Team's blog 

Here you will find the latest thoughts from our vicar Mark and other members of the staff team

 

Questionnaire Responses & Team Update

We've heard from you...

Thank you all so much for taking the time to fill out our questionnaire on emerging from lockdown. We have been hugely encouraged by the general themes that have come from your thoughtful input and are grateful for the depth and detail with which you have shared.
 
Although we cannot cover every point that was brought up in the written sections of the form, be assured that every entry has been read and thought through.  In some cases the suggestions made have already been prayerfully acted upon, and in others, time, discernment and guidance from the government and Church of England are still required before we can make any further decisions.
 
There are many things that the questionnaire makes very clear. The first is that the St Mary of Bethany family would like to continue with our pattern of two services on a Sunday, with an additional 8am Holy Communion once a month. This is certainly a pattern we want to get back to, but it will take time. The questionnaire does suggest that for us to get back to a more normal level of attendance in the church building, all restrictions will need to have been lifted and singing permitted. Once that happens, we will need to secure enough volunteers to make our services both viable and safe. Not everyone who was serving eighteen months ago, feels safe or called to continue as they were. Half of our volunteers are looking forward to getting back to what they were doing pre pandemic, but many are not sure they want to go back to what they were doing previously, conversely, some, who weren’t volunteering before, want to start now. Hopefully as our small groups offer the Shape Course over the next year, some of us will discover new ways to use our gifts!
 
Many of us are very content in our small groups, and feel they have been a significant support to us during the pandemic.  Others are not finding their small group helpful, and still others are not yet part of a small group.  Please get in touch with us if you would like to join a small group, or want to consider joining a different one.  There are so many benefits to being part of a small community, we even have a thriving permanently online one as a result of the pandemic.
 
Many of you enjoyed meeting centrally on Zoom for teaching; Home Group Central and the ‘Living His Story’ lent course were both well attended and well received. The questionnaire strongly suggests that these kind of courses would be more widely attended if they were held online as opposed to in person, we will take this, and those who prefer in person, into account when planning future teaching and courses. A few of you are regular attendees at Morning prayer which is held each morning on zoom, the vast majority of you are unable attend, but some of you have shown an interest in attending in the future. Please join us online here Monday to Friday at 9am.
 
Most of us want to get back to in person worship, but not all in the same time frame; many are back already, but some won’t return until all the restrictions are removed, and we can sing. All children’s group members including youth, wish to get back to in person either as soon as possible, or when all restrictions have been removed, again we will need to recruit more volunteers before this can happen fully. There is a significant number who intend to continue attending church online regularly and almost all said they would access online church in the event of not being able to make it to church physically. Online church is, as we have stated from the beginning of the pandemic, here to stay, one service will be broadcast each week, which service is broadcast and how often, is yet to be decided.
 
The majority of us are feeling positive as we come out of the pandemic, but some still feel anxious. We recognise that each one of us approaches the ‘new normal’ with different expectations and concerns. Some are keen to mix, give and receive hugs, others are less keen - we need to respect each other and give ourselves time and space to adjust to what is a very new reality.
 
We thank God for sustaining us through this period of exile from each other. Many of us have found ourselves attending church as much or more than we did pre pandemic, with only a few saying their attendance had dropped.
 
Please continue to pray and seek God as we navigate this coming season together.   
 

And we thought you might like to hear from us...

From Jess & Sharon, our Office Manager & Office Administrator:

Sharon has been at the Church building to welcome people, in the week; to answer any queries as we get busier for things such as room hire; supporting ministries; sending paper copies of our blog and notices to those who cannot access the website; working alongside our wardens to keep the Church Covid safe and other general admin duties.

Jess has been dealing with queries around marriages and the reading of Banns, keeping our social medias and weekly notices on the website up to date; putting together rotas; general support of staff and ministry meetings; safer recruiting duties and supporting the Lay Chair of the PCC with essential PCC secretary duties.


From Tina, our Young Families' Minister:

Sunday School - We are sending emails out every week to our families, with activity sheets which allow the family to look together at the theme and with colouring, puzzles etc. Often, we send extra resources that we think the children may enjoy. These are produced by Together at Home Church Resources and have been very enjoyable. Tina, Kate and Joel make a video each week to support the theme and this is available on the St Mary of Bethany YouTube channel if you would like to see what we are up to! We are currently running a series about David.

Bethany Babes – Under the current guidelines we have been able to reopen a small pre booked group called Bethany Babes Out and In on both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. We are basing our activities mainly outside in the garden, with sit and rides in the halls. We met for the first time on the 1st and 2nd of June and it was a bit emotional as the families were so glad to be back and we were so happy to see them. Please pray for continued good weather so that we can make the most of the space.


From Kate, our Children's Minister:

In Fun Club at Barnsbury School we have just finished teaching Year’s 3 and 5 outside with outside fitness sessions and this next term we will be teaching Years 4 and 6. The children love keeping fit outside and it has been such a pleasure getting to know them and inviting them even to our events like the Alice Trail.

FNC has started up this term every Friday and the children are loving playing outside with football and games and our pool / table tennis and table football is still very popular. The God Slot with tuck is still a wonderful way of bringing the children together and thinking about important questions. We do all these activities in a very covid safe way and the children are loving being together again.


From Dave, our Youth Minister:

Awaiting new guidance 14th/21st June.
 
Pathfinders is back on Sunday mornings 10.30am – 11.30 am in Youth room. Cell groups are still going.
 
Schools work is still slow going but I will be going in to Christ’s College to lead a few Alpha sessions as part of the RE curriculum in June, and into Hoe Valley School for detached work with Year 7’s.
 
RAFAC – have 25 new recruits and I will be doing my first sessions with them over this next month as well as meeting with the other 30 plus cadets.
 
Thinking of running a Youth Alpha in September/October 2021.
 
Shortage of volunteers, even if there is new guidance we cannot open everything up to young people.


From Joel, our New Wine Discipleship Year Intern:

The past few weeks I have been working with Kate, Tina and Dave as we start up our weekly groups in person again such as Bethany Babes, Fun Club at Barnsbury and meeting face to face for our weekly Cell and Sunday morning youth groups! Alongside this I've been working with Engage again recording and editing material and content for their summer assembly which will go live in the next week.

From Sarah, our Curate:

The last few weeks I have been focused on The Living in Love and Faith course. I am currently leading the pilot course on a Tuesday evening and doing it with the online small group on a Wednesday. Please get in touch with me if you would like to go on the list for the next available course.

As I approach the end of my second year of curacy, I have my ongoing study portfolio to put together and complete; this involves reflecting on all the different areas of ministry that I have been involved in during my time at St Mary of Bethany, some of which have been completely unexpected as a result of the pandemic! I continue to oversee our pastoral team, lead worship and preach, and although I miss him, I am really enjoying assisting Bekah as she leads us through Mark’s EMDL.


And from Bekah, our Associate Vicar:

I am enjoying being able to meet and get to know more of the St Mary of Bethany church family and also getting more connected locally and within the diocese. I am working with the team as we continue to navigate this recovery season, listening to God, our church community and the wider community.

After a great Alpha Course in the spring, we're currently running The Bible Course for our Alpha guests and I continue to prioritise helping us to think about mission and evangelism. I meet regularly with the Woking Evangelists' Network for encouragement, equipping and joint working in evangelism and am currently involved in a number of different conversations reflecting on what it means for mission and evangelism not just to be something we do, but to be at the heart of who we are as a community, and what it means to be a church where everyone belongs.

 
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Who we are, not what we do

As I head off on leave, I have a few thoughts about our life together at St Mary of Bethany in this ‘recovery’ season. Over the last fourteen months, many of you have taken an enforced sabbatical from church ministry. For some, this rest has been refreshing, even when you combine it with the many losses and traumas of lockdown. But it has left a small number of people carrying the burden of a great deal of our church’s ministry. Don’t get me wrong: we have been called to this, for this season, and it has been a joy to serve and see others growing too.

Now, as restrictions are being lifted, we look forward to a more ‘normal’ situation emerging, even if this doesn’t happen completely on 21 June. The break has given us all an opportunity to reflect with God on the new season we’re entering. As we’ve always said, some of our ministries won’t restart; some will relaunch in a new form; others will look much the same. For some of you, God is calling you to leave aside something you’ve put down over the last year; maybe he’s calling you to take up something new too.

We recently launched the Shape Course, to help you think about your unique gifts, enthusiasms, life experiences and calling, and the first group is likely to start the course in June. This is offered as a tool to help you engage with the Holy Spirit’s calling in this new season. If you’re in a homegroup, speak to your leader about doing the course as a group; if you’re not yet in a group, contact the Office to say you’d be interested in an upcoming course. It’s a really useful way to go deeper in your journey with God.

Working with Associate Vicar Bekah and Curate Sarah has been a great blessing to me and to the Church since lockdown. One of the things we’ve noticed is what an activist church St Mary’s is: we do a lot of things. As we’ve started thinking about being a truly intergenerational community, one thing people at church have often said is, ‘What do we need to do?’ But we think God is calling us to be, not just to do¸ in this new season.

There are many things which get said of our church: we’re a safe place for people with messy lives, if Carlsberg made churches…, we’re God’s transforming people in our parish, and so on. One of the things Bekah is helping us to think through in her role heading up our mission and evangelism, is what intergenerational church means: a community where everyone at every age and stage of life is equally welcomed, valued and plays a part. In my sermon for Pentecost last Sunday (available to watch on our YouTube feed here), I talked about some of the people of God who have blessed me in my life. Some of them were never aware of the blessing they were.

We want St Mary’s to be a place where you can bring yourself, and where we help people to take the next step on their walk with God, but also where we make the most of the blessing that you are. The fact is that you don’t know how you will bless the people around you; it could be as simple as the smile you give someone, an encouraging word or a prayer offered up silently. I have been blessed by the unconscious, the incapable and the sick, as much as by the energetic, the fun and the thoughtful.

Part of our journey to being an intergenerational church will be to spell out some of our values. Schools do this well: these days every school has a set of values which help define their community and which the children learn, things like ‘resilience’, ‘determination’ and so on. As we work through our vision and planning cycle over the autumn and winter, we will set out some words or phrases which sum up who we are at St Mary’s – what sort of community we are, how it feels to be here. It’s a slightly more nebulous thing than setting out our vision, but it will help people outside the Church to get a feel for who we are; what the Church ‘smells like’.

This summer brings opportunities to step back gently into our Church community, at whatever rate and in whatever space you feel most comfortable. If you’re planning to come back to Church onsite, talk to our team about what we can do to help you. If you’re desperate to get back to a particular service or ministry that’s still suspended, pray and engage with the obstacles which may exist to restarting in our context.

One concern that some leaders have around online church is that it may have pushed some people into being passive recipients of church, because it’s something you can access in the same way as you would a TV programme. As churches everywhere grapple with what it means to be a hybrid church (one where some ministry is onsite, some is online and some is both), I encourage you not to be passive. As a wise member of our Leadership Vison Team said last week, ‘Don’t be the person sitting complaining that you want a cup of tea; be the person who puts the kettle on.’ There’s a subtle distinction between your starting point being a place of ‘being rather than doing’, and becoming a consumer of something which is being done to you.

I leave you in the capable hands of Bekah, Sarah and Youth Minister Dave, with one last piece of advice. Paul writes to the youthful church leader Timothy, ‘Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.’ (1 Timothy 4:12) We are blessed with Bekah as our Acting Incumbent for this season, someone who is comfortably younger than the average St Mary’s member. We are used to having younger people in leadership (for example former curates Barney and Zoe), but perhaps Bekah also brings something new as a single woman.

In our culture, young women leaders often receive casual sexism and condescension. In a church context this is probably quite unintentional most of the time. If the last fourteen months has taught me anything as a middle-aged, middle class white man, it is that I come from a place of immense privilege compared to many other people: for example, the woman who has to plan carefully how to get home from a night out; the black doctor with a nice car who needs to put a soft toy in the back window to avoid getting pulled over regularly by the police; the young man with learning difficulties to whom people are routinely rude or short-tempered at the shops. My work with curates sometimes depresses me, when I hear what young women leaders occasionally have to put up with. I have found St Mary’s to be the kindest and most generous church community in which I have served. Be the best you can be with your leaders in this season.

This blog will be a bit quieter in the next few weeks, but do keep an eye on it for developments at St Mary’s. And keep praying for each other and all of us; God has great plans and it’s an exciting time to be part of his kingdom! 


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Music and worship at St Mary of Bethany - an open letter to our musicians

I'm contacting all our musicians at St Mary of Bethany to say hello, we haven't forgotten you, and to let you know where things are at church before I go on Extended Ministerial Development Leave next week. Thank you for all you've done over this last fourteen months, even if you have been taking a break from our music. his period of Sabbath rest will bear great fruit in our church's life.

This is an 'open letter' which has been sent to all our active musicians.

This season of April-August has been called the 'recovery' season, a time to start trying more 'normal' things in a low-key as restrictions are gradually lifted, while we look forward to the autumn as a 'restart' season. People are in different places emotionally, practically and spiritually; we are experiencing a fair degree of anxiety in people of all ages, and quite a lot of grumpiness. There are tensions between 'now' and 'not yet', weariness with restrictions, impatience to get 'back to normal' and frustration with the limited nature of what we are able to do.

The hardest thing about church for most musicians since Covid is not being able to sing. We still have no idea when this rule will be relaxed; the next set of announcements is due on 14 June to take effect on 21 June, but there is no guarantee that this will be included. Similarly we hope for a reduction in social distancing to 1m and ultimately to zero at some stage, but we have no idea when.

Our 10.30am Sunday service is nearly full, and we have launched a church-wide questionnaire available here (and on paper from the office) to take the temperature of the church family and help us determine the best ways forward. The majority of people onsite would normally attend our 9.15 service; we don't expect to welcome back most children and families until we can run Sunday groups onsite. The guidance on this is developing all the time; at the moment we are looking to restart onsite youth work on a Sunday morning, but our building's limitations mean work for primary-aged children is too challenging to restart just yet. So far we have had nearly 100 responses to the questionnaire; we are going to set a closing date around 30 May. One way to increase our capacity onsite a little would be to have a booking system, as we could set out the exact sets of chairs we need, with a few extra for those who just turn up.

Once we are able to see the responses, we can start to make decisions about whether and how to move our services forward. We are unlikely to move away from our single 10.30am service before mid-September. I am going on leave for the summer, so we will not have enough service and worship leaders to cover two services. It would also put a lot of pressure on our already stretched tech team. Given that we normally have a 10.30 service throughout August, any change we would make in the next half of term would only be for a few weeks. Rather we will use this time to prepare for the autumn 'restart' season.

We are looking to start having some live music in our services over the summer. This is more complex than you might think, as the tech team has to mix the sound in the building and online. As we have done all the way through Covid, we will start small, with a guitar/singer or keyboard/singer, for just one or two songs in a service, and then build out as we feel confident. This will be a process of improvisation and it will be slower than some people would like. Please be patient! Bekah, Sarah, Dave, Ray and I are in touch with the other worship leaders; at the moment we are not keen to have much live music before we are allowed to sing together - we are conscious of the sense of 'performance' that this might bring. But we need to work behind-the-scenes to get ready.

A small group of singers from the 9.15 service is looking to get together in the church building regularly on a weekday, to get used to singing again after the long break. Beate Shaw is taking a lead on this.

The autumn will also be a new season in my ministry, as we will make the most of having a Vicar, Associate Vicar and Curate working together for the next year or so. I will be taking a more active role in organising and resourcing our worship, training up musicians and leaders. I will step into some of the gaps left when Daren left, which we always planned to own in the team once we had a full complement of ministers. As Bekah only joined us in lockdown last year, there has not been the opportunity to do this yet. Please pray for me over my break, and into the new season, as there will be other ministries I will need to let go off, or which do not restart, to facilitate this.

As we've been thinking about spiritual gifts in church, and launching the Shape Course, it is certain that we will not see everyone serving at SMOB in the same ways they were doing before Covid. It is also certain that the Holy Spirit is stirring up gifts and talents in new people too. This will be an exciting time if we can take God's hand and let the Spirit lead us. Unpredictable, on the edge - exactly where God calls us to be as his transforming people in our parish.


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Why vicars need a break

In three weeks’ time, on 28 May, I will begin three months of Extended Ministerial Development Leave (which was formerly known as a sabbatical). The very wonderful team at St Mary of Bethany will lead without me over the summer, under Associate Vicar Bekah, Curate Sarah and Youth Minister Dave.

The Church of England has long recognised the value of an extended rest period for full-time, paid ministers every seven years or so. In Guildford Diocese this rolls round seven years after you begin a post of first responsibility (when you become the priest in charge of a church or an Associate Vicar), and, if you move parishes, you lose a year. Working this out needed all my fingers and toes: I was appointed as Vicar of Lightwater in 2012, moved to St Mary of Bethany in 2017, so was due my leave in 2020. It was in the diary and I had just announced it via this blog…and you know what happened next.

