From Rev Andrew Brazier
It seems a little like the whole world is getting married, engaged, moving house, or having babies – and, in our house, watching our lovely cherub turn 21. I know it is the product of two years of Covid limitations condensing everything together but, even so, it does feel a little chaotic. One of my favourite films, ‘Big Fish’ tells the story of a life, but through the eyes of a storyteller. In this slightly peculiar tale, the central character sees the love of his life for the first time and is frozen to the spot – as if time was suspended. Then, as the eye contact between them is broken, he says, ‘the thing they don’t tell you is that afterwards time catches up with itself.’
That image has stuck with me recently. We have been on hold for quite a while – but now time is catching up with itself. In terms of our faith journey, I feel like the same whirlwind is sweeping through our souls. As if we are all going through a sort of mid-life crisis. On the mission day we learnt a lot about how mid-life is not necessarily a crisis and doesn’t always happen in the middle. The lockdowns and re-openings mean that universally the world has gone through a time of transition. Instead of everyone doing things in their own time, we are now doing everything concurrently. We trip over each other’s plans and find that we are in lock step as all the events that were missed, return.
It will all settle down eventually. New things will grow, some things will be the way they were before, and some things will cease. In all this it can be far too easy to feel like we are out of control and that we will not cope. I have to keep reminding myself that ‘God with us’ is a reassurance not a pipe dream. Living through strange days does not mean that God left us. Christ walked in strange days, the Spirit descended on the disciples on the strangest day – and the Methodist Church owes its existence to a sinking boat and a panicking passenger.
All these tomorrows will be great stories when they are our yesterdays. With a little trust in God, we can ride out the storm and find safe landings in new lands.
Every year when I was growing up, my grandfather would complain that he didn’t understand why they kept changing the date of Easter. I have to say that on those occasions when Easter has been very early or very late, I tend to find myself agreeing with him. If we can find a definite day for Christmas, then it seems pretty daft that probably our biggest festival of the year is decided on the basis of a mathematical formula and Paschal Full Moon. On the other hand, it puts us in good company with many pagan festivals, Ramadan, and a wide range of advertising campaigns by major retailers – who generally seem to just go a bit lunar. I only note this in order to make a point. Historically the church has always had close links with the so-called secular world around it. An intertwining plait of agricultural seasons, fertility rites and rhythms of life inform our worship - from harvest right through to all the ministers popping off to Barbados in the summer!
We have a liturgical year, a lectionary, and lots of ‘Connexional’ input. My point is that you can't really separate the life of the church from the world around it. When the world got COVID, the church got COVID. As Russia continues to invade Ukraine, the world church joins the fight. It’s easy sometimes to lose heart and wonder why it is that we don't have the numbers that we used to have. Whilst I may not have all the answers to that question, I am very aware that historically the church has grown when it has best engaged with society. Most notably of course we have also grown radically when we have been forced underground by oppressive states! It tends to decline in times when it sets itself apart – or above – the people around it. In many ways it is not possible for God’s church to get smaller. The crucifixion was not limited to “signed up” members of any denomination. No matter how often people imply that God was English, Church of England, Methodist or whatever other shape or form we wanted him to fit into – the truth is that the cross and Easter Sunday reminds us of the universality of the message.
The year ahead is going to include a lot of discussion about what mission looks like. Key to that is going to be working out what Easter means to us. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross removes the boundaries and allows the spirit of God to be present in the lives of churches, communities and nations. Those who would instigate war, those who would do evil, and all of those who present life as hopeless had better beware the risen Christ. In 2000 years of history, including innumerable panics on behalf of the church, the message of Christ has never been thwarted by any dictator, plague or war.
Let me conclude then by saying when I say ‘Happy Easter’ I do so with a genuine smile and a sense of hope. As we write these letters, as ministers are ‘want’ to do, inevitably we are slightly guessing what might be happening in two weeks when you read it. As we are gathering up Easter eggs on Sunday morning things could be very different. It may seem ridiculous, but what if the Russian invasion is over by Easter Sunday? Unlikely of course, but very recently we were all stuck indoors hiding from COVID – then suddenly nonagenarians are being perforated like tea bags with vaccines in the name of good health. It is part of our job, as the bearers of the message of Christ, to claim the victory even when we are facing defeat. Ultimately, we know that nothing can bring the cross down. If death itself has been defeated, then what else do we have to fear. Personally, I think certain world leaders should be very afraid because the spirit of God is over the waters.
The other day I watching that wonderful Oscar winning film ‘Forrest Gump.’ One of my favourite lines in it is, ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.’ As we again approach Lent, our inner Calvinist sneaks out and ropes us into preparation that involves giving up chocolate or some other variation on the fasting theme.
The purpose of the fasting was originally to set aside time for spirituality, rather than an aid to weight loss or because a bit of suffering somehow did us good. Breaking the usual routine prompts us to reconsider our perspective and reevaluate our faith: festivals, fasts, occasions and other interruptions to routine increase our awareness. Even in the heyday of the reformists, the fasting was broken regularly to increase the contrast, so the point is not necessarily to fast.
So in 2022 it might be enough to have the most normal time ever, just to juxtapose the weirdness of the last two years? I might ask you, ‘what are you doing for Lent this year?’ and your response might be, ‘being ordinary.’ Watching the Olympics has been a change of pace too. As long as we set aside time to reconsider our faith, then the terms of the fast are satisfied. As long as Forrest continues not to read the lid of the chocolate box, he leads a very Lenten life. Each choice produces an unexpected result, causing him to rethink the way his world is.
There you see, I did it. I made the case for eating a box of chocolates for Lent. Are you ok with that? How does that make you feel? Surely celebrating before Easter is wrong? Maybe have a piece of cake while you think about it….
5th of March 2022
Day of Mission
Put the date in your diary. To misquote Doctor McCoy from the Star-ship enterprise, ‘it’s life Jim, but not as we know it.’ We are boldly going to go where no church has gone before. That would be some claim - that we were going to go somewhere churches hadn’t been. That, though, is the ambition of mission. The word mission gets misused in all sorts of ways and can be made to sound terribly complicated. At its core it is simply sharing the word of God with others. We share, not in some sort of self-serving way, but because ultimately the lives of those who received the word are almost invariably improved; the world is made a better place.
