Here our minister Revd Jon Keyworth shares his reflection from our Sunday services:
May 16th - Trees
Trees can give a constant presence in our lives, with distinctive trees
becoming landmarks that pre-date us and outlast us by a considerable
length of time. The oaks in Sherwood Forest are ones that have lived
long in my memory, with the excitement that came as children, visiting
trees that supposedly once harboured Robin Hood. I used to play
cricket on a ground that had a tree within the boundary, some of the
character of the place was diminished once it fell in a storm (although
fielding became a bit easier). In Oxford, one of my favourite trees is a
lonely one, in the middle of farmland between Cutteslowe and Islip. It will have seen the land tilled many times over, the crops come and go,
and sheltered many birds in its branches (as well as being a marker for
me that is 1.5 miles away from home!).
Lucas McLaughlin tries to capture a sense of that in his 10 Trees
project, that overlays many different images of the same tree, giving an
image suggestive of a composite memory of the tree. In Oxford these
are trees that once gave a canopy over people such as JRR Tolkien and
C S Lewis, and other leading figures in our world, good and bad. They
see traffic and people come and go day by day. They give a constant
presence, but change with the seasons, and in doing so give a cyclical
reminder of death and resurrection.
Trees appear regularly in scripture, as a place of sanctuary, respite
from the sun, as a home for birds and other wildlife, and in the semidesert land of Israel, also a sure indicator of a nearby water source.
Our Psalm for this week, Psalm 1, refers to the happy ones who
meditate on the law day and night, and chew over it, as being like a
tree. A tree that takes root near a river, bears fruit in season, and
whose leaves do not whither. We hear that the wicked are blown along
in the wind like chaff, but the righteous will not be moved so easily.
Maybe today we could think of New Road Baptist Church as being like a
tree. We study God’s word, seek to discern the mind of Christ together,
and in doing so hope to remain close to the source of life in all of its
fulness. But, we don’t do this solely for ourselves. A church, like a tree,
should give sanctuary and shade to all manner of passer’s by. Rooted in
Christ it can become a landmark pointing to the source of life-giving
hope. And, it has a life that spans over a much greater length of time
than we can expect to play an active part in.
As we have our AGM this week, may we remember and give thanks for
the ways that we have provided a place of sanctuary and shelter in the
last year. May we also seek to tend it well, so it will continue to give
shelter for generations to come, bearing much more fruit in the
9th May - God’s love and for all
In our reading from Acts 10:44-48 this Sunday, we hear only the end of
a story. Peter had a vision that led him to go to the house of Cornelius,
a Gentile. Jewish people would not go to the house of non-Jews and
receive hospitality from them as they were considered to be unclean
and idolatrous. They were not a part of God’s chosen people. Yet, Peter
went, he shared the story of Jesus, and there was a shock when the
Gentile listeners were not only responsive to the good news, but were
filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues and praised God. We read
the spirit of God has been poured out ‘even on the Gentiles’.
There is a danger in reading these verses that we might think that the
Gentiles were in some sense still inferior to the Jewish people. It can be
read as if God loved these folk despite of their nationality. Or, God
loved them even though they were sinners. Yet, the point here is quite
different. Instead we find that God loves the Gentiles, and pours his
Holy Spirit upon them in an equal measure. Their identity is now in
Christ, and as daughters and sons of our redeeming God. Salvation
through Christ, his death and resurrection is for all of creation, not a
This week in continued conversations around the Creating Sanctuary
resource, we considered the stories, experiences and relationships that
we each bring to discussions around sexuality. We shared the ways in which relationships built with people from the LGBT community have
affected the way in which we understand sexuality. Through getting to
know people who have historically been excluded from church life,
(especially for those of us from more conservative church
backgrounds) it has revealed the way in which God’s love for the world
encompasses more people than we might ever have imagined.
It gave a chance to honour those who have patiently listened to us,
changed our perspectives, and led to the overcoming of prejudice. For
those from the rainbow community, it gave an opportunity to give
thanks for those who were found to be supporters and friends. Also, to
remember those who have helped reconcile faith with sexual identity,
and allow them to find a safe place to practice faith and be accepted
for who they are.
In our encounters with those from the LGBT community, there is a
similarity with the story in Acts 10. We welcome people who have been
looked down upon, have often been viewed as being unclean, and we
find that God’s spirit has been poured out on them. There are the same
potential pitfalls where the Gentiles could be viewed as still being
inferior. If we’re not careful, we might think that those from the LGBT
community are loved by God despite of their sexuality, inherently
viewing straight people as being superior and more godly. Or, we might
define people by their sexuality alone, forgetting that although it is an
important part of identity, we are all so much more than that.
What we find as we share the stories of the different people who have
shaped our Christian journey, and revealed more of God’s love to us,
whether they be gay or straight, English or Brazilian, black or white,
rich or poor, male or female, university professor or office cleaner, is
that God’s spirit is poured out on all in equal measure. The ridiculous
and stupendous variety found in humankind, and the multifaceted
ways in which the love of God is revealed, should enrich our lives and
fill us with joyful wonder. Inclusivity and equality do not mean
conformity, but rather a welcome and honouring of all people, such
that they do not have to pretend to be something they are not. There is no chosen race, superior gender, or preferred sexuality, for all are
held within the infinite bounds of God’s love, all are made in his image,
and all can find their identity in Christ.
Ultimately, we should not be surprised to find God’s love joyfully
revealed by those who are pushed to the edges of society, and have
been traditionally excluded from elements of church life. Because noone and nothing can exist apart from the love of God. When we fail to
see that, and exclude those who are different to ourselves from the
church, our community life is diminished as a result.
2nd May - Pruning…
It was a chilly, blustery, grey autumnal day, and I had an important
task. I had to hold the ladder steady as my dad leant this way and that,
armed with pruning shears, lopping back the branches on the apple
tree that was a bit of a feature in an otherwise sparse manse garden.
To be honest I was not only cold, but also confused. Why was he killing
off so much of the tree? It seemed a brutal act of vandalism. Yet, come
spring, the blossom came. Come summer, the apples grew. Come
harvest, there was an abundance of apple crumbles, pies and sauces.
Pruning is an act of courage and hope. At the time when the leaves
descend to the earth and start to rot away, you then take the extra
step of removing excess branches and off-shoots, giving the space for
healthy growth when the tree wakes up in the spring. It seems to fit in
well alongside the Christian hope of new life, and the bold claim that
death is defeated, and overcome as resurrection life springs forth from
The Gospel reading for this week is John 15:1-8, where Jesus claims to
be the vine, whereas we are the branches. He speaks of pruning away
the fruitless branches, making space for fruitful branches to grow. The
branches that do not bear fruit will be taken away and burned on the
fire. Those that stay connected to the vine will bear much fruit and be
glorified. Words of challenge indeed!In a time such as this, we know of the brutality of pruning. Our lives
have been pared right back for over a year. It’s been a long ‘Narnian’
winter, although spring has come in nature, it’s not yet been fully
realised in our day to day lives. Across our world, especially in countries
such as India, where we see the suffering of brothers and sisters made
in the image of God, the spring seems further away than ever before.
We do have to be careful when relating this passage to our present
times, lest we suggest that God has performed this act of pruning. I do
not believe that to be the case. God has not brought this sickness upon
us, we must be clear about that. The pruning is too severe, it has
removed branches vital to the continuation of life for even a healthy
tree. Human relationships have been severely affected, the stress and
strain has too been high, we’ve lost so much, and so many people, that
cannot simply be regrown.
Yet, what we do know of pruning, especially with many of the shrubs
and bushes that we tend, is that new life will come, even if nearly all of
the plant has been removed. As long as the roots remain intact, hope
remains, and all is not lost.
When we think about pruning in the life of the church, we might be
best off thinking about this time as an opportunity for pruning as we
gradually emerge from the pandemic. There may well be things in
church life that do not return as they once were. Things that can no
longer be sustained in the changed world that we now inhabit. This is
sad, it can look brutal, and it can be upsetting that things will not
suddenly return to how we knew and loved them in the past. However,
pruning in the long run gives space for growth, for new initiatives, and
for new partnerships to be developed.
Ultimately, this is the way of Christ, the one who died, was buried and
rose again on the third day. We might not feel able to say hallelujah
today, but we live in hope, that in time we’ll see new life that leads to
such exaltations pouring forth from the church once more. Amen. Jon
25th April - Sharing and reflecting upon lived experience
In our church meeting on Sunday, we discussed the proposal that we
have been putting together, to start a project that brings together
people with lived experiences of injustice, with those who have the
capacity to bring about change. As we’ve explored this proposal with
other organisations and prospective partners in the city centre, this
had led to a common concern being consistently shared, and that is the
lack of accessible housing in Oxford. So, we’ve proposed to focus on
this area of injustice, at least initially, in the events that we will seek to
One of the projects that we have spoken to in recent weeks is called
LEAF, the Lived Experience Advisory Forum, which gives opportunities
to the homeless to share their experience in such a way that it can
bring about changes to local services and policies. Often policies and
projects are implemented without much consultation with those whom
the services will actually engage with, which means that in the end
they are ineffective, and not as empowering as they could be. LEAF
hopes to change that by bringing lived experience more into focus.
