Here our minister Revd Jon Keyworth shares his reflection from our Sunday services:
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.
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: