Next stop: Ukraine

You know when you have such an adventure filled time that you can’t wait to tell everyone about it? And when you get back and they ask, it’s like you’ve just developed travel memory loss? Yep. This is me right now.

And I still don’t know where to begin. So just sit back and watch, as I try to cram travel, stress, adventure, raccoons, toilets, friends, fun, prayer, culture, *deep breath* into one post.

To recap: as part of my Christian internship, I am doing a weekly discipleship course with other Christian interns. And last week, our leader was due to speak in churches in Kiev, Ukraine. Voila, my first mission trip.

If I’m honest, my attempts at being positive about the trip were wearing thin towards the big day. I find big groups a challenge. Airports even more so. What I hadn’t bargained for was having a panic attack just after take-off. Of all the places to be gripped by fear of the unknown, of vomiting publicly, of everything worrying me, it had to be thousands of feet above the ground, surrounded by people, with no way out.

Yet throughout the day, my friends cared. They prayed for me. Looked out for me. My friend Ruth stayed with me throughout the journey, and chatted to me when I felt bad again. I used to wonder how chatting could possibly calm an anxiety attack. I was wrong. It really takes the edge off.

Yes, being mildly autistic in a group of people exploring new territory was tough at times. I find it harder to form bonds in a group. I got fed up with needing help mixing, or understanding what was going on. I wanted to be on the same level as everyone else, but it wasn’t always possible.

You know what, though? I got the help I needed, and I’m fully grateful for it. Because that’s how a good group works, and I would do anything in return.

Besides, there was plenty to laugh at. Like the man with his pet raccoon*, who wouldn’t let one of my male friends take a picture, but was happy to take a selfie with a passing young lady. Or when Mary, who is Ukrainian, introduced me to Ukrainian public toilets: holes in the ground. I decided I’d rather wait for two hours.

In short, this trip saw me at my most exhausted, but there were times when I felt more exhilarated than I’d felt in a long time. I had late night, heartfelt conversations with the girls. I ran through sprinklers** like a fool with the others. I ate till I could burst. We laughed. We took photos. We were alive.

Last, but not least, we did what we came to do. We took part in church services. People at church got healed of physical pain. People on the streets got a chance to feel heard. Some believe, some don’t, but for me, the most important thing was showing them a bit of love.

In conclusion, I want to give my love and thanks. To Ruth, once again, and her dad, our leader, who was so patient with me whenever I was weary or confused. To our translators. To everyone who donated towards this trip. To my parents for their support. To the four friends who contacted me during the week to ask how I was. To certain people who helped me not get lost at the airport or the underground. To the interns whose house I stayed at the night before. You are all wonderful people!

 

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DISCLAIMER: the first and third photos aren’t mine

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Post uni summer part 2: Camping, aka Momentum

I may have mentioned I’m not good at keeping up with trending topics. It seems that this even covers recent events in my own life. I did say that I’d get around to writing about this, though, and nearly 3 weeks later, I am actually getting around to it.

Momentum, for those of you who don’t know, is a yearly Christian festival with music, talks, seminars and camping. Lots of camping. In other words, dirt, unpredictable weather, muddy toilets, muddy showers, no alone time, poor sleeping and a diet of cereal bars, apples and crisps. When you put it like that, I really don’t know why I enjoy it. But I suppose Jesus survived in the wilderness with no resources at all, so…

Also, it helped that I had a lot of lovely people to hang out with. I’m just going to name the two who have given me permission to mention them: Kathryn (middle), proud tent owner who I’ve known for years, and Chantelle (right) who I became friends with through Kat. We did nearly everything together, and I can’t think who I would rather be squashed in car full of luggage with.

One of the good things about Momentum is that it isn’t some token religious convention. Young adults and youth leaders come to learn, to challenge themselves and to have a good time with their friends. I like to think I managed all three. The majority of the day is made up of seminars. From personality types to relationships to “what does the bible say about x?” A lot of stuff to be learned.

And the main meetings. As well as opportunities for worship and reflection, these comprise talks that strike the right balance between deep, nitty gritty heart-to-heart stuff and comedy gold. Lead by Watford pastor Mike Pilavachi, known for his skill at bringing people to faith, love of food and slightly quirky humour. Who better to give such talks?