If spreading God’s word is fundamental to our belief. How do we reach out into the community? Hemel Hempstead Methodist Church is a very positive, connected community that is a pleasure to be part of. From my perspective it is also a great place to work. On the whole we are a very successful church – and let’s face it, the building is fantastic. The paradox of course is, that the hardest time to consider mission is when things are working. It is also hard to consider how we might do things better when you are in the midst of that life. So, that is what I am hoping to offer the church on the 5th, not my perspective but a broad range of ideas, thoughts and challenges
from some people who are experts in the field of mission. Yes, we will need to translate those ideas into what would work here, but we need to make decisions about the future of our church with our eyes wide open to the possibilities.
Returning to my Star Trek analogy, it might be great to go into the unknown, but we also need to know where we are coming from. Having been a mission enabler in my previous circuit, I am very aware that we must also honour all the ideas and effort that has been put in before. If we are to boldly split infinitives, then it would be useful to have some sort of a map to travel by – and part of that map is the discussions and thoughts that have happened over the years. For our particular community that includes recognizing the monumental effort of bringing together five churches under one roof. This required ambition, vision, and resilience. After building this fantastic Methodist cathedral, this ecological masterpiece, it would be completely understandable if everyone felt worn out and drained. It can also feel like completing such a task is the point of arrival – rather than what it is, the perfect starting point.
So, what am I inviting you to? Firstly, let me say that I am using ‘I’ deliberately. In most circumstances of course, we work together, and ‘we’ would invite others. This though is me personally bringing something, a gift if you will, to the church. I am inviting you all, and the members of Kings Langley, Ley Hill and hopefully any other interested persons across the circuit, to a day of festival. I am hoping that you will come and join in a day of fun, activities, and a good lunch, to learn from some of the most successful mission experts I have come across. This will be an opportunity for us to simply be on the receiving end of other people’s energy. I would love it if everybody could come out of the 5th of March feeling inspired, challenged, and with a new perspective on what we might be able to do in this wonderful church. I am hoping this will be unlike any of our previous mission days – not so much lists blue tacked to walls, but a change of heart.
Whilst all the details are yet to be finalised, the day will start around 10am. There will be speakers, workshops, music and opportunities to wrestle with different ideas. The day will end around 4pm with an act of worship. Much more to follow …. Watch this space.
I don't know if it's just me, but it seems like the Christmas displays of lights outside peoples’ houses are bigger than ever this year. As I write this I'm aware that Christmas is still technically quite a few weeks off. However, no doubt spurred on by the restrictions from last year and the fact that we didn't really get to do Christmas properly, I think this year is going to turn into some sort of double celebration: an opportunity to make amends for all the stuff that we missed out on. Whilst I wouldn't want to be thought of as some sort of party pooper, I can't help but feel that we might be out of practice for full-blown hedonism. We've got so used to all the various different social limitations and restrictions that we might want to warm up to the big day. Like athletes at the start of the marathon perhaps we need to be doing our mince pie stretches and turkey training and before we dive into full time yule we might need to practice joy.
In case you're thinking that that phrase sounds familiar, it probably is. I'm not an expert on Buddhism but I do know that there is a concept known as practicing joy. In very generic terms it's taking time to stop and smell the roses, as the old cliché goes. Of course it's much deeper than that, but it is the principle of setting aside time in order to celebrate the small things in life. I wondered whether it was helpful to us in our advent journey, to think about this time as training.
The idea that you would have to practice joy might sound quite silly. On the other hand even the idea of getting back on the proverbial bike would be foolhardy if we weren’t ready. It’s easy too, isn’t it, to get into bad habits like always assuming the worst or constantly seeing the negatives. After last year, to be fair, we can feel pretty justified in bemoaning our lot. In order therefore to move on from all that, focusing on simple pleasures is quite sensible. Just taking a moment as you drink that first sip of coffee or eat a piece of cake to be ready for the joy: to not only see the wonderful sunset or sunrise but to pray as it happens. I think it is also important to make sure you’ve built up to Christmas. Why wait to the day to try and do all the celebrating? Start sooner and build up gently.
As I look back over what I have written I begin to wonder if I am just justifying the number of mince pies I have already had! I am going to stick with it though because I do think there is great merit in there somewhere. What if I start replacing the treats with other words? What if I said, ‘why wait until Christmas to start being KIND ?’ What if I suggested that we should practice LOVE or HOPE fulness? Practicing joy might be a Buddhist concept, but it is reflected often in Christian teaching. Not least of which is the story of Mary reflecting on the amazing things she has seen, ‘and Mary pondered these things in her heart.’
So, whether you think Christmas is arriving too early, or the neighbour’s lights are too bright, whether you are predicting lock down number four, or noting how the Easter eggs will be in the shops by mid-December, practice joy. Sit down with a coffee and a mince pie, or walk by the lake, or literally smell the flowers – but mostly ponder the things in your heart.
Love and God bless,
I’m not sure at what point I am going to grow tired of them, but the phrases ‘returning to normal’ and ‘the new normal’ are everywhere at the moment. It seems to me that the main thing those sort of conversations prove is that we had little idea of what we meant by normal before the lock-down, let alone now.
I even looked up the history of the word normal because I hear it so often. Turns out there was nothing ‘normal’ about the word normal either. It comes from a Latin word ‘normalis’ which was a right angle or any line coming from the ground at ninety degrees. It was many centuries before it started being used as ‘conforming to an accepted pattern.’ Thereafter the meaning of the word has also varied repeatedly; largely because our understanding of what an accepted pattern of life is, remains pretty random.
That word only appears a tiny number of times in the Bible, and most of them are in the Old Testament. The only two I could find in the New Testament refer to healing. Normal wasn’t a Jesus sort of word. Even if you extend it to include conforming, Jesus’s position is mostly to defy convention. Certainly, it is arguable that the entire subtext for the New Testament is the sweeping away of conventions: this in order to save, support and love individuals or groups. Jesus repeatedly places himself across the boundary and reaches out to those who fall on the wrong side of the line.
I think the future of the church is going to have very little to do with any kind of normal. We follow a Messiah who offended the authorities, hung out with some very iffy characters, turned over tables and broke several laws. In modern safeguarding terms he was a reputational risk. Over the subsequent centuries, just like the word normal, the church has reformed itself over and over to engage with an ever-changing world. If we have been forced by circumstances into wondering what the future looks like, then I hope we’ll do it ‘Jesus’ style.
It is fun to speculate that Jesus’s only real need for the word normal was as a carpenter using a set square.
Back to School
Maybe it still works the same, but this time of year used to be when we’d all have to run to that special shop which did the school approved clothing. Anyone who has parented or grand-parented children of that age, will have had a similar experience. “It is back to school in the next few weeks or days,” we’d say to the cherubs, “we need X pairs of socks, some gym shoes for PE,” and so on. Thankfully I don’t have to engage in that particular nightmare anymore.
Not only is school returning, but it is the beginning of a New Methodist Year. Maybe I should go out and buy some new socks before Synod? On a Zoom call with Jay Bisset in Carolina USA some of us were comparing cultural differences and ended up talking about Sunday best clothing. I don’t remember there being an inspection back in the day, but you darn well knew when you’d fallen short of the approved standard. The understanding, as in school, was that not coming in proper uniform was disrespectful. Over the years church has thankfully relaxed a bit, and whilst we might still be a bit socially cautious about what we drag out of the wardrobe on a Sunday morning, there is now far less judging and a lot more accepting.
My purpose in writing this is to encourage the continuing broadening of those acceptances. As I child I was frequently hindered by lack of the right clothing, or by lack of resources. I still remember the head teacher arguing that if all children dressed the same you removed some of the social boundaries. The problem from my perspective, as a child, was that everyone knew I was from a poor family because I had the worn-out uniform: not to mention shoes with holes in. I was just as excluded and bullied in a uniform as I was on the street. The establishment of a declared social norm, as always, left a group of people on the outside looking in. On occasion I was even sent home from things because I didn’t have the right ‘stuff.’
So, as we go back to school and stand for the inspection, (I hope to goodness there isn’t really an inspection at Synod as I would surely fail) let’s live that age old adage, that we shouldn’t judge the book by the cover. Perhaps more importantly, we also need to let the wider world know that as a church we don’t judge a book by the cover. The way we look, the colour of our skin, our income, worldly standing and even abilities are irrelevant to God’s love. Now before you say it, yes – I know – that is blatantly obvious. This is probably the least controversial newsletter I have ever written. However, just consider if you have ever found yourself changing your behaviour, avoiding someone, or complaining about someone, just because they didn’t look like they belonged? If the genuine answer to that is no, you are amazing and you are probably not human. If you honestly answered yes, then join the club – we are all learning what acceptance looks like.
Love and God bless
Over the last few months a recurring theme has been the use of language in the church; and I don't mean swearing! When I was younger I remember various parents at the school-gate berating their cherubs for the use of some pretty foul language. It tended to make me feel smug as I was well behaved in that area and never said any naughty words. Any of my teachers would no doubt confirm that I was a complete pain in so many other ways - but I could always be counted on to say things politely. I didn't hand my homework in, politely; I would turn up late for class, politely; and sometimes bunk off completely, but always with a level of courtesy unreachable by my school chums.
When recently we started discussing how to make our online services more approachable, and as we attempted to convey the message of God in a down to earth way, I realised I may be one of the worst culprits. Despite growing up with literacy issues, verbally I had a vocabulary that mitigated my ineptitude and graced me with an insouciance to education and preternatural interest in word-eousity. You get my drift!
Jesus sets a useful example by using the most fundamental of images. No fancy showing off with words; just a sea of bread, wine, fish and farm stories. The Bible even says to avoid unnecessary embellishments. This is very important when trying to convey the meaning of life. Even when Jesus said things pretty directly, people over the centuries still managed to rewrite it to suit themselves.
If I had believed what I was told in Sunday School you would imagine that the Bible was all about not going to wild parties, smoking and definitely no enjoying yourself. Once I read it for myself there were a couple of phrases that were so clear that I have never gone back to thinking that the Bible was a set of rules - or just some encouragement not to swear. Those two phrases are so well known - and so beautifully uncomplicated - that I don't even have to write them and you'll know exactly which ones they are ...
Love and God bless
I might call this newsletter article something like, ‘the ups and downs of Christian life.’ In this short period, we celebrate two amazing supernatural events; Jesus going up into Heaven and the Holy Spirit coming down on the disciples. These are not particularly easy events to explain even to a committed life-long Christian, let alone anyone just starting out on the journey. The key thing is that the Bible puts far more emphasis on the prayer that Jesus says for humanity before he leaves, than the brief moments of leaving itself.
Over the centuries Pentecost and The Ascension have provided poetic and artistic inspiration. I suspect tackling one of Christianity’s greatest mysteries is often easier with pictures or a sculpture. Mind you the results have been mixed and may not have clarified the situation. The carving of Jesus’s feet in the ceiling of the Ascension chapel in Walsingham have been treated with everything from adoration to mockery. As you look up you see a ring of light, and in the middle Jesus’s feet. We ‘imagine’ the rest of him has already left. If you didn’t know, you be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was falling through the ceiling.
The whole thing might seem silly; Jesus floating up into the sky and disciples speaking in different languages whilst seeming drunk. It’s not like Jesus’s story is much altered without it. Jesus has still come back from the dead and spoken to his friends and followers. We already know that Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice for us – so why the ‘beam me up Scotty’ moment?
Probably the best explanation I ever saw, and which had the great merit of being in language I understood, was the movie ‘MATRIX.’ The Matrix presents Jesus’s life as a science fiction thriller. It covers all the key aspects including Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. During the resurrection we see how he transforms from a limited being, into something that is simply energy and light. Once you have travelled the rest of the journey with Jesus, the Ascension makes sense – he simply returns to that from which he came. I think I would suggest that for anyone coming new to faith, the Ascension is not the place to start, but it’s a jolly good place to reach. So maybe the question and challenge is, in your own non-jargony way, explain how you see it?
In each era this tale has been told in the language of the time. It exactly illustrates the need for us to put things in words that are not exclusive or alienating. The prayer in John’s Gospel and the Ascension illustrate that Jesus has moved from the limited existence as person, to being there for everyone. The disciples speak in many languages because their message is for everyone. It is the final removal of all the barriers. These passages say very loudly ‘I embrace you all in love.’
Love and God bless
With the clocks going back (At the point I am writing this) I guess time has been on my mind. Whether it is the prosaic administrative alterations that the UK loves, or science fiction style mind bending fantasy, time has vexed humanity from the moment we could describe it. Even in the Christian journey it has been one of those topics that can make us sound like we have lost the plot and headed off into the surreal. Jesus as Alpha and Omega, Old Testament figures living into their 900s and, according to John, Jesus being there in the beginning as the ‘Word.’ For those who struggle with belief, faith, hope, love and eternal life are often cited as being just wishful thinking.
Over the Lent and Easter weeks I have been exploring the mystical aspects of the Bible in a series of YouTube videos. What that has reminded me of is that almost all of us, Christian or not, experience inexplicable spiritual feelings and events. Whatever you attribute those things to, the lockdown has caused us to have even more of them. Let’s face it, time itself has got pretty twisted over the last year. Whilst I doubt we will solve all the questions of time in one slightly cliched newsletter, I do want to offer you a challenge to be open minded.
Modern science has repeatedly shown that time bends and alters according to speed and location. Once you leave this planet, and the faster you leave this planet, the more time begins to bend. In a blackhole there is no time in the middle, as far as we know, but there is at the edges. We are on a planet spinning at enormous speed, but we don’t feel it because everything around us spins too. The time we experience is in some ways connected to the fact that we are constantly shifting at 1000mph. Which is my excuse for always being late and not knowing where I am half the time.
My point is that you don’t feel the speed or the effect of time. Jesus, as alpha and omega, is alluding to the timelessness of God. Because we are ‘in’ time, like we are ‘on’ the Earth, we can’t feel the changes. Time could be whizzing about us in a bunch of complex loops, and we wouldn’t have a clue. No wonder it feels so inconsistent when we reminisce – did that happen last year, or the year before? Well that just felt like it happened yesterday – as we look at a picture of ourselves in a school uniform.
If timelessness is a scientific given, and that our souls are outside time, then its not so hard to know that Jesus died on the cross to show us ‘the way.’ The way being that life is not limited by any dimension – not even time. So, it is inevitable that I have run out of time to write this, and that this letter will time travel. My ‘now’ will be experienced by you in the future, when you will call this the past. Imagine if I predicted something and it turned out to be true by the time you read this – you’d call me a prophet. What if you are reading this in fifty years’ time as you go through the records of the church for a GDPR exercise? Are my words alive or dead? Do my thoughts exist beyond my presence here? My argument is that I would be equally gone and still there.
So! I hope you are having, have had, or are remembering a wonderful Easter. AND if eternal life is not impossible but inevitable, then maybe a world of love and hope is just a matter of time …
Love and God bless
Even the snow is indecisive. Falling as gently as it possibly can without actually having any impact on the world around it. An icing sugar thin layer dusts the roads and gardens.
Recently, when I was chatting with a congregation member about their experiences of rationing back in the 1950s, the topic of survival came up. I decided that her 90 plus years gave her credence on the subject. She pointed out that the hardest part is near the end. In the first days of rationing there was still a strong sense of unity. Everyone wanted to demonstrate how they were able to make the best of it. People shared resources and recipes. People ardently supported one another. When limitations were still in place in the following years it became a matter of apathy and dissent. As it became obvious that things in the world weren’t quite so bad, the interminable dragging out of the coupons scheme resulted in a mixture of responses. She and I both thought that some of our distant relatives were involved in the black market. “Ultimately,” the lady told me, “people did what they had to do to survive.”
I am no expert in the topic, but I am sure that the then government were attempting to make sure that any recovery wasn’t temporary. Similar nuances are no doubt playing out now. This little letter is NOT about church reopening or when the lockdown should end, but more the state of mind that we find ourselves in. To miss quote senator Charlie Wilson, “it’s one thing to win the war, it’s another to win the peace.” The snow still can’t get its act together outside the window, and I am reminded by the radio that there is actual physical evidence to show that the vaccines are working, yet another factor in our state of confusion.
No, this is really a letter about snow. Bear in mind Paul’s advice that the different parts of the body being different but working together. Imagine that there was a lot of snow. The sort of wonderful snow that we had a few days back. Picture, if you will, the Christmas card landscape and children building snow people. Instead of the current light fluffy nonsense, feel the large wet flakes falling on your face and smell the brittle air. As I describe this you will already be forming an opinion. You might agree with the romanticism in my description, or you might have anyone of a number of more negative views including that snow is cold, dangerous and inconvenient. Certainly, the other day during the morning Facebook service there were some very polarized views expressed about the snowfall. What is important is that we would all also react differently. My grandfather’s immediate response to the snow was to get the shovel out and dig the drive clear. Once he’d finished our drive, he’d do the neighbour’s ones, and then start on the road. Some people, maybe me, find the snow peaceful and calming – a time to write poetry or the newsletter. Some will be out in walking boots or building a snowman. The point is that all the responses are valid. It is not wrong to be impatient with the snow or want it to end. It is not invalid to be scared of the snow. It is not invalid to delight in the change it brings. So, whether you find the snow a good opportunity to take photographs, or to hide under the duvet, we all know that God speaks through our different skills and perspectives. We should celebrate and accept all our different ways and understandings. There is no one way to face our struggles.
Hmmm, I’m just wondering if maybe it was a little bit about the lock down …
A quick guide to being annoying in the time of Covid.
After all the newsletters that I have written since March, I suspect it will come as no surprise to find me trying to put a positive spin on things. I think I was born optimistic. Optimism is fine until things don’t get better quickly enough. Alternatively, I also know that a permanent state of pessimism is equally likely to annoy all the people not previously annoyed by all the optimism. You remember the classic phrase, “You can’t please all the people all the time.” I can amend that to say that you can annoy all the people all the time – especially when I start talking about plans for Christmas.
If I have a point, and honesty requires me to admit that I might not, it is that what remains is the practical. Methodism’s approach to most dilemmas in the past has been to ask, “what shall we do?” Let us therefore make an agreement. We shall neither say that everything will be better by Christmas, nor shall we assume the apocalypse. We shall simply say – it will be what it will be. In the meantime, we shall have Advent, and we shall have Christmas. Christmas has not been cancelled.
By now you may have seen the following message about having something to look forward to in the build up to Christmas. (It has been in HHMC’s Notices.) The aim is to have a video of one church tradition from around the circuit each day in December.
“CHRISTMAS IS NOT CANCELLED"
As a circuit we would like to try and do something special for Christmas – and something special we can all join in with. This Advent we invite your church to take part in an online “advent calendar.” We’ll release a YouTube video each day on Facebook and make the link available to all churches. The link could go out via newsletters, blogs and websites.
Here’s the rub, as the bard would say. We want the videos to be of your community and church. We want them to be about what you think is important to your church around Christmas. They only need to be about 3 minutes long –
just a little treat so we can celebrate together. You can either make the videos yourself in any format or tell us about your idea and we’ll come and film it with you. You could even just send pictures of your church’s Christmas memories and we’ll put them together. To show you how simple it could be – here is a video we made in a matter of minutes during a Zoom call. We had a lot of fun making it, we hope you will enjoy this project too.
I hope everyone will get to see what is going on. In these peculiar days it helps to aware of one another. To share the experiences, pessimistic and optimistic, is an important part of how we get through all this. Which may be the point to close this – with a simple encouragement. Have you ever thought that maybe that is how God planned it? That the world was created with a preordained balance of optimists, pessimists and realists to face each of life’s crisis? We are actually meant to be that annoying to one another, because that is how we solve the issues?
And, “On that Bombshell,” as the cast of Top Gear used to say, God bless,
Over the last few weeks we’ve had our first few services under the new booking system. Previously we'd added gel dispensers, measured the space for social distancing, and tried frantically to follow the apparently weekly changes of rules. Safety first characterises the current climate. The church is as safe as it can possibly be, but still it has been hard to persuade people to return. As a church online we are bigger and more missional than we ever were in a building, but we are both a physical and spiritual community. There is no online church without a physical church to support it. We are not Amazon. Our church, and all churches, are stuck between Peter the Rock and a hard place. Do we encourage people to come back, or dissuade them for their own safety? Do we change our policy, or even our theology, because of the virus?
It has been a bumpy ride getting back here at all. Being a fan of science fiction, I would quite like to be able to do a bit of time travel to find out what is coming in the future. As our state of being fluctuates with the varying ‘Covid’ numbers – it is much easier for me to imagine we have been invaded by hostile aliens, and that Captain Picard will pop in and fix it all. The trouble with such a fantasy is that the aliens are probably friendly, and the virus is very much a resident here. What science fiction does tend to focus on, be you a Treky, Jedi, or reader of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, is the bigger picture. Most science fiction is about exploring huge ideas of the universe - finding the meaning of life as it were. Reopening the church reminds me of our connection the historical church - a form of time travel in itself. We have what is known as institutional memory. The church has experienced and survived wars, plagues, civil unrest and endless political change. In each reincarnation the church reminds us of the big ideas, belief, faith, love and especially hope. For all the difficulties of institutional religion, it has for centuries been the seat of learning, the holder of records, and the cushion against disaster. As the national mood changes, and as the rules get re-written, our role must be as a reminder of hope. The lights are going on in the church – and in a few months, the lights will go back on across the world. The darkness will never destroy the light.
All that said, and as I try to figure maths that gave us 9 x 6 = 42, we may not live in darkness, but we are going to have to live a while longer in confusion. If you'll forgive one last science reference (and not fiction this time) we are living in Schrödinger’s Chapel - a place in which we are both simultaneously open and closed at the same time - I can only say that we must individually decide how we do church. The age old and glorious institution is open, and its people singing God's praises in a new way. I would love to be able to tell you what to do - but I am going to leave that to the Holy Spirit and the experts.
God bless - keep safe, AND I really hope to see you soon.
As we take baby steps back into a less locked down world, we are going to see all sorts of reactions and concerns. Over the next few weeks there will be church councils and discussions. Little by little we will create a hybrid version of the old and the new. Virtual but real, forward looking in some places, nostalgic in others. We will be both seeking a way forward and being the institutional memory for what we have learned in the past. Some will be excited to return to a more physical world. Others will be afraid. People may hide their excitement so as not to overwhelm those who are afraid. Those who are afraid will pretend to be excited so as to encourage those who are seemingly unafraid. All of us, no doubt, will also struggle with how to react when we see one another. It's going to be a confusing time.
Some years ago, I found myself helping an elderly gentleman back to his hospital bed under very heavy fire from German fighter planes. We had to jink our way across the car park, before making a high-speed dash into the ward. I used the laundry trolley I was pushing to give us some cover. Having run alongside the gentleman with dementia, I was most surprised to hear the nurse say on his return, 'He's been nothing but trouble since he forgot that he couldn't walk.' Never underestimate the power of the mind. Whatever the reality we are presented with, locked down or otherwise, the ability
of our minds to throw us off, or lift us up, is enormous.
One of the key things, then, will be mental health. We all have mental health, but it probably says quite a lot that our first reaction to the phrase often conjures up something negative. When I use the word health, we don't immediately picture someone with a broken leg. If we are talking, and you have a broken arm, I don't ignore your broken arm. Nor do I start with the perspective that it will never get better. I am, though, absolutely going to ask you how it happened and be interested in the crazy story that led to the situation - there usually is a good story. The challenge, of course, is how to
create a comfortable environment where people can talk if they want to. 'Excuse me, you seem to have a broken leg. Can I help?' My experience also tells me that we should accept the response we are given without judgement.
To return to my friend in the car park, this is how the story started. I worked in Newton Abbot Hospital delivering clean laundry to the wards. As I headed across the car park a gentleman wearing a hospital gown ran towards me.
'Are you alright?' I asked. 'You seem a little confused.' The response I got was not what I expected.
'Get under-cover you bloody idiot, you'll be killed.'
Years of drama training had prepared me for this pastoral emergency.
"Where are they?"
'The planes, can't you see them?' he demanded pointing aloft.
"Right yes, of course. We should get under cover."
The only problem with this was that my trolley of towels was on wheels, had no brakes, and this guy could run pretty quickly. I had no choice but to join in.
'Oi, this way - look the base is over there,' I said pointing to the ward I assumed he'd escaped from.
'Use the trolley for cover.'
Now before you say that this is fun story but unhelpful, it is not his state of mind that is worth noting. As we sat on the steps catching our breath he said, 'Well done boy. Quick thinking.' I felt enormously proud that a decorated military officer had complimented me on my actions. I had run up a 1/3 hill with a load weighing 200lbs, checked the sky at least twice to see what direction the planes were coming from, and decided the enemy would not be able to see us from the south side of the ward. It made my day.
My experience tells me that we need to be more candid. Whether your mental health is good or bad, whether you are the helper or the helped, our inability to discuss the issues doesn't make it better. Nor does pretending we are not struggling so as to maintain the status quo. Going back to the start, I think it is helpful to know how people feel about things, rather than having to guess. Nor should there be any more stigma to poor mental health. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could talk about it like we do anything else? I think we are probably going to have to. I know how important that candour is.
So, in that spirit, I say that I both want the church open tomorrow, and for it to stay closed for much longer. How I feel about that changes by the day or the hour. I know the direction we are called to, and I know that it is going to involve a much bigger and better online presence. I know that for those who are housebound and for those who we had lost but are now returning, we can never drop the new way of being. I know all this because I can see it working. Does that make me ok with it? Well, a bit like Wesley and street preaching, let's just say that I am coming round to the idea. In the first few weeks of the online church I was having panic attacks on a weekly basis. Returning to my regiment in Newton Abbot seemed pretty appealing. Now, so many weeks on, it feels relatively normal. I should be ok with it, I trained to perform, but 'should' and 'assume' need to be dropped from our vocabulary. We are going to have to do a lot of new things over the
next few months, and it is perfectly valid to say that we are worried by it. We may not be able to stop progress, but we can keep each other safe as we run across the battlefield.
“A letter of understanding”
I am mildly amused by the term that many of you will recognize from the ministerial stationing system. Even if you know nothing of the Methodist internal machinations, “letters of understanding” are commonly used in business too. They are a sort of catch all document covering the verbally agreed start to your new employment. What they rarely talk about is anything vaguely recognizable as a pastoral understanding of anyone. These are not empathic documents!
In the current scenario, and with our heads gummed up with endless government pronouncements and statistics, I always try to have something positive to say. I suspect some people think though, that I have lost the plot. All this talk of positive futures and a better world to come, must be utterly maddening.
Whatever else, I do genuinely believe that we are entering a brave new world, but this is not on the basis of some delusional misunderstanding of the situation. Nor is it because I am ignoring the darker truths of this life. In the hope that you might better hear my sense of God’s deep and unending love, and in the certainty of hope for tomorrow, I thought I had better share some of my internal machinations – my “letter of understanding” as it were.
I have a friend who couldn’t find an optimistic thought with a torch and another one who analyses every statistic, then sends them to me. I love them dearly, but their method of getting through all this would drive me nuts. The point is though, that it works for them. So, let’s begin our letter by saying be kind to yourself. I don’t survive all the rubbish the same way you do, but that doesn’t mean you are wrong, or I am right. We all do strange things to get by, and now of all times, we need to be generous to ourselves and say – I need that, I need to filter the world through my own kind of crazy – it’s my crazy and I love it.
Secondly, let’s be kind to one another. “I understand.” Some days the people around us won’t function the way we expect them too. Sometimes they might do nothing at all, or suddenly rush round and try and do two hundred things before breakfast. They may not even know why they are doing it, nor will you have a clue that you are doing it too. Some will shout, and some will be silent – and that is ok.
Finally, be true to yourself. If you are afraid, if you are not bothered by it all, if the whole thing is challenging your faith, then that is an acceptable thing to feel – don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you should be feeling.
Ascension Sunday is coming, and we will rise with the Saviour to a better life in this world and the next, and I say that because I understand. In this role, and a number of previous ones, I have seen the worst that the world has to throw at us. I have experienced it, heard the stories, and sat with the victims. This job is an honour, but it comes with a cost.
I do not believe in the beauty of the world because I can’t see the darkness, but because I walk with it. In owning my own darkness what I see is that the world rises again and again. People overcome, transcend, and bring about the greatest of wonders. The finest poetry is born out of the deepest despair, the greatest love is shown in the darkest times, and I know there will be a wonderful tomorrow, because it has happened over and over again. In the love of Christ, we will ascend and be free – because we always do.
Be kind to yourself, be kind to one another, and be true to your feelings.
I am not sure when you will be reading this, but I am going to make a prediction. In a few weeks from now I imagine that the worst of this crisis will be over. Thereafter there will be a steady loosening up of the movement restrictions. I am no expert, but we all know how these things go. Of course, way down the line, this will be the thing of legend - the hero NHS, the surreal events and the wonderful people who kept us going. We will tell tales of our wondrous survival - and the brave new world that came after.
