Faith, HOPE and Love!!!!!!

NOTE: As I am currently using a Dutch PC, there is no English spell-checking facility. I apologise, then, for any errors.

The recent Assembly of the Council for World Mission (CWM), in Samoa, reminded us all that hope truly is the language of life, and surely one of the most crucial elements of Christianity and, indeed, religion as a whole, must be a constant struggle to build, maintain, shape and share hope in every corner of this vast and varied planet.

As I  enjoy the last few precious moments of my experience here in the Mission House, struggling to accept that I have, actually, in reality, served for ten whole months here and that my time here is now over, I recall the centrality of hope as a recurring theme throughout every aspect of my time here, in work, in play, with friends and in traveling around the small, yet vibrant country that is the Netherlands. In our projects, we have shared hope with some of the most vulnerable and needy people in the western world. As we meet with each other and our friends, we share the hope which we see in our projects, hope which we offer to those in need of it and hope that we receive through those who show strong resilience and determination in times of strife. And, as we have explored the length and breadth of this country, with every step have we shared more and more hope as the welcoming, hospitable and caring, if also direct, nature of the Dutch people has shone out in every village, town and city we have visited.

Yet, as many of my reports show, not all of it has been fun and games. There have been many mornings when I have found it difficult to even get out of bed, less go happily to work in some of the most difficult and confrontational environments around.

Over the course of my experience, I have been sworn at, had things thrown at me, branded a fool, called a hypocrite, burned and humiliated. At times, it has been very hard not to allow these experiences to become fuel for anger, impatience, cynicism and suspicion. In a number of negative ways, I have been scarred by these events and I know that it will be a long time before I recover from them, if I ever do. There have, of course, been times when I’ve wanted to give it all up, so much so, in fact, that I’ve had to leave for a short while to calm down, reflect on what’s actually been happening rather than what I think has been happening, refresh myself and prepare to return to thick of it.

In approximately five hours time, I will enjoy what is possibly my most favorite worldly pastime of all when I board a British Airways flight to London. After a most enjoyable flight, with my favorite seat, spending a few more hours in one my favorite airports, I will be back in the air again and will arrive home, knowing that all of the safety, the security, the familiarity, the comfort, will be waiting for me and that I will be able to enjoy all of the things which I have missed. No more arguments with clients or housemates. No more being sworn at by angry drunk people. No more being branded a hypocrite by people who are trying everything in the book to trick you into giving them what they want. My own home, my own space, books, university, essays, my life!!!

The only problem with this seemingly spotless image, is the knowledge, in the back of my mind that in approximately fourteen days time, I will be longing to return here. For amongst the comforts and familiarities which home provides, lies a huge gap.

When I return home, eating at the table with dear friends will stop becoming a daily ritual. I’ll return to solitary TV dinners-for-one. When I return home, bumping into friends in the stairwell when you’ve returned from a busy day will be a distant memory as I return home to a place where my friends are not present. Above all, I believe, when I return home, living in a city centre, in the middle of a courtyard full of charities, organizations and individuals whose lives are focused around the struggle for social justice, peace, understanding, health and reconciliation for all people will be a thing of the past.

It is very important to point out that my experience here has been challenging, for that it most assuredly has been. However, we must never forget the value and insight which challenge offers to us, a value which nothing else can provide and insight which is vital if we are to succeed in the struggle towards the world of peace and justice which we all so eagerly seek.

In short, university, books, essays, thought and theory, all central to my previous life, are great fun. I don’t need to put in any effort into having a good time while engaging with these things. On the other hand, when I wake up to go to work in a homeless shelter, I know things will be rather more difficult and so I must put every effort into keeping myself calm and focused on the work which I will be doing. This takes time and energy which I have never needed to make use of before, when I lived in an environment of pretty much plain-sailing. Despite the appeal which my previous life has, however, my experiences in working with people on the edges of society has revealed much that my previous life simply could not have offered.

I have learned that beyond the rough and tough exterior shown by people who are dealing with drug addiction lie ordinary human beings in need of support. I have seen that the allegedly “poor” person with no home has built a trust in God that I, with all my joys and blessings, will never be able to understand or show. I have learned that it’s ok to take rest when things get too much for you and that this is a sign of one’s humanity rather than a depressive weakness.

And the fact, no matter how difficult it may be to accept or live out, is that no other experience could have offered these valuable lessons.

Hope, it seems, is the realization that your hard work, determination and faith will ensure that you WILL end up somewhere better than you currently are, even if it’s not where you want to be, or feel you should be. This is a lesson that came out of accepting that I could not do everything to help everyone or solve everything, but I can do something and that something matters! I could have read this in a bo0ok, but it wouldn’t have really meant anything. It is only now that I have seen it that it has had a impact on my life.

Hope, then, lives in challenge. It lives in those situations where we must work our hardest and show our strongest determination and faith for it is in these situations, where swearing, shouting, throwing, name-calling, beating, red-tape, beauraucracy, anger, pain, heartache, hopelessness reside, that we find the strength and the willingness to carry on, to struggle to fight, to speak out, to resist, to grow, to develop, to improve, to be calm, to be joyful, to be focused, to be HOPEFUL!!!

Never again will I be able to sit in a university library fully content that I am truly learning the lessons of life unless I am also grounded, firmly, in the life and witness of a local community where I can join in that struggle, that fight against the challenges which the comfort of books and essays do not offer.

This experience has made me uncomfortable, scared, beaten and tired-out, but it has also offered a sense of hope, love, peace and justice which I know I will carry with me for years to come.

As I go to share a last meal with my dear housemates, I do so with sadness that I will be leaving them so soon, but I also do so in the sure and certain hope that I am, at least a little bit, more equipped, prepared and willing to face the challenges which are coming.

Here, as it says on the tin, word and action truly meet and together they offer hope, the most important outcome we could ever ask or hope for.

When I first arrived here I kept saying, “How good it is, how wonderful, to live together in unity.” Still as true as it was when I first heard it so many years ago, and still as challenging, but also still as every but worth it and still as every bit achievable through our faith, love and HOPE!!!!!!