Finally, the venues. Who said that Christian events are nothing more than old buildings full of middle aged people singing in time to organ music? Come on, there’s a skating rink, a drive in cinema, book stalls, souvenir stalls, take away outlets, a silent disco and cafes that do hot chocolate and cake to die for. Ok, I refused to set foot on the skating rink and never found the cinema. But I readily explored the rest.

I guess what I’m trying to put across is that these events are not just for one social category. Yes, they help bring people to faith and deepen existing faith, and Momentum does a brilliant job there. But it’s not just for hard-and-fast Christians. It’s for those who struggle with faith, it’s for non-believers who are curious, it’s for people who have been through hell and back seeking healing, prayer and answers. In other words, there is something there for everyone.

Well, everyone who can tolerate a week of camping.

Us versus them – which is which?

You know what they’re talking about on the news at the moment? You can bet it includes people, politics, and prejudice, no matter when you’re reading this post. On Facebook these days I see about a gazillion hot topics trending. I don’t know if Facebook has become more news-y or if I’m just better at noticing these things, but I’m going to talk about one particular controversy: people’s attitudes towards race and religion.

Yes, you heard me. If you see another blog post from me, you’ll know I didn’t commit social suicide today after all.

As a student living in today’s society, I have seen more online articles and videos than I care to count. Am I alone in that? Somehow I don’t think so. Looking through comments sections following numerous topics of discussion sometimes makes me feel like losing faith in humanity. People often seem to hype up hate towards Christians, Muslims, refugees, anyone who falls under a social category that may have caused problems for other people in the past. But to me, they’re missing the point. It isn’t having beliefs that’s wrong, and it certainly isn’t heritage. It’s cruelty. Which anyone is capable of and anyone can choose not to commit.

As for ‘we should help our own people first’: why do we prioritise people based on race and not on how much they actually need help? We are all people; there should be no ‘our own vs others’.

One thing I have learnt in recent years is this: we live in a society where too many people think that the way they see the world is the way it works. As a Christian, I don’t know whether to be more saddened by the fact that Christians get labelled as prejudiced, bible-bashing bigots or by certain individuals who do nothing to kill that stereotype. Is Christianity meant to show people how best to live, love and learn? Absolutely. Does it make a believer any more or less of a person? I don’t think so.

Atheists who freely post on the internet that all Christians are indeed prejudiced, bible-bashing bigots are being no better than the people they are accusing, in my opinion. Why should it be right for some social groups to shove certain people into a box but not others? Sadly it’s not just religion versus atheism wars where this is apparent. Cats versus dogs, introverts versus extroverts, Harry Potter versus Twilight? You name it.

I mean, just look at the conflicts that arise as a result, and you will see where I’m coming from. I could think of a million and one comments to add to such things, but am no more likely to do so than a football fan turn off the TV to drive all the way to Manchester so they can shout insults at the losing team. In other words, my stance on topics like that are for me, myself and I. And my blog, occasionally.

One of my principles in life is that the world is too big and complicated for us to ever understand it. I have my beliefs and am always trying to improve my understanding of God, faith, and the world in general. If any belief or opinion of mine is right or wrong, it will be one small thing compared with everything else I am right or wrong about. In short, no one on this earth has all the answers.

So with this principle, what morals do I go by? Keep an eye on your own thoughts and feelings. Accept you won’t always be right, and try to understand where other opinions come from. Above all, treat others with the same care and respect you expect to be treated with; at the end of the day, they are your equal.

 

What faith means to me

An excuse to justify

Irrationality

An invisible man in the sky

Or just stupidity?

A delusion of the people

Based on legends of the past

In an uncertain present

That’s what faith is said to be.

A turning point in life

For sufferers to see

A comfort and a guide

If belief feels easy

Set apart from the rest

Who are easy to reproach

In a crowded church with no regrets

That’s what faith seems to be.

Endless time in reflection

To learn how to feel free

A tendency to question

The things I cannot see

A chance to learn to live and love

Not just to love to live

A far off answer I’ve yet to learn

That’s what faith means to me.

It’s nearly Christmas. An occasion famous for putting aside our differences and just sharing peace and goodwill all round. And yet, when I came across this article on Facebook http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brandan-robertson/4-teachings-of-jesus-that_b_6343320.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000051, I immediately groaned inwardly. Did I think the article was the stupidest thing ever written? No. Was I anticipating what the comments section was going to look like?

Sadly yes. You know you’re living in the Digital Age when you feel surrounded by online media. And you know you’re surrounded by online media when there is a religion/politics/latest trends/goodness-knows-what based argument wherever you look. Atheists assuming that all Christians are prejudiced, self-righteous bigots? From what I’ve noticed, the more passionately atheists project this label, the less they appear to look at their own words before inflicting them on others. A minority of loud voiced Christians who do nothing to prove this label wrong? Unfortunately, and I’m not proud of this, that is one of the things that causes me to struggle with faith.

I know I’m not perfect, and especially not when it comes to being a Christian. I can be analytical and introspective to my heart’s content, but one of my principles that I struggle to take to heart is that whatever we believe in, we will never know everything. Another moral I try to go by is that being a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t question and think rationally, and being an atheist doesn’t mean you don’t treat others with respect and compassion.

I was struggling to think of a topic this week, and I realise that I haven’t managed to blog on the same day each week like I was intending. See, I told you I’m not perfect! In my defence, I spent most of Monday being patient with Marks and Spencers regarding the presents I had ordered, packing and arriving home to a piece of cake and two adoring cats. I’ve been fairly idle in the coursework department, but have put up and decorated two Christmas trees and played my violin in Carillon Court with my now-distant desk partner Katy*.

Whilst remembering to show both rationality and compassion…let the festivities begin!

*distant in that we both now live close to our respective universities

Cell group

I have spent the past couple of weeks not having anything interesting, dramatic or even vaguely entertaining happen to me. Which I suppose is all very well, but it does mean I have been in a state of internal conflict. This has meant wondering whether my next post should be about exploring faith, knowing who your friends are or how conversation can go from ethical issues to cake in just one sentence. It is an internal conflict which is currently being resolved, by me realising that the perfect compromise would be to write about one topic for which recognition is long overdue: cell group.

When I was first invited last year I don’t think I really knew what to expect. Now, looking back, I realise that there have been few other social settings in which I have landed on my feet so easily. I’m really not one of life’s socialites, and until recent years, had spent any people based settings keeping a low profile and not knowing the first thing about fitting in. Since meeting friends from Thorpe Acre church I have learnt a lot: how to give and accept hugs without shrinking back; that passing the time by singing your own interpretations of worship songs is perfectly acceptable; that not everybody judges you by your social skills or sense of fashion.

Now that I’ve joined the church’s cell group I’ve also come to realise that the occasional touch of insanity is a natural part of conversations, in-jokes and life in general. I honestly still don’t know how we managed to talk about food, wearing glasses and whether a computer in the bathroom is really necessary throughout the last meal we had together. So it’s probably best not to ask.

Our most recent joke was mostly on me. As many of cell group’s comedy gold moments have been; there have been far too many for me to remember them all. The past few Sunday evenings have been spent studying Corinthians 1, the book that explores how relationships are supposed to work. As you may know, the topic of sex before/outside marriage can be tricky territory to have to explore, and so “sex” somehow ended up being replaced by “physical activity”. Had I not spoken up, the territory may have remained tricky; however, I’m not sure whether my input provided a bit of comic relief or only made it all the more awkward.

“I tend to think of physical activity as just keeping fit and active. Like going to the gym, or something.”

Not my most intellectual contribution to a group discussion. Fortunately, after a brief awkward pause, everyone present saw the funny side of it, myself included (eventually). Suffice it to say, we at cell group are now firm believers in waiting until after marriage before you go running, or work out on the treadmill to your hearts’ content.

Joking aside, I think one of the best things for me is the time we take to analyse the meaning behind much of what we read in the bible. I’ve found that regular church services, great though they can be, can get a little bit routine at times: turn up, play violin in Music Team, listen to reading, have someone comment on violin playing/ask after parents, go home and continue with day.

It’s sharing personal beliefs at a deeper level with friends and question anything that doesn’t make sense that helps me to understand the concept of faith. Being an overly analytical autistic introvert means that just thinking and believing what I’m expected to without reflecting on it doesn’t come naturally. This may be a strength, it may be a weakness, or, as is often the case, it may be me and my “special” brain, unable to understand things like a “normal” person. But hey, as our favourite cliché goes, “there is no such thing as normal”. How true.