This weekend, we will start to engage in the Creating Sanctuary
resource, facilitated by David Kerrigan and Andrea King. These
conversations regarding sexuality place the lived experience of LGB
people in church life in a prominent position. We will not start with a theological discussion, or the study of Bible verses often looked to in
this subject area, but rather with the lived experience of our fellow
human beings, and of our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ.
This is important. We have to consider how what we believe, or what
we proclaim to be true, actually affects people around us. Does it share
God’s love, grace and mercy? Or does it lead to feelings of shame and
bring about harm? The true worth of theological doctrine, teaching, or
church policies, can only be evaluated fully when their impact is taken
into account upon our fellow human beings.
Last week, I preached on the resurrection appearance of Jesus in Luke
24, and we heard how the disciples sought after physical proof of the
resurrection. They wanted to see and feel for themselves that Jesus
was indeed resurrected from the dead. We recognised too that for
ourselves, our own ‘proof’ of the resurrection comes from our lived
experience of meeting with Christ. We don’t believe in the resurrection
just because it is in the Bible, or because church teaching says that it is
true, but because we have met with the risen Christ ourselves.
Of course, scripture is important, and also church tradition, but we
must always be aware of how it becomes grounded in reality and the
lived experience that it brings about. It means we must be willing to
listen to the stories of others, and to hear of their lived experience of
things that we might never have experienced ourselves. Then we can
reflect on the stories as a community, and discern what it means for
our own approach as the body of Christ in this place.
I hope you have had a good week, have been able to enjoy some of the
Spring sunshine, and that I’ll see you in some form over the weekend,
whether it be in person or digitally.
18th April - Jesus - eating again!
One of the last things that Jesus does with his disciples is share a meal
with them. When he meets with the pair on the road to Emmaus, it is
his bread-breaking that reveals his identity. In this week’s reading from
the Gospel of Luke Jesus proves his physical presence with the disciples
by eating some fish.
Meeting with the risen Christ entails sharing hospitality with him.
Breaking bread, and eating fish, remembering him by breaking bread,
and drinking wine together. Whether we have misgivings regarding the
loosening restrictions, or not, it seems little surprise that many people
are keen to eat with others, to break bread with them, to talk together
over a coffee (or a tea!). Sharing hospitality together is an important
part of human connectivity, relationship building and sharing life
When it comes to meeting with the resurrected Christ, such hospitality
and welcome leads to very interesting things indeed. As Jesus spends
time with the disciples, he opens their minds to a greater
understanding of the scriptures. They then become witnesses to the
resurrection, and to the ongoing presence of Christ with them, and as a
result are called to be witnesses to all of the nations, moving outwards
from Jerusalem.When we welcome people into our midst in the name of the risen
Christ, then we open up the possibility to having our minds opened
further, to having a greater understanding of the scriptures and our
religious traditions. I hope that in welcoming Andrea King and David
Kerrigan in our midst in the next few weeks, as we engage in the
Creating Sanctuary resource together, that we will find this to be the
case once again. As we share in hospitality together, may we meet
once more with the resurrected Christ, and may we meet with open
hearts and minds, such that our understanding of the scriptures is
deepened, and our discipleship enriched.
4th April - The ‘now’ and ‘not yet’
This Sunday we celebrate Easter together as we encounter the empty
tomb and the resurrected Christ once more. There is plenty to
celebrate in this victory of Christ over death, and this sign of the allencompassing restorative and life-giving love of God in which all of
creation is held.
Yet, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ at a time when the
continued reality of death and grief surrounds us. Death has been
defeated in Christ, yet it still holds power in our lives. The Kingdom of
God is made known to us, even made present in Christ now, but it is
not yet fully realised.
Our experience in what we hope is the gradual overcoming of the
Covid-19 pandemic is somewhat similar (or at the least minimising of
it’s capacity to do as much severe harm). We experience the easing of
restrictions, such that some of us will gather in church once more, but
we also know that this disease is not yet overcome (and may never be
We celebrate gathering together in the church building, but do so in a
limited format, with social distancing, no singing, or after service
coffee. Yet, we gather in hope that the future will be better, that
restoration will come, even if church life will look a bit different for some to come. We also remain acutely aware, that just because things
can restart, does not mean that they will do so quickly, or even should
do so quickly.
New life, and the hope of a new chapter in the life of the church lies
before us, yet what it will be like has not yet been fully revealed to us,
and we simply do not know how city-centre life will be altered by the
events of the past year.
So, this Easter we celebrate once again the hope we know in Christ,
and do so even though we haven’t seen the fullness of new-life, as
revealed in Christ, for ourselves as yet. The same is true for the church,
as we share the good news of Christ, and the love, grace, forgiveness
and mercy that we know through him with others. We journey on
together, hoping to see the fruits of God’s Kingdom realised more fully
in this time and in this place, well aware that there’s still a lot of work
to be done!
28th March - Another ‘lockdown’ Easter
This week we have marked a whole year since the beginning of Covid19 lockdown restrictions. There have been many poignant acts of
remembrance, including the lighting of 4161 candles at Blackburn
Cathedral, one for each Lancashire death. Closer to home, Oxfordshire
has suffered 1061 deaths, and wider afield we’ve seen across the world
the devastating effects of the virus, with an estimated 125 million cases
and 2.75 million deaths so far. It is incomprehensible to consider the
amount of loss and grief that has been experienced globally, and that’s
before we consider the impact on businesses and mental health.
Last Easter when we met online with the congregation of St Columba’s,
I didn’t really imagine that we would still be gathering to worship in
such a limited way this year. The sheer scale of the global catastrophe
that has played out puts the inconveniences we face regarding the
ability to worship together in context. Yet, we do still miss our
gathered worship, and community life together.
Last Sunday I was preaching at St Michael at the North Gate, which was
the first time I have been in the presence of sung worship for over a
year. It was a privilege, but also fundamentally weird, as I had no idea
what was going in the choral prayerbook service, so I was more an
observer than a participant for much of it. As the service was
livestreamed, I had to preach with my back to the choir, and speaking to a video camera. The lack of human interaction and response meant
that the whole preaching experience felt incomplete and insufficient
(at least on Zoom I can see if people react to a joke, or if they seem to
No doubt, for many of us that feeling has been there at different times
throughout the pandemic, as we have worshipped in a limited format.
As we gather in person without singing, the service seems lacking. The
community life of the church, and the depth of our relationships, is
affected by the lack of passing conversations, encouragement and
greetings given in passing and the like.
Yet, in the verses I preached on last week I found some
encouragement, and a reminder that Jesus’ sacrifice is all sufficient,
even when our worship seems inadequate. Hebrews 9:11-15 and John
8:46 onwards were the texts. The gospel reading points to the eternal
nature of Christ, the one who existed before Abraham, and lives on
past him. The Hebrews reading demonstrates the transformative and
all-encompassing sacrificial death of Christ, and does so by comparing
it to the animal sacrifice made in the temple in the approach to
Passover. Whilst the animal sacrifice was effective, in that it led to a
purification of the body, it was something that had to repeated year on
year, as unaccounted for sin continued to be committed. Christ’s
sacrifice, on the other hand, has eternal consequences, it does not
have to be repeated, and it transforms and cleanses the conscience as
well as the body.
Looking back through history, Christ’s death and resurrection, that we
will remember this week, is said to have been enough to sanctify any
deficiencies in the sacrificial worship of the past. Temple based worship
is not looked down upon, or simply thrown through the coming of
Christ, but these acts of faithful worship through the centuries are
lifted up and sanctified by him. The new covenant that Christ
establishes builds upon the old one.As we read this alongside the gospel text, that reminds of the eternal
life of Christ, and the eternal significance of his death, resurrection and
ascension, then I think we can find encouragement this week, even as
we gather in a limited and somewhat deficient mode to worship God
and celebrate Easter. Just as Jesus lifts up and sanctifies the worship of
the past, then surely this has a future facing aspect too. Our worship
never has been perfect, nor will it be, but it becomes significant and
transformative through the presence of Christ and the grace of God.
