Here our minister Revd Jon Keyworth shares his reflection from our Sunday services:
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:
Sunday 7th June - Trinity Sunday and #blacklivesmatter
The Trinity as a theological concept is one of the most challenging to describe and understand. How can God be one ‘substance’ but at the same time three ‘persons’? It just does not compute in our human systems of logic and mathematics. However, through scripture and through our own experience of God at work in this world, we find that God is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or if you like, as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
What we see in the Triune God is perfect community and sacrificial love. As we have recently been considering creation in these blogs and in our recent Bible studies, we have been reminded that human beings are made in the image of God. To be made in the image of the God revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, means that the capacity for relationship with others is a fundamental part of our being.
Over the past couple of weeks, since the brutal killing of George Floyd in the USA, we have been reminded of the ways in which human beings have consistently failed to see the image of God in people who look different to themselves. In particular, privileged white human beings, have discriminated against those who are black, and have done so for centuries. Even as a white man with no personal involvement in racist
behaviour, and a firm advocate for justice and equality, I have to acknowledge that I have been born into privilege because of the actions of generations past. Much of the wealth of this nation was built upon the exploitation of others through the slave trade and the British Empire. Ultimately, the injustice we witness in the USA comes from the same British roots.
Where people are discriminated against, suffer inequality and experience injustice due to the colour of their skin, then we have a responsibility to demand change and stand alongside those who are the victims of racism. Where such injustice exists, the image of the Triune God that we bear is warped and disfigured, as our relationships are fundamentally unbalanced and broken. Until that day when black lives truly matter, in every respect, then not one of us can hope to fully bear the image of the Triune God.
Baptists Together have compiled a number of articles and prayers relating to the #blacklivesmatter movement, with many contributions from black ministers and theologians in the UK, who are way more qualified to speak about racism than me. I encourage you to read further here: https://www.baptist.org.uk/Publisher/Article.aspx?ID=579501
Sunday 31st May - Pentecost
Pentecost has arrived, and it seems a bit different celebrating it this year. We hear of the followers of Christ being sent out onto crowded streets, filled with and compelled by the Holy Spirit. It is pretty far removed from the reality that we are currently experiencing.
As people from all nations gathered in Jerusalem, the implication is that this helped the gospel spread to the far corners of the known world. In a time of international pandemic it is perhaps easier than normal to grasp this concept. The story of Christ is shown to have spread quickly, across huge distances, and already transcends human language barriers. This is the birth of the world-wide phenomenon that is the church.
Pentecost is often labelled as the birthday of the church. Over the centuries the church has seen dramatic changes, it became the religion of empire, it has faced persecution, and had more schisms than I care to name. Yet through it all, there is continuity of faith in the redemptive working of Christ, and the mission that we are called to share in. This year the church gathers in rather different ways, with congregants connected from their own homes, on their own electronic devices or phones, enabled by programmes such as Zoom.
It is possible that we might see this as a lesser form of being church. There are limitations, as we miss our familiar setting and being able to see each other in person, however, church gathered online still has significant meaning. It continues our calling to gather together as the body of Christ, to worship God, and should still enable to be sent out to witness to the good news with others, even if that currently means being a witness to Christ virtually rather than in person.
We are still very much meeting as a church, and meeting in every bit as significant a way as we would normally would, even if it is different.
Sunday 25th May - Arts Week - Painting for Freedom
Whereas last week we considered the creativity and joy that we find in sport, this week our attention shifts to art. In art we can convey things that we could never quite put into words, and can explore the mystery and wonder of creation in all kinds of creative ways.
This weekend we should have welcomed Richard Kidd and Mike Lowe from Painting for Freedom into the church to exhibit their art, and to share in our morning service. All of the profit from the art they sell goes to the work of Freeset. Freeset works alongside women in the red-light district in Sonagacchi, Kolkata, providing support, community and work that can help them rebuild their lives.
Despite Arts Week not taking place, except digitally, I am delighted that Richard is able to join us on Sunday morning. He has been busy collating updates from folk involved with Freeset; founders Kerry and Annie from their home in New Zealand, and Subhendu, Priya, Bashir and Frin who are working on behalf of Freeset on site in Kolkata and West Bengal. We will hear of the impact of Covid-19 on the communities that Freeset are working with, and start to see the implications of Cyclone Amphan.
We will also receive an update from Mina, a lady who has journeyed with Freeset, from being a refugee to becoming a respected leader in the community. She tells her story in a powerful book of artwork that is available to purchase from Painting for Freedom.
Richard has updated the Painting for Freedom website for Art’s Week, and encourages us to visit it here: www.paintingforfreedom.co.uk
More information on the work of Freeset can be found here:
As part of the service Richard prepared a video for us that can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcT17rjiF58&t=28s
Sunday 18th May - Sports Sunday
I know that for many people, as soon as sport is mentioned, it can be time to switch off. Yet for many others, sport forms (or used to form) an important part of their lives, whether it be in direct participation, or through supporting teams both local and national.
Most of the things that are said to be positive elements of belonging to a sports team, or participating in a solo sport, can also be said of many other hobbies and social activities. So, if you cannot stand sport, then translate it over to something else that you know and love! You might not take part in team sport, but you enjoy the mutual encouragement that can be found in a sewing group or book club. You might not be able to see the beauty in a wonderfully crafted goal or try, but you can see the beauty in a piece of art or in local architecture. You might think that people who run or cycle long distances (or any distances for that matter) are mad, but you can see the benefit of sticking at it when learning to play an instrument, and the discipline it demands.
All of these things are transferable into the Christian life. A shared purpose, teamwork, community, and mutual encouragement, should be found in our churches. The sense of awe in the mysterious presence of God, and wonder at the marvels of creation, should (one hopes) be present in our worship. The need of discipline and perseverance when the going gets tough should help us in our journey of Christian discipleship.
In the news, the focus on sport is often Premier League football, where obscene amounts of money are involved, way beyond anything that seems just or fair. No doubt they will try every possibility of restarting as soon as possible, as the cost of cancellation is so huge. Yet, our local sports clubs play an important role in our communities, without such financial turnover, providing purpose, friendship, fitness and a hub for many different activities. At this time, as we celebrate sports Sunday, it is an incredibly challenging time for many different clubs. They rely on funds from gate receipts, bar takings, players subs and coaching fees, all of which are not being collected at present. The future of many clubs is uncertain, and their demise would be a considerable loss to many people.
It would also be a loss to us as the people of God if clubs that are a positive presence in our communities cease to exist. Not only would there be a loss of shared purpose and entertainment, but a loss in wellbeing, fitness, and the creative output of human life. At its best sport is a place where people learn to compete fairly, win gracefully, and more often deal with the pain of defeat and loss (In most sports settings there is one winning team or competitor in a large field; a football league has one winner out of twenty, a marathon one winner out ten thousand). There are also moments in sport that speak of the divine, reveal to us more of the remarkable capability of human beings, and make a mockery of the limits we pace on ourselves and on others. Many victims of persecution and the socially disadvantaged find in sport the means to flourish and demonstrate their God-given equality. Long may all of these things continue!
Finally, the world of sport is also one in which we can witness to our faith, with people who would never consider entering the church on a Sunday morning. It’s not always the easiest place to do this, sports teams can be a challenging place to be, and church football teams can bring the absolute worst examples of sporting behaviour. Yet, where we engage faithfully, it is a place, like any other in our community, where we can point others towards the wonder of God’s presence in all of creation.
Sunday 10th May - The Land
This week on Wednesday in our study we reflected on the third day of creation, where land and vegetation were created. The focus was on trees and their importance for the environment, with regards to climate change and biodiversity.
However, the thing that has stuck with me was the consideration of our relationship to the land. We can form strong relationships with the places in which we live, our family homes, gardens, and favourite walking spots. This can also be true for a church community. We become attached to our land, our premises, and its surroundings. The story of Israel through the Old Testament is bound up with the promise of land restored to the nation following captivity in Egypt. The land became central to their identity, and is still important to Jewish believers today (as well as Christians and Muslims).
One of the things that we are struggling with in this time of lockdown is our inability to access land that is important to us. Our means of reaching and serving the city of Oxford is greatly diminished without access to our building. Hospitality to each other and local groups has come to a standstill. We feel the loss of our place of worship, a place of beauty and peace (whilst also well loved and tired in places!) in which we have accustomed to meeting with each other and with God.
We have managed to function relatively well through this time; supporting each remotely, meeting to worship and pray online, and even dealing with the ongoing practicalities of managing church resources. However, we are missing the shared space and context, that gives a focus to our identity as a congregation.
At my induction service back in September, Beth Allison-Glenny highlighted the great privilege we have as a church in owning land in a prime city-centre location. Since then we have renovated the church kitchen and have an improved (nearly completed) resource at our disposal. As we come out of this lockdown situation over the next few weeks and months, we will have a new opportunity to discern how we can steward our land most effectively for the sharing of God’s love, mercy and peace in our city.
This is something that requires constant reassessment, for the city continues to change at great pace. It will be changed again by the fallout from Coronavirus. Some of the shops and cafes closed through this period will not resume business. It will take time for shoppers, tourists, students and even churchgoers to return to the city. At least for a time there will be greater unemployment, hardship and potential for homelessness. It’s no good us simply returning to our land and picking up where we left off and acting as if nothing has changed.
We also know that further change is coming, as Oxford City Council has been at the forefront of seeking to address environmental issues. In the long-term this is likely to affect the ways we can access our shared space, with low emission zones and other restrictions. After the current situation that city dwellers have experienced, breathing clean air, and moving about without traffic clogging the roads, it is likely that pressure for change will increase. We should be supportive of change that will improve the wellbeing of our neighbours and our local environment, but active throughout the consultation process, ensuring that changes do not indiscriminately affect the poor and vulnerable.
If we see creation care as an important outworking of the good news, then this has implications for how we maintain and manage our own land. There are many ways in which we can make the church building more environmentally sustainable, with some small and some large changes required, ranging from light bulbs to heating systems. In time, as finances allow, we should seek to face this challenge. Campaigning for climate justice whilst our own building is lagging behind seems a bit duplicitous!
Alas, these are challenges for the future. We remain confined to our homes, our personal space and land, where we can also make changes small and large for the good of all creation. Whether it be changing energy supplier, planting vegetables and flowers or buying more sustainably produced food, I hope that in this time we might find the inspiration to act in ways that will help care for our land and those whom we share it with.
Sunday 3rd May - Life-giving water
On Wednesday our study reflected on water, and its life-giving qualities. Water is essential to us, for drinking, cleaning, growing and preparing food and making a whole host of things. This week as the weather has turned, although parenting has been slightly more challenging, for farmers, gardeners and those at the water board, the rain has been a blessed relief.
We are fortunate to live in a land where water is not scarce. We are more likely to feel the effect of having too much water, flooding, water damage and leaky roofs. In this time of global pandemic the privilege of access to clean water is highlighted, as we wash our hands more frequently and thoroughly. Worldwide this is not a luxury available to many in poverty, and even where people have water they might not have the soap to go with it to allow for a proper virus killing hand-wash.
Even in the UK there has been a great disparity between the number of deaths in poor communities compared to richer neighbourhoods. If you live in a poverty-stricken area of the UK, or from a BAME background, you are twice as likely to be killed by this disease. It is a shocking statistic, showing deep and ingrained social injustice. One can only speculate what the difference in survival rates will be if there are significant Covid-19 outbreaks in favelas, shanty towns and crowded cities in the developing world. The true extent of the death and destruction caused by this virus may never be known.
If one of the outcomes of this pandemic is a recommitment to seeking justice, an end to poverty, and access to clean water for all of humankind, then that would be a good thing. It is of course tied in with our response to climate change, that is already leading to both more drought conditions, but also rising sea levels and increased flooding. Unfortunately, for many, any positive change we can be a part of bringing will be too little too late.
We can help in the meantime, by supporting charities such as BMS World Mission. A little giving can go a long way. For example, the provision of soap to a family in Bangladesh would cost as little as 72p potentially save lives, and stop the spread of the virus.
Water is so important to us, it keeps us alive in more ways than one, so it is no surprise that it has such a pervasive presence in scripture. It is through the control of water that God creates and sustains life, through water that the Israelites pass to freedom as they escape Egypt, and through water that we enter new life in baptism. Jesus, the living water, brings us nourishment, a renewed hope and calls us to share in abundant living.
Access to water and abundant living go hand in hand. There can be no more effective way to share the love of God than to provide access to water to someone denied it.
As I watch the rain fall again outside, I am thankful the for life-giving water we have. I’m also hopeful that we can be a part of bringing life-giving water to others, whether it be through our giving, through the lobbying of those in power to work towards social justice, or through steps made in reducing our environmental impact. We can be a part of sharing God’s life-giving with others, even though we may never meet them in person.
Every blessing at the end of yet another week in lockdown.