Team's blog 

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

 

Autumn at SMOB

The nights are drawing in, the heating’s going on and there have been a lot of developments in our ministry at SMOB since the start of September. It’s always a challenge to keep up with our church, so I’m taking the opportunity to update you on how things are going and what our plans look like for the rest of term.
 
Youth, children and families
Our team is working hard to prioritise face-to-face work with children and young people. This was very fruitful over the summer, with both Dave and Kate having lots of meetings with them and getting to know them and their families better. Last Sunday we had our first family service, which was a big success. It was great to see so many families back in church for the first time since lockdown, welcomed in with personalised packs of craft and able to worship together safely. Our worship focused on how God speaks into our fears, and the Spirit was at work. We plan to run these services each month, so watch our notices for the next date, which we will confirm soon. This one was invitation-only and was very popular; a number of families would like to come in future, so book early!
 
The other big news is that Friday Night Club is back this term, both in person with a monthly film night, and online with a monthly Zoom quiz. Kate has stayed in touch with all the families at church and FNC through her three craft drops, with the most recent going out to over 40 children, giving them a weekly craft right up to Christmas; and also through home visits. Many of them are desperate to get back to FNC; the first film night filled up in a few days. To keep within the official guidance, we can only have fifteen children for these, so we are weighing up how we allocate tickets to include as many people as possible.
 
We are about to restart our youth groups in person, with smaller groups to cover the different ages. These groups will be spread throughout the week, using the safe spaces church provides. Dave has made the most of his personal contact with the young people and parents to put together groups which will work, and it’s great to bring his team back after having a few months off. They are looking forward to worshipping, studying the Bible and praying together.
 
Tina continues to keep contact with all her Bethany Babes families. Unfortunately toddler groups are likely to be the last thing churches are able to restart, as there is no way to do many of their core activities in a Covid-safe way. She and Kate have worked together closely on all our work for younger children.
 
Engage’s work in schools has also restarted, with Christian unions and classes going ahead this term.
 
Our New Wine Discipleship Year intern Joel Thomas has had a great start to his time with us, and has quickly settled in as part of the team. He is working with Dave, Tina and Kate and is travelling into London once a week for training and worship with New Wine.
 
Homegroups
Our homegroups have continued to meet online since lockdown, with each group finding its own way into this brave new world. In many cases this has meant that more people can attend, as no one has childcare issues and there are fewer problems getting home from the office. In order to help our homegroups develop our vision and mission, we are running Homegroup Central for two weeks on 4 and 11 November. This is a Zoom meeting which we hope will bring all our groups together, and is open to anyone who isn’t currently in a group. We will think about our calling both as individuals and groups, and how we engage with our church’s vision to be God’s transforming people in our parish: To love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community. The sessions provide an opportunity to worship and study the Bible together, as well as breaking out into our groups to discuss the issues and pray.
 
Pastoral care
Behind the scenes, our pastoral care continues, as we support people through tough times, illness and bereavement. Although our guidance still prevents home visits, some face-to-face meetings have been possible in gardens and other settings. The CAMEO team continues to phone everyone on their list at least once a week, contact which has been a real lifeline for many.
 
Our services
We continue with our pattern of one 10.30am Sunday service per week in church and live-streamed, along with a weekly Communion service online. We’ve seen up to 50 people in church, so we are comfortably within our capacity of 75 – do give it a try when you’re ready. Coming up this Sunday we have Making Mission Possible, our annual celebration of our mission partners. We will be hearing from Jon Hargreaves in church and he will be online for Zoom coffee afterwards, so do join us if you can. On 18 October our postponed annual church meeting (APCM) takes place, a chance to think about 2019 (if you can remember back that far!) and celebrate all that God is doing at SMOB. We are thinking ahead to Remembrance Sunday on 8 November, and how we can make this as inclusive a service as possible, bearing in mind that most people who would normally attend will need to do so online.
 
Plans for Christmas
Christmas is not cancelled this year! But it will be different and we are ringing the changes at SMOB. We are planning something big and innovative to encounter the Advent and Christmas seasons in new ways, engaging with everything we have experienced this year. Our theme, along with the whole Church of England, is ‘Comfort and joy’ – our need for God’s comfort through this challenging time, combined with the joy and hope that Christ’s arrival brings. We will be announcing our plans soon and we will need lots of help to make them happen, so if you’ve been having a break from your particular ministry since lockdown, this may be your chance to get involved…
 
Staying safe
All of our ministry follows official guidance from the government and Church of England. Organising any activity now involves detailed risk assessment and careful preparation to stay within the spirit of the guidance and keep everyone safe. In fact any activity we run needs a lot of work in advance of it happening. Our work is covered by a variety of guidance, depending on whether our activity is corporate worship, youth and children’s work, relating to our workplace and so on. Just as we have always worked hard on our safeguarding, we are dedicated to ensuring that all our church activities are Covid-secure and as safe as possible. Thank you for everything you have done to contribute to this.
 
In among all of this we have welcomed numerous people into our church family: those who were on our fringe, friends or family of existing members, people who have moved away and those who are entirely new to us. If that’s you, welcome! We’re so glad you’re here. However you found us, online or in person, we hope you will find a home among our church family.
 
I hope you will join me in praying for all our activities and for our team as we plan them. God is on the move in our community and people are really open to hearing the good news about Jesus. Do share your stories and encourage each other in our life together, as we fan into flame the transforming power of the Spirit.
 

Mark Wallace, 08/10/2020

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The Church of England's shame

The report from IICSA about child abuse in the Church of England contains no news, but it brings to the fore the terrible legacy of abuse, cover-up and ill-treatment of victims within the Church. A few months ago I wrote about the historical case of Bishop Peter Ball and the tragic way his victims were treated. In many cases this has amounted to reabuse: victims who were told by their abuser to keep silent are then not believed or silenced by those whom they trusted to care for them.
 
In a radio interview this morning, the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed the shame that all clergy in the Church of England feel after this report. He pointed out that funding for safeguarding within the Church has increased tenfold over the last few years. He committed to implementing the recommendations of the report. It was only when safeguarding was introduced across the Church that many of these cases came to light.
 
Over my twelve years of ordained ministry, Guildford Diocese has always made it extremely clear that safeguarding is an important priority. I have been given many hours of training and I have dealt with some thorny issues, but always with good support and prompt action from the centre. We live in an entirely different safeguarding context from that of 20 years ago, one which we continue to embrace and invest in.
 
At the same time, we pray for justice and healing for those abused and abusers. You will know people abused as children who have never received justice. We have a God who believes in justice and who prioritises the broken in spirit. The issues are often complex for churches; many abusers were victims of abuse themselves. As Jesus’ people, we always have a hope that we can be his agents of change and make a positive difference in terrible situations.
 

Mark Wallace, 07/10/2020

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Staff team update

As everyone travels forward to a new normal, we are adjusting to the new government guidance, which puts the brakes on a number of areas of life. In general this does not affect what we are able to do as a church, and we will are working towards more face-to-face groups for children and young people, along with our first Family Service on 4 October. I’ve talked several times on this page about the need to bear with each other, recognising that we are all in different places on the journey. Some need to continue shielding or take special care; others are keen to get back to as much of normal life as they can. This is also true for our staff team, so I thought it would be helpful to give you some pointers about what you can expect from us.
 
Without breaking any confidences, most of you will not be aware that some of our team have underlying health issues, which mean that contracting coronavirus would probably be very serious. So, if you would like to meet face-to-face with one of SMOB’s staff, it is worth checking what they are comfortable with. Some of us are happy to meet one-to-one indoors; others prefer to have all their meetings online; larger meetings fall outside the guidance at present. We are not allowed to do home visits indoors, except in some very limited circumstances. (Some of us will visit gardens, weather permitting!) Please be understanding and bear in mind you might not know all of our limitations.
 
Happily, all of us are working again: Sharon has returned from furlough and is working her usual hours; Jess has returned half-time (working mornings), and will be full-time again by the end of October. There is plenty for them to do and they are pleased to be back in their roles. I’m also pleased to report that Kate and Tina have returned to their normal hours, after doing many hours of unpaid overtime during lockdown.
 
Much of our work continues to be very far from normal. Engaging with government and Church of England guidance can make you feel like you’ve had to run a marathon just to get to the starting line, to organise something you would regard as a ‘normal’ part of church life. Can I encourage you to be patient and kind to our team, who are working hard to deliver all the ministry we can?

Mark Wallace, 24/09/2020

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Building project update

You may be wondering how our building plans are going. We had an excellent consultation with the church family and our immediate neighbours just before lockdown, with over 80 responses. There was overwhelming support for our proposals, with a number of good ideas suggested, which we passed to our architects. They were able to work on the plans over the spring and summer; in fact they were able to spend more time on our plans than expected, as some of their work on other projects had to stop.
 
We are now at a pre-planning stage. Both Guildford Diocese and Woking Borough Council have seen our plans and are supportive of them. The next stage is a consultation with our local community; we plan to hold this on Saturday 7 November with an exhibition in church. This will be much the same as what we used for the church family. We will leaflet around 300 homes, drawing a circle around the church building. We will also invite some of our partners in the Scouts and Guides, local schools and councillors. Once we have done this, we can continue the journey towards a planning application.
 
Q&A
What ideas are you taking forward from the consultation?

We are exploring some eco-friendly ideas including rainwater harvesting for our toilets and solar panels for electricity. We are looking at a variety of other modifications including a stained-glass option for the new entrance/extension on Mount Hermon Road and whether it is possible to improve soundproofing on the windows in the worship area. We are also exploring whether some of our building could provide co-working space in office hours.
 
Are you able to get started on any improvements before we go to planning?
Hopefully yes. We are not planning major work before January as part of our coronavirus cost savings, but we will be looking at a number of areas in the new year, including signage along the footpath. We are improving our audio-visual system in the worship area to enable us to live-stream services, meetings and events on an ongoing basis, as we have been using borrowed equipment up to now.
 
Can we fix the flat roof?
Our architects are doing a detailed survey of our flat roof, which has caused more problems than anything else in the building. We will find a long-term solution to this as part of the work.
 
How will the work be phased?
This has yet to be decided, and it will depend to some extent on how we decide to fund it. One phase will be the improvements to the York Road side, including toilets, a new mini-kitchen by the creche and storage in the hall. Another stage of improvements will include the youth room, the toilets by the kitchen and improving the acoustics in the hall. The third stage is building our new entrance and extension on the Mount Hermon Road side. We hope to keep the building open for worship throughout the work, although our other users and ministry will inevitably be impacted. We have not decided the order or timing of any of the work.
 
What about fundraising?
We will need to start thinking about this before too long, and the PCC will be forming a small team to plan it. A fundraising programme is likely to have three strands: talking to our church family, our wider community and charitable trusts and foundations. We will aim for a specific period to raise the money, perhaps six months, with a set of events to support this. It is too soon to make plans given the coronavirus situation, so watch this space.
 
What’s the timescale and has this been affected by coronavirus?
The work is on track to start in 2022, and is currently running about two months ahead of schedule as things have actually worked more quickly during the pandemic. However there are currently delays in the borough’s planning system, so this time may be needed later. The virus will impact on us if it continues for much longer, as we will need a more stable situation and a better financial outlook if we are going to fundraise.
 
I encourage you to go on praying as we plan all this behind the scenes. God certainly seems to be in it, but do pray for the right approach to our further consultation, timing and fundraising.
 

Mark Wallace, 21/09/2020

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Why we don't understand US elections

The US general election is less than seven weeks away and, as always, I find myself fascinated. This year, though, I am reflecting that the British media does not help us to understand a great deal of the context or issues in domestic American politics. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was a shock to the system of mainstream politics, much like Brexit here. After the election I was helped enormously by reading some thoughtful pieces by American evangelicals with an understanding of the British media, and by talking to American friends. Here are some things I’ve learned which I offer in the hope that it will promote a better understanding of what’s in play over the next few weeks.
 
Many Americans vote on issues, not candidates
A US general election boils down to one or two issues for a large number of people. For evangelical Christians, abortion is key. This group is highly political and motivated, so the context is very different from that of the UK; in 2016 over 90% voted for Trump. What our media failed to report was that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was radically liberal on abortion. They went as far as pledging that US overseas aid would be limited to countries which would liberalise abortion rights for women. If you object to abortion in your own country, how much more will you dislike the idea of laws being liberalised in poorer developing communities?
 
This point explains why Donald Trump’s character failings did not derail him as a candidate for conservative, religious people. They were prepared to put up with the often raucous and aggressive tone of the campaign, and even the questionable sexual ethics of their candidate, because the alternative would involve, in their view, the deaths of millions of unborn infants. Trump also chose, in Mike Pence, a conservative Christian who speaks the language of evangelicals and is very well regarded by them. One interesting feature of this year’s campaign is that Trump’s support among Christians has softened considerably (to around 60% support in current polls), with Joe Biden often talking about his Roman Catholic faith and striking a less strident tone on abortion.
 
Polls: are they unreliable or just hard to read?

People often say that the opinion polls were wrong in 2016. This is not quite accurate: polls in the last few weeks of campaigning said the election was too close to call, with Clinton slightly ahead. In fact she did win the popular vote, outpolling Trump by three million votes. But owing to the electoral college system, where each state counts individually and allocates its voting share for one candidate on an all-or-nothing basis, Trump edged a victory. Thus the polls to watch are not necessarily the big national ones, but those in the so-called ‘swing states’. Just as UK elections are decided by a relatively small number of marginal seats in parliament, US elections are decided by a minority of states whose allegiance can move from one party to the other. Some of these I can pinpoint on a map quite easily (Florida); others are more of a challenge (Wisconsin).
 
Different countries see things…well…differently
Western Europe is largely united in the view that Donald Trump is A Bad Thing. He is certainly not a leader in the mould of European liberal democracies. He has not sought to build bridges, openly questioning NATO funding early in his presidency and sometimes directly insulting other leaders. However, he has supporters in other parts of the world, from Israel to India. His hawkish approach to Iran, which caused alarm in Europe, bore fruit this week in a peace deal between Israel and some of its anti-Iran neighbours in the Middle East. On the horrific civil war in Syria, his lack of engagement is no different from his predecessor Barack Obama, on whose watch that country collapsed. One former US ambassador said this week that foreign policy is often about not making bad international situations worse; use this measure on Donald Trump and the picture you get may be painted more generously than you expect.
 
Many voters simply disliked Hillary Clinton
Much was made in 2016 of alleged voter misogyny, but there was much more to people’s antipathy towards Hillary Clinton as a candidate. Many commentators drew attention to her chequered record in office as Secretary of State (the US equivalent of Foreign Secretary), including atrocities in Iraq and lethal drone strikes in Afghanistan. There was also a flavour of entitlement about her candidacy; she sat it out as First Lady while her husband Bill was President, lost out to Barack Obama in 2008 and now it was her turn. She was the ultimate political insider at a moment where many people were feeling let down by the establishment. In contrast Joe Biden’s record in office is regarded more generously, both in his many years as a senator and then his term as Vice President.
 
So pray…
Although the tectonic plates in world politics may be starting to move, the USA remains the great world superpower, and its President is an important role for all of us. Pray for its voters, for a clean election and a straightforward result, and especially for the many Christians standing for office, for integrity and a good campaign.
 
 
 

Mark Wallace, 17/09/2020

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How do we choose our music?

One of the biggest impacts of this coronavirus season is on our church’s music. We haven’t been able to sing together in church since lockdown, and there is no end in sight for this. Since March we have been using pre-recorded songs for all our services, supplemented with a bit of organ playing in our first few weeks back in the building. You may be wondering how we’re choosing our music, and this is always a hot topic in any church.
 
From March to June we were broadcasting a pre-recorded service as a Facebook Watch Party. This meant that only music which had already been uploaded to Facebook could be used, to comply with copyright licensing rules. The plus was that any music uploaded to Facebook could be used. Even so, this gave us a lot of limitations, but it was part of our decision-making in choosing this platform, as it gave us a better range than others like YouTube. Our service leaders chose music for a wide range of tastes, bearing in mind we are combining our usual traditional and contemporary services into one. We tried to choose videos with lyrics to enable you to follow and sing along at home if you like.
 
On Easter Sunday we premiered our first home-recorded song, ‘Happy Day’. This was recorded by a variety of singers and musicians, each working individually from home, and was produced and mixed by music leader Paul Edwards. It was extremely well-received and Paul has gone on to record several more songs, which have been fantastic. One thing many churches have found, and it is true at SMOB, is that anything we produce ourselves connects better with our congregation than material we use from elsewhere; that’s why we are enjoying using these videos again as the months go on. You may not realise the level of time, energy and effort that goes into them: in addition to the time each musician takes to rehearse, record and upload their part (typically at least an hour each and sometimes much longer), Paul spends many hours mixing the recordings and producing the video. ‘Happy Day’ took 23 hours to produce; the process has been quicker for later videos, but it is a very substantial time commitment and we are all so grateful to Paul and all the musicians for their hard work.
 
Now we are live streaming church services, and have continued to use only recorded music so far. This limits us to music where the artist has specifically given permission for us to use it. There are a number of churches and artists who have done this, but it is a real challenge to find suitable songs every week, as we are more limited than before. We are considering having more live music in church, or prerecording a band during the week, so do pray for us as we consider all this.
 
We have no idea when we might be able to sing all together again. Government guidance allows a choir or band to play and sing live (socially distanced), but there is no indication of when congregational singing might be allowed. The scientific evidence is mixed, and is highly contextual – in a larger, well ventilated building like ours, the risk appears to be very low. You are allowed to hum behind your mask! Do continue to pray for our government as they follow the science, and for me, Bekah, Sarah and Dave as we continue plan and lead our services.

