Unseen stories

One of the mysteries of ministry is that we often don’t know how the stories we encounter end. The people we pray for at a particular moment of their life, but never see or hear from again; those we are close to for a time, but drift away from; members of churches we were once a part of; people who are only part of our lives for a moment – it’s a perennial feature of life.

21st century life helps with this a little. Facebook keeps me somewhat up to date with a friend made during one of the darkest times of their life, who I met because she asked me to pray for her son after church one Sunday. It lets me know when friends with serious illnesses are doing better or worse. And this week, YouTube has given me an insight into the spiritual life of a member of my former student group. [That is, the student group I used to run – it wasn’t a group of ex students!]

My memory is a little vague, but I’m virtually certain that this student was the first to arrive to the very first student group session I led at St George’s, back in September 2011. He had just started studying at my alma mater, and was keen to tell us that he didn’t consider himself a Christian, but wanted to spend time with Christians to build up his justification for not believing in God. He wasn’t always around, but come his second year, he got involved a bit more and was a key part of the close band of friends that formed amongst the students. In the third year, he came weekly to church and to my house for student gatherings, and got stuck into discussions. I can’t remember quite when it was last year that he turned up on Sunday and announced that he now believed in God (thanks to reading Kant – of all things), but it was a joyful day!

On Sunday, I checked into the Whatsapp conversation that this student group uses to share news/prayer requests and made a discovery. (I had to turn off notifications, as there are only so many multi-people conversations I can allow to make my phone vibrate at all times of day and I already have a very active one for another group of friends! So my discovery was a fortnight old already.) This student had shared their testimony with their church as part of its project to share the stories of members of their congregation. As I watched it (sitting in a busy Starbucks), I was moved to tears.

“They never let me go…” Those were the words that got me. Would others have given up where our church persisted? Those little things we did – listening to him; discussing queries and arguments; and, in my case, ensuring that there was always plenty of garlic bread and dessert on a Tuesday night – kept him searching, until he had his moment of realisation.

I knew that Ollie had become a Christian – I’d been there for that bit. But I hadn’t heard him talk about what had kept him going. It’s a testament to persistence, both on his part and the church’s. All we did was demonstrate love the best ways we knew how.

It struck me that we know very little of the impact our actions can have. A simple act of letting someone be themselves, caring for them and showing them love and hospitality can have a massive impact that we may well never hear about.

This week, I’ve been reminded that it’s ok not to know how the stories end – it’s knowing stories like Ollie’s that demonstrate how important it is to keep doing what we’re doing, what God’s called us to do, and to never let someone go because they haven’t quite ‘got it’ yet.

Farewell St George’s

Three years ago, I paid a few visits to a central London parish, with a view to potentially working there while training for ordination. On my first trip, I was shown round the streets of the parish where local celebrities’ homes were pointed out; favourite eateries highlighted; and several parishioners greeted. One service and a persuasive pizza later, and I committed. For the next three years, my home would be the parish of St George’s Holborn – first on the north-eastern most tip of the parish, on the corner of King’s Cross Road, then latterly, on the fabulous Lambs Conduit Street.

Time has flown! I arrived, a fairly fresh-faced ordinand, having only preached one ‘proper’ sermon and never having led a service. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d let myself in for – this was going to be my first shot at the adventure of church ministry. I leave, having preached more sermons than I can count on my fingers; a whole host of services; assisted with baptisms and communion; got to know an amazing bunch of students; and found a host of friends – some of whom are now strewn across the globe in a very pleasing, international adventure kind of a way!

St George's 2011-14Three years at St George’s and lots of friendly faces. Top right is my very first staff meeting, next to my face hovering over the amazing cake provided for my final staff meeting. So many memories! 

There are so many highlights that it would be impossible (or rather, very tedious) to list them all here!
– The undoubtedly life-long friends I’ve made over the 3 years.
– The two trips to Focus. I may loathe camping, but it’s made so much better by hanging out with lovely people!
– The babies that have been born and who I’ve watch grow up, a bit.
– Countless office shenanigans.
– Getting to know the local school and becoming one pupil’s favourite governor.
– Having an incumbent who understood the demands of academic work, and ensured that I had the space to do my best. (Which paid off!)

And then there were the students – which is a whole category of highlights of their own!

St G's students 2011-14Students at St George’s, 2011-14. (My final Sunday is bottom right. Sad faces.)

I know that it’s a fact of church ministry that every so often, you get the privilege of being alongside a very special group of people. I saw it when I was growing up in my parents’ churches, and I’ve seen it with friends. At St George’s, I was lucky enough to hit gold – right at the start of the first year.

The students that made up the 2011-12 student group created something special together. When new people arrived, they welcomed them heartily. When members graduated and moved to the other side of the world, they were involved in gatherings via Skype and Whatsapp conversations of epic proportions. This summer, most of them will reunite in Singapore & Malaysia – they’ve created a set of very special friendships.