So here I am, nine years into incumbency, having piloted the good ship St Mary’s through the choppy waters of Covid. I was in good company in my decision to delay (the Bishop of Guildford did the same and is on leave now; the Archbishop of Canterbury is going on leave this summer), but it’s been an exceptionally tough and costly year for every church leader.

What does a sabbatical look like?
It looks like an extended period of rest; an opportunity to kick back and smell the flowers, to enjoy the things God has given you and wants to give you. For an activist like me, it’s the opportunity to stop. I am trying to resist the temptation to have an ever-lengthening to-do list of household chores or things I want to achieve. I will do some writing: some children’s stories, a novel I started 25 years ago, and I will do some theological thinking about waiting – how I’m in a hurry but God wants me to wait. The Bible tells us many stories of people who waited: Abraham, Moses, Mary, Zechariah…it rarely explores how this must have felt for those people. I will visit friends and family, and go back to places I love. I will invest in good times, shared experiences and making memories. I will take lots of photos. I will let go of many things, the better to take hold of others.

For some clergy, this leave involves extended pilgrimage, retreat or study. It’s an opportunity to spend time in different, inspiring work learning new things.
‘But what is so special about a vicar’s role that you need all this time out?’ I hear you cry. I thought I’d share some of the Things I Kind Of Knew About Pastoring But Didn’t Really Understand The Implications When I Agreed To Do It. 

The six-day week
When I quit my job in book publishing in 2003 to go and work for a church, I didn’t actually realise that paid ministry involves a six-day week until about two weeks before I moved. I certainly didn’t work through all the implications of this.

On the plus side…married clergy can co-ordinate days off with their spouse, to have quality time together with cheap cinema tickets and places to go which aren’t stuffed full of the weekend crowd. Singletons can enjoy long lunches with friends and, if you work the timing well, you can get away for a couple of nights. You can work flexibly over your working week.

On the minus side…you lose any real prospect of a full weekend away. (You’re allowed six Sundays off per year.) You don’t get to worship at other churches or to visit friends in different parts of the country easily. Of the things I’m looking forward to most in my leave, one is to visit a few sets of friends and family in far-flung parts of the country for the weekend – it feels like a real luxury and it’s something I really miss doing. I haven’t spent quality time with some of my closest friends for 15 years or more.

The things you hold and the cost of loving your flock
Someone said a good pastor needs a soft heart and hard feet; you need to be able to love people, to be able to walk through dark and difficult places with them and help them find the way with God. It is a massive privilege to be allowed into some of those spaces, for example to be alongside someone as they die, perhaps as the only person they know who can hold their hand and pray with them as they take their journey home. There is great joy and fulfilment in being God’s Right Person In The Right Place At The Right Time, but it can be costly too.

It is a joy to walk alongside people at all sorts of stages of life, sharing their stories, being asked for advice or prayer; the bread-and-butter work of a pastor. But it’s hard to hold some of those things too. My heart has been broken several times: the morning I stood at the front of All Saints’ Lightwater and realised that I’d lost a whole row of faithful veterans in the last 18 months. The times people have told me in very matter-of-fact terms about the abuse they suffered as children. There have been difficult conversations when I’ve had to call out a situation where someone’s behaviour needed challenging.

It takes a particular set of skills to hold together the complex emotional landscapes involved in funerals, or in other church services in moments of crisis. Some moments will never leave me: a father my age bringing into church a tiny coffin, no larger than a hat-box, containing the remains of his twin daughters, born prematurely; the funeral of a four-year-old boy who died from sepsis after contracting chicken pox; the mother-of-two who died of cancer aged 49, telling her two daughters of her illness just 48 hours before the end. I have learned so much from these people, and at the bedsides of the dying, and it is always a unique privilege to be allowed into a family’s life at such an important and intimate moment.

‘Where do you go with the tough stuff?’ a pastorally-minded parishioner asked me recently. It’s a good question; clergy have to figure this stuff out for themselves, by and large. I was fortunate to be pointed towards a spiritual director at the start of my ordained ministry, whom I have met with regularly ever since, for guidance, gentle wisdom and prayer. I have learned to make time around funerals and challenging pastoral encounters, to give myself space to process them emotionally and spiritually, and I have found safe people to help too, principally my remarkable wife. Some weeks I do very little of this kind of work; others it can be all-consuming. If the reasonable worst-case scenario is very bad, you can’t always just clock off. This work is largely unseen by parishioners until they experience it themselves. You can always ask to see a minister and we will always make the time, whether you want a sounding board, someone to pray with or whatever it is.

The show must go on
Pastors work hard to be a non-anxious presence in church services every week, to slow down, talk to people and not be in too much of a rush to do whatever job needs doing before or after the service. Some weeks this is easier than others. I remember one week when a colleague took a service after experiencing a terrible personal tragedy the night before. Five minutes before the service they were weeping and in pieces. I offered to take the service for them; they decided to do it, and God honoured what they did in an amazing way. The vast majority of people there were oblivious to what was going on under the surface, which is only right. It’s a great truth of the Christian faith that God honours what you bring him in faith; he uses what you have and, if he calls you to do something, he equips you to do it too. He does not want what you do not have. There are weeks when you have to put aside the maelstrom inside you, put your hand to the pump and do your stuff, because it’s what you do.

An amazing truth about the Holy Spirit is that whenever I think my work is in vain, when I would have liked to spend more time on a sermon or a service, it goes ahead of me and makes sure it all lands in people’s hearts. I have lost count of the times when someone has said, ‘That was just for me today.’ So often I was thinking of someone else when I prepared – I looked around to see they weren’t even there, and God had another plan. If prophecy involves the bringing of God’s word into people’s lives, then the simple act of doing it week in, week out is hugely powerful. It’s immense when someone tells you they’ve never heard a Christian truth or a Bible story explained like that before, and it suddenly makes sense for the first time. At the same time, when God puts someone on your heart, but you just don’t know how to approach them or what to say, he brings the conversation round in his perfect timing.

The public role and the goldfish bowl
Any public leadership role brings with it a degree of expectation from people. In some ways my job is similar to a headteacher or MP: everyone thinks they know what you ought to be doing, and everyone has a view on whether you’re doing it well or not. People project many things on to priests and have all sorts of expectations, both reasonable and unreasonable. Someone said that the art of leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can cope with! I have developed a rhino-thick skin; you have to try very hard indeed to offend me and I am almost impossible to shock. On the other hand, I’ve found that some people take offence at the most extraordinarily trivial things.

In a previous parish, I was sent in the direction of a couple whom I had never met, but who were very cross with me. Apparently they had once said hello, only to have me blank them. Given that I had no recollection of the encounter and I don’t make a habit of being rude, I can’t have heard them speak to me. A short, friendly conversation broke the ice and put things back on track. The man who sent me in their direction, an understanding son of a clergyman himself, said, ‘In your position it’s remarkably easy to cause unintentional umbrage.’

Vicars (and their families, if they have them) have the great privilege of living in a nice house rent-free, with some of our bills paid and basic home maintenance organised for us. The flipside of this is that we live in a goldfish bowl. People know where you live; they observe your comings and goings; they sometimes have a sense of ownership. You meet parishioners at the supermarket. If you have a family, their demeanour is duly noted. Clergy spouses have a role which is unofficial, unwritten and for which they get no formal preparation. Setting up and navigating boundaries around work and family life can feel like trying to hit a moving target. People talk about work/life balance, but that puts the two things in tension. I prefer to talk about a blended life; one where everything has a place and a season.

Parishioners sometimes push at those boundaries. In a previous job, someone cut my front lawn without asking, because they thought it was overgrown and looked a mess. I think it was intended as a kind act; I received it as judgemental and intrusive. If you want to cut my lawn, ask me if that’s something I would like; for all you know, I might be cultivating a wildflower meadow or a hedgehog sanctuary! Another clergyperson told me that they were entertaining people in their home when they found people going upstairs to the bedrooms without asking.
We receive cranky communications, sometimes anonymously. Any anonymous, hostile communication is an aggressive act. Sensible clergy will not respond to anything which does not have a name on it.

The flipside of this is that we receive a lot of kindness, love and prayers from all sorts of people. One of the great privileges of ministry is that people I have never met pray for me. We are loved and looked after in all sorts of ways. Anonymous mail isn’t always negative, but can be appreciative. Sometimes there’s a card or gift to say thank you, a cake on the doorstep or a casserole, just when you need it.