As we gather to worship together, Christ’s sacrificial death and
resurrection is all-sufficient, such that even in our online and mixedmedia gatherings, we can and will encounter the word of God, be
transformed by the love of God, and be filled by the sustaining and
enlivening Holy Spirit. As we gather to celebrate Holy Week, may we
know God’s presence with us, wherever we are, and however we
participate in worship.
21st March - Remember what matters most
Through this long winter, into the beginnings of spring, it has been
difficult at times to focus on what is important, and to maintain the
practices that helped us through the early stages of lockdown. The
novelty has well and truly worn off.
In speaking with a number of people in recent weeks a common theme
has emerged. It has been increasingly apparent that some who walked
regularly, exercised a lot, or took on new hobbies through the early
months of pandemic life, have found that time squeezed as the
number of online events, meetings and responsibilities have increased.
Perhaps, then it is not surprising that some of the same people report
feeling tired, worn out and as if ‘their well has run dry’. When we lose
time for the restorative, energy giving and perspective widening things
that sustain and nourish us, then burnout becomes increasingly likely,
especially in a mentally demanding and draining time such as this.
So, it seemed very good timing to be sent a poem this week by Sharin,
one of our young people at church. It is entitled ‘Remember what
matters most’ and was entered into her school poetry competition,
winning the prize ‘Poem of the year’. Well done Sharin!
‘Remember what matters most’
When you’re looking out your window, in the chilly morning of winter
When you’re sitting round the bonfire on a dark summer’s night
When you’re laying on the crisp green grass staring at the millions of
minuscule stars above.
Remember what matters most.
When the day fades to darkness and submits to night
When love grows weary and packs its bags and leaves
When our wells of kindness have dried up
When our cores of light have been extinguished
Remember what matters most.
When we cry with joy
When we weep in despair
When our speech is swallowed with screeches of pain
When we are drowned in voices of denial
When we wake not for another day
Remember what matters most.
When war is brewing
When lives are lost
When our breaths are short and gasps are our only way
When our eyes close for the last time
Remember what matters most.
When we are born again
When we laugh in joy and experience life’s wonders once more
When we accomplish our first achievement anew
When we look out our windows, in the frosty morning of winter
When we sit around the bonfire on a dark summer’s night
When we lay on crisp green grass, watching the stars above
Remember Hope is all that matters.
By Sharin Poongaran
14th March - Expecting Better
There has been one story dominating the news for the past couple of
weeks, and it is one that on the whole I’ve been pretty bored of.
Watching a family, especially the Royal Family, in conflict in such a
public way, is not something that I would usually bother commenting
I don’t want to go into the rights and wrongs of Harry and Meghan’s
situation, or their decision to air their grievances through an interview
with Oprah Winfrey. Opinion has been divided, split along generational
and political lines, yet it is most likely that all parties have been at fault
in some way in the past few years. The revelations put forth by the
Sussexes were remarkable, and no doubt will be the subject of further
scrutiny and independent investigation. In addition to this, any report
of having suicidal feelings has to be taken seriously, listened to, and
can never simply be dismissed.
I intend here to explore my own reaction to the wider claims, rather
than give an assessment of their veracity. My instinctive reaction to the
grievances shared by Meghan was not one I am particularly proud of.
Hearing of institutional racism, elitism, and ‘The Firm’s’ desire to
carefully manage everything that was released to the press, I first
thought ‘Well, what else did Meghan expect?! Surely all of these things are obvious, even to an outsider, she should have known what it’d be
In reflection, it’s a problematic reaction, because it shows how
accustomed I am to accepting injustice in such places of power. We
have come to expect inappropriate (sometimes racist) comments or
reactions from some members of the royal family, and elsewhere in
our society, so when someone is hurt by them, it is easy to blame them
for becoming a victim. This attitude is pervasive in other areas of life
In this week, in which we celebrated International Women’s Day, we
still expect that women will face sexist attitudes. We heard last Sunday
from Emma Walsh, who upon returning to Australia is not recognised
as a minister by many within her local Baptist churches. The murder of
Sarah Everard has also reminded us in a horrific way concerning the
dangers women face from men. We are so used to women facing
abuse, experiencing harassment, or worse, that we sometimes
instinctively blame them for becoming victims of violence. ‘What do
they expect when they walk alone at night? …when they wear such
clothes?’ Or in the case of female ministers, ‘what do they expect when
they go to conservative evangelical churches?’
We have come to expect that many churches will not be an inclusive or
safe environment for people from the LGBTQ+ community, but again at
times it is easy to place blame on individuals for entering, or staying in,
communities where they will face exclusion and harmful practices.
‘What else did they expect? Did they not know where they were
going?’ ‘Could they not see the signs?’…
When we expect people to be mistreated in certain places, but place
the blame on the victim for their naivety, or potential complicity, then
we do the victim a great disservice. Ultimately, when we ask the
question ‘what did they expect?’ the answer is that ‘they expected
better.’ They expected to be respected as a human being, and valued for who they are. They expected to be cared for, listened to, and loved,
rather than to be taken advantage of, abused and hurt.
Where people enter environments resigned to facing discrimination or
abuse, without hope for change, then this should be something that
upsets and disturbs us, rather than something that is simply accepted,
as if seeking change is futile.
Where we have come to simply accept that places are abusive,
damaging, and shrouded in darkness, instead, we too should expect
better. Rather than blaming victims, we should hope to shine Christ’s
light in such a way that these injustices can no longer be perpetuated.
Christ did not come to simply lift people out of darkness, he came to
dispel it, to bring transformation, and restoration. He didn’t avoid the
difficult and sinful places of this world, just as he doesn’t command us
to run away from them either. The promise of the Kingdom of God is
not just an escape from evil, but the complete and utter overcoming of
it. Our calling is to share the light of the world, yes, providing places of
sanctuary from harm, but also bringing the dark things of our world
into the light, such that they can be restored to God and transformed
in the process. It’s tough work, but it starts with naming and exposing
the roots of abuse, and expecting better.
5th March - The 10 Commandments
Through the first few weeks of Lent, the Old Testament readings
explore the relationship of God with humankind by focusing on the
different covenants that were put in place.
First we had the ‘rainbow covenant,’ in which God promised never
again to destroy his creation. Then Abraham and Sarah were promised
many descendants, and that they would become the parents of many
nations. This week the focus narrows further, as Moses receives the
law by which the people of Israel are to live when they enter the land
that has been promised to them.
The passage first details the relationship between God and his people,
and then speaks of the relationships that are to be had with others in
the community. These relationships are to be founded on trust,
faithfulness and respect, and show a high value placed on the life of
each and every community member. As I read through the 10
commandments, I am always reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s
assessment of them. In writing about these rules that Israel are to
follow, he observes that they are almost all to do with neighbourliness.
The laws that God puts in place have a focus on how we are to live with
our family members, how we are to treat those who we encounter in
day to day life, and how we are to welcome those who come into our
community from elsewhere.
Perhaps, in this prolonged time as a scattered church community, this
reminder of the call to neighbourliness is a poignant one. Although it
seems as if many of the things we usually do as a community are still
out of reach, there is no limit to day to day small acts through which
we can be good neighbours to others. We might also take note of the
way in which God claims his people, and promises his faithfulness. We
do not travel through the challenges of this life alone; God is with us.
28th February - On taking up your cross…
This Sunday our gospel reading from Mark comes at a great turning
point in the gospel, where Peter finally identifies Jesus as the Messiah.
This is then followed by Jesus predicting his own death and the
suffering that he will face.
Peter does not want this to happen, understandably so, and he hopes
for a different outcome for his Lord and savior. Yet, Jesus is clear that
this is something that is unavoidable, suffering will have to be endured
in order for Jesus’ mission to be fulfilled. Suffering will also have to be
endured by those who seek in follow in Christ’s footsteps.
When we consider the challenge from Christ to take up our cross and
follow, we often think of this as living in a particular way, and being
willing to suffer for the faith that we now hold. It seems clear through
our lived experience of discipleship (trying to follow Jesus in the here
and now) that there will always be an easier option for us than taking
up our own cross.
It can be tempting, like Peter, just to want to enjoy living in a Christian
community, worshiping together, seeing friends every week, being
nice to each other and supporting those within the church fellowship.
Yet we can do many of these things without making much of a sacrifice,
or suffering a great deal (even if it can be tough sitting through
sermons and the like week after week!).
It is all too easy to domesticate Christ, and enjoy a very comfortable,
non-challenging Christian life. This can lead to not saying a great deal
about anything contentious, and avoiding difficult issues for fear of
causing offence, or making trouble. Sometimes, we need the
encouragement, support and sanctuary that we can find in church life.
Yet, we are called beyond that in this call to take up our cross and
follow Christ, which ultimately is a way that will result in persecution
and causing offence to those in positions of power.
This is not a call to suffer for the sake of it, intentionally taking the
difficult path in order to gain credit in heaven. It is not so that we can
come to a greater personal sense of enlightenment. Rather, it is to live
sacrificially, and compassionately alongside others, being willing to give
of ourselves so that others can meet with Christ. As Christ goes to the
cross, he does so burdened by the sin and suffering of humankind, in
order to bring restoration and new life. If we are also to take up our
cross, we do so in our willingness to share the load of other’s burdens,
pain and the ways in which they’ve been marred by sin, in order that
we can bring hope, and the possibility of restoration.
There will always be an easier and less costly path that we can take.
Yet, the change and justice that so many are in need of, will only come
when we find the capacity to follow Christ, take up our cross and
21st February - On practicing Lent when we’re already giving up so much…
One of the common themes coming across in a number of Christian
blogs and articles at this time, as we enter this season of Lent, is that
very much feels like we’ve been living in Lent for a whole year now.
We’ve all had to give up a lot of the things that we enjoy, holidays,
social activities, time with family, eating out and gathering at church.
These things have been given up for the well-being of ourselves and of
other members of our community. A sacrifice has been made for the
greater good, and we might reflect that one of the most effective ways
of loving our neighbour at this time has been reducing the chances for
Covid-19 to spread.
We’re weary of giving these things up, and looking forward to any kind
of return to normality, opportunities to meet with friends and family,
and to go to places further afield than we can visit at present. So, as we
approach Lent this year, we must remember to be kind to ourselves,
and it is no time to place undue pressure on each other to give up
arbitrary things that are helping us to endure in this difficult time.
However, Lent does still offer a time of self-reflection, and a valuable
opportunity to be honest with ourselves. It is likely that some of our
coping mechanisms over the past year might not be as life giving as
they seem. For example, changes in drinking habits, increases in
comfort eating, dependency on social media, are all areas in which a
sense of self-awareness is important. Even if we decide not to go ‘cold
turkey’ on such things, Lent could be a time in which we restore the
balance in some way, and remember the hope and freedom that we
know in Christ.
One of the more fashionable ways to practice Lent in recent times has
been to encourage small acts of love and kindness each day, making
Lent a time of positive outworking of God’s love rather than just giving
up arbitrary things that have no impact on others. The time or money
saved in self-denial is then re-purposed in a good way. The pandemic
has changed the way in which we interact with others, and in some
ways has made it harder to serve others through small acts of kindness.
Yet, these can still take place, with the sending of words of
encouragement, the sharing of small blessings on doorsteps and the
If I’m honest about it, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions can
provide me with an excuse not to do some of the things that I don’t
want to do. It affects our decision making processes. When we’re
unsure on whether to do something or not, to offer kindness to a
stranger, to put ourselves out for the benefit of someone else, then it
can be easier to fall back on the pandemic for a ‘get out clause’. Even
when this is justified, we will have to be wary of making sure this
attitude does not persist when things return to any kind of normality.
We might want to be intentional in this time of Lent, and think about
which of the pandemic practices that have become normal will need to
be eschewed once our freedom is regained. We’ve spent so long
separated that it may well take a conscious effort to enter fully into
communal life again.
So, there is a balance to be found this Lent. It’s not a time for us to
bury ourselves in guilt, but it is a time to take stock, to assess the ways
in which our lives have changed over the past year, and to be honest as
we discern which habits of lockdown should stay in lockdown when our
freedom is gradually restored.
I hope that we might also find encouragement, as Christ offers us
freedom, new life, and restoration in the here and now, such that we
don’t have to wait for the pandemic to be over for positive and lifegiving change to come.
However you choose to practice Lent this year (even if you choose to
ignore it!), I hope that you will know Christ’s presence with you as we
journey together towards Easter.
14th February - When things seem too big to deal with...
Different people react differently to
challenging situations and
overwhelming tasks, but one of the
common reactions to such difficult
things is to procrastinate. As such, when
I came across this cartoon by Dave
Walker this week it caught my
So often we see people with eyes glued
to mobile phones, to the TV, to laptops.
Too often that person is me. These
screens all provide so many different
ways to escape the problems that tower
over us, and in this time of pandemic
there are many such towering
problems. Maybe if we hide away from reality for a bit, then all of our
problems will deal with themselves… (and if you don’t distract yourself
with a screen, maybe it is a book, a craft, or other hobby). It is of
course important that we make time to ‘switch off’ and relax. If we
only focus on problems then we’ll be full of anxiety and overwhelmed,
like with anything in life, we have to be keep such things in balance. At
best our use of the internet, and our hobbies, should be restoring our
capacity to engage with and overcome our challenging tasks, not just
distracting us from them or giving a means of procrastination.
This is a potential issue for church communities as well as individuals.
Rather than address and engage with awkward and difficult situations,
ever-looming problems, and potential areas of disagreement, we can
prefer to find all sorts of ways to procrastinate and reasons to focus on
other more simple things first. Sometimes, this is entirely necessary,
but it very rarely results in the problem becoming any smaller, and can
often result in a perpetuation of discrimination and injustice.
There can also be a tendency to approach faith, prayer and worship, as
a means of escape from the challenges of this world. When we talk
about heaven and salvation, it is easy to speak in terms of being set
apart from, and escaping, sin, evil and death. It can be harder to speak
instead of transforming and overcoming such monumental problems,
as we engage in God’s kingdom work in this time and in this place.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark this week, Peter, James and
John witness the transfiguration of Christ. His face shines with the glory
of God, and Peter’s reaction to this wondrous moment is to want to
stay there, and to build a monument to it. Just before this passage
Jesus has been recognised as the Messiah, and he has warned the
disciples of his impending death and resurrection. Yet, this moment of
transfiguration was not to be an escape from the reality of what was to
come, but rather a moment of glorious revelation that was to help with
the dark and challenging times that were ahead.
As we gather to worship, pray together, hear words of scripture, and
witness the glory of Christ, I hope that we will find not just a place of
escape from the challenges of our world, but also the means to
transform and overcome them, through the ongoing presence of Christ
with us today. Amen.
7th Feb 2021 - On being raised up to serve
In our gospel reading this week, as we continue in Mark chapter 1, we come across the story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. She was lying in bed with a fever, so Jesus went and lifted her up (or raises her up in the Greek text), and then she begins to serve Christ.
In some ways in the midst of a pandemic this miracle story is a bit frustrating, as we hear of over a thousand people a day dying from a virus. If God can heal such illnesses, then why does he not heal those suffering today? There are of course no easy answers to such questions, although we can point to the hope that comes in the vaccine roll out, and recognise human fallibility in the way in which we have enabled the virus to spread.
It also seems quite convenient that Jesus would heal a lady who then goes on to provide food and lodging! Yet, what happens here is more than a simple case of healing an unnamed woman from a fever. In the language used, of raising up, what we see here is a pointer towards the resurrection. Simon’s mother-in-law is lifted up to new life, in which she serves Christ and becomes his disciple.
There is a sense in which she is restored to the person that she is made to be. This is a service that she wants to give, and she gives it in response to her experience of the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Some people revel in being good hosts, providing a great welcome, and the best food. Yet, there are times when such acts of service are not possible, due to personal illness, or as we all experience now due to the pandemic. It is a great frustration when we are unable to provide the kind of hospitality that we would like to give. Christ restores the possibility of service to Simon’s mother-in-law, and her healing is to be seen in this context.
The theme of service is a repetitive one in the Gospel of Mark. In the wilderness, Jesus is served by the angels, here he is served by Simon’s mother-in-law, yet he says in Mark 10:45 that he ‘came not to be served, but to serve…’. Jesus raises up Simon’s mother-in-law, not in order that he may be served, but in order that she would serve the kingdom of God, just as he does.
This weekend, as we share communion, and reaffirm the covenant promises that bind our church community together, it seems fitting to be reminded of this call to serve. We have been raised in baptism, we too have been lifted up in order that we can serve others, and serve God’s kingdom. That service might look different to normal at present, due to lockdown restrictions, but it continues in many different ways. We show care for each another by keeping in touch, we share small acts of kindness, we pray for each other, we worship together.
Yet, we long for the time when we will be able to share hospitality once again, be free to serve one another in person, and welcome others as we bear witness to God’s kingdom. Our shiny new church kitchen still awaits the fulfilment of its purpose! Hopefully, that time will be sooner rather than later, but for now we must wait, and serve each other by doing all that we can to keep ourselves, and our community, as free of coronavirus as possible. May we know Christ’s presence with us in the waiting.
31st January 2021 - The first miracle of Jesus
This week the lectionary brings us the first miracle of Jesus as presented in the gospel of Mark. It is an act that sets the tone for what is to follow. However, it is also one that can be hard for us to relate to, as it involves the casting out of a demon.
