Revd Samantha Sheehan – Reflection
Sam trained alongside Phil (who introduced and then married her to her husband, Peter) at Westminster college and after a first pastorate in Kent, she now works as the URC chaplain at Leeds University and as URC ‘minister to young people’. This is her reflection.
Job 2.11-13 Luke 24.13-29
Accompaniment Presence Journey Mentor ‘I don’t know’
Honest Open Present Relevant Space Being alongside
Time Questions Love Genuine Authentic Belong
Some random words? Some words which we can associate with our readings. Some words which I associate with as a university chaplain. Some words which we all can associate with as followers of Christ. Some words for the church to consider.
I have been in my current role for 19 months, as university chaplain and exploring how churches can engage with 18-25 year old.
In a nut-shell – Young adults are looking for places where they can belong; places where they can give, serve, have an impact and connect with other people.
They are wanting safe places to explore ideas – ask difficult questions, push boundaries – as well as explore their identity – who they are and what they believe in.
They don’t want to be given answers, or to fit into a precast model, but to forge their own way in the world, find their own path and to make a difference.
They believe they have something to offer, something to give, but it might not be what we expect of them.
We just need to look at the response of the call for climate action and the school strikes – Young people will not be silent when they believe in the cause and seek for real change to happen.
They are also people who are seeking – maybe without knowing what is it they are looking for.
(I say all this, as someone who identifies with all of this too as a millennial – born 1985, aged 34)
But they do not believe the church is the place for any of this to happen – they don’t see the church as a safe place to express doubts or to ask questions. They don’t believe that they or their friends will be accepted in a church, and they don’t recognise a church as a place to belong to explore their identity.
Churches are old fashioned, out of touch with the real world. They are places where people are criticised, told how to behave, what to think, they don’t see what difference being a Christian makes – they are not seeing the transformative presence of God within the life of the church or the lives of its members.
And that is the problem and challenge – because I think a lot of churches are wanting these sorts of people – they want the enthusiasm and life; they want to be place where young people (or indeed anyone) can grow and learn about the love of God for themselves. And even more importantly I believe that God is wanting these sorts of people to be builders and stewards of the Kingdom of God (even with their strange dress sense, many piercings, and random hair colours and styles – that me being stereotypical now).
My favourite sentence in the whole of the bible say’s this, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Taken from the middle of Psalm 139. We are all made by God’s hand with a purpose, to be unique in ourselves, and yet part of the greater body of humanity. To be passionate and determined, while living together in community. Fearfully and wonderfully made.
There is something here for me which not only speak to me of who I am, but also of who I am to God, as well as who everyone else is to God. fearfully and wonderfully made.
This seems a good starting point.
I don’t want us to get too caught up on the doom and gloom, or to argue about where we feel as a church we are welcoming and accepting. Instead I want to offer a model – a biblical model of what it might look like for the church and for us as individual Christians to engage with young adults, or actually what is might look like for us to engage with anyone – because we are all looking for somewhere to belong, to identify with and experience something of love, mercy and grace – and the unique thing about a church is this is the only place where those things can be found all together – no other community group can offer the same thing.
We had two readings this morning, one form the Old Testament – the book of Job and the second from the Gospel of Luke which is the New Testament. Both of these readings have something in common and that is the way that a character interacts with another. There is a sense of intentional presence – coming alongside someone else, not to fulfil our own need but to company the other person through a part of their journey.
I would like to suggest that this is our starting point if how to engage; what is required and is the challenge for the church and for us as disciples.
How do we come alongside someone in their life?
How does the church come alongside and accompany someone through a particular part of their life?
Not for the gain of the church – in the hope that they will join the church or get involved. But because they are children of God fearfully and wonderfully made and it is our call to help them see that through showing love, mercy and grace.
In the story of Job, we have Job who has lost everything, he is scrapping the bottom of the barrel low. He has lost his home, his wealth, and his health; he goes into a state of moaning/grieving for the life he once had. Three friends come and sit with him – simple as that. At this part in the story the friends are present with Job, where he is in his grief. They don’t try to lift him out of his sorrow, they join him in it. Their comfort comes from their presence and in waiting until Job was ready to speak first.
In the same way, Jesus, the stranger to the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, was present. He joined the disciples were they where and listened to their story. It was only after listening to their story that he offered a different perspective. It was only after he journeyed with then, got to know them, understood their story and what was important to them, that he then offered an alternative narrative and helped them see the glory in their own story.
Jesus didn’t invite the disciples to come to church with him, or promised that he would have all the answers, neither did Job’s friends. In the first instant they were present – they listened, they asked questions, they took the time to hear their story.
In the past year at the chaplaincy this has become a really challenge for me, to learn what it is to be intentionally present. We have offices, a building with meeting rooms, a common room with tea/coffee, space for gatherings and a chapel/quiet space.
To begin with I spent a lot of time in my office expecting people would come to me. Expecting that people would seek the chaplaincy out to talk in times of crisis, or uncertainty. That the student body knew we where there and happy to offer support, pastoral care and encouragement. But they didn’t. And those that did know about the chaplaincy building didn’t always know it was for them and what they would find if they came through the door.
Something needed to change, and I am very grateful to my Muslim colleague who spent time listening to my hopes and expectations – gave me a dose of reality – and invited me to join her in going out into the campus community.
We take flasks of tea and coffee, with a box of snacks on to campus, often standing around the student union and we give out hot drinks to anyone who wants one. There is always shouting – Free Tea and Coffee! Free Chocolate biscuits – but that is as far as it goes, once some approached we offer them a drink, something to eat, and then we listen to them.
We are intentionally present for the students in their environment, where they are. We are guest in their lives for as long as they wish to stay.
Inevitably we will be asked why we are doing this, and we will explain where we are from. Sometimes we get the opportunity to talk a little more about the other things the chaplaincy does and offer an open invitation for them to come and find out more for themselves. But that is not our intention, we are not there to drum up business for the chaplaincy. Our intention is to be present.
To start building back-up that lost sense of trust… to break down the barriers – the assumption that the church – and anything associated with the church/faith/religions – is not to be trusted by simply showing the gracious generosity of God’s love which asks for nothing in return!
But how does this translate into the life of a local church, what does it mean for a local church to be intentionally present and open to a community – especially to a community which thinks the church is out of date and hostile place to be.
It means local churches and individuals disciples need to do the same.
It means we need to roll up our sleeves and go and be where our community is, to listen and find out what matters most to them, what are their joys and celebration and what are their challenges and problems. It is for us to be physically present in their lives, not to always sit in our buildings but to find where they gather and when we are invited – and we will be invited – to offer an alternative narrative, to offer something of gracious love of God that asks noting in return. Not because we want a response from them, but because they are fearfully and wonderfully made and we want them to know that.
That is our starting point.