God willing, I will return for a new season on 13 September – who knows where we will all be by then? I am confident that God has plenty for me to do at St Mary’s yet, so rest assured that I will not arrive back and announce that I’m leaving. I leave you in the capable hands of our wonderful team, who will help navigate through the rest of this ‘recovery’ season. We have learned to slow down through the last year; the summer will involve low-key ways to get back to onsite church, and chances to meet face-to-face again for quality time. You’ll be continuing to make decisions about what comes next. We will emerge into what should be a more stable autumn, where our ministry can flourish in new ways and old. God’s got the plan, and he’ll tell us when he’s ready, if we wait for him.


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The road map, SMOB and you

As we journey through ‘the great unlocking’, it’s useful to check in on where things are for us as a church. Throughout the pandemic we have sought to communicate clearly what we are doing and why, whilst listening to our people and to the Holy Spirit. We continue to live through a time which has been incredibly unstable, where so much of normal life has been suspended without any firm commitment to when it will return.

We continue to move towards our ‘new normal’, and the government assures us that their road map is on track. It’s worth understanding just what this means for us as a church. Government announcements are often calibrated to give you the good news (understandably); but when you dig into the details, things are more complicated. Gaps are emerging between people’s expectations of what we will be allowed to do, and what we can do practically in our situation. The constant ‘drip, drip’ of announcements from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland does not promote clarity in understanding which rules each of us is supposed to be following at this moment.

How government guidance works
When the road map was first announced, the Prime Minister stated clearly that nothing in it was guaranteed. As we approach each key date, announcements are being made a week in advance of the changes. Most recently, the formal announcement that shops and outdoor hospitality could definitely open on 12 April was made on 5 April. As long as the road map holds, we can be confident of some of the things that will change on 17 May (including indoor hospitality, two households staying overnight in the same home and foreign travel), but it is important to remember that none of these are likely to be confirmed until 10 May. We have to continue to hold lightly to our plans, however challenging that might be.

This also goes for the final date on the road map: 21 June. We simply do not know whether or not this will mark the end of all Covid restrictions. Among Church leaders there is a strong sense that some degree of restrictions is likely to continue; we do not expect a complete end to social distancing, mask wearing in shops and so on. But we have no inside knowledge and it is clear that everything will remain under review until an announcement is made on 14 June.

It’s important to understand that a government announcement is only the beginning of the story for our church and every other organisation. SMOB works within seven different types of guidance: we are a place of worship covered by the Church of England, we are a workplace covered by the Department for Work and Pensions, our youth and children’s work is covered by the National Youth Agency, our pre-school work by Early Years and so on.

When a government announcement is made, each of these organisations takes time to digest the new rules and contextualise them. Sometimes this takes days, but it can take weeks. A government announcement is rarely clear enough to be interpreted in our context without any further guidance. For example, the government announced a relaxation of restrictions on weddings from 8 March, but it took several days to clarify whether this meant weddings could only take place in exceptional circumstances, or whether they could resume more generally. It is not hard to imagine how this plays out pastorally on the ground.

Once we receive full guidance from the relevant body, we need then to contextualise it ourselves for SMOB. Since we first locked down, we have had to work out principles to do this as we have gone along. Our starting point has always been our church vision and values. (We will be giving some thought to defining our key values when we next review our vision and plan at the end of the year.)

For example, it’s important to us that our children’s and youth work is really fun and appealing for children. We could run groups for children on a Sunday now, but the current rules governing this are so restrictive when you look at the context of our building, that it is impossible to do them well. However, the guidance for midweek groups is different, so it’s great news that we are restarting our youth cell groups very soon. They will meet outdoors unless the weather is bad, in which case they will be inside.

Here’s a worked example: part of the announcement on 5 April was that parent and toddler groups could reopen, prompting a flurry of excitement among Bethany Babes families. On closer inspection, the guidance is very restrictive of which groups can restart – small groups essential to health and welfare are permitted, but not something as free-flowing and mixed as Bethany Babes. So the headlines can be misleading; the devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Our road map at SMOB
We continue to watch the evolving guidance, to listen to our church family and the Holy Spirit. If we haven’t announced something, it’s not because we are keeping it quiet; we just haven’t decided. Talk to us! If you have a question, ask.

With our Sunday services, it’s been fantastic to see people coming back to church. If the building reaches capacity within the next few weeks, as it will on current trends, we will make a decision about whether to move back to two services. This decision impacts on service leaders, preachers, our tech team and our musicians; we are in discussion about it, but we are not ready to decide yet. For church family members who plan to come back on to our site, do talk to others about what needs to happen for you to come back, and be understanding that people are in a variety of different places on this. For example, many of our families are unlikely to be on-site on Sunday morning until we can safely run children’s and youth groups. Some of our senior adults cannot move around safely without assistance from someone else. If you are staying online-only, we are committed to live-streaming one service every week on a permanent basis. Do get in touch, sign up to our website and ask us about joining a small group.

With live music, we are now allowed to have a minimal band or organ playing on Sundays, but we have not actioned this yet, because of the need to ensure that the sound mix is as good for those online as it is on-site, and also because we need to make sure that a good number of our musicians will be happy to serve on-site again. We do not yet know when singing will be allowed indoors.

With other ministry, we will continue to offer a hybrid of online and on-site. Currently Morning Prayer remains online-only; at some stage this is likely to change. We will lose some people if we go 100% on-site with no online, and this will affect our decision-making. Our Living His Story course and blog was a big hit, so we will probably do more short-term online-only courses over time.

I hope this helps you to understand how we’re navigating this unusual time. Do talk to our staff, PCC members, ministry team or homegroup leaders and make sure you stay informed, give us feedback and ask questions. And pray! Above all please pray.
 
 


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Reflecting on Prince Philip

A guest blog from Major General Tim Cross, from a talk given in Aldershot on 14 April

One the greatest privileges of serving in the Army for over 40 years was the opportunity to meet members of the Royal family for one reason or another, both here in the UK and when deployed abroad. So, whilst I’m not convinced that what I’m about to say will add much to the corpus of knowledge that you will all have gained over the last few days from reading the papers and listening to the TV and radio broadcasts about Prince Philip’s life, I’m nonetheless humbled to have been asked to offer a couple of thoughts.
 
My abiding memory of Prince Philip comes from the commemorations for the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. The UK’s 3rd Division, whose predecessors had landed on Sword and Gold beaches back in June 1944, were given the responsibility of organising a week-long series of events - from celebrating the securing of Pegasus Bridge with a parachute drop by the then 5 Airborne Brigade based here in Aldershot, to commemorating those who had died in the months following D-Day in the war cemeteries in Bayeux and elsewhere.
 
I was lucky enough to be made responsible for the culmination of events - the final parade of the veterans at Arromanche, when around 11,000 gathered on the beaches from all over the UK; many for the first time since 1944.  
 
Apart from the mechanics of organising the whole event – particularly trying to ensure that we got everyone off the beach before the tide came in and drowned large numbers of veterans who had survived the original landings - for me the most worrying thing was that there were going to be more members of the Royal family on foreign soil than at any other time in history. Every senior member, other than the Queen Mother, who was poorly, were there - with the Queen and Prince Philip taking the salute from the back of a Landrover that drove along the beach in front of the parade.
 
Prince Philip clearly thrived on being with the veterans. All the Royal family were wonderful with them, but his easy warmth as he chatted and swapped stories was evident to everyone he spoke with. Apart from the Queen herself, he was of course the only family member who had lived through those heady days.
 
He had fought with great courage as a Sub-Lieutenant on the battleship HMS Valiant at the battle of Cape Matapan in 1941, when, together with her sister ships - Warspite and Ramillies - Valiant destroyed two Italian heavy cruisers in less than five minutes, to be followed by a third, along with two destroyers.
 
Two years later, during the invasion of Sicily, he was the First Lieutenant on the destroyer HMS Wallace, saving the ship from a night bombing raid by launching a raft, using smoke floats as a decoy.
 
He also served in the Far East on the destroyer HMS Whelp, helping to rescue two men shot down by Japanese fighters; subsequently meeting one of them, Petty Officer (Airman) Norman Richardson at the Field of Remembrance in Westminster Abbey in 2013. And he was on board HMS Whelp in Tokyo Bay on 2 Sep 1945, when the Japanese Foreign Minister surrendered on board the USS Missouri; and later he recalled the horrors of seeing former POWs returning from their camps. 
 
One of the last British servicemen not only to have seen action in World War Two, but to have literally witnessed its end, he ended the War as one of the Navy’s youngest First Lieutenants. And, if he had stayed in, he would almost certainly have gone on to have a glittering naval career.
 