In the gospel of Mark Jesus will show his authority over creation, through the calming of the storm. He will show his authority over sickness, disease, and even death through his many healing miracles and through his own resurrection, signified by his empty tomb following his crucifixion. Yet, Jesus starts his ministry with a display of his authority over spiritual and demonic powers, clearly demonstrating something that marked him out as different to the scribes that held sway in the synagogue.
In Jewish thought demons were understood to be spiritual beings that actively worked against the purposes of God. Their prince was Satan, who epitomised this malevolence, and ruled over the earth. It is interesting that such a spirit is to be found in the synagogue, and the scribes are powerless to do anything about it. It seems that their teaching accommodates the presence of this demon, and certainly is not a threat to it. Not only that, what the unclean spirit says, speaking on behalf of all such, spirits could also echo a concern of the scribes when in the presence of Jesus Christ – ‘Have you come to destroy us?’.
The answer it seems is ‘yes’, for through Christ all of the powers that work against God’s purposes in this world are to be overcome. All of the demons that plague humanity will be cast out, one by one, and that includes those who perpetuate injustice through false teaching, or by overlooking the redemptive purposes of God in pursuit of the preservation of their own power.
Perhaps, we should not be surprised that this unclean spirit is revealed in the synagogue. Christianity has also accommodate malevolent forces throughout its history. We can see all sorts of ways in which insidious powers, that work against the purposes of God, have been present in the life of the church, and are still present today. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and hyper-nationalism have been embedded in our institutions and our churches for so long that we sometimes become blind to them, especially if we are in a privileged enough position not to feel the effects of such injustice.
Jesus rebukes the spirit, and does not let it name him as the Messiah. This is a common theme in the Gospel of Mark. The true identity of Christ is to be kept a secret, revealed finally on the cross. Yet, there is also a certain authority displayed in the naming of something, or someone (remember how Adam names the animals in Genesis). The unclean spirit is denied the privilege of speaking the name of the ‘Holy One of God’.
As we encounter the powers that bring about injustice in our society, and all other demons present that work against the purposes of God, it is important that we are able to name them. More than that, it is important that we name them before God, holding firm to the hope that Christ can and will cast out these demons too.
Sunday 20th December - Christmas Greetings
It is a privilege to be able to offer Christmas greetings to you on behalf of New Road Baptist Church. This year our Christmas celebrations will most likely not contain everything we would hope for, or normally look forward to. Whether it be a loss of traditional church practices and fellowship, or the lack of opportunity to meet with family and friends, this Christmas will be different.
Maybe in the midst of all of this we will discern what it is that we would look forward to next year, assuming life is back to some kind of normality. Yet, we cannot do justice to the present by simply escaping to the future. Through the birth of Jesus Christ, the coming of God to dwell with God’s very own creation, we find hope not just for the future, but for the here and now. Jesus is born into a dark place, a room that usually housed animals became a maternity ward, an unmarried young woman gave birth to the son of God, an infant child escaped the murderous intentions of a local tyrant king. To say that God placed godself in a vulnerable situation is a bit of an understatement!
In a stable in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger is quite an unexpected place to find God. Yet, if we read through the Bible, then we would see time and time again God working
in unexpected situations, calling on unlikely children, women and men to carry out the restorative and life giving work of his kingdom. Regularly we see a call to serve the poor, to protect the vulnerable, and to lift up the lowly. That God would choose to work through such people seems entirely consistent with his character.
Maybe, we shouldn’t be quite so surprised by the kind of places in which God turns up after all! In this, the toughest Christmas faced by many in the western world for quite some time, we should find solace and reason to be hopeful, as God dwells with us, come what may.
I hope you all have as good a Christmas as is possible, and that you know the presence of Christ with you in all that you do.
Sunday 29th November - Advent – The past, present and future coming of Christ
In our meeting for prayer on Wednesday evening, it was mentioned how Advent can be a bit confusing. In the next few weeks, we will be looking back to the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, but also forward to the second coming of Christ, whilst seeking to recognise Christ’s ongoing presence with us.
We are in a real sense pulled in three directions at once. Yet it encapsulates the nature of Christian life. We remember the concrete moments in time, when Jesus was born, when he was crucified, and his resurrection. We look forward to the time when God’s kingdom will be fully established as Christ comes again. We hold all of this in tension with the ways that we see God’s kingdom breaking through all around us.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be anchored in the events of the past, but also active in working towards the promised future in the here and now. We focus in on the remarkable, yet unremarkable, birth of Christ to a young woman, amongst the animals, in a small town. We dwell on this particular moment in which Christ became incarnate, God with us, and as we do so have revealed to us something of the eternal nature of God. The God who is always coming towards us, always bringing new life and renewal, always pouring out love, forgiveness and mercy.
Ultimately, dwelling on the past, or looking forward to the future can only get us so far. Both are only any use if they affect how we approach life today, and if they help us see where God is at work around us, within us and through us.
This Advent the three-way splitting of time seems even more relevant than normal. We are stuck in an in-between time. We look back to a time pre-Covid, and look forward to a time post-Covid, that looks all the more likely now that viable vaccines seem to be on the way. Yet, we still have to deal with the here and now. We cannot get so caught up in the past, moaning that everything this year is a let-down as we cannot do what we usually do. We cannot act in reckless abandon this Christmas because of the hope that we have in the future, because the virus still has the potential to cause irreparable damage in the here and now. Instead we must deal with today.
Of course, this means acting in light of what has gone before, and with a hoped for future in mind, but also being fully present where we are through this Advent and Christmas season. Longing for the past or future cannot be allowed to absent us from the present. It is fully present that we may see God at work in all of the little moments around us that bring us life, in the love that is shared in numerous ways, and in the transformation that occurs when Christ’s presence is witnessed amongst us.
Sunday 25th October
It has been another week in which the news has been largely depressing, with further rises in Covid-19 cases and fatalities. As the crisis continues we can see how those in power are so separated from the reality of day to day life for many people in our country, who do not have the means to save money, and find themselves in low paid and insecure employment, if employed at all. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the cold-hearted vote against meal provision for children living in poverty during the school holidays.
There seems to be no recognition that many families are left facing a choice between paying the rent, the electricity bill, or buying food. Parents are left taking the decision to feed their children whilst skipping meals themselves.
It is strange to find ourselves looking to an English footballer for hope, common sense, and decency, yet this is what we’ve come to. Marcus Rashford continues pile pressure on the government to ensure that children and families do not go hungry in the midst of this pandemic. It has been encouraging to see churches, foodbanks and cafes step forward to provide for those in need.
The arguments against giving meals to families struggling at this time have been quite appalling. Some blame the parents for having the wrong priorities, the implication being that better budgeting is required so that the family can eat. It seems children are expected to face the consequences of their parents struggles. Others point out that children have been going hungry for decades, as if it’s just something we have to live with. Finally, some refuse provision of meals in case families become dependent on them, willingly blind to the inequalities in society that leave people trapped in poverty.
None of these responses to those in need are consistent with the gospel reading set for this week in the lectionary, as it continues to work through Matthew 22 (we are not using this reading on Sunday, as we will be using the Reformation Sunday texts).
Here we come across the greatest commandments where Jesus says:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Feeding the hungry, especially in this case where vulnerable children are left without nutritious food, seems a fairly obvious case of loving your neighbour as yourself. It is also a part of ensuring that all children have the best chance to thrive, with better immune systems, more energy and improved general well-being.
Dependence created in this situation is a dependence on grace, love and compassion, things that we would all hope to receive should we fall upon hard times ourselves. It seems that Marcus Rashford understands this, whilst many in Westminster do not. Lord, have mercy.
Sunday 18th October
There seems to be no end to spending day after day sitting in front of screens. From the same location I end up writing, attending meetings, socialising, enjoying entertainment, and participating in worship. Meal times, exercising, reading a book, or meeting others for Open Church, are the main periods of reprieve.
However much we might lament the downsides of such relentless screen time, there are some benefits that come with it. The retrieval of time previously spent commuting is undoubtedly a good thing for many, we can attend events that would previously have been too far away, and we can keep in touch more easily with those who are now a long way away. For many the television, computer or phone is the main means of seeing the outside world at present, as they keep themselves safe from Covid-19, or face a period of enforced quarantine and isolation.
This time has led many who were previously technophobes, or just not interested in online interaction, to learn new skills, and explore different ways of doing things. Nothing will fully replace the need for human interaction, and physical contact, but technology has helped us to stay connected through this time where we are scattered.