Mark Wallace, 12/09/2020

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Losses in lockdown

A few weeks ago I had a day where I was overcome with a sense of grief and loss for a variety of things that have happened since lockdown. That week I had been forced to change my holiday plans at the last minute, due to circumstances beyond my control. A number of other events both small and large weighed on me. I have written elsewhere about my grandmother’s death. The beginning of lockdown involved working out what to do about my planned three-month Extended Ministerial Development Leave, which was due to start in June (I ended up postponing it to next summer). I found that it was important to acknowledge the impact of all these losses on my wellbeing, putting aside any sense of whether they are more or less important than things others have experienced.
 
Can I encourage you, then, to work through the losses you have suffered because of lockdown and the events of this year more generally? In our church family, people have lost many things:

  • Relatives and friends have died of Covid, or been seriously ill.
  • Others have died of other things. Deaths from all causes have been much more traumatic, with families unable to be with their loved ones and the aftermath of death being much more challenging – limitations on funerals, difficulty in registering deaths and so on.
  • Work, whether you’ve lost a job, been furloughed or faced uncertainty.
  • Children have been out of school for nearly six months, with the biggest impact on those in exam years or facing transition; likewise those in higher education have seen life disrupted. This has had a knock-on effect on family life, with households all working in one space, without the privacy and autonomy they would normally enjoy.
  • Single people, older people and those with health conditions have been particularly isolated.
  • Normal life has been disrupted, so that whatever activity you enjoy, from going out for a drink or dinner, to the theatre or the movies, the gym or the swimming pool, has been impacted.
  • Holiday plans for most people have been affected. 


Although most areas of life have begun to go back to normal, we still live with daily restrictions and complications. As we enter the long autumn term, I’m reminded that this pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. There is no end in sight for many restrictions. If you are going to endure, you need to attend to your self-care. This means engaging with the losses you feel and the effect they have on you. Take time to acknowledge them to God in prayer. Bring things to him without judgement, remembering that he cares for you and the details of your life. If you can, take a quiet day somewhere life-giving, in surroundings that feed you. It may help you to read some favourite Bible passages, or the Psalms, to see how others have felt in hard times. Give space to God and allow his Holy Spirit to work in the losses you’ve experienced.
 
God promises to use our losses and our suffering for our good and the good of others. Paul writes, ‘we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ (Romans 5:3-4) As part of various church families, I have spent time with people who have gone through terrible times which I would not wish on anybody. It has encouraged me enormously to see my brothers’ and sisters’ perseverance and cheerfulness, and the way God uses broken people to help heal others. When my father died, it was the Christians who had lost their own dads who had the biggest impact on me; not because they knew exactly what I was going through (no one knows that about someone else), but because they had been on a similar journey. Be encouraged that God will use the challenges in your life to bless you and others. None of this diminishes the daily struggles of dealing with illness, bereavement or anything else – sometimes Christians are glib about how good God is, when what suffering people need is just someone to sit with them quietly in situations that are beyond our understanding.
 
Be honest with God and yourself about what you’ve lost during this time, whether it’s holiday plans you were looking forward to, hugs from friends or anything else. When you can acknowledge what you have lost, the Holy Spirit can minister to the bits of your heart which are broken, and gradually put you back together.
 

Mark Wallace, 02/09/2020

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Resources from yesterday's talk

As I promised in the service yesterday, here are the titles of the three books I found the most helpful in learning about racism both in society and in the church for my talk.  If you don't want to invest, the church has bought a copy of each to lend, please get in touch with Sarah or the office if you would like to borrow one or all three!  
 
Why I am no longer talking to white people about race - by Reni Eddo-Lodge
We need to talk about race - understanding the black experience in white majority churches - by Ben Lindsay
Ghost Ship - Institutional racism and the Church of England - by A.D.A France-Williams
 
Also here is the link to the short film I mentioned in the sermon too.  


 


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Sensitivity towards others

We’re now several weeks down the road from the first lockdown restrictions being lifted. Most shops are open, you can go to a pub, restaurant or gym and some people are back working in their offices. We’ve had four Sunday services in church, and even our first post-lockdown wedding. We’re also getting used to wearing masks, one of the few new restrictions which has been placed on us.
 
Some of us have embraced our renewed freedom; we’ve had early adopters of all ages in church every week since we restarted. Think about people who were first in the queue for a haircut. Others are necessarily more cautious – the advice for those who have been shielding has been a challenge to navigate: do more normal things, but whatever you do, don’t get the virus! Bear in mind that you might not be aware who’s been shielding – obviously it’s been all our older people, but there are many other people with health conditions too. Lockdown was a great equaliser – we were all in the same boat; not so now. People who are shielding have not been shouting about it.
 
If you’re one of those who is keen to get back to normal, can I encourage you to consider that there may be more people than you might expect who are your polar opposites? As part of a church community we are called to encourage each other. This doesn’t mean jollying along the anxious or wary; some of those shielding have experienced some fairly insensitive, ‘Come along, what are you worried about?’ type comments. Encouraging others means listening to and empathising with someone who has genuine health concerns. People with underlying health conditions will rightly fear contracting coronavirus; they may face months of illness, the risk of lifelong complications or even death. There are certainly some who are experiencing high levels of anxiety simply because they just haven’t been out for four months, and they’ve been told the outside world is a dangerous place. Whether the dangers are more real or imagined for people (and of course corona is never a completely imagined danger), it’s important to empathise and be sensitive, not to dismiss their feelings with an off-the-cuff comment.
 
In 1 Corinthians 8:9 Paul writes, ‘Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak.’ What does this look like in our context, and especially in our church building? Perhaps it means wearing a mask, even though you feel safe there, out of consideration for those who don’t. It may mean being careful to keep your distance; one of the most common complaints I have heard from people who feel vulnerable is when people in shops fail to keep a social distance. It will certainly mean guarding your words, and listening more than you speak, when you are dealing with someone who has been shielding. Think about ways you can love your neighbours well, bearing in mind that having more freedom makes life more complicated.

Mark Wallace, 30/07/2020

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The big faith questions that coronavirus has raised

The last few months have seen life thrown into turmoil. Things we took for granted have been out of reach: a trip to the gym, the pub or a movie, office banter over a coffee, and so on. Many people have felt under siege, victims of an invisible yet frightening threat from outside. Old certainties have proved very uncertain and we will be living with some of the consequences for many years.
 
These extraordinary times have raised big questions about life and faith for many people. As Christians we have some of the answers. We understand that life is often much less secure and certain than we might think. Part of the human condition is our desire to feel in control of our own destiny, but in fact there are always many things we cannot control. For the self-confident, able and prosperous people of Surrey, this year’s crisis has pulled many up short. Your good job, your nice house, your shiny family and all your stuff cannot give you immunity from coronavirus or its social and economic effects.
 
Over August SMOB is going to tackle some of these questions head-on. Our summer Sunday sermon series will get to grips with some of the big issues raised by lockdown. It’s been prepared using feedback from our online survey, so we know these are live subjects for people out there. We aim to make these talks particularly ‘seeker-friendly’ – useful for friends, family or colleagues who might be exploring faith. Can I encourage you to pray about who you could invite to listen? Remember, it’s easier than ever to do this: you can come into the building in person, join in the online live stream or watch a talk on its own later. (All of our talks remain online indefinitely.) Thus your options are more varied too: a direct face-to-face invitation, putting a link to a talk on your social media and everything in between. Remember too what we always say at SMOB about inviting people: the invitation is the win, not whether the person actually accepts or not. An invitation today may spark opportunities for conversations in the future.
 
Here, then, are the subjects for our Big Questions series:
2 August – What does the Bible say about anxiety and fear?
One question that many Christians have asked during this time is, ‘I know I’m not supposed to worry, so how can I respond when I do feel anxious about coronavirus?’ We will be thinking about how the Christian faith engages with the reality of anxiety and fear in our lives.
 
9 August – Why does God not stop the coronavirus?
What sort of God do we believe in? Why has the coronavirus led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and many more lives blighted? The issue of human suffering remains one of the biggest obstacles to people exploring faith, and is particularly relevant in this context.
 
16 August – How do I pray?
Lockdown gave many people time at home, and Christians have engaged with this by praying. How, then, can we pray more and better? We’ll be thinking about practices and disciplines that can help, as well as how you can cultivate a heart that longs for more of the Holy Spirit.
 
23 August – What is the Christian response to Black Lives Matter?
Issues of social justice, and in particular racial justice, have helped define this time. How can Christians engage well with these issues, owning the problems we might have and becoming part of the solutions?
 
30 August – What is my purpose in life?
With so much of everyday life stripped away, this has been a common question. Without the everyday routine of my job, away from my relationships, what am I here for? How can I take the next step and explore the answers Christianity provides?
 
To follow up this series, we will be running a short online-only course exploring issues around the Christian faith. This would also be a great opportunity for someone to explore some of the big questions they have in a non-judgemental, safe space. Watch out for this at the beginning of autumn.
 
I hope you’ll be really excited about this series, as we look at these big issues together. We won’t find any easy answers; we might even be left with more questions; but we trust that God will stretch us and those we pray for along the way.
 

Mark Wallace, 22/07/2020

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Remembering and lamenting

I will never forget where I was when I heard the news. On a street corner just five minutes’ walk from my home, I took a call from one of my oldest friends, Alison, on a damp winter Monday morning. She told me that her son Harry, my godson, had taken his own life. He was just fourteen years old.
 
I have not written or spoken publicly about Harry in the two and a half years since he died. I am writing this on his seventeenth birthday to remember and lament his loss, which still feels utterly pointless and tragic.
 
Harry was a very bright, sensitive and fun-loving young man, a beloved son, brother and friend. He spent much of his life in China, where his parents were working, returning to go to secondary school. He spoke fluent Mandarin and felt more Chinese than English, although in China he was something of a celebrity when he went out as a child, with his blond hair and blue eyes. He had unique relationships with his younger brother and sister, understanding the struggles they went through, as they are both on the autism spectrum.
 
Some months before his death, Harry began to struggle with his mental health. He suffered from severe mood swings, depression and auditory hallucinations. But he was clever and he didn’t want anyone to know; he was able to cover up how he was feeling and project to the world the image they wanted to see. His symptoms worsened though, and eventually he was not able to hide them. His parents sought help via their GP, and Harry was referred to the local child mental health unit. He waited for an appointment, a wait which took longer than expected. He thought he had been forgotten. On a Sunday afternoon at the beginning of half term, he killed himself, leaving a note apologising to his parents.
 
Harry’s funeral was attended by over 400 people, including his entire school year. In a section where videos were shared from friends in different parts of the world who couldn’t be there, it was clear how much energy and promise this young man had. Every day over that period, I cried out to God: if only we could have told Harry that help was coming; if only we could have said he wouldn’t always feel like this. I had been due to take him out just days after he died; if only I could have kept that appointment, or got together with him sooner. Above all, the question ‘Why?’ Why this boy? Why these people? Hadn’t my dear friends sacrificed enough in their lives? Why do some people just seem to have such terrible things happen to them?
 
As Harry’s coffin was lowered into the ground, I prayed to God that I would never have to stand with friends at the grave of their child again. It was an awesome but terribly sad privilege to share that time with them.
 
There were a number of things going through my mind as I sought to understand Harry’s death. There was the move from China to England at a key moment in his life. There was the pressure on his parents’ mental health after Harry’s younger sister Ruth died from miscarriage just days before she was due to be born, when he was a toddler. Years later the family returned to England for a spell after his dad Graham suffered burnout in his ministry, which affected every part of the family’s life. How did Harry experience having two younger siblings with additional needs? How much space did he have to talk about his feelings? There is no way to answer the many questions I have. I wish I could talk to him about it all.
 
Since then, some important facts have come to light. At his coroner’s inquest we learned that Harry’s psychiatric appointment was sent to the wrong child, and that this mistake was discovered but no action was taken to correct it. Harry died thinking he was forgotten, but he wasn’t; what difference might it have made to start some talking therapy? Certainly it wouldn’t have made things worse. Apologies were made, procedures tightened up. We hear so much about how overstretched mental health services are; in fact, in south London they are excellent, with less than fourteen days’ waiting time for young people needing help.
 
Much more significantly, and entirely by chance, his parents found out that a medicine Harry was taking for his asthma, montelukast, can have severe psychological side-effects in adolescents, including all of the symptoms he was experiencing. Tragically several other young people have attempted or committed suicide as a result of these. At the time of Harry’s death, the side-effects were flagged clearly on the information for users of the medicine in the USA, but not in the UK.
 
This last revelation brings a much-needed answer to some of the questions around Harry’s death, but it also brings a sense of futility. If these symptoms had just been flagged up more clearly on his medication, he might be here now. And today, when Harry would have turned seventeen, he will never finish school with his friends; never go to university; never have his first kiss; never marry; never take a holiday with his mates.
 
Lament is one of the oldest traditions in Judeo-Christian literature. Around a third of the Psalms are laments, mostly written by David, a man who knew a thing or two about tragedy. His adultery spiralled into the murder of an innocent man, which in turn led to the death of his baby son. He saw conflict in his family: rape, murder, rebellion and more pointless death. ‘How long?’ asks the psalmist; ‘answer me!’ ‘Why do you stand far off?’ ‘The godly are no more.’ The psalmist cries out to God in faith that he can make a difference to his plight. In lament he reminds himself of what God has done in the past, of his character: his love for justice and mercy. ‘In the Lord I take refuge’, he says. (Psalm 11:1)
 
The longest piece of writing about suffering in the Bible is the book of Job. After Job loses his children, his home, his wealth and his health, he pours out his heart to God. Job responds to tragedy by turning to the only one who can make a difference. ‘I know that my Redeemer lives,’ says Job famously, ‘and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.’ (Job 19:25-26) Job holds on to his faith in the face of his friends, who blame him for his own plight, and in the end God restores him.
 
I will never understand why Harry died, but I trust in a God who holds him and all of us in his hands. I cannot know what Harry’s life would have looked like had he lived, but I know that his suffering is over and he is at peace. As well as all the good things he won’t experience, he is saved from the bad ones too: he will never mourn the death of a family member, never get divorced, never suffer injury or illness again. Everyday life is often messy and sometimes tragic, but I trust in a God who has the bird’s-eye view of our lives, and in whose character is love, justice, mercy and peace. And my God who weeps with his people, as Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. So I live with all the things I can never know, and the pain that scabs over but will never truly heal, and I continue to cry out to God, because I know the love of my risen saviour Jesus.
 

Mark Wallace, 18/07/2020

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Embracing opportunities

This has certainly been an extraordinary year. It’s often said that every crisis is also an opportunity; that has certainly been true for Coronavirus. We’ve had a number of brilliant opportunities as a church, and there are more to come if we are brave. I offer these without downplaying the very real human cost of the crisis, which we are sure to be unpacking for many years to come.
 
Connecting with our community
Lockdown has enabled us to connect with our local community much more easily. Most of us have got to know our neighbours better. Our streets have WhatsApp groups and have looked out for each other, doing shopping and helping people out.
 
Opening up our ministry
All our ministry has been online since lockdown, making church services available to people who wouldn’t normally get there, including those working shifts, disabled people, family of existing members and former members who have moved away. Many homegroups have also been boosted by being online (and by members having nothing else to do!). The flipside is that some people can’t access our online ministry. However, recent research shows that churches are reaching more people than ever, even allowing for those who can’t reach us, and, since physical services resumed, we are already seeing some people return who haven’t been to online services.
 
Christian life in our families
With our Sunday morning children’s groups closed, parents have taken full responsibility for their children’s faith, something we have longed for as a church. Many parents have become much more confident in talking to their children about Jesus, with the conversation going on for the whole week and not just Sunday. Tina and Kate have also been able to get to know many of our children better through one-to-one visits, enabling us to tailor our ministry to them more effectively and giving us lots of ideas to take forward.
 
Reassessing our ministry

If you’d told us that this spring we would close down all our groups and have several months’ gap, we would have been shocked. Now we have a unique opportunity to think and pray carefully about each one of our ministries before we restart them. Some things will change, some will not restart, and we will have new opportunities. The key is to be intentional, thinking about how each group fulfils our mission to be God’s transforming people in our parish: To love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community. We will only restart groups when government guidance makes it worthwhile; for many groups (especially for children) we will need a much lower level of restriction to start, without the group feeling much less worthwhile. In the meantime there are opportunities to start new groups fully or partly online.
 
Helping poorer neighbours
Over the last few weeks, the needs of our most vulnerable neighbours have been flagged up. St Michael’s Church Sheerwater is just a few miles away, yet the community is very different from SMOB’s parish. It has the highest urban deprivation in Surrey, with 46% of children living in poverty on parts of the estate. Over the last four years the church has flourished under what’s called a Bishop’s Mission Order, where the Church of England has funded a new ministry under its minister, our former Curate, Reverend Gillaine Holland. SMOB has been involved at every stage, providing practical help, expertise and money. In a year’s time the current funding arrangement ends, and the onus is now on the local Woking churches to fund St Michael's. Woking Borough Council is funding a massive regeneration of the area, including a redevelopment of the church building; we have an opportunity to put the church right at the centre of its community there.
 
At SMOB we are reviewing our giving to St Michael’s to make sure we can give as much money as we can to this essential frontline ministry. I have also agreed to put together a task group for Woking Deanery to help encourage