Like many in the military he, and, I have to say, Princess Anne, didn’t suffer fools gladly. Living under relentless scrutiny, there were times when the media tried to stir up trouble, but unlike so many public figures who find it difficult to speak out without parroting the latest woke views, he spoke common sense in plain English; which I for one found refreshing.
 
His Awards Scheme is perhaps the best example of his combination of humanity and effectiveness. Millions of young people around the world have taken on the personal challenge, including my eldest son, Alexander, who completed the Gold Award alongside thousands of others. Apparently, the Duke once scolded a boy he found walking in the grounds of Balmoral, telling him that ‘you can’t just wander about anywhere, you know’. Asking the boy what he was doing, I sense a wry smile from the Prince when he was put back in his box by the reply that the lad was doing ‘My Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme’!  
 
There was an evident toughness about him. I remember him being admitted to hospital suffering from a bladder infection the day after he stood outside in a strong wind and cold, heavy rain on a barge on the Thames alongside the Queen in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee. And how, at the age of 85, he flew out to Iraq to visit the Queen’s Royal Hussars in his role as the Regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief. And how, as the Captain General of the Royal Marines, he stood in the pouring rain on the forecourt of Buckingham Place for his last formal duty, at the age of 96.
 
Alongside this toughness, he displayed moral as well as physical courage. As a schoolboy at a German boarding school in the 1930s, he courageously stood up for an older Jewish boy being persecuted in the increasingly Nazified atmosphere. This moral courage mirrored that of his mother, whose deep religious faith meant that she saw nothing unusual in later bravely sheltering Jews in Greece from the Germans during the occupation.
 
Greek Orthodox until he converted to Anglicanism on marrying the Queen, Philip’s ties with eastern Christianity remained. His great-aunts – Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine and Tsarina Alexandra - are both martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church, having been murdered by the Bolsheviks. And his mother went on to become an Orthodox nun and a 'Righteous Among the Nations' for her actions in saving Jews.
 
His bluff manner concealed a remarkably thoughtful man, with considerable interest in theology and an impressive knowledge of the Bible - as shown in his many books, lectures and exchanges about religious issues with the Right Reverend Michael Mann, the Dean of Windsor - published as A Windsor Correspondence. Added to that, he was known to take copious notes whilst listening to sermons, before grilling the preacher afterwards; hopefully he would have cut me some slack!    
 
In one of those books, he wrote that ‘religious conviction is the strongest and probably the only factor in sustaining the dignity and integrity of the individual.’ His childhood and family experiences in WW2 prove the truth of that statement, as does a 1930s Nazi poster I have at home which declares that you can’t be a Christian and a good German.
 
In 1966 he founded St George’s House, Windsor – still a centre for meetings between different religious faiths and denominations; scientists and other believers alongside agnostics, humanists and atheists. It was a bold move back then – but it epitomised the reality that ultimately everyone is a person of 'faith'. We all see the world through the prism of our beliefs, and we make our moral and ethical choices based on those beliefs. The Windsor conversations allowed participants to explore those choices, and their eternal consequences.
 
Finally, alongside his toughness and a love of sport, adventure and challenge, what sets him apart from many was his sense of duty. The motto of the Royal Military Academy up the road at Sandhurst is ‘Serve to Lead’. In my experience, great leaders are ambitious first and foremost for their people and the cause – not for themselves. Adhering to core values, they keep an absolute and clear distinction between 'what we stand for' - which will never change - and 'how we do things' - which never stops changing.
 
A deep desire to serve; ambition for the cause; adhering to core values but constantly adapting to meet the constantly changing environment - are all epitomised by the Duke of Edinburgh, and of course by Her Majesty - who has served for almost her entire life: served her God and her people - in that order; modelling Jesus’ teaching that: ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant’. He of course was the greatest servant leader.
 
In a world that increasingly focuses on ‘self’ – the iPhone; iPad, iPod, the selfie – the idea of being a ‘servant’ to anything - except to ourselves and material things - doesn’t sit easily for many today. But, between them, the Queen and the Duke have nurtured the spiritual heart of the monarchy over their 70 years in service together.
 
I have often said in various interviews that the British Army is a deeply flawed organisation, because it’s made up of people like me. All of us are flawed – including Prince Philip. Shakespeare said that 'The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.' But somehow, I don’t think that will be the case for the Duke of Edinburgh. Flawed he may have been, but as Sir John Major said of him, Prince Philip 'was the ballast in our ship of state'.
 
Indeed, he was; and I for one am going to miss him.

Reproduced with permission
 


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Living His Story Ch 7 

Stories of finding Jesus

 

‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you, but also all those who are listening to me today might become such as I am - except for these chains’ Acts 26:29.

 

Paul’s prayer in Acts Chapter 26, that all the people who heard him, might come to know and experience Jesus as he did, realistically notes that this could be a quick or a slow process.   Paul came to faith dramatically and famously on the road to Damascus.  I used to think that I too came to faith quickly; I did have a dramatic and instantly life changing Damascene moment, but I’ve come to recognise, and even more so in the wake of reading ‘Living His Story’ this lent, that seeds were sown, nudges were given, links were made and holes in my world view had already opened up.  The ground had been diligently prepared over the years for my dazzling moment of realisation by people who probably never thought for more than a minute or two that their words, action, or witness would have had such a lasting and transforming impact upon me.  

 

All of us who engage in evangelism long for those we witness to and those whom we love to instantly fall down on their knees in response to what we say about our life changing experiences of Jesus.  I wonder, as we reflect on our disappointment, when invariably they don’t, whether we ever stop to take into account our own route to a personal faith in Jesus.  Did we respond in the moment to just one conversation, one talk or one experience that touched upon the gospel message? Or have our own experiences been part of a much bigger and more intricate and imaginative journey?  

 

Jesus calls each one of us into unique roles in his kingdom.  What we experience and how we live prior to that call shapes us into the people we need to be to live it out - this process may be quick, or it may take a lifetime to build up the life experience, gifts and skills that we need to serve God where he calls us.  Our journey, like our faith, is a multilayered experience, rich and diverse, filled one moment with hope and the next with challenge. Our lives before we come to faith were not empty of meaning, they were a complex part of God’s plan, as are the lives of those we have the privilege to speak of Jesus to.  God is so much bigger than the church.  The church is the community that he calls us to be a part of, because we simply cannot do what he calls us to alone - we are made for community, but we would be wise to remember that He is not limited to the church or by the church.  

 

We need to keep an open mind as we mix with people for whom imagining a world other than the one they currently reside in quite impossible.  As Hannah reminds us, helping to initiate someone into the Kingdom is only the start of this extraordinary journey of discipleship, which is the joyful work of a lifetime, a road to Emmaus, where God reveals his truth and his love to us over and over. 

 

Hopefully this lent journey through ‘Living His Story’ has been for you, as it has been for me, a period of personal reflection and a period of equipping.  God doesn’t call us to evangelise because we know instinctively what to do, He calls us because we are ordinary and our ordinary lives are relatable to the hundreds of other ordinary people that he calls us to gently nudge along the pathway to faith. 

 

Click here at 1pm today to join us on Zoom for a further discussion, questions below.  

 

Questions one:

 

How do you feel the story of your journey to faith affects others?  How do those of others affect you?

 

 

Question two:

 

What are some of the ways you might be able to help gently nudge people along the pathway to faith?


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Living His Story Ch 6

Finding echoes of the story of Jesus in our world today

 

Over the years I have been the recipient of some truly amazing gifts from my husband.  I can confirm that he really does listen.  I have been given thoughtfully chosen and designed pieces of jewellery, that I will cherish forever.  Once I got a CD by a German band he knew I liked, that was almost impossible to get hold of.  Often he has been a master of the joyfully unexpected gift, going to any lengths, but once or twice I have received an absolute clanger.  A few years ago, after I had apparently declared several times that I needed them, he gave me some bathroom scales for my birthday.  A few years prior to that I got a set of alloy wheels for a valentines gift, because I had commented on how much I liked the way they made the wheels look like they were going in the opposite direction to the car!  

 

In Alcoholic Anonymous, recovering addicts often talk about the gift of recovery, and how in order to keep it, they must give it away.  Alcoholics are under no illusion, they know that if they don’t give away what they have, a process that reminds them of what the have received, they may well relapse and die.

 

The greatest gift I have ever been given is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 5:19, Luke 8:39 and Acts 1:8, Jesus tells us that it is also our job to give it away.  It was never intended that we would keep the good news to to ourselves, but that it would always be a gift that each one of us would continuously be giving away.  As followers of Jesus, we have the responsibility to tell others what we have experienced in our journey with Him.  It is a matter of life and death, so why do we struggle so much to do it?

 

The alcoholic has a unique way of speaking to another alcoholic because they have experienced the very same thing.  A recovering alcoholic knows the deep longing the active alcoholic has to get and remain sober.  But for some reason we fail to see that we too have this unique understanding of each other; the longing of every human being made in the image of God is the same, it’s just sometimes it can be hard to locate what the person in front of us has placed their hope in. 

 

We are called to deliver the gift of the gospel in ways that the people around us can relate to.  Like Paul in Athens we can gently reveal the truth by finding the fault line in a person or culture’s worldview.  We do this by understanding what they are searching for, and we find clues for this in what they listen to, what they watch, what they read, and what they value.  This way, as Paul did, we can place Jesus at the centre of their search for spiritual fulfilment.  Jesus as the one and only fix for the fault line.  

 

As we get better at studying the culture, and tuning ourselves to what the person in front of us is searching for, we will find common ground, because we all suffer from the same condition, separation from God, and like the alcoholic, each time that we give the gospel away, it will deepen and reaffirm in us the incredible gift we have received.  

 

But as always, even if we are attentive and even if we listen, we will make mistakes and we will be misunderstood, my scales and alloy wheels are testament to that, but we should never be put off, because each time we step forward we can be reassured, by the words of Jesus, who said that He will surely be with us in this, to the very end of the age.

 

Click here to join our zoom meeting today at 1pm, where we will be discussing the questions below.

 

Question One:

 

Do you regularly check out some of the things causing a stir in popular culture and, if not, how might you (enjoyably!) keep yourself well informed?

 

 

Question Two:

 

In what book, film, drama, musical, TV programme or radio broadcast do you find a winning presentation of the gospel?


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Staff team update

With the government roadmap well under way, it’s time for an update on our staff team. This time round, we have needed to wait for detailed guidance to cover our work, and some of this is still in the works. Our team is working hard doing the things we are allowed to do, and planning for the next phase. April to August will see a gradual restart of some of our ministry, and we will say more about that as we go along. I’m aware of speculation about things like our Sunday services; we have made no decisions and will be watching and listening with interest over the next few weeks as we return to in-person worship at 10.30am.
 
One piece of sad news to share is that our fabulous cleaner Carol Amber is retiring and will finish with us in mid-April after over 16 years. She has been an unassuming, hard-working presence behind the scenes and we will miss her enormously.
 
The church office is back to full capacity with Jess McNutt and Sharon Row back from furlough. Much of their work is still undertaken from home, but they are manning the phone and email, and if you need to pick anything up from the office, you can make an appointment. I’m delighted to report that Jess and her other half Elliot announced their engagement this week – congratulations from all of us!
 
Dave Doran, Kate Clarke and Tina Thomas remain on part-time furlough, as much of their work still cannot go ahead. Children’s and youth groups cannot restart indoors or outdoors until 17 May at the earliest, and workers are not allowed to meet one-to-one with children or young people except in emergencies. We are waiting for guidance for toddler groups but they are certain to be one of the last things to reopen. However, after-school groups are allowed, and we’re delighted that Kate will be returning with her team to Barnsbury School after Easter, so her furlough will end then. Dave and Tina’s furlough will be reviewed at the end of April.
 
Sarah Tapp’s one-day-a-week furlough ends next week; the co-operation of Guildford Diocese’s curates has saved them thousands of pounds.
 
Bekah Clark, our bookkeeper Christine Strutt and me remain working for our usual hours. My Extended Ministerial Development Leave is going ahead this year and I will be away from 28 May – 12 September, with Bekah and Sarah covering my workload. Dave is also planning to take some study leave this summer, probably covering the school holidays, and we will ensure his work is covered by the team, with help from outside if necessary. I’ll write more about what this leave looks like after Easter.
 
Do keep praying for all our team as we face an exciting few months!

Mark Wallace, 25/03/2021

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Day of Reflection Tuesday 23 March

A national Day of Reflection has been called this Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown. As we look forward to restrictions being relaxed, can I encourage you not to forge ahead to the new normal without reflecting and praying about what has happened? St Mary of Bethany Church will be open from 12–2pm on Tuesday for quiet reflection and prayer.

Everyone in our country has lost something to Covid. Over 126,000 people have died, equivalent to every man, woman and child in Woking and its surrounding villages; every death affects numerous other people. NHS workers have been overwhelmed, with many having to work outside their speciality, with all the frustrations that must have involved. They have seen far more patients die than they would normally, often after several weeks of desperate illness. They face huge backlogs in their work, with no end in sight.

People who died of Covid in hospital did not see an unmasked face again from the time they were admitted; no one was able to hold their hand or say goodbye properly. Bereaved families (of Covid and non-Covid fatalities) have been denied a normal funeral, the opportunity to hug loved ones or have a cup of tea with them. Care homes have been impacted enormously, with some losing a large proportion of their residents.

Thousands of people have lost jobs, been furloughed or seen their work reduced greatly. Many have had to take risks with their health to keep working. Others have worked from home, losing the day-to-day human contact of the workplace and facing the challenges of endless Zoom calls. Many face ongoing uncertainty and financial instability; a wander around the shops in Woking illustrates how many businesses have disappeared.

Children have missed months of school in person. Those in early years have missed key socialisation time; those in exam years face the uncertainty of how their qualifications will be regarded as they start their careers. Many more vulnerable children have received very little online learning and will struggle to catch up. Students’ lives have not been anywhere near what they had in mind.

All of us have been isolated from friends, family, activities we enjoy including church, places we love to go, holidays we were looking forward to. Even when we have been able to do normal things, we have had to work round many restrictions. Although life is slowly going back to normal, we face numerous ongoing questions and an uncertain future.

As you reflect on Tuesday, have a conversation with God about what you have lost. Don’t be tempted to belittle your losses; be honest about how you feel. Bring to God those who have suffered greatly in this time and will continue to do so. Intercede for those who will feel the consequences for many years in their mental health, and those helping them. Thank God for the good things that have happened: the relationships which have been fostered in our neighbourhoods, the appreciation we have for key workers, the outpouring of creativity and innovation in our technology, vaccine development and for many workers who have changed course fruitfully. Allow God into your uncertainty and concerns about the future. Let the Holy Spirit minister to you and keep track of any words or pictures you receive – do share them if that’s appropriate.

Our society has not shared an experience like this since World War Two; we have never been through a worldwide pandemic which has been so universal. Our children will always be able to ask people what their experience of Covid was; we must pray that this time will build a resilient, adaptable and positive generation. This Day of Reflection is an opportunity begin learning the lessons from what has happened, good and bad. If we are going to build back better, we must dig deep to understand just what has happened and how it has affected us. We can’t do this on one day, but this Tuesday will be a good start.

Mark Wallace, 20/03/2021

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Living His Story Ch. 5

Passing on the Story of Jesus

Welcome to week 5 of my thoughts and responses to chapter 5 of Hannah Steele’s ‘Living His Story.  This chapter entitled Passing on the story of Jesus, helps us to focus on the part the Holy Spirit plays when we speak about the Good News.  

 

 

I love mystery.  I love a whodunnit, but I also love the multi layered mystery that might lie in a painting, a piece of poetry or prose, music, or in a favourite view.  I’m sure I’m not the only one drawn back to certain things over and over, amazed that I am still interested and surprised that they continue to reveal something new on each encounter.  One of these for me is a painting found in the Tate Britain.  I love going to the Tate Britain, I love the familiarity of the journey and the comforting lay out of the galleries.  The anticipation that I feel when finally I reach the last room, the one that holds this painting, never wavers, the painting is small, but it always fills the longing in me to gaze at it, it always reveals something that connects with me in a very deep yet hard to explain way.

 

I think of The Holy Spirit very much like this.  When the Spirit of God is active and we get to be included, we are taken to mysterious and often very unexpected places; words that didn’t make sense or meant nothing suddenly come alive with hope; a mixture of notes, harmonies and melodies become powerful vectors of worship, allowing us to express things we didn’t even know we felt; the minutiae of everyday nature becomes pregnant with the creative promise of an all knowing and loving God.  When we get on board with the Holy Spirit life transforming things happen, a conversation can go from the greyness of Kansas to the glorious technicolour of Oz as eyes are opened and hope restored.  

 

Although we can find all of this inside the church, the Holy Spirit is much more imaginative and playful than just this, consistently we are being invited out of our churches, homes and places of comfort to where the people on God’s heart are to be found.  These places might seem unlikely and unrewarding to us, sometimes even threatening and intimidating, but they are where the mystery of God is to be found, where we get to experience the astounding reach and love of the gospel.  

 

When we accept the call to these places the Holy Spirit takes our words, our gestures and our intentions and forms them into intelligible and sometimes dazzling truth.  Peter’s eyes are opened to the inclusivity of God at the house of Cornelius, a place he was forbidden by Jewish law to even enter.   This revelation that changed the history of the early church, did not happen from the comfort of his own home, but in the house of someone Peter was unlikely to have even spoken with let alone receive hospitality from.   The Holy Spirit prepared the way, then called Peter out into what he thought was the unknown and the prohibited to share what he did know, the gospel.  Today we are being given the same opportunity; not only to invite others to come and see, but to have our own vision of the gospel enlarged and refocused.   

 

Each time we follow the call of the Holy Spirit, something is revealed afresh in us too.  We get to see a little bit more of the width, length, height and depth of the gospel.  Like my favourite painting at the Tate, but on a much more cosmic and mysterious scale, the Holy Spirit delivers fresh revelation to us over and over.  As we partner with God and invite others to join in, we can expect layer upon layer of inclusivity, forgiveness, mercy, grace and love to be disclosed to us, transforming and renewing our minds as we go.

 Click here for link to Zoom meeting at 1pm today. 

 

 

Questions we will be looking at together on Zoom

 

Question 1:

 

The Spirit often ‘propels us out of our comfort zones.’  Have you ever surprised yourself by speaking boldly, or can you think of someone else doing this with remarkable results?

 

 

Question 2:

 

The work of the Holy Spirit is mysterious….Can you think of a situation that has been transformed beyond imagining by the work of the Holy Spirit?


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 Living His Story Ch. 4

Communicating like Jesus did




 

Welcome to Chapter 4 of our Lenten journey through Hannah Steele’s Living His Story.  This Chapter is entitled Communicating Like Jesus Did.  

 

 

My mum is brilliant at having conversations with strangers.  She has an ease about her, and a desire to include, that shows neither embarrassment nor awkwardness that has always intrigued me and has sometimes shown me up.  When I was younger and my Dad was at the peak of his career, she would chat with everybody; sometimes it would be Judges, Barristers and those in Public office, and at others you would find her clearing tables, washing up and chatting passionately with the staff at an event she had attended or even hosted with my Dad.  She would always invite into proper conversations those who would least expect it.  Whatever my mum thought of a situation, organisation or place, she would always treat everyone equally, but I think, often subconsciously, what she was really doing was looking out for the lonely, the undervalued and the overlooked.  She still does it today, provided she can get out! 

 

In this chapter Hannah invites us to see the multi faceted ways that Jesus engaged with people.  We see that he never approached them in a formulaic or systematic way, but often spontaneously, always relationally, and always from the same starting point and incentive, Love. 

 

I’m particularly struck by the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at the well.  Her encounter results in her reflecting back to the people of her town how Jesus, whom she had only just met, knew her intimately, telling them ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done’, and through her sharing this encounter, many, we are told, believed in Him.   This realisation was one that I could barely process when it first dawned on me, the intimacy of the relationship we have with Jesus continues to astound me to this day, and it is a relationship that we can invite others to ‘come and see’. Jesus longs to be in relationship with every person whose path crosses ours.  It is our job to work out moment by moment, encounter by encounter, if God is offering us the opportunity to do the inviting! 

 

The power of us sharing our encounters of Jesus with others is unlimited.  It’s only us that impose limits; limits on ourselves, limits on the people we are talking to, and limits on God - but this passage in John Chapter 4 tells us that ‘many’ in that Samaritan town were transformed through that one woman’s encounter of Jesus.  God is limitless. 

 

So our challenge is to communicate like Jesus.  On the surface that sounds impossibly difficult doesn’t it, I mean we are talking about Jesus here, the living God, who knows everything about everyone?!?  But when we look closer we see that Jesus communicated in ways that met each person individually, talking to their deepest needs and desires, inviting them first into a conversation, and then a relationship.  

 

It seems to me then, that once we have identified an opportunity, the most important thing we can do is to listen.  There aren’t many greater human needs, than the need to be heard, and often in order to listen, we will need to ask questions.  Hannah encourages us to step out of our comfort zones and to ask questions rather than making assumptions about where people are at.  We need to remember or at least try to understand what it feels like not to know Jesus, and to recognise that there are those who think belief in God is ridiculous or unethical.  Once we have listened and understood, we will be in a much better position to speak.  

 

When we do come to speak, we can do so without fear, we can relax and be a bit more like my mum, unencumbered by embarrassment and awkwardness, because ultimately what we speak of is only ever going to be of what we know, what we love and what we trust.  Jesus.  

 

Click here to join Sarah on Zoom at 1pm today for discussion and reflection.

 

Questions for Zoom 

 

Question 1

 

Have you ever experienced an interruption that turned out to be a God moment?  How might you become more prepared for interruptions in your everyday life?

 

 

Question 2

 

What strikes you most about the way Jesus interacted with people?  How might you learn from His approach?


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Harry, Meghan and telling your story

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, made painful viewing this week. I’ve been reflecting on some of the issues around the couple and their story.

One thing which came across very clearly was that Meghan is an accomplished woman and an excellent communicator. As a woman of colour, she embodies something new for the royal family, especially in the context of their engagement with the Commonwealth. As she said, ‘If you can see it, you can be it’ – a royal princess of colour potentially speaks to marginalised people all over the world. Seeing some of the coverage around the interview, it’s clear that both Meghan and Harry are able to connect immediately with all sorts of people. This ability is a feature of many members of our royal family, but one at which this couple clearly excels.

What a shame, then, that someone with so much to offer has been unable to find her place in the working royal family. Having watched The Crown, it is tragic that Meghan’s experience on joining ‘the Firm’ was so similar to Princess Diana’s in the early ’80s, where she was largely left to herself, with no one to introduce her to all the important but often subtle ways of life she needed. The crushing loneliness and isolation of both women feels very out of place in this day and age. Why has so little changed in 40 years, given the pain that so many in their family went through with Diana?

Clearly Meghan and Harry want to set the record straight after years of unpleasant press coverage. I found it shocking to see the contrast in the way the British tabloid media reported Meghan and her sister-in-law Kate. It’s disturbing to see such a clear and vindictive agenda against a talented, self-made, independent woman, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some of this stems from instinctive racism. The couple pointed very clearly to this coverage and the royal family’s failure to shelter them from it or weigh in to defend them as the major reasons for their move to the USA.

Meghan and Harry obviously value the opportunity to tell their story in their own way. They are setting out on a new life together and attempting to take hold of the narrative. In the aftermath of the interview, some have questioned details in the conversation: how were those conversations about Archie’s skin colour really intended? Did the Archbishop of Canterbury really help Meghan and Harry exchange vows days before their wedding? (On a point of order, I always run through the vows with a couple at the wedding rehearsal, so he probably did, and was obviously not marrying them.) A generational divide is also opening up, where those in younger generations are more likely to sympathise with them, and older people being less open. Certainly younger people respond positively to an individual being able to tell their story and make connections to their feelings; the big picture is more important than individual details.

What are the implications for the Church? We will struggle to connect with younger generations if we invoke our traditional understanding of scripture and retell our stories in the same old ways. Rather we are called to reimagine the gospel for every new generation. In these days where telling your story and finding an emotional connection is key, we have the greatest story to tell. It doesn’t take much imagination to ask how biblical characters felt; they often spell it out for you. Jesus told stories with flair, using pictures that were so everyday that they are still relevant 2,000 years later. Younger people may be more understanding of the minor discrepancies in the gospel accounts; rather than pointing to the stories being fiction, they speak to their authenticity – it’s the big picture that counts.

Evangelism becomes far easier if it is simply about telling your story: how did you become a Christian? What difference does following Jesus make in your life? You may not think of yourself as a theologian, but I have never met a Christian who can’t answer either of those questions. Your story is relevant; people can’t argue with your experiences and they may well connect to them.

Sadly the Church has often been a community of people unable to embrace new ways of being, and people who aren’t like us. Over the last year it has been tragic to hear people of colour talking about racism in the Church, women recounting how their ideas and gifts have been belittled and LGBTI+ Christians relating outright rejection from churches which should have welcomed them. In 1 Corinthians Paul talks about the church as a body; every part has something to offer, and we need everyone; so when we sideline others, we hurt ourselves. If we can work to see other people as God sees them, and embrace those whom we might find awkward or uncomfortable, we will ultimately be much richer.

I hope Prince Harry and his Duchess can make peace with both of their families and find a new way of being royal without being part of the Firm. As they face their challenges, we can learn from their story how to be more radically inclusive and open to other people, understanding how their stories can illuminate our one, great story.
 