It also gives us scope for being creative about the ways that we do things, especially when we plan ahead effectively. We have a number of upcoming events that are going to be very different to normal. Remembrance Sunday is less than a month away, and the church anniversary service the following week. Then we find ourselves thinking about a Covid Christmas, which is in some ways depressing, but it also gives us an opportunity to celebrate the Christmas season together in a new way. We will be seeking to respect the traditions of the church in recent years, but in ways that we can meaningfully gather online or in a mixed-media format, such that it is fitting for the situation that we find ourselves in.
This means that we’ll be asking you to share your skills through the Christmas period in order to enrich our worship together. If you are a keen artist, then take inspiration from the nativity stories, so that we can have striking visuals alongside our scripture readings. If you are a musician or would normally sing in the choir, watch out for requests to help put together recordings of advent hymns and carols. Share your poems, or prayers, and help to enliven our gatherings, and broaden our understanding of God.
Now of course, this approach needn’t be just for Christmas, the more collaborative and creative we are in our worship the better. Yet, hopefully the focus on these events will help to give us something to look forward to in this darker time of year, as we celebrate the light that Christ brings to our world.
Sunday 11th October - Entering the Unknown
Last week I had expected to be completing a marathon in the rain, however, I ended up running in glorious sunshine. The ground was waterlogged due to Saturday’s incessant downpour, and some of the paths were temporarily streams, so I did get quite damp, and I’m not sure my trainers will recover.
At 19.5 miles in I came to the last checkpoint, that thankfully had bananas, crisps and sugary snacks available, thinking that I had completed the most difficult chunk of the race. Most of the climbing was done, and the last few miles on paper were relatively flat along the side of Coniston Water. I was in good spirits.
It is perhaps for the best that I didn’t know what was to come. The next three miles were the worst by far, through saturated bogs alongside Beacon Tarn (a tarn previously unknown to me that will not be revisited in a hurry), and cramp struck as I attempted to jump over a particularly swampy bit. Then I found that the relatively flat section to the finish was littered with tree roots, slippery rocks and very uneven ground. In fell running terms this was ‘technical terrain’, in my terms it was something that I can’t repeat in good company. In the end I made it to the finish in 4hrs 37mins, (I had to get round, the car was parked near the start!), but the last 6.25 miles took over an hour and a half. I did choose to enter this ridiculous race, I enjoyed it, and would do it all again without hesitation, yet it will be very different if I complete it another year knowing the nature of the route.
This time of pandemic is definitely turning out to be a lot more like a marathon than a sprint. It is dragging on, and when we think that progress is being made, we hit a challenging patch and the end seems to be further away than ever before. Like many things in life, it is probably for the best that we didn’t know what was coming, and what may have to be endured this winter, yet we know (or at least hope) that there is some kind of finish line ahead.
The lectionary Psalm this week is Psalm 23. If at this moment the ‘race’ seems challenging and a bit daunting, with the rise in Covid cases and impending tightening of restrictions placed upon our lives, then it might well be a good passage of scripture to read, to pray through and hold on to. Regardless of what comes, we should take reassurance in the knowledge that God is with us, that he walks alongside us, carries us, beckons us on, and gives the strength to continue.
Sunday 20th Sept
We like to know when we take part in something, or make any kind of transaction, that we will receive what is due to us. Whether it is regards fair pay when it comes to employment, a purchase that we have made, or rewards that we have earned through a loyalty scheme, this will always be the case, and rightly so.
However, in our day to day life we have a huge reminder that this transactional approach to life, where people receive what is owed to them, often doesn’t play out in reality. Through careless actions, and failure to adhere to social distancing protocols, coronavirus can be spread by those who are not majorly affected by it, and ultimately infect people who have been taking every precaution and following the rules. Sometimes those who have been good face hardship despite their best efforts.
Vice versa, sometimes those who have been bad do not face the consequences. Throughout the Psalms we encounter the psalmist lamenting the apparent success of the wicked, we hear cries for justice, and demands for God to punish those who have done wrong.
Yet, what we encounter in Christ is quite a different response to wrongdoing than you might expect. Rather than straight out punishment and retribution, instead we see the love and grace of poured out upon the whole of creation. As God’s nature is revealed to us through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the opportunity for new life, reconciliation and lives transformed. God reaches out to humankind, offering the same reward to all people, no matter how long they have been living without recognising his presence in their lives, no matter how long they have living selfishly at the expense of others.
This can be hard for us to accept as long-term followers of Christ. You might expect that the reward would be greater for those who have lived sacrificially for the longest. However, such a transactional approach to faith in the end completely misses the point. If we think in that manner, then we would be earning our reward and salvation through our own works and deeds, rather than relying on the love and grace of God and being transformed by them. ‘Loving our neighbour’ in a transactional approach would be done not because we genuinely love them, but out of selfish motives, as we seek our own personal gain in the long run.
Just as Jesus tears up the numbers game when it comes to forgiveness, he does the same when it comes to earning our place in heaven. The transactional approach to faith simply doesn’t add up in this created order, where the creator pours out love, grace and forgiveness incessantly. If anything the reward as a Christian is to be released from a transactional approach to life and relationships, where instead of basing them on the receipt of fair compensation at all times, instead they are grounded in a love that flows from a genuine respect of the other that comes from acknowledging that all are made equal in the sight of God, and all are precious in his eyes.
Sunday 13th Sept - Forgiveness
As we have followed the lectionary readings in Matthew over the past few weeks, we have hit a section now that focuses upon forgiveness. If we are to maintain and strengthen relationships in the church community, then forgiveness is key, for wherever people spend time together, there will be disagreements, mistakes and conflict.
However, it can be hard to forgive. For a start negative experiences, where we have been hurt by others, tend to stick with us. You can have a day full of positive interactions with other people, and constructive conversations, but the one negative comment, or harsh word, is the one that is remembered when you get home. In a church community especially, we tend to set high standards for each other. The hurt seems all the more acute when it is caused by a fellow Christian, who ‘should know better!’
I think that often we struggle to forgive others because we have not yet come to terms with our own forgiveness. Jesus says that we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven ourselves, but if we do not accept that forgiveness, grasp the extent of it, and have not allowed it to transform us from within, then we will be very limited in the forgiveness we are able to offer to others.
To be able to forgive others depends on our own transformative experience of forgiveness and therefore our own repentance.
A further reason we struggle with forgiveness is that we have assumed that it means a letting off from wrongdoing. However, forgiveness is not simply a free pass, yet forgiveness cannot be detached from justice. A criminal should still faces the consequences of their actions, even when they have been forgiven for them. However, a Christian understanding of forgiveness ultimately trusts that God is the eternal judge, and that through his kingdom justice will be fully upheld.
It’s all a lot easier said than done, of course. Yet, as with many things in life, we have to have the will and desire to be forgiving. It is not something that will come to us without practice and intentionality. I came across a blog this week that speaks of Corrie ten Boom’s struggle to accept a request for forgiveness from one of the wardens at Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she had been held in during the second world war following her decision to hide Jews in her home. Rather than being able to forgive, at first she felt anger:
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. It is hard work, even though thankfully many of us we will not experience such extreme situations as Corrie ten Boom did, we are still dependent on the grace of God to be able to offer it fully, such that renewal and reconciliation can take place to its fullest extent.
Sunday 6th Sept - Easing back into communal life
Our readings this Sunday have a focus on maintaining good relationships in a community, through mutual encouragement, love and support, and through good conflict resolution.
Community life still seems a bit of a strange thing to talk about at present, where our opportunities to meet are limited, and chances to cause offence are minimised. Yet, it is just as possible to cause offence in an email, on the phone, or when people feel overlooked or forgotten. It still takes time and energy to sustain community life, and to allow relationships to grow.
I have found the last 6 months to be a challenging time to develop relationships, relatively new in a pastorate, and unable to visit people at home and spend time with them. Yet, what has surprised me recently, is that a return to communal life is quite demanding too!
It is difficult to read emotions, and expressions well whilst people are wearing a mask, and most encounters with others are awkward as we try to negotiate social distancing and keep each other as safe as possible. It is also demanding because we are not used to being in the presence of others, sustaining long conversations, and paying full attention to the people we are with. It is easy to drift away in an online meeting, but it is quite a bit noticeable in person in a group conversation when your mind turns to all of the things that need to be done in the afternoon!
As we return to such situations we need to be kind and loving with each other. It is likely that we fill it tiring being in the company of others, and it will take some time to get used to it again. It is part of the reason why when people return from a long convalescence they take a phased return to the workplace. It takes time to get back up to speed again.
On Friday morning’s we have been holding Open Church outside, and it has been a good way to re-engage with our local community and those who have been connected with the church mid-week over the past few years. It is quite likely that those who attend church will be able to meet in the same way following services on a Sunday morning, assuming we are able to go ahead with the planned return to the building on September 27th. It’s a small thing, but it enables people who have been scattered and separated over the past few months to gradually re-engage with communal life again. It also increases the opportunities we have to share God’s love, as we listen to one another, share encouragement, and make time for others.
As a step towards services with a congregation in the chapel, we will be hosting our Sunday service this week from the building, as we try to ensure we can gather in a way that does not exclude those who cannot return to the building at this time. It’s not the easiest way of doing things, but myself and Phil (and hopefully others) will have a good crack at it, as we seek to enable a scattered and gathered congregation to worship God, and share God’s love together in community.
Here’s hoping the technology will work this week!
Sunday 30th Aug - One year on…
Sitting outside at ‘Open Church’ today with David, he reminded me that it is almost a whole year since I was inducted into the pastorate at New Road.
It has been a year that has featured many unforeseen challenges. Some of those have been overcome, such as the situation with the manse (although church finances might take some more time to recover!). It was a relief to eventually move in February, and we are thankful for the work done in the kitchen and the bathroom, especially considering the amount of time we have spent in the house in the last 6 months! We have settled in well.
The spread of Coronavirus, the resulting lockdown and the curtailment of services in the church is of course an ongoing challenge, with no immediate end in sight. It has been encouraging to see how well the church has adapted to the need to gather online, and heartening to witness the way in which people have supported each other through this period.
We hope to be able to gradually return to the building over the coming weeks, such that next Sunday’s service will be led from the church without a congregation present. However, we will have to keep a watchful eye on the local situation and react accordingly.
I am hopeful that this time next year we will be able to reflect on a year of renewal and new beginnings. This time of scattered worship will eventually pass, and groups will be welcome once more into the church premises.
In some ways we will have a blank canvas with which to work, as we seek God’s leading upon our return to the premises. We will resume some practices we have missed that are familiar, but no doubt will also incorporate some of the new things that we have learnt, with regards enabling people to gather digitally as well as physically.
Both Christian Aid and The Hub have left the premises, and we will have to find new ways in which to use the space that we have available to us. Our church kitchen, once Coronavirus has passed, also provides new opportunities to use the church premises to interact with our local community and to strengthen relationships with each other.
Although at present we face a time of great challenge, and it could be a long winter ahead, in the long term we are well placed to love and serve our city in new ways as we follow the call of Jesus Christ to share his good news, hope and love in our city. It is this hope that spurs me on into this 2nd year in Oxford. God is with us through these difficult times, and he will also be with us as we emerge into whatever the ‘new normal’ might be.
Thank you for the love and support we have received over the past year, and for your best wishes with regards our holiday. We had a good time in sunny Scotland. It is good to be back – although if I had the chance to slip away again tomorrow I would definitely take it!
Sunday 9th Aug - A chance to get away
I am in the process of getting ready for a holiday, not winding down exactly, but making sure things church-wise are all in place before a trip over the border to Scotland for a couple of weeks.
It will be the first time we’ve left Oxford properly for over 6 months (besides the day I spent moving my parents up north). We’re going to places we’ve stayed at before, but no doubt they will feel quite different in our current circumstances and with Covid related restrictions.
It is important to get away from time to time, and to leave our day to day surroundings behind. It isn’t possible for everyone, of course, but even a day outside of the house, sitting for a while in a park, visiting somewhere off our usual route, can make a big difference. It makes us open to seeing things anew, and can help us appreciate what we have. The beauty of Oxford is never more obvious to me than when I’m visiting a different city!
It’s also important that we take a break. For a minister, to remember that the church can survive without me, but the same can be said for others in all different roles, within the church, at work or even in family life. Time away from our regular labours is vital. It gives us rest, and also helps us to keep things in perspective. It is also woven into the fabric of creation, with the institution of night and day, and with the concept of sabbath.
In our Gospel readings from Matthew in recent weeks, Jesus himself tries to get away from the crowds, he goes to find space to pray, to grieve, to rest. It doesn’t work out for him, as the crowds follow, they still have great needs for healing and for his teaching, but it is clear that times of rest were vital in Jesus’ ministry.
They are also vital to us. Yet, this doesn’t mean a ‘holiday’ from faith, or our Christianity, even if it may mean no church attendance. Time away gives us space to stop doing, and start listening to God. It gives an opportunity to see the wonders of creation in a new way, with time we don’t always get the opportunity to give to it. Finally, it gives an opportunity to spend time with those who in our lives who may be taken for granted or overlooked. When Christ steps away he is still moved with compassion for those who come to him, he is still the Son of God after all! When we step away, we are still the same people, still a child of God, and a part of the body of Christ, but it gives space for us to love our neighbour, and appreciate life in all of its fulness, in ways that are not as possible in our day to day reality.
I hope that through this summer, different though it is, that you will find safe opportunities to visit places outside of the familiar routine, time for a break, and a chance to see life from a different perspective.
Sunday 2nd Aug - Enduring through the pandemic
I have had quite enough of this pandemic. I’m fed up of hardly being able to safely go anywhere, I would like some certainty with regards coming out of lockdown, and I’m starting to get concerned that our planned August holiday will not go ahead. The final leg of that trip has already been postponed, as my parents are now locked down in their new Barnoldswick home. At the same time I feel conflicted, a bit guilty about all the frustration, because the reality is that we are well and in a nice house.
I’m sure that many feel the same kind of emotions. It has been good to meet with some folk in a socially distant manner over the past few weeks, but it is still so different. We are cagey around each other, trying not to fiddle with masks, knowing that human interaction is important, whilst at the same time not wanting to spread the virus. Everything feels a bit awkward. I understand why many are choosing to stay safely at home.
This is a situation that is not going to change quickly. We need to be set up for the long haul (no matter what Donald Trump might say!). That means we will have to continue to be intentional about keeping in touch with one another, on the phone and online, giving encouragement and support, and sharing God’s love.
It also means being intentional in making space to spend time in God’s presence, personally, as well as in online church. We may be tired of the current situation, and long for it to pass, but as we seek to endure through it, the presence of God’s spirit with us will strengthen and sustain us.
This week I was struck by God’s promise to the exiled Israelites in Isaiah 40:28-31:
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
I hope that you too will find encouragement here, for God’s words to the people of Israel, faint and powerless, are words for us too, as they tell us of the nature of God. Flying like eagles might seem a bit far fetched. Running without becoming weary might be beyond us (although I have been working on it a fair bit). Yet, to be able to walk without being faint is exactly the kind of endurance that we need through this challenging time. No doubt there will be better times and more challenging times ahead, uncertainty, and future plans cancelled, yet we look with hope to the future, sustained and uplifted by our creator God.
Sunday 26th July - On wearing a mask
I don’t like wearing a mask. I’m not sure many people do. They are uncomfortable, a bit warm, and they frustratingly cover up much of our facial expressions (although the other day I think I got away with smirking inappropriately). However, even though I don’t enjoy it, in shops, on public transport, and in church, I will wear a mask not only for my well-being, but for the well-being of others.
Claire Nicholls, one of my colleagues in ministry, who used to be in pastorate up north, but is also now down south, wrote this:
The five stages of mask wearing as inspired by Facebook and the people who walk past my house…..
I shall not wear a mask
For it is my right
I shall wear my mask on my chin
For it shows willing
I shall wear my mask (but below my nose)
For it shows I’m bothered
I shall maybe put it on my face
In case you cough, not me, I’m clean
I shall wear a mask
For I love my neighbour as I love myself
As we discern how best to act, coming tentatively out of lockdown, we need at all times to be guided by loving our neighbours as we love ourselves. We cannot overlook the importance of loving ourselves in this statement, and that means looking out for own well-being, but not at the expense of others. We have a duty to keep ourselves well and safe from the dangers of Covid-19, as well as ensuring that we do not become one who spreads the disease unknowingly.
We love ourselves and our neighbours when we take decisions that will not result in the potential further spread of the virus. Yet, we also love our neighbours when we find safe ways to continue our service of others, maintain our charitable giving, and even when we make purchases that enable businesses to survive. Mask wearing plays a part in this, and is but a small inconvenience that comes with the privilege of being able to play as full and active roll in our society as I possibly can. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it’s the least that I can do.
Sunday 19th July - Careful cultivation
One of my favourite routes, either walking or running, through Oxford passes by the Radcliffe Camera and the University church, on the way through to Christchurch Meadow.
This summer it has been radically different to normal, without tourists blocking the way, and with a lot fewer bicycles chained to the railings. Yet, the standout difference has been the lawn. As lockdown took effect, and the sun baked down, the grass around the Radcliffe Camera that is usually so pristine, was left to its own devices. It grew long and straggly, dandelions took root, and it was parched brown. The grass has since been cut, but it will be a long time until it is restored to its former glory. The lawn is currently patchy and pale.