We have had both special and ridiculous times together. There were the literal brownie points during Bible studies (thank you Sainsbury’s for your handy boxes of brownie bites); a willingness to dress up, even in front of the whole church; stupid games; excellent food; the first baptism I’ve ever assisted with… Oh, and the fact that I will never again be able to say grace in a restaurant without remembering the many, many times I’ve eaten out with these guys and they’ve made grace be as obvious and as long as possible in order to embarrass me as much as possible. Long rambling prayers, while holding hands, timed to begin just as a waiter is approaching. Classic.

St George’s, you will always be remembered fondly! Thank you for an excellent three years.

[And as for what’s next, you’ll simply have to watch this space & wait and see…]

Bittersweet Summer

Last week, I realised I’d hit something of a milestone. A student who, nearly three years ago had been a Fresher in my first ever student small group, took the last exam of their degree. I have now been involved in student work for an entire degree cycle.

Student work is an odd beast. Brilliant, but odd. Most churches in central London have a high turnover [at my curent church, we reckon a third of members change each year], but in student work, it’s much higher – and barely lasts 9 months of the year. Every year you lose people with whom you’ve built close relationships, journeyed through the highs and lows, and who are going on to new things. There’s a very high chance that they’ll be leaving the country as well as the city. It may well be a long time before you see them again.

Summer is a bittersweet time for the student worker.

We pray for imminent exams and deadlines, then rejoice when they’re met and completed.
We work hard for months, if not years, to see our students equipped with the skills they need for graduate life – and then have to say goodbye to them as they head off into the sunset to make good use of these skills and talents.

I’m confident that they go on to great things and I love being able to keep up with their antics via Facebook – regardless of whether they’re in Paris, Singapore, California or serving as a missionary in North Africa. Do I wish they were still here? Sometimes. But that’s one of the challenges of ministry – we have to let them go!

End of an era photoshootObligatory end of an era photo-shoot.

The other thing about student work is that if you think they’re there to learn from you, you’re under a misapprehension. You will learn just as much from them…

  • Students may be young, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t faced issues and events that you haven’t even dreamt of. I never cease to be amazed at the challenges people I’ve been alongside have faced – from abortion, to campus murder, to political injustice. 
  • They have bigger dreams than I have ever dared to dream. Currently I’m massively challenged by one of our students who aims to significantly impact the face of politics in the country she’s returning to this summer.
  • International students have a lot to offer, especially food wise. Chinese food ordered by people who know what they’re doing? Priceless! The same students ordering a veritable Dim Sum banquet to celebrate the end of exams? Utterly awesome!
  • American students who turn up for just a semester will become indispensable very quickly. In fact, you’ll realise just how wonderful and amazing they are about three weeks before they’re due to return home. [It’s true. It’s happened with every single American student I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.]
  • The value of community should never be underestimated. Nor should the power of prayer. My first student small group had a 100% answer rate on prayers and produced one of London’s best student workers. [I often jest that I taught him all he knows, but that’s not true, that group did.]
  • Students will always be the most fun members of any church congregation. Fact.

Dim Sum BanquetThe joy of Dim Sum

I was chatting with a fellow student worker the other day, while at a gathering of London student workers courtesy of Fusion (it’s like group therapy for student workers, I love it!), and we decided that student work is the best preparation for regular church ministry. We face many of the same challenges, but in an intense period of time and with a curious microcosm of society and the church.

This coming autumn, so many of our students will have graduated that I’ll almost be starting from scratch again. It feels like a daunting task and then I remember just how exciting and transformative it’s been getting to know new students in the past and it doesn’t seem so bad. Plus, at least over the summer the queues in my favourite coffee shop will be significantly shorter, given the absence of several thousand students. Every cloud…

(Some) St G's students 12/13(Some) of the St G’s students this year. They’re an attractive bunch…

Updated Sunday June 2nd:
Minutes after I published this post last night, while lying in bed, I realised that I’d missed an opportunity to mention something important. I’d completely forgotten while writing this post about the Swaffari that begins tomorrow.

The Swaffari?? The genius idea of Miriam Swaffield, it’s a week-long sponsored animal onesie wearing challenge in aid of Fusion’s Student Linkup programme. I love Fusion and all that they do and Student Linkup is hugely important – it’s a way for students to find a church near their new university, and for churches to make contact with students moving to their area. It’s well worth supporting. It’s also well worth encouraging these onesie-wearing people in their efforts – especially my friend Hannah, who is not usually a onesie type person. (Miriam, on the other hand, wore an Elephant suit for 90 hours last year.)

Thanksgiving – Squared

It would appear that the UK is beginning to embrace Thanksgiving with quite a passion. I can quite understand why – pumpkin pie deserves to be added to the British menu and it’s always good to say thank-you. After last year’s inaugural Thanksgiving experience, this year I manage to double my thankfulness with a Matryoshka Haus Thanksgiving the weekend before the official date; and a Thanksgiving/Christmas with the St George’s students nearly a week after the occasion.

There can never be too many opportunities on which to eat pie.

Chocolate coins may now be my favourite table decoration – pretty and tasty.

In true Thanksgiving style, it seems only sensible to reflect upon the season via thankfulness…

Obviously, I’m thankful for Matryoshka Haus, Shannon and the Thanksgiving tradition she’s built up in London. We’ve written a fair bit about it on the In Da Haus blog, but suffice to say, Thanksgiving is all about community and the communal table – which Matryoshka Haus epitomises.

I’m thankful that other people will usually cook the turkey and that I was only left in sole charge of the bird for 20 minutes. (For the St George’s crew we compromised with Waitrose rotisserie chickens. God bless Waitrose!)

All I had to deal with was the foil and an initial blast in the oven. 
Thankfully, this year’s turkey went un-named.

On a Saturday afternoon full of cooking and a little bit of stress, I was very grateful to discover that I’m not alone in my love of singing along to musicals while working in the kitchen. I may now never be able to listen to Les Mis without remembering some admirable falsetto efforts from a male member of the community…

I am inordinately grateful for Shannon’s family egg-nog recipe (I blogged it last year). It’s delicious and boozy and generally wonderful. I’m also thankful for the tip to serve it only in plastic cups, which saved me a lot of glasses when the students came round; and hugely grateful that when I made it for the second time in just over 2 weeks, I had a proper electric mixer with which to mix it. I’m also grateful that I managed to separate 12 eggs without incident, despite having spent the previous three hours drinking mimosas while cooking. Thankfully, I also halved the recipe for the students, so I didn’t have to drink 3 litres of it on my own.

My contribution to the MH Thanksgiving: mini pecan pies & mini apple crumble pies.
Almost everything’s better in miniature… 

I thank the internet and its myriad pie recipes – particularly this pecan pie recipe that’s American, yet incorporated that most British of ingredients: Golden Syrup. I also thank the students who made two different varieties of pumpkin pie and a pecan-apple one too. (God bless Waitrose again for stocking tinned pumpkin.)

Thankfully well-risen Yorkshires and the remnants of fabulous student pies.

I’m thankful for a church that supports me in a sometimes ridiculous ministry. Especially when it lets me ransack its kitchen for extra plates, jugs, glasses and even a table, so that I can successfully feed 12 people around the same table in my lounge. I’m also rather thankful for the marvellous flat the church provides me with. This meal would have been impossible last year.

A selection of well-fed students. 
(Bless the guys for their persistance with paper hats.)

Don’t forget your toothbrush

Sometimes I really ought to keep a better check on my mouth and think before the words fly out of my mouth – it would save me an awful lot of embarrassment. Like the other day, when I felt compelled to mention an illustration I vaguely remembered that somehow related a toothbrush to how Christians should behave with regard to sex and relationships…

Let me put this into context:
For two Sundays in May, the evening service’s sermon dealt with the tricky subject of sex and relationships. As is so often the case, this had the potential to turn into a Year 9 PSHE lesson (more in terms of how the congregation responded, rather than the talk’s content). Things didn’t get off to a great start when talk #1 began with “…there’s a lot we can do in 20 minutes…” [obviously referring to the fact that the subject was a broad one and couldn’t be dealt with in its entirety in a 20 minute sermon], I’m sure I’m not the only person who stifled a giggle at that point.

It just so happened that the second talk was being given by the lovely leader of the students, who wisely thought to discuss the topic with the students while preparing it. We had a good discussion and some helpful topics were suggested, one of which was the classic question “how far is too far?”. For some unknown reason my brain chose this moment to remember an illustration involving a toothbrush shown in a documentary about an American abstinence programme. Before I knew it, the words “basically, it’s to do with where you’d put a toothbrush…” were out of my mouth and the room was in uproar. Of course, for the life of me I couldn’t actually remember what the illustration was and frantically tried to dig myself out of the hole I’d fallen into, but nothing worked and the laughs grew louder. And I’m supposed to be a mature, responsible mentor to these impressionable youngsters…woe is me.

[I looked it up later that evening. The illustration is awful and to do with knowing where something’s been before you put it into your mouth – this tells you all about it.]

I missed the talk as it was given the night we finished the epic walk, so I downloaded it to listen to over the weekend – catching up with it en route to church on Sunday morning, finishing it while having a quiet cup of tea in a civilised Nero. Having got through most of the talk with no mention of dental hygiene, I breathed a sigh of relief, until, with five minutes to go, the word ‘toothbrush’ was uttered and I choked on my Earl Grey. That it came up was bad enough (though my name wasn’t mentioned), what was worse was the shrieks of laughter I recognised as belonging to the students. Oh well, at least they were amused.

Note to self: think about what you’re going to say BEFORE you begin to let the words fall out of your mouth. In the long-run, it will be beneficial.