Mark Wallace, 10/03/2021

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Living His Story Ch. 3

Jesus was in the transformation business
 



Welcome to my reflection of Chapter 3 of “Living His Story’- Jesus was in the Transformation Business.  I hope you are enjoying this lenten journey as much as I am, and if you can make it at 1pm on zoom today or any other Thursday in Lent, for a further discussion, I would love to see you.  

One Monday afternoon early on in my theological training, the lecturer caught us all unprepared when he asked us to get into pairs and film each other for one minute as we explained the difference Jesus had made in our lives.  This was not what my friends and I had in mind at all for a post lunch lecture, we hadn’t known each other for long and it was awkward to think that as future vicars we might do a bad job of this in front of each other!!!!  Luckily there was no playback required and we were all just left with the recordings on our phones.  I confess to have only just played it back this week, of course I should have played it back much sooner, as its purpose was simply to help me grow in confidence and, as the apostle Peter puts it, to always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asked me the reason for the hope that I have.   

So why does the thought of speaking of Jesus make us so uncomfortable?  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a restaurant, film or book that had ‘changed my life’ to anyone, whether they asked or not, but when it comes to Jesus we can feel awkward because people in our post christian culture might think what we have to say is odd or deluded and what if we don’t do a good job of it, and sell Jesus short.   

I think there are forces at work in the world that delight when we struggle to speak of Him, and this makes me all the more determined to overcome my fears and to speak of the immeasurable difference Jesus has made in my life.   Cue my second confession, sometimes though, in my enthusiasm, I can be a bit one sided and speak for too long, I need to remember to invite the other person to ask questions, to make it a conversation and not just a one way story.  

The challenge as we practice telling our stories and speaking of Jesus, is to be alert to where we can improve, rather than put off by where we think we may have failed.  

I don’t believe we need to worry about selling Jesus short though, if our intentions are good, then our efforts will be honoured, and seeds will be sown, whether they take root or not, is no business of ours, the transformation bit is God’s department.  

The apostle Peter, and Hannah in this chapter, strongly suggest though that our efforts would be improved if we were properly prepared.  Transformation is big business in our culture.  When something in our lives is transformed, particularly from the outside, we talk about it, a lot, we photograph it, a lot, we publicise it, a lot. It could be weight loss, a reversal of a diagnosis, a new look or hairstyle.  Our culture loves transformation.  It would only seem sensible then to be prepared to talk of the only transformation we will ever experience in our lives that heals us thoroughly inside and out.  

When I need to prepare for something, it’s not the story of a lecturer or a Christian sage that comes to mind, but one of Adele’s. As a  family we were lucky enough to get tickets to one of her concerts in 2016, where in-between the singing, swearing and banter she relayed a short story about the importance of being prepared, she has permanently left me with the 4 P’s - Poor Preparation leads to Poor Performance, her story is now my story.  Stories stay with us.  

So then, what kind of job did I do of my 1 minute video without preparation.  Well although it felt awkward and I looked a little uncomfortable to begin with, I did get the message across, well I convinced myself at least! 

And this will be the story for most of us most of the time, if we step out confident in our experiences of Jesus, then we will be able to speak of them in a way that engages, because God is Gracious.  Our stories can and will become part of other peoples stories, all we have to do is be prepared to tell them.  

Click here to join Sarah on Zoom at 1pm today for discussion and reflection

Questions for Zoom

Question 1: 
Think of a story of encountering God that you have shared with others or others have shared with you.  What did you learn from the experience?

Question 2:
In what practical ways might you express God’s love to a neighbour this week?
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Some things I've learned about grief

Today marks the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. For whatever reason, after he died I wanted to find out a bit about the grieving process. Now with the benefit of hindsight, and having taken the journey with many people through my work, I have a number of observations about grief which I tend to share with people who are at the start of that journey.
 
(1) Grief isn’t just about death
The grieving process is about letting go of one reality and adjusting to something new, so it isn’t limited to someone dying. We grieve when we move house, change jobs or get divorced. Sometimes we underestimate the need to make space around major life events, to grieve the loss of our old reality and adjust to the new. If you have a relative who has a degenerative illness such as dementia, the grief process is extended, as you have to leave behind the person they were, well before their death. This can bring feelings of guilt when your loved one dies, because you also feel relief that their ordeal (and yours) is over.
 
(2) Grief scrambles your brain
It is usual when someone dies to lose your train of thought completely for some months. You can’t focus and forget things very easily. Simple tasks can become overwhelming. This goes alongside a time when there are generally a lot of complicated and unfamiliar tasks to do, from registering a death, to organising a funeral, contacting solicitors or banks. Most people find this incredibly challenging. The fog does eventually lift but it takes time.
 
(3) Anger is a universal symptom of grief

I am so glad I learned this at the beginning of the process! Everyone (yes, everyone) who grieves gets angry. In general this anger will be misplaced; it is a reaction to the overwhelming feelings that person is experiencing rather than to the precise circumstances they are in. If you have a disagreement with a grieving person, don’t be surprised if it suddenly escalates out of all proportion. You can’t stop this happening (and it would probably be bad to try), but you can understand it when it happens and let yourself off the hook if you feel bad. It’s helpful for the people around you to be understanding too.
 
(4) Grieving takes longer than you think
People often underestimate how long the grieving process takes. When asked, many people think they will be in a state of grief for a loved one for a year or two; experts encourage us to expect it to be more like three to five years. The end point is not one where you don’t miss your loved one any more; it’s one where you can invest in your new reality without that person. It’s a bit like the difference between the pain of an open wound and a scar which has scabbed over; eventually grief ceases to be part of your daily reality and becomes something you notice from time to time, never completely gone but not in life’s foreground.
 
(5) There is no going ‘back to normal’
It’s common for grieving people to be asked when they will be going back to normal. Don’t ever ask a grieving person this! Your normal life would include the person who’s gone, so it’s impossible to go back to normal. The journey through grief is one where you eventually find a new normal, one which somehow makes sense without that person.
 
(6) Beware more than one grieving process at once
A single grieving process is a lot to cope with emotionally; more than one at a time can put you at risk of depression. Losing more than one loved one close to each other, or having other major life changes either side of a death, can make you vulnerable. Keep an eye on your own mental health; if it’s your friend who’s grieving, find some help if they need it. Cruse Bereavement Care provides free, local bereavement counselling all over the country; churches can signpost to other local services, and never underestimate the value of talking things over with your GP.
 
(7) People around you don’t always handle grief well
As a society we have moved away from experiencing death as a daily reality. In previous generations it was much more common for children to die, people tended to have shorter lives and most died at home. People who haven’t experienced a death first-hand tend to have no vocabulary for it today. This can work its way out in unhelpful ways; friends who avoid you in the street or a lively conversation which goes quiet when you walk into the room. Well-meaning people sometimes say, ‘Please let me know if there’s anything I can do’, but a grieving person will struggle to articulate what they need and be able to ask for it. In the early stages of grief, I couldn’t even tell when I was hungry. Another unhelpful thing people say is, ‘I know just how you feel.’ You don’t; no one ever knows just how another person feels. It’s better to listen and try to put yourself in that person’s shoes.
 
If you want to be a true friend to a grieving person, just be present. Let them know you’re there. Don’t wait for them to ask you to cook dinner; turn up on the doorstep with food and be prepared for them to take it without a conversation. Ask if they want to come round just for time with someone else (and be aware that they might need to accept your invitation at an inconvenient time). Grief is a very lonely process and it takes a long time; true friends show up and stay for the duration.
 
A few days after a particularly tragic death, I turned up to see my grieving friends. They were staying with people, one of whom said she had asked them before I arrived, ‘Is Mark safe?’ In that situation it was vital that I wasn’t going to bring my own feelings into a situation which already held quite enough emotion; I needed to be able to hold my friends’ feelings and put mine to one side while I was there. Not everyone can manage this, but you will be an invaluable friend if you can.
 
The Bible’s longest text about grief and suffering is the book of Job. Commentators vary in considering Job’s friends, but when I was grieving I found it hugely significant to read that their first action on seeing Job was to sit in the dust with him in silence for a whole week. Sometimes there is just nothing to say and your presence is enough.
 
One of the brilliant things about church life is that there are always people who have been on these journeys in life before you. We can be good at connecting people and finding meaning together. Don’t be afraid to flag up needs when you see them, either for yourself or someone else. It’s much better to have lots of people mentioning the same need than for it to fall by the wayside.

Mark Wallace, 03/03/2021

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