It’s easier for those of us that saw the Cold War, or who were there when those awful AIDS warnings went out on TV. It’s harder when you are young I think. If you've been there before you recognize the hyperbole, and the realities. But for our youth and children this is a face of the world they do not know - nor have they realised their own strength yet. One of the great victims of this will be mental health - and that may take longer to fix than a virus.
I was inspired to write this by Beckie, who posted a video on Facebook - an ode to our current scenario. If you haven't listened to it, you should. It inspired me to remember the virtue of hope - and of the need for honesty and openness about our feelings and fears. In fact all our cherubs here in the house have inspired me by their creative approach. If the future is in their hands, things are going to be just fine - oh, and our minds will be much healthier too.
It encouraged me to think about our role as a church, and our future. To start with, we need to stop people saying stupid things. We need to stop the talk of the apocalypse and how no one’s lives will be the same. Us previous survivors need to be speaking truth: the truth that actually, mostly, our lives will return to normal, that if anything, things should be better because of what we learned. We need to be there to support those who emotionally got battered by all this.
We also need to be the voice of experience - the voice that says that human rights and freedoms must be returned, for we all know how that game plays out.
Most of all we need to be there as the reminder of the source of all hope, the source of love and the antidote to fear. For all things shall be well. We shall be well.
17 March 2020
Currently there is so much information flying about in connection with this virus, that it must seem like the whole world has gone mad. Inevitably as your minister, I have yet another update on the ongoing situation! I know that this is all very frustrating – and in many cases quite scary but be reassured. All this chaos is about prevention. It is still very rare to catch this disease, and even if you do catch it, most people only experience very mild symptoms. I am told that for most people it is less horrible than flu.
It is important, though, that for the small number who might get the serious version, or who are more vulnerable, that we make our churches as safe as possible. In this particular moment – and for the next few weeks – it means we won’t be having formal gatherings or worship in the church. This is partly to make sure the NHS has time to prepare for any problems. During the coming weeks I and pastoral visitors will be phoning round to make sure you are ok – and to see if there is anything you need. I’ll also be asking if anyone is free to help shop etc. for those who are self-isolating.
Please also note that the church does not have the same definition of ‘old’ that the government do. We will not be asking your age when we discuss how we ‘do’ church in these strange times. The issue is not whether you are over 70, but whether you believe that you would be at particular risk – i.e. be sensible if you have an ongoing health concern.
Listed below is the advice that we are being given.
UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE:
NO CHURCH SERVICES. We are encouraged to have the church open for personal prayer at times when we would normally have services but there will be no official gathering. This is so people will not feel like they are missing something or feel obligated to attend.
NO GROUPS (no lent groups, house groups or coffee mornings)
BOOKINGS can continue. The church is not responsible for external groups, and since the government is yet to close schools etc. then the various organisations that use our churches can continue to do so. The groups are asked to make sure that they clean properly after they finish including wiping door handles etc.
WE ARE BEING ENCOURAGED TO:
I) Check regularly with members of the church by phone
II) To make worship available online, in recordings and in materials to circulate.
III) That children’s groups and messy church circulate materials where possible to help with families stuck at home with children
If there are any problems with any of this, please please feel free to contact me and discuss. I will be meeting with Jenny Harris tomorrow (Instead of there being a lent group at HHMC) to discuss online church. As soon as we have met, there will be information circulated as to how you can access these things.
Although I may ask for your help in doing so, it is my responsibility to circulate worship materials. Please help me compile a list of those not able to receive emails or see the blogs and online information. If there are local preachers, worship leaders or other creative souls, also willing to circulate worship materials this would be wonderful. The more the merrier. I am sure that people would happily receive two sets of prayers rather than none! This way we can make sure they receive prayers and personal devotional materials during the weeks ahead.
In the end all this will pass. I hope that in a matter of a few weeks we will look back on this with wry smile. In the meantime, I recommend a sense of humour and making the most of any free time we find ourselves with. This is the time to start that book, write that poem, or finish that project. God is with us in our endeavours and we know the Holy Spirit is with us.
Love and God bless
This time of year – especially as we say farewell to storms Dennis and Ciara – I find myself, like Noah, watching the skies for signs of a new age. The winter feels like it should have ended by now, and the budding snowdrops seem to be acting in defiance rather than prophecy.
Maybe there isn’t an exciting thing to write about in this grey time? I always find it hard to decide what to put in newsletters anyway, or even what is pressing enough for a mention on social media. I know some people can post what they had for lunch and make it gripping - but I always feel like I need a decent excuse - and some editing. Shall we cancel February due to lack of interest then? NO – for this month is full of heroic tales. Even for myself I got to review the newspapers on BBC Three Counties Radio with Nana Akua, had to stand in a storm and reconstruct a bunny hutch that had lost its roof, and experienced a lady in a residential home telling me the two of the best jokes I'd ever heard.
If I was looking for a profound message, I might suggest there was something about finding God in the unexpected - but all of this pales into insignificance next to the funeral of one David Brider that I had the privilege to take. David was a Dr Who fan, a prodigious communicator on Facebook and had a wonderful sense of humour. In life he often encouraged people to be themselves - including me - and I knew taking his funeral I'd be in danger of that ministerial trap, theme related incidences happening on the way to the pulpit.
What I did not expect was my trousers catching fire. As I tried to flatten my clothes for David's funeral, an overheated iron ignited the plasticky polyesters. A flash of flame blew a hole through the fabric, and little tattered shards floated across the kitchen. Interestingly the smoke detectors that pass judgement on each piece of toast I make, did not think this was a problem.
Maybe not everything is a sign or a message, but I am certain that David would have appreciated the gag. And maybe this time of year we just need something to cheer us up.
Happy New Year - well, and possibly, maybe, depending on your perspective - the start of a new decade. (I know some are waiting for 2021!)
A time of hope? Change? To some extent we know that every new start comes both optimism and fear. In another sense, the New Year is just a meaningless line in the sand. It isn't so much a religious festival anymore and, if you were working, the clock probably ticked over with little more than a greeting to colleague, and a tea break.
In my first sermons this year I am talking about what I am calling the ‘new puritanism’ and our history as non-conformists. That sounds a lot heavier than it is in reality. What I will be encouraging us to think about, as we disciple our way through the 20s, is what happens after. There is always an after, and it is usually the result of a very large before. There was an election - now there is after.
There will be a Brexit and then there will be after. There was a building project, now there is after. There was Christmas, there was a year full of events - and if nothing else the arbitrary line says, "Hey folks, it’s time for after."
So as you face the heap of recycling, hoover up after the last guest has gone, or hide the empty wine bottles at the bottom of the bin, it is natural to start saying what shall we do next? As we get older the temptation is always to think that
that next maybe not so exciting or hopeful. The best could all be in the past. In our house we are learning about a future in which the children have moved out. What does that mean to us in the new year?
Whatever happened previously our faith tells us we need to stand up for certain things. In following Christ we are by definition trouble makers, reputational risks, and what my Aunt Win would have called 'occer'd cusses.' As disciples we
know that the establishment, whoever they are, must be reminded of the equality of humanity under God, the beautiful nature of His creation - and that we are all spiritual beings imbued with love. There is a lovely word/phrase for
this. We must as a church remain counter-cultural.
What I am trying to say at the start of this new year is that we need to remember that there is constantly a new start in Christ. The world tries to teach us to be cynical, to fear life, and to think ourselves beyond hope. Christ’s consistent message was that at every stage of a voyage we should be ready to kick the dust off of our heels and move forward. Our lives are not bound by human limits. There is always tomorrow, and we know that in this world or the next that tomorrow has hope, joy and wonder. In conclusion then I remind myself and you all, that we are to enter the Kingdom of God like a child - with open hearts, minds and doors. What might that look like? Well Greta Thunberg sat outside a school ......
Looking forward to many adventures with you all.
So the truth is out. Something important is going to happen in December. Sadly it turns out that from the national news, it isn't Christmas. At the time of writing the election for the 12th had just been announced. Probably by the time of reading they'll have moved it to the 25th - after all nobody works then - well apart from ministers of course.
It's worth remembering that Jesus was born into a similar time of political chaos. A Jewish nation under foreign rule, an imposed census and plenty of trouble between religious and political leaders. Jesus birth represented then the idea of stability under a powerful Messiah. Instead they got a baby who caused even more issues.
We now know what wonders Jesus represented - but we know it in hindsight. This year let us make a pledge to pray for all the people who find themselves affected by the instability of nations and leaders. Jesus taught us through his life to ignore the division and speak of love and light. He taught us that good words and acts of kindness can change the world for the better.
I think that is what Paul meant when he said Christians are above the law. Not that we are lawless, but that we must always hold up the message of Christmas, hope, in the face of those who only have the law. I have no idea what the situation will be by Christmas - or whether we will all be living on the moon - but I do know that our leader is strong and stable. Also thankfully he isn't up for re-election.
Ah yes, October. Must be time to start worrying about Christmas. We have a passing dig at the commercial word for bringing out the Christmas tat just after Halloween, but the Methodist church is worse. Our dates for the preaching plan have to be in by September. I don't know about you, but I am still working out what happens this week – let alone what happens early next year. Oh I know that planning is good, and that the Spirit can work through the organised and the spontaneous, but there is a risk in our way of doing church.
Whilst we are always grateful to those willing to assemble rotas and be on them, the truth is that constant conversations about the next thing sometimes preclude us being ‘in the moment'. The Martha and Mary debate, as it were. Part of being God's creation is to experience the nature of God in the world. You know what I mean; that buzz, that tingle, that joy in being loved and in love. The Bible assures us that we shouldn't worry. That our lives are in his hands. Sometimes we need to take time to enjoy what we have right here, right now.
Last month I asked you to think about your contradictions. This month I am adding the question, ‘are you a planner or a blagger?’ I think it’s really important to both leave space for others who are different to ourselves, and to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
To sum up here is an example. Imagine that you are – as you may well be, or have been – a young parent. Your child is at an age when feeding routines and nappies dictate the parameters of your life. You'd like to be involved in church life, but don't know until the day what time is available. How, as a church, do we plan so that there is space for those who can't plan?
As I sat in the traffic Jam on the M25 I pondered what I could write to you, by means of an introduction. Facts? Age 54, married (to Ruth) and with two 'growed' up children; Ben and Beckie (21 and 18 - yes, it has been an expensive year.) I am not sure if the facts help. I could tell you stories. At school I was asked to write an essay describing myself. I put, 'I am seven feet tall, bright green and have a vivid imagination.' Whilst I am shorter and less green now, I still have a vivid imagination.
The best description I ever heard of me was during the candidating process. My then mentor said, 'Andrew is a bundle of contradictions.' It was meant as a criticism, but I think it was brilliant. If nothing else I think it is a good description of all of us. Give me a person who is entirely consistent and I'll show you a robot. As Christians we often find ourselves wearing a multitude of hats, and dealing with a variety of situations. Each one of which may bring out something contradictory in us.
We are in good company. The disciples were living examples of how to be in a muddle. The Bible itself contains some wonderful contradictions. I've heard it argued many times that the Bible isn't the truth because of the anomalies. For me it is exactly the opposite. One of the reasons I can refute the conspiracy theories and defend the Bible as the word of God, is that no human built organisation would leave the anomalies in. The Bible is not a corporate document. It challenges us to wrestle with it and to seek the truth. My anomalies are God given - as are yours.
For myself, I am a creative writer who can't spell or punctuate, an actor who eschews being on stage, and a Methodist minister who likes to robe and wear pretty scarves. My fun challenge in this welcome letter is to ask the same of you! When we meet I'd like to hear about your contradictions. Try scribbling down a few statements in that format - I am “an X” who does “Y”, I am “a this” who does “that”. To know ourselves, and each other better, is to know God better.
I am looking forward to getting started properly here. Ruth and I love the manse, and even the rabbits are looking less confused. See you soon.
Love and God bless
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