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A Fear of Flowers

“F*~! you!” “You’re useless!” “Why are you here? Go back home!” are only a few of the comments which have been thrown our way over the past few months as our respectively full and challenging schedules have taken hold of life in the Mission House.

For myself, it was clear before I even got in the car to travel to Glasgow International Airport on my way to Amsterdam, all that time ago, that the following ten months would stretch, challenge, push and transform me. What remained very much unknown, however, was the seriousness with which my experiences on the ground, with real people, in real situations, were about to violently shake the foundations of my theory-reliant, idealistic world to their very core, particularly my encounters with those clients whose situations, issues and problems have brought them to a place where everything and anything which appears to be, in any way, connected to the establishment, system or, in many cases, Church, becomes a target for upset, anger, hatred, impatience and, occasionally, violence.

Despite the great strain which this has put on me, however, yesterday, as I sat amongst a group of illegal immigrants, currently held in detention awaiting a decision on their right to remain in the Netherlands, playing dominoes, chatting and whiling away what can be tremendously boring and soul-destroying hours for people who have committed no crime other than traveling around and have, in most cases, never even seen a prison, less live in one, a rather flabbergasting, yet very helpful realisation came to me, for it was in the challenging confines of a prison chapel that I was told by a colleague that all of us in the Mission House had, that day, reached the precise half-way point of our year. Immediately, all of the doom and gloom of my negative experiences with difficult clients, the depression of missing home and the slowly growing impatience and annoyance associated with community life lifted from my shoulders as I accepted that, despite these challenges, I had managed to survive in this new and difficult environment for precisely half a year!

This thought cast my mind back a few weeks, when this tremendous achievement was celebrated, albeit a little ahead of schedule, with our Mid-Term Seminar , bringing home just how quickly time has passed for us. Immediately prior to our first Seminar back in September, one of our trainers had a baby. That child is now half a year old! Unbelievable and amazing!!! During our mid-term seminar, we took some time to reflect on our experiences so far, what has been helpful, what has been difficult, what has been shocking, what has been comforting, how do we feel about what we have seen, done and heard during our time in this very beautiful and culturally rich, yet troubled and difficult nation?

During our stay in our well suited and ideally located venue in De Glind, a wonderfully secluded and gorgeous little village, perfect for reflective practice, two questions seemed to come to the fore very quickly. “How do you feel about where you are?” and “What are you going to do about it?”

In all honesty, I don’t believe that I have ever, in my whole 23 years, responded to any reflective question without some hint of positivity, even a simple suggestion that things might get better. For the first time, however, I found myself almost wholly dissatisfied with my progress and, to make things worse, unable to find even a scrap of positivity to complete my answer.

It is without any doubt that the past few months have, indeed, seen a whole range of positive encounters, many of which will remain with me for years to come, particularly when people have shown their appreciation for my work or trusted me enough to tell me a bit about their situation or circumstances. In fact, when I think about it, it seems that the vast majority of my encounters with people who have not simply asked me for cup of tea or coffee have, actually, been very good indeed.

The main problem, however, is that things do not always go so well when you’re working with some of the world’s saddest, angriest, most heartbroken and difficult people. And this isn’t bad in itself. These negative experiences are as much part of our voluntary work as the most positive ones, particularly as it is in those things with which we find most difficulty that we will gain the knowledge and experience we need to move forward. What upsets me and leads me to feel so dissatisfied is the unshakeable feeling, no matter how wrong it may be, that people whose lives are so focussed on Christ should not have the attitudes or reactions which I have been showing over the past weeks.

People have been fast to jump to my defence when I have offered this sentiment, “But you go to your work every day, faithfully!” “You are always open to new experiences!” “You have moved on so much since you came here!” and I acknowledge that they are, indeed, correct to point these things out. It doesn’t matter what they say, though. There are times when I cannot move from my mind the thought that Christ, if working in a homeless shelter, would not storm off into the back to find something do in the kitchen and avoid having to encounter someone who was nasty with him earlier. Neither would He be afraid to speak to someone in-case they didn’t understand his language. We also know, from Gospel accounts, that He was certainly not afraid of turning up at a stranger’s door to visit them, talk with them or even tell them what He thought about them, without holding back!

These constantly returning feelings of failure and uselessness can lead, very easily, to a strong sense of regret and over analysis.  Questions including “What if I had done this? Or said that? Why did I make that stupid mistake? What use am I to anyone?” become etched, seemingly irremovably, in my mind, sinking their ever enquiring claws into every last little action, thought, word and deed, weighing me down and preventing me moving forward.

I must say that, despite my strong commitment to avoiding placing judgement on people, the very last place I expected to find an answer to my ever increasing doubts, surrounding my own abilities and talents and how these relate to God’s plan fort my life, was in the home of a drug addict. This week was, however, to prove very different.

Now and again, when the recipient lives near the Mission House, I will be asked to deliver the flowers from the Drugspastoraat church service, on Sunday, to someone who is in great need of them. Perhaps someone who has been ill, or is celebrating their birthday, or, in a lot of cases, grieving the loss of a loved one. From the outside, this sounds like a very simple, yet powerful task, as it reminds the person, in their moment of need, that there is always someone thinking about them, praying for them and supporting them through the times when they feel like the world is their oyster, as well as those when they feel like it is resting on their shoulders, while requiring the deliverer merely to knock the door and hand them over.

In reality, however, this activity has become a source of great nervousness. You never know what will meet you behind a closed door. There might be a vulnerable, scared and lonely soul who longs for you to come in and share some tea with her. There might also be a large, angry, confused, stoned person, prepared to destroy this potential threat who has had the nerve to disturb their nerve-troubled sleep. This has caused a feeling of great dread to come over me each time I have tied the wrapped flowers to my handle bars, ready to transport them to their unknown destination.

This feeling was very much in attendance as I approached the Salvation Army sheltered housing building round the corner earlier this week and knocked the door of a person whom I only had three facts about. She was a woman, I knew her name and I knew that she had just moved in.

After realising that I was a volunteer from the church, she invited me, very graciously, into her very small and humble, yet lovely new little flat. Our conversations unfurled her status as an artist and I was able to see some of her brilliantly expressive paintings, showing both the glory and the pain of loving and serving God. These were breath-taking images which could only have come from someone who had experienced both the tremendous highs and depressing lows that our varied and ever-changing human life has to offer.

Then came what I thought was a familiar moment in every conversation I have here in the Netherlands. “So,” she asked, “why did you decide to come to the Netherlands in the first place?” “Well,” I began my well-practiced reply, “I am thinking of becoming a Minister and need to build up my practical experience.” There are usually two responses to this statement, either very much in the affirmative, confirming how “lovely” or “fantastic” it is that someone wants to serve God in such a way, or very much in the negative, with questions such as “Are you nuts?” and “Why on earth would you want to do something like that?” It took all of fifteen seconds, however, for this small, frail-looking, recovering heroin addict, not only to destroy this well rehearsed script, but to launch my thoughts regarding my voluntary year, regarding my abilities, regarding my life, into a completely different realm.

“Aha!” she smiled, “Well,” she said, “If you want to become a Minister you will need to concentrate constantly on the moment you are in, otherwise your mind will wander and think about stupid things that don’t matter!”

These are words which I have read, said and written literally thousands of times. They are present, in various forms, throughout my entire academic portfolio and are reflected in almost every other piece of work, action or speech I have conceived. Yet is was not in some great lecture theatre, or museum, or library that the full extent of these words hit me. It was sitting on a second-hand sofa, in the middle of a complex full of people whose lives you would never want to even imagine, less encounter, in your own journey.

It became clear, at that moment, that I have entered into a pattern in which, despite tremendous difficulties, I feel fantastic at work in my projects, where I truly encounter the people of God and His work through them, whilst, at the same time, despite the great comfort of having my dear friends around me, I feel awful when sitting alone in my room at the Mission House, where, as opposed to engaging with the world around me, I reflect and analyse the happenings of the day, allowing all the benefits of my encounters to leak slowly away, piece by piece.

In other words, I feel fantastic when I’m working and terrible when I’m not, and this, I believe, is no accident.

It seems that, no matter how hard it is, no matter how nervous it may make me, no matter how much I may wish to avoid it, there is something inexplicably pulling and pushing me, each day, further and further into the work of each of my projects, for my projects have, and always will, offer something which my beloved personal reflection and meditation cannot, the chance to truly ENCOUNTER God’s people and, through them, to recognise, first hand, His presence in the creation which surrounds me.

Reflecting on all that has passed is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is vital that we each take time to analyse our lives and to gain a wider perspective of all that we have done which will, in turn, assist us to recognise the value of our experiences and to acknowledge the advantage which they have brought to us and our development. But a simple fact will always remain, namely that it is when we engage with the subject of our reflection that we truly experience more of what it actually is, as opposed to what we believe it is through our reflective practice.

This is why the most important lesson of all our time here in the Netherlands, a lesson which will remain with us throughout our lives, is, without doubt, to live each day as it comes with the courage and faith to simply get on with it. For it is in getting on with it that we can truly ENCOUNTER all that surrounds us.

Sitting amongst immigrants in detention can be a very daunting experience. There is always a jovial atmosphere among the residents, but it doesn’t take much to realise that there is a tension in the air. People are scared of the authorities, angry about the way they have been treated, frustrated at being locked up when they have brought no harm to anyone and, together, these feelings cause people to give the impression that they are rude, abrupt and ungrateful. It wasn’t until I had a proper conversation with them, however, that I understood that far from being aggressive and confrontational, these people are ordinary human beings pushed to their absolute limits. In light of the fact that someone has spent six months spending most of the day in confinement with only a pack of cards and a notepad for entertainment, following a life in a country where torture, violence and death are common fare, the shortness of their request for, “Orange Juice, NOW!” seems rather insignificant.

It is in through our encounters that we gain and learn the most. This is why we must spend as much time as we can in the moment where God has placed us, rather than constantly seek to be in another place or worrying about where will be in future.

There still remains, however,  the question of Christ’s apparent ability to simply “get on with it” and how this should shape our response to the plan God has for each of us.

It strikes me that there are two things, ultimately, apart from His status as Son of God Lord and Saviour of humanity, that we can claim of Christ. He was a very faithful young boy, committed in His service to God and He was also a very faithful man, prepared to sacrifice His own life in the service of His Father. When it comes to the part in between these points, however, we have virtually no idea what happened. What did the teenage Jesus think about the world around Him? When he was 24, like me, how was he responding to poverty, injustice and sectarianism? We just don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that, even as an adult, ordained at His baptism into the Ministry in which He engaged, He changed and grew as a result of His experiences. The woman who touched his cloak, turning the tables in the Temple, that moment in the Garden when He prayed for the cup to be taken away from Him are all moments where we see the humanity of Jesus, the frailty of Him and, most importantly, how he responded to that human weakness.

He didn’t want to heal the woman who touched Him, but her faith and theology made Him realise that it was the Father’s will that He should do. He went into the Temple in a rage, but only set authorities further against Him. We read of no similar activities and exceptionally few other negative responses from Him. Perhaps he realised that this anger would not help, but that peaceful work towards justice and peace for all would have a greater effect. In the garden, he asked that if it were possible for someone else to die in His place, that they would. God said no to this request and Jesus carried on, despite the fact that it was not His own will.

Jesus was human, just like us. He made mistakes, just like us. He changed, grew, evolved, learned, experienced, ENCOUTERED, just like us. And when these everyday human frailties took their toll, He took the lessons which they taught Him and applied them to His work, Ministry and life, allowing Him to root Himself firmly in God and to develop in the light of His service and love.

In a few weeks, I know, I will be asked, once again, to deliver the flowers. I won’t want to do it. I’ll be very nervous about it. I’ll try to think of excuses as to why I couldn’t possibly do it. But that’s not the point. The point is that I will take those flowers. The point is that I will wrap them, tie them to my handle bars and transport them to their destination. The person might be very happy to see me and welcome me in for tea and cookies, or they may be scared and nervous and tell me precisely where to go, but the point is that I will do it. I will visit them and I will tell them in words and actions how much Jesus, the Church and myself love them and wish them well because I know that, whatever the outcome, I will encounter all that God wishes me to encounter in the place, in the moment and with the people, He has placed there.


Och Wheest ‘n Get Oan Wi’ It!

Finding time to keep you all updated in past weeks has been impossible. I do hope that can improve in 2012!

It is common fare, at this time of year, to hear it said that time flies when one is having fun. And indeed it does. It is very hard to imagine, looking back, that this time last year saw each of the current Mission House Team Members begin a journey which would lead each of us to the same location, and yet, simultaneously, to such different places.

As the 2010/2011 season of parties, celebrations and festivities drew to a close, some prepared to return to school or university, some were going back to work, some were already involved in volunteering, each facing their own challenges, issues and decisions.

It has become overwhelmingly apparent from the conversations and encounters we have shared with one another over meals, during our meetings, seminars and in those moments at the close of the day when we simply sit with cups of tea and stroopwafels, that these varying journeys have each had a remarkably strong impact on our lives and which, ultimately, led each of us, emotionally and physically, across land, sea, sky and canal bridge to the door of the Amstelrank on, what was as we recall, a rather good weathered, yet nerve-wracking 1st of September 2011.

None of us, no matter how hard we might have tried, could ever have adequately estimated the sheer power of the feelings, experiences, lessons, transformations, challenges, enlightenments and encounters to be found throughout the Mission House universe in which we were about to immerse ourselves.

As we look back on the past four months, reflecting on our time here in Amsterdam with the help of the myriad of photos we have now collected, as well as our various blog posts and journals, it really is difficult for us to believe that we have done what we have done, achieved what we have achieved and learned what we have learned, all in this relatively short space of time.

We find ourselves miles away from those early days of over-politeness, when the pressures of living this new life, away from home, in new surroundings, with new people and new work, bending, twisting and challenging us more and more, stronger and stronger with every passing day.

It is without any doubt that each of us were very genuine in our commitment to work hard, focus on the tasks in hand and prepared to deal with problems and situations with those living on the edges of society, whom many of us had absolutely no experience of working with previously. However, as has become clear over our time here, there is a difference between believing or saying that you will be committed, loving, strong, assertive, resilient and brave, and having to wake up in the morning knowing that you are about to enter an environment where people will, in all likelihood, be impatient, angry, threatening, rude, ignorant and may even refuse to acknowledge or accept your help of presence at all! To say that this is painstakingly difficult would be to completely undermine the dread and suffering we have each experienced, at least a few times, when preparing to work in our projects.

It is only now, however, when we have the chance to see all that we have been through, that we appreciate fully the ultimate aim of the Mission House, namely that we must do everything in our power to make “Word and Action Meet”!

As hard an admission as it is to make, the single-most important lesson which has come forth during our time in this strange and, quite frankly, often miserable environment is that if you want to make your experience something worthwhile, something special, something which the terms “enjoyable”, “fulfilling” and even “amazing” do not even come close to explaining, then you have to stop reading about the projects, you must stop talking about what skills you have and what skills you lack, you must stop constantly thinking “what if I had said this, or did it that way?” and you must, simply, JUST DO IT!

Everyone who knows me cannot escape my passion for writing and speaking. I love words. I love how they can be used and shaped to express and explain things, bringing hope and sense to a complex and harsh world of despair, turmoil and emptiness. Yet, for the first time, I find myself simply having to repeat myself, with no further reimagining, by simply looking back to October when it was said that it truly is in hearing the tale of an old lady that we see the value of listening. It most certainly is in witnessing homeless people help one another to tackle the challenges of the day that we see the value of serving tea. And it is undeniable that it is in seeing the tears of joy running down a seafarer’s face as he calls his family for the first time in months that we see that value of waiting an hour at the dock on a cold and rainy afternoon so he can finish his work and buy a phone card. It is, truly, in serving, that we see the light which guides us forward.

And the reason for this repetition is exceptionally simple. There isn’t anything else to say. There isn’t anything else to write. There isn’t anything else to think about. Everything else which is to be found, everything else which is to be gained, everything else which is to be learned does not lie in books, or minds or pens, but in the experiences and the paths which God sets before us.

We cannot believe that we have arrived where we are now, but we have gained such confidence, such resilience, such ability, such skills, such love, such compassion, such EVERYTHING, not because we have read the best book, written the best essay or thought up the best ideas. Rather, we have gained so much that is right, because we went out there, among the poor, among the destitute, among the rejected, neglected, denied and outcast, did what we could and allowed the experiences, the conversations with clients, the serving of soup, the singing of hymns, the selling of phone cards, the washing of feet, the crying with people who’se families and friends had deserted them, to completely transform us through their own power.

And what’s more, this transformation has not come from the perfect execution of our duties. It has come because we have gone out with confidence and got it wrong! We have made mistakes. We have judged things incorrectly. We have, at times, hated the ways we have behaved, thought or spoken. But what it vital, what we must all keep with us is the fact that if we did not make these human errors, we would not learn the lessons that we do everyday. Indeed, we would not have had a hope of receiving the light and encouragement, which have made us strong, if we had not first accepted and embraced our frailty.

It is no wonder to us why Christ decided to spend His time on earth with the poor, hungry, prostitute and destitute, for our life among them has taught us more about the realities of life and dealing with hardship than, it seems, any of our individual lives have taught us thus far. We encourage others to learn from this experience also, that they might feel as confident and fulfilled as we do now.

But there remains one, last crucial yet scary truth to be considered. If it is truly through the meeting of Word and Action that has carried us thus far, then it is surely the meeting of Word and Action which must be centre-most in our minds and hearts as we move forward into this new year, which each of us knows will bring yet more challenges, issues and problems for us to face and deal with.

What matters, however, is that we know how far we have come, and we know why we have come this far. We will continue, then, to move forward in faith, trusting that all will be well as we continue our work, keeping calm and, very importantly, getting on with it!

We wish all of you a peaceful and prosperous 2012, filled with every blessing for you, your families and friends, whoever you are,  wherever you may be and whatever you may face!


Home and Away

“Exile from the familiar can not only be the salvation of oneself, but that of others” Rev Dr Jane Leach.

 It has never dawned on me just how rectangular the traffic lights are in the UK. I always used to think that the corners were rounded, creating a neat, pleasant shape to these otherwise dull and seemingly unexciting appliances. When I looked at them again, however, following my return to the UK after almost three months away from home, I realised that in comparison to traffic lights in the Netherlands, which usually have large semicircles at their tops and bottoms, they seemed very small and angular. The shape of traffic lights is, of course, of very little consequence, but it did remind me how long I had been away from home and how strange it felt to suddenly and rather unceremoniously thrown back into life in Britain.

I had returned to my homeland for a few days to visit a friend and to take some time to reflect on my Mission House journey thus far. As I unpacked my things and sipped on a nice, hot cup of good old British tea, I remembered how much I had missed the familiarity and comfort of home. I knew where I was. I knew the order of things. I knew the culture. I knew the mannerisms of the people. I understood my surroundings. I was home!

At first, this felt brilliant. I felt able to relax in a way that I hadn’t truly felt able to in the Netherlands. I could walk into a shop and ask for something without having to consult my dictionary, awkwardly point at something or saying something 20 times! I felt comfortable and safe.

It wasn’t long, however, before the effects of my journey thus far began to show their face.

For, prior to my arrival at Mission House, I was a completely different person. I had no experience or real understand of what it was to live and work amongst people facing real hardship. I had always felt comfortable and confident that God was always with me, strengthening and guiding me, without any flicker of doubt or question of faith. In truth, there had never been a point in my life where I had been required to place full trust, full control of my life, soul and work, into the hands of God.

Three months of serving coffee to homeless people, taking bread to drug addicts, talking with lonely old people with lots of interesting stories and trying to keep control of a group of children from broken families as they run around riot in a church hall have, however, begun to give me a genuine appreciation of the realities of life.

I’ve been shouted at, rejected, talked about, laughed at, hit with an handbag by a disgruntled elderly woman when I cycled on the wrong side of the road, completely by accident, of course… The list goes on, and all of these things have led me to a place where I question my value, question my place in God’s plan and question whether or not I will ever be able to serve Him effectively, not because I am hurt by these things happening to me, but because I don’t know how to deal with them. What should I say to someone who is viciously angry with the church because of its failings over the year? What should I do to help someone who is in deep distress, the pressures of life mounting up around them so that they snap out at those who try to help?

In order to answer these questions, I have had to place my trust fully in God, allowing the experiences which He places in front of me, to transform and change me into a person who is ready to serve Him in the way that He calls me to.

And it is through that openness to change that I have been able to be truly blessed through my work in each of the projects, looking beyond what seems to be the case, and seeing what the case actually is has allowed me to understand more about why people feel as they do and is slowly allowing me to learn how to deal with such situations. It has allowed me to see, first-hand, the experience, the wisdom, the compassion, the value of those whom society would otherwise happily ignore.

For the first time in my life, I found myself truly happy, truly satisfied, in a place that did not involve books, speeches, lectures, essays or big words, and this massive paradigm shift was very difficult to ignore after a while back on home turf.

 Needless to say, I had a brilliant time with my friend. It was good to see her again and to hear that things were going well back at home, with no majorly huge developments since my departure, but it also gave me a sense of restlessness. For I was no longer content to sit in this pleasant environment, drinking tea and whiling away my time thinking and writing about things which I, in reality, know very little about, producing work that, while gaining good marks, could never be of any real practical help to anyone.

Home wasn’t the same, not because I no longer like it, but because, at this moment in time, it is not the place I need to be.

I longed to be back in Amsterdam, in the unfamiliar, in the discomfort, in the questioning, in the doubt, amongst the problems, for it is through these that we really gain an understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Mission House exiles us. It exiles us from that which we know and love. It exiles us from that which is familiar. But it also frees us. It frees us from our misunderstanding of the world around us. It frees us from the fear and nervousness we have about doing certain things. It frees us from our comfortable and secure little boxes in order that we may live life to its fullest, not its safest.

And in freeing us, it also frees others for it allows us to use our newfound skills, knowledge, experience and talents to make life fuller and better for those around us. Our exile enlightens us and, in turn, we can enlighten others.

It is a very old saying, but it remains so true today, “The cracks let the light in, but also let it shine out”. We have to embrace our frailty, embrace our humanity, in order to let goodness enter us, and also, through us, pass on to those around us.

Please continue to pray for us as we each, together, walk the journey of life, equipped by the Father, strengthened by the son and open to transformation through the Holy Spirit, trusting always that everything will be as it needs to, even if it is not what we want or like.


Picking Up Crosses

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:23-25)

All in all, my time at Park Mains High School was enjoyable and enriching. There are many memories and lessons which I fondly remember from my time both inside and outside classes. I don’t think I’ll ever forget one occasion, however, sitting in the theatre, where our assemblies were held, watching a monologue during one of our Easter Services, just before the holidays. Looking around me, I noticed that most of my colleagues weren’t really that engaged with the performance, giving in to restlessness and and an increasing desire to get out of the hot stuffy auditorium into the fun, fresh air and freedom of the outside! For me, however, the sketch was raising a number of crucial questions, questions which are rapidly returning to my mind with every day that passes here in the Netherlands.

The monologue was about someone who was carrying a cross on their back. They were talking to God about how hard it was, how excruciating, in fact, to carry this heavy burden such a long distance, along difficult paths. They began to ask God for help. “Can’t you take a bit off the end of this cross, Lord? it’s dragging along the ground, making it even heavier!” “Couldn’t you add some soft padding to it, Lord? The bare wood is giving me splinters!” What followed really confused my inquisitive, yet still young and developing mind, tremendously. For the heartfelt pleas of this poor, defenceless, vulnerable and depressed person seemed to go unnoticed. “God? God? Hello? Goooooodddddddd?????”

God said nothing. God did nothing. Was He even there at all?

I was initially taken aback by the choice of this piece by our Chaplain, wondering why, when he had been given the opportunity to speak to a bunch of people who didn’t appear to know the first thing about Christianity, or, indeed, care, he had chosen a script which appeared to be saying when you ask God for help, you won’t get it. You’re on your own!

A few weeks later, during worship at Morison Memorial URC, where I now serve as an elder, the same monologue was performed after the first hymn and opening prayer. This time, I had an opportunity to ask about it and think seriously about what the meaning of what was, in my mind at that time, a rather bizarre piece. The words of Luke 9, which I had known for a long time previously, were read to me, and I was able to see them in a whole new light.

I had always understood that the reading was intended to illustrate the importance of always thinking about others as opposed to only yourself, along with the centrality of holding and sustaining a steadfast love for God all all His people, but I had failed to understand the sacrificial nature required of that love.

For what it is really saying is that serving Christ is, truly, about “picking up your cross”, carrying the great responsibility of playing your role as a part of the body of Christ on earth. This requires sacrifice of the highest order, for it means that one’s thoughts and energies must be focussed entirely on the service of God, no matter what challenges or difficulties that may bring, physically, mentally or spiritually.

When the person asked for a part to be cut off their cross and for pads to be added, God didn’t say nothing or do nothing for nothing! He said and did nothing in order to say something!!! Something very profound. Something life changing for me, as a boy wondering why it was that God didn’t answer all prayer, wondering why it was that so much suffering exists without the intervention of God and wondering how it could be possible for a loving, caring God to allow someone to go through such pain and turmoil in His own service.

For God, literally, knows that if He were to meet all our requests for comfort, security and safety, then we would not be able to learn the valuable lessons or benefit from the wonderful experiences to be gained when traveling along the road of hardship.

This cartoon illustrates this point very well (http://crowingcrone.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/thinking-too-much/), with God doing as He is asked by removing a piece of the cross which the man is carrying. However, when the man reaches a huge canyon, he notices that others can use the crosses, the burdens, the pain which they have carried with them all this way, to provide a bridge which they can walk over, leading them ever onwards in their journey. He, on the other hand, finds that he cannot use his cross in this way, for it has been cut shorter than it needs to be. The journey may not have been as difficult for Him, but he now finds himself unable, as his friends, to look to the experience and knowledge he has picked up on the way for guidance on the way forward, for he has not gained that knowledge and experience as he has travelled, instead looking towards more comfortable techniques and easier routes.

I should note at this point that I don’t believe the man was overly self-centred or cold hearted in asking God for help. We all feel, at times, that we have burdens which are too hard to bear, holding us back, preventing us from moving forward or doing anything to help either others or ourselves. Many look to God in these times for the comfort and support they need. And it is right that they should, for Jesus clearly says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) However, it is about realising that, even when all seems hopeless and God doesn’t seem to be responding to us, He is, in fact, always with us, always guiding us, not where we want to go, but always where we need to be.

It is also, crucially, about avoiding complacency. We cannot afford to say “God is guiding our every move so we can do whatever we want”, for it is in the hardship and challenge of life as much, if not more so, as the joy and beauty which meets us each day, that we learn the lessons and gain the knowledge we need to serve God and, in doing so, strengthen, support and love Him and all His people.

These words continue to be a huge source of support to me,  but also a source of trepidation and hesitation, particularly right now, as they stop becoming nice, comfortable, happy words, and begin to become a cold, hard reality.

For I am no longer simply reading, writing and speaking about my faith. I actually have to go and do something about it!

And in that process, I have to allow God to take over. I have to allow Him to guide me and shape me and move me to the place He needs me to be. It is not about entirely giving up my identity as Simon Peters and becoming some replica of Christ, for I was created, not as Christ, but as Simon Peters. It is, rather, about accepting that God has, indeed, created me with my skills and talents and about understanding that I must now allow God to use the identity and tools which He has given me to serve Him.

This is scary! This is worrying! This does not feel good! But it’s true. It’s real. It’s necessary. It will fulfil and enlighten me in ways that nothing else can.

For once, my powers as a wordsmith are not enough to truly express what I want to say in a way that can truly illustrate what I mean, for one must experience these things for oneself in order to understand them.

This sketch, however, comes quite close to it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhfUzodLRvk&feature=fvwrel), reminding us that, no matter how we feel, or what we think about ourselves or the situation we are facing, God does NOT EVER make junk!!! We are all original masterpieces. But we have to keep ourselves open to the transformation which God intends for us, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, for it is then and only then we will be open to serving God in the way that we need to, for the good of Him and all His people.

Truly our weaknesses will become our strengths because we will use our weaknesses, our challenges, our woes, our questions, to deal with the trouble that lies ahead, growing and developing our skills and talents, in Christ.

Finally, I want to share a very simple sentence which a homeless man said to me while waiting for his coffee at a shelter. “If your fear is bigger than your gut, you ain’t serving the right God!” God truly is with us, He truly does love us, and He truly will not forsake us. We must always strive, however, to be with Him, love Him and not forsake Him.

Please pray for me as I deal with these difficult challenges.


The Best Laid Schemes ‘o Mice and Men…

As with all Mission House duties, writing the House Blog is one of the tasks on the rota on which we all must play our part! This week saw my first turn of writing the Blog, and here is my post for you:

 

Getting a routine up and running is not proving terribly easy at the Mission House. As if the fact that the Ministry and Mission which we each engage in brings with it new tasks, events and challenges each day does not offer enough variety to spice life up, we also must contend with the realities of a world which simply does not have the ability to live according to any timetable we may wish to give it.

At the beginning of the week we had a very clear plan of how things would work out. We had each picked the projects we had decided to work with, we had each formed a timetable dividing our working hours between our chosen projects and were in the process of finalising dates to begin working. Looking back at our copious amounts of paper and planning, we see, pretty much, the perfect week for an introduction into work with people on the margins of society.

As those living and working in the real world will know, however, plans very rarely evolve precisely as we hope and it wasn’t long before things started to change. An incident at the Seaman’s Mission last week delayed our start there until today and we are still waiting for a few projects to finalise arrangements for us to begin work there. This, for most of us, has meant taking rests during scheduled work time and working during scheduled break time which can, at times, be quite frustrating, tiring and difficult to deal with.

This should not be read, however, as an indication that life in the Mission House has taken a turn for the worse, as we are also learning very quickly that, even in the worst of times and situations there is always something of value or good to extract from your experiences. And it is, truly, these gems which take you to the place you are meant to be. Our wonderfully laid out plans may have been unceremoniously tossed out into the cold and rain of Amsterdam, but that didn’t stop us from moving forward. In fact, it pushed us.

Our evening meals over the past week, which we endeavour as much as possible to keep free, that we might eat together, have seen a fascinating exchange of thoughts, experiences, advice, stories, jokes, worries, concerns, laughter… All surrounding our first experiences of working with the marginalised and vulnerable of this busy and vibrant, yet troubled and harsh city. I think it is safe to say on behalf of the group, that each of us has been equally touched with shock at the realities which face us in each of our respective projects, and joy at the welcome we have received at each of our placements and the indescribable blessing that comes from working with those whose stories and situations you might never have even contemplated otherwise.

Gustavo Gutierrez claimed, basically, from his own context, amongst the poor of Peru, that God truly loves the poor in a way which the rich can only dream about, and nowhere is that more evident than in the types of projects which we are honoured to serve this year. Homeless people may not have a roof over their head, addicts may care more about their next fix than taking care of themselves, children may feel neglected, elderly people might feel lonely, but, when a safe and caring environment is provided, they can teach us more about life, love, unity and solidarity than many whose lives are paved with success and wealth, because of the richness they hold in their experience and knowledge of life and its challenges.

I cannot speak for the rest of the Team, but, for me, it is very quickly hitting home that we are not simply here to visit projects or make observations to write in a nice little report when we go home. I, of course, knew this and agreed with this before coming, but that has not changed the fact that I am often shocked and a little nervous about some of the work which we must do and people we must speak with. This is not because I believe that I am in any particular danger, but simply because I’ve never done any of these things before.

There are times, for all of us in the house, when we don’t know what to do, what to say, how to comfort someone or help someone in need. Sometimes we feel quite bad about this and wonder if this is really all worth it.

But then we are reminded, with immense strength, each day, that it is in the places where we least expect it that we will find goodness and light, and that it is in that true light that we will find the courage and the experience we need to grow and develop, both physically and spiritually, into people who can better look after ourselves, others and the world.

It is in hearing the tale of an old lady that we see the value of listening. It is in witnessing homeless people help one another to tackle the challenges of the day that we see the value of serving tea. It is in seeing the tears of joy running down a seafarer’s face as he calls his family for the first time in months that we see that value of waiting an hour at the dock on a cold and rainy afternoon so he can finish his work and buy a phone card from you. It is, truly, in serving, that we see the light which guides us forward.

We are only at the very start of our experience and that much, much more still lies ahead of us, but we have had, as planned, the best introduction available to us into life, work and mission in Amsterdam, all because it didn’t work out as we thought, or wanted.

Off we go, then, to see what lies around the next corner…


Mr Grumpy and Mr Happy

As my routine finally begins to take shape, the gaps between my posts become longer and longer. Far from being a sign of a lack of inspiration or experiences to reflect upon, however, this indicates a tremendous amount of excitement and activity, taking a lot of my time and preventing me from taking the time to write down all that has been happening, the upshot of which is that I am gaining innumerable new insights into life, faith and work in the real world, with real people, my precise intention in coming over to the Netherlands. This does mean, however, that I will not be able to recall everything that happens when writing my reflections. It is my eternal hope, however, that while the day to day happenings may fade into distant memory, that the great lessons I have been learning along the way will remain with me, throughout my life and Ministry. And besides, I’m sure you’d rather hear about more exciting things than what I had for dinner every day for the next 9 months!

One of the first things we were told, as EVS volunteers, before departing for our various countries and projects, is that our time in service would see us ride one of the most difficult emotional rollercoasters imaginable. “There WILL be times,” we were told at our Pre-Departure Training in Bradford, “when you will wonder what on earth you’re doing there and want to pack it all in. But there will be other times when you will be absolutely focused on what you’re doing and having the time of your life. What’s important,” they said, “is that you be honest about how you’re feeling so that you can work with the rest of your team to keep going, laughing together in the good times and crying together in the bad, because, if you box it all in, you’ll decide, eventually, to go home, and will regret your decision for a long time to come. But if you stay and work together, at the end of your experience, all of you will be so proud and delighted to have achieved what you have. ”

I was grateful at the time that we had been told this explicitly at the start of the experience, particularly as there was no-one to say this during my difficult period at the start if my third year at university. If there had, I imagine that I wouldn’t have suffered the problems that I did. On reflection, I am glad that things worked out as they did as I wouldn’t be the person I am today if things hadn’t gone precisely as they have, but still, it would have been good to have had some help in acknowledging that an emotional rollercoaster was on the way. I am glad to say however, that we did before this one started.

We haven’t been on this rollercoaster before and it’s running in the dark. We don’t know where we’re going or what lies ahead of us, but what matters is that we know there are hills, dips and loop-de-loops. Importantly, however, we, kind of, know what these feel like (perhaps not fully, but kind of will do), how to recognise them and that the ride is not endless. There will be a point when the safety barriers will lift and we will walk out, alive and well.

As a result of this, I haven’t been dreading the first dip as the carriage rises further and further up the ramp, my experience and knowledge deepening all the way, but rather preparing myself for it happening. I am bracing myself, then, as I notice the signs of the carriage reaching the peak of the hill, the realities of my experience showing me more and more of the blessings, but also the challenges and issues raised by life in the world.

Nothing terribly drastic has happened. I have had no great urge to go home or to give up. I have had no feeling of doubt that I am currently in the best place possible to grow and develop the skills I will need for the future. It is simply that a few questions have arisen, questions which are quite healthy and normal at this stage of my journey, but which will lead, I know, through the process of answering them, along a very difficult and emotionally draining path, albeit an important one.

The greatest of all, perhaps, has been the question of what this experience is doing to assist the development of my Ministerial skills, as this question raises itself in my mind at least once a day and produces an answer which, I must admit, I do not like.

The fact is, life is not a university course. It has no set structure. It has no modules. It has no semesters or deadlines or essays or exams. It’s uncertain. It’s unclear. Above all, it speaks for itself, without lectures, books or seminars. And this has not been an easy thing to grapple with, for it means that the answer to my question is that I shouldn’t be focussing on any formal type of learning at all. I shouldn’t be asking what effect this will have on my Ministerial skills or my ability to think practically or even my ability to help others. I should, instead, enjoy the experience of being here, working in my projects and getting to know my colleagues better. For, in the end, it is my experience that will speak for itself.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with fellow members of the URC Synod of Scotland Youth and Children’s Ministries Committee, in which I complained about the amount of food and coffee breaks we had when we could be “working” and “worshipping”. My argument was defeated in one swoop, with two very simple words, “Fellowship, Simon.” “It’s not in the superficiality of formal sessions that we learn the most, but in the warmth of fellowship,” said the Rev. John Humphries, our Synod Moderator. In short, it’s not formality that’s most important, but reality. These are words which I fully agreed with. Words which touched my heart and stayed with me. Words which I now find infuriatingly and annoyingly difficult to live out!!!

And that about sums up my feeling at this time. Everything I am seeing and learning now, I have either read about or written about, but have not actually seen with my own eyes, and now that I am seeing it, I’m not sure how to react. “Working with seafarers requires determination and courage.” Very easy to say, very easy to agree with, very scary when your alarm wakes you at 7am and you know you need to get up, get ready, get out and get on with it!

I have felt ashamed to say so, but some days I have woken up and thought, “Oh great (sarcastic), I’ve got to get up and go through all this rigmarole again with the homeless people at the Tweede Mijl.” By the end of each day, I’m always very positive and know why I’m here and know that what I’m doing is making a real difference in the world, but it is that time in the morning and at intervals throughout the day when the pessimism, negativity and questions begin to creep out that I don’t feel so confident.

But, perhaps the greatest source of strength in those times is the piece of advice we were given before we even set off, “Work together!” We all feel the same at times, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be down. It’s ok to wonder about things. It’s ok not to like something that’s hard. But it’s vital that you are open and honest about that, rather than bottle it up, branding yourself a coward or a hypocrite, for this will not help at all.

A great lift came this week, however, at the Tweede Mijl, when I was able to, yet again, see something I had known for a long time incarnated in reality. There’s a man there, a man who likes his coffee precisely the way he likes it. If you get it wrong, he will refuse it and storm out. I met him. I talked to him. I got his coffee wrong. He stormed out cursing under his breath. I saw him again later in the week. He greeted me as “the man who can’t make coffee,”  and moved away quickly.

This man got to me. He seemed so angry all the time, so detached from everyone. Only a few people ever spoke to him and no-one really had anything great to say about him.

He came back to the Tweede Mijl this week and walked over to me. He seemed to be in his usual mood, but I decided to put into practice something I’d believed for years, the principle of looking beyond the outer shell at what is actually going on, not what seems to be going on. I smiled and had a joke with him. It came to the part where I had to pour the milk into his coffee. This is the crucial moment, which determines whether he stays or goes. “OK, here we go…” I said, tipping the jug very, very slowly. He smiled and laughed for the first time. “That’s enough!” he said, and I stopped right away. I handed it to him and said, “sorry again,” to which he replied, “think nothing of it.”

Another man called me over one day and asked me about my studies. We had a fascinating discussion about theology and he shared some very interesting ideas about ethics and pastoral care. I asked him if he had studied theology, to which he responded, “Do I need to? Did Jesus study theology? Did the apostles?” A fantastic point which has stayed with me.

When I spoke to him this week, however, he refused to even speak to me in English. He just wanted to sit in a corner, on his own, with his cup of coffee and read. I sensed a great sadness about him, which he was obviously unwilling to share at that time, but perhaps will in future, as he gets to know the staff better and begins to open up to them.

The important realisation for me is that Mr Grumpy is not Mr Grumpy, and Mr Happy is not Mr Happy, but rather both are humans, living in the same world as me, facing the same people as me, but in very different circumstances and contexts. No textbook is going to give me a formula for caring for them. No seminar is going to fully prepare me for the varying ways they will behave each time I meet them. Only time and experience can do that.

I know this, but now I have to do something about it and while, as I have said, this helps me to understand the blessing that my time in the Netherlands will bring to my life, it also leaves me with responses and answers that I find hard to accept. I desperately want to read a book that will give me the answers, but I can’t I desperately want to meet the requirements of the intended learning outcomes stated in my contract, but I can’t do it with only a few weeks of experience. It will only work if I let go of my old outlook and accept a new one in which I can allow the richness of my experience, which speaks for itself in ways which words and speeches and books never could, to take hold, and I find that scary and hard.

For once, though, I am going to accept that this is a natural response, a response that many of my friends and colleagues share and feelings which we will continue to talk about and work through together. We may be riding into the unknown, but we do so together with each other and with God, knowing that all will be as it is meant to be in the end.

We also, exceptionally importantly, move forward with faith and confidence. Christ speaks about faith “the size of mustard seeds” being able to “move mountains”, and that is very much evident in the work that we do.

The issues we each face in our differing projects vary radically, as do the people dealing with these issues and the responses they offer. But the one thing that united all of them is the confidence which they show. I’ve seen frail old women keep strong, Russian sailors under control all because they walked into the middle of the fight that was about to erupt, taking no nonsense and showing no signs of fear or nervousness.

It’s not easy to walk up to a ship and introduce yourself to strangers. It’s not easy to deal with an angry drug addict. It’s not easy to watch an immigrant who has being held in custody, far from home, crying for his family, but it is through confidence and faith that those offering help can do so in ways that are effective and relevant.

They are not experts in life, they are not specialists in any particular subject. They are ordinary people who use their strength, will, faith and confidence to make a difference for others and the world. These people are not concerned with deadlines or targets or learning outcomes. They are concerned with carrying out the work of God with unfailing strength and loyalty. These people are our role models as they help us to understand what really matters.

And so, I will move ever forward, trusting in myself, my friend and my God, although the way ahead is dark and unknown, secure in the hope that all will be well.

Let’s just hope Mr Grumpy can remain happy and that Mr Happy doesn’t become too grumpy!