or invasive.  Admittedly all we got was a snap-shot but it felt far better than I was expecting.  I had an overwhelming sense that I could actually fit into a group like that.
In no small way that was because everyone I met was so lovely.  I’m sure not every community that size has that feel, and praise is owed to the students we met, but I am no revising how important I think the size is.

Worship
This was so so lovely.  Partly I was shattered after a manic week and so a time to sit down in some quiet was delightful, but also it was a wonderful service, well conducted, by the students.  One of those beautifully refreshing services where I was certain I’d met with God, not because of how I’d felt, but because of the way I left in some way different.  Also the chapel was really beautiful.  It was probably an acquired taste, but I could have spent half a day there.  I also liked the idea that the style of worship changed with the students leading to reflect the diversity of the college; what a lovely idea and what a great way to foster understanding.

The next two points are a little bit more of gut-feelings that any real response.

A Call to Ordination and Further Theological Training
Whilst it is extremely unlikely I’d ever train at St. Mike’s it felt right being there, in the sense that it felt right I get a better feel of what a training college is like.  It confirmed the sense that this would be part of my future.  That I have been called to ordained ministry and to further training.  Whilst the two come together they can also be separated, and it was in different ways that I felt called to both, but at the same time that they’d come together.  Discussions on practical things like how one would deal with certain situations confirmed a sense of calling to be a Minister and theological discussion and the talk of Masters excited me that this would come with part of that.

A Call to be Ordained a Presbyter
Within British Methodism there are two orders of Ordained Ministry; Presbyters and Deacons.  So with a sense of call to ordained ministry one must discern which form of ministry one is called to.  The students lead worship, including communion with the exception of the special bit that only ministers can do (the days of lay presidency can’t get here soon enough for my liking) and because I was so tired I even missed the subtle swap between the that bit, so it looked to me as if the students had lead communion.  This bit gets very wishy washy, but when I saw them I felt a sense of empathy and that *that* was what I was supposed to do.  So it felt like a definitive confirmation that if I am called to ordained ministry it is to presbyteral ministry; a ministry of Word and Sacrament.  This is something I’ve always felt, but could never justify, which might have proven tricky come candidating.  But now I have a small experience which might support this “assumption” although it’d be lovely if God could send some more.

All in all the trip was a really lovely one, fascinating, informative and affirming.  I am very glad I went.

A belated Mothering Sunday Post

Fair warning: This post sounds very progressive and very feminist.  It may well make a load of people uncomfortable, but I’m OK with that.  Feel free to tell me the numerous ways you struggle with it in the comments.

In my last post I said I wanted to blog the feast days or high points in the church year.  I was going to write one of my longer “this is what I think and why” posts about mothering sunday, but it just wasn’t forming, so instead I’m going to try something different.  I’m going to write a prayerful poem on the theme and then possibly write a few lines after it.  This is a bit different, but let’s give it a go.

Divine Mother,
Who gave birth to this world,
whose words give life, like whispers of love.
and who tends and cares for me,
draw me close to your self, wrap your arms of love around me
Arms which, once, long ago, in a place quite far from me here, were pierced,
Let me suckle at your bosom,
taking in living water,
being nourished by the milk that is your word,
let me feast on you, be nourished by you.
Help me to grow and develop as a disciple in the same way a child does in a womb,
Amen.

And a final note.  I am fortunate enough to have a super mum and in so many ways she has shown me Christ, revealed him and embodied him.  I am very grateful to her for the part she’s played in the development of my faith.

On “In Christ Alone”, but no, not for that reason

I told one good friend my next blog post would be a reflection on a line from a Christian worship song and another that I would write about lent.  Fortunately I can just about do both, kind of.

There has, in recent years, been much theological kerfuffle over the song “In Christ Alone”.  Is its theology OK? Should we sing it? And so on.  This has revolved around the line “The wrath of God was satisfied”.  Depending on how charitable I am feeling depends on my views about it, but that is not the line I am interested in here, that debate has, thankfully, died down.  It wasn’t until a Christmas service where I was thinking particularly deeply about the words that I began to wonder if I took issue with another line (I then mulled on it a long time, hence the delay).  The song triumphantly proclaims

No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his[God’s] hand.”

Great, we all know that God, and therefore his acts of salvation are stronger than the devil who was defeated by Christ.  Where is the issue?  Well, the bit that got me thinking was that, as an Arminian I believe one can lose their salvation.  We choose to accept salvation and we can choose to reject salvation.  And that choice is no good if we’re locked into it once we make it, that makes a mockery of free will, so I believe we can choose to be saved and then walk away from that, with no issue. And vice versa is true.  So that made me slightly sceptical. Something can pluck me from God’s hand.  Or, more accurately, I can walk out of it.

This taken on its own can lead to a sticky position.  It can, if manipulated, lead to assertions that we cannot be sure of our salvation, what if that little niggle we have counts as us rejecting our salvation.

My Arminian viewpoint is one of the many reasons I feel at home in the Methodist Church, and one of their central tenets is that

“all may know they are saved”

Clearly then we can say that salvation is a matter of free will, and also that we can be assured of our salvation, because as long as we know we have accepted salvation then we know we are saved.  There is no trying to double-guess God involved.

So where does that leave me with the song?  It leaves me in Lent.  It leaves me considering the powers of hell, temptation, the road to the cross, Jesus defeating evil and sin, and casting out demons and all those lenten themes.

I come back to the point I made earlier, that Christ is the victor over “the powers of hell” and it is Christ who assures my salvation (this is where it ties in with lent, we know Christ to be superior to the devil by his interaction the the wilderness and, if we take the gospels at face-value the exorcisms subsequently and ultimately in the resurrection which we look forward to).   There is no way that the devil can undo my salvation, as long as I am trusting in the means of that salvation.  The weakest link in this scenario then, seems to be me, and here I think it gets slightly more grey (although I have a black and white conclusion).  However it is that the devil interacts with humanity (and I will happily throw around ideas about how involved he is or isn’t) it would seem to be by exploiting things.  So the positive human attribute of being curious and questioning our faith, can be manipulated to become a lack of faith.

And what about schemes of man.  I would be most hesitant to say that any human who, knowingly or otherwise, leads me away from faith must be acting for, with or by the devil.  I think, an atheist for example can be sure enough of their convictions and in control of their life to try and lead me away from faith of their own volition.

Do I think the devil can trick me into walking out of God’s salvific hand?  Do I think humans can either?  Here it gets trickier, because clearly I am not being stolen, I am making a decision, and my Arminianism is such that I fundamentally believe I am free to do so.  But what then, has the devil beaten or out schemed God?  I do not believe so.  I believe I must bear full responsibility for that decision, and furthermore that God loves me enough to respect that decision.  I believe my free-will is imparted to me as part of the imago dei, it is part of what it means to be made in God’s image and I believe God made us in his image as an act of love.

One final consideration must be made.  That God will try utterly hard to see that we choose to stay with him.  There is something, for me at least, quite compelling about being in relationship with God.  I yield that this is entirely subjective, but the times when the questioning of my faith has made the edge of God’s hand look tempting then I have had a heightened sense of the safety and the firmness of his palm.  Call me cowardly for sticking with what  feel to be safe by all means, that is a fair criticism, but I believe it is part of God’s love for us that he also reminds why it is a good idea to stay.

So, I must conclude that “no power of hell, nor scheme of man, shall ever pluck me from his hand” … unless I choose it for myself and then God will let me walk out of his hand with a tear in his eye and a heavy heart, but shall do so out of love for me.

A New Name

A Campervan is now just a long lost flight of fancy as many many plans have moved on, so calling my blog after the name of the campervan was possibly a bit hasty.  There will also be far less meandering around now.  So I figured it was time to bite the bullet and change the URL and blog name.

Walking in the grey … what’s that all about then?

The more I reflect on life and on faith the more I realise there are few absolutes.  There are few things where it is black and white, actually most of the time we think and act in a greyness, a murky middle ground.  There is, more often than not, a spectrum.  Theologically I am more liberal than many, but more conservative than others; this is a prime example, so hopefully the title reflects that.

But more than that, I am consciously choosing to live, and think in those grey bits.  Life is more exciting here! I am rarely satisifed by simple absolute or binary statements.  Yes, they sometimes make us feel better, in some ways they take a lot of faith (in other ways I think they can be cop outs), but they do not challenge me, and I tend to find they do not respond to challenge well.  There can be no compromise from a black position or a white position, only absolute rebuttal.  So I am actively looking to live in the grey, to be challenged by other people, to take on some of the things they say, to sharpen my own position in response and to do greater justice to the complexity of life as we know it.

Walking in the grey can be a tad dangerous, sometimes I will get things wrong, but this is a risk I am prepared to take for the manifold benefits, so here we are, walking in the grey!!