Where things have been overlooked, or left to grow wild, in our own lives, or in the life of the church, then we cannot expect an instant solution. It takes time, care and regular attention to bring back verdant life to a lawn, and in many ways the same can true in the life of faith individually and corporately. (And that’s before we even start throwing in the complication that we shouldn’t be too over zealous with the weeds anyway! – Mt 13:24-30 – but that will no doubt come up on Sunday.)
The Radcliffe Camera is not the only location in which plants have taken root in ways previously unseen (or at least not noticed by me!). The steps of the university exam schools have weeds growing between them, and plant debris is strewn around the door. This will, no doubt, be easier to deal with than lawn restoration, but even the most prestigious and previously well kept places, are not exempt from the tyranny of weeds and mess if left unmaintained. If there is open ground, or gaps left untended anywhere outside, then something will come and grow in that unclaimed space.
There are many gaps that have been made in our lives as a result of Covid-19. In the life of the church there are many gaps too, space that is waiting to be filled in our building, and holes in our weekly timetable. It might be that we don’t wish to fill all of the gaps, especially in lives that were too busy pre-lockdown. Yet, it will take care and attention to maintain a better balanced life. In the life of the church it will take a great deal of care and intentionality to ensure that the gaps are filled with plants that will bear the fruits of the kingdom of God.
This need to start afresh, and restore life where the land is now empty, is not a problem that the church faces alone. It is being faced across the city, and the world. There is an opportunity to rebuild in ways that bring life, are more sustainable, and produce a more just economy, all things that we are called to play a part in as followers of Jesus Christ.
Sunday 12th July - Keeping a global perspective
Through this time of lockdown, and even through an easing of restrictions, it is easy for our perspective to become much smaller than usual. We can feel overwhelmed by our own problems, that we deal with as individuals, as families, and as a local church, such that the wider world doesn’t get a look in.
We have tried to keep a global perspective in lockdown, by hearing from Freeset, and BMS World Mission. It has also been good to be joined in worship by those who are now overseas, near and far.
This time demands a great deal of international cooperation. Yet, the coronavirus pandemic gives countries an opportunity to act in a more nationalistic way too, taking advantage of being able to close down borders and keep people out their country without much political fallout. Others are making strategic moves whilst the eyes of the world are looking elsewhere, such as Israel as it annexes even more Palestinian land.
It is good in light of this to be able to support organisations such as the Amos Trust, who seek to speak out for the Palestinian people and support them in the challenges they face at this time.
Sunday 5th July - On wishing we were elsewhere…
Lockdown has been a challenging time for many people, and for us as a family it has been hard work, juggling two jobs and parental responsibilities. (Although we realise that with a garden, guaranteed income, and no worries about rent or mortgage payments, we have had it much easier than many.)
It has meant that I have spent a fair bit of time wishing that we were elsewhere (or wishing just I was elsewhere on days when the children were particularly demanding!). Whether it be on holiday, a day out, or just working outside of the home with the children in childcare; anything different to another day at home would have sufficed.
I suspect that many would have felt the same, regardless of the situation at home. We have faced a situation where our movement has been restricted through no choice of our own. A bit of escapism can have it’s plus points, whether it be reading books, scrolling through social media, or just a bit of wistful day-dreaming, but too much of it can be detrimental to us all, as we lose sight of the value and worth of what is actually there in front us, and those we are spending time in the company of.
I was struck the other day by some song lyrics, when listening to some music by a folk musician, Iain Morrison. Scottish folk music, a dram of scotch, and planning future mountaineering adventures have all been part of my post children-in-bed escapism in the last few months (and were a bit before!). Yet these lyrics simply said ‘Be still and know that you are here.’ In that moment I was snapped out of escapism to actually paying attention to my physical presence in the time and space that I was in.
In that moment I had a reminder of what had been some of the positives of the lockdown experience, a newfound appreciation of local surroundings, the birds and the flowers, the wonder of walking familiar paths each day and noticing the gradual seasonal changes. When we become too focused on what we do not have, and what we miss out on, we lose sight of the wonders at our doorstep.
Perhaps as a church, as we start to think more seriously about what the future might look like post lockdown, these words are important for us too. We can spend a lot of time wishing that we were something that we are not at present, thinking about the challenges of accessing the city centre, and concerns over how to deal with issues such as anti-social behaviour on Bonn Square at our doorstep. Yet we might hear the challenge ‘be still and know that you are here’ as a call to embrace our surroundings, and to make peace with them. We are a city-centre church, and face all of the challenges, and positives, that our setting brings. This is where we are and where we are called to love and serve and share the good news of the Kingdom of God.
The words of course also evoke the well known words from scripture – ‘be still and know that I am God’ – words that can bring comfort in troubled times, for a number of reasons. God is still God, even in the most challenging situations, he is still compassionate, walks with us, dwells in us, and points us towards the hope of a new creation, and new beginnings. It also puts a new perspective on our own efforts and labour as a church, as salvation, redemption and new life is not something that we bring about, but they are gifts by the grace of God, that are being brought to fruition with or without us.
So I hope and pray that this week, on another weekend where we might not be where we want to be , that you will be able to pause and take stock of the place in which you are actually present, and that as a church we too can remember the place where we are a present witness, even though we are not physically together in the building at this time.
The song I refer to is ‘Ise II’ and available to listen to here:
Sunday 28th June - Tentative beginnings
It has been an interesting couple of weeks, seeing the resumption of some familiar activities, even if they look quite different to normal. We’ve seen football restart, in empty stadia, with fake crown noise. Many shops have re-opened, with one-way systems, PPE and social distancing in place. Also many have taken the opportunity to visit beaches and beauty spots in the heatwave.
All of these things come with some risk attached, but they are all activities that simply could not take place in any form during lockdown. Football was banned, food and essential items for the home were the main things that could be shopped for, and travel of any significant distance to the beach was outlawed.
This of course does not mean that resumption comes without risk. It may well be too soon, and the crowds on the beaches and elsewhere in the past few days could prove calamitous. We will have to wait and see, and hope and pray that there is no resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
Unlike most of these areas, sports, shopping in store and tourism, as a church we have found that our worshipping life and our fellowship continues, regardless of the nature of our gathering. We don’t need to take risks with our health in order to function, in order to survive financially, or in order to gather together in ways that are significant.
Over the next few weeks I have no doubt that we will start to find ways to meet together that are safe and fulfilling. It could mean small groups meeting in gardens, gathering in the park, or events led from the church. Sadly, any return to normality seems a long way off, but we have an opportunity to be creative, and try things we don’t normally do, and maybe in the process we will strike upon some things that we would like to continue into the future (just as we have found with the use of online tools).
I hope that you have had a good week in the sun, even if sleeping well in the heat has been a bit difficult!
Sunday 14th June - #Blacklivesmatter and statues
It might be that now, after a few weeks of protest and campaigning, that you have had enough of focusing on a difficult, challenging and upsetting issue. There comes a time when we would like to simply move on, focus on something less traumatic, less demanding and less discomforting. It might be that you’re frustrated and concerned by the protests that are taking place, and have no sympathy with those who would deface and remove statues. Yet, we shouldn’t lose sight of the important cause that is being fought for; justice and equality for fellow human beings, sisters and brothers made in the image of God.
The capability to ‘move on’, or to stay quiet on the issue, can only come from a position of privilege, for as I write this, nothing much has changed. The luxury to move on to something more comforting and less challenging, leaves people of colour still trapped in an unjust society, and dealing with daily discrimination alone. We need to continue to listen, give away what privilege we can, and be active allies against racism for as long as it takes to bring about justice.
When it comes to statues, particularly those of colonialists, it is worth asking the question why we are so attached to them as a nation? This is of course a live issue when it comes to Oxford and the controversial
statue of Cecil Rhodes. Yes, he donated money to the university, and to other philanthropic causes, but ultimately these were funds gained from stripping assets from British colonies. It is true that he did good alongside the bad, and he was a product of his time, but in keeping his statue in place, we celebrate the life of a man who fundamentally believed that the British white human being was the superior form of humanity above all others. We might ask ourselves how it makes people of colour feel, to stand and look at this man looking down on them from on high? Not only that, but this statue of a white supremacist is protected by an institution, that at the same time, wonders why black and minority ethnic students feel so out of place in its midst.
To remove such statues from such places of prominence is not a case of erasing history, or hiding from the past. In their toppling we can see the symbolic destruction of the idolatrous pursuit of white supremacy, and a clear sign that the subjugation of so many people of colour from across the world will be tolerated no longer. It is of course only a beginning, and real change must follow, but it is at least a start.
I continue to encourage you to engage with articles collated by Baptists Together. There have been additions this week:
Here is an article concerning the experience of black students at the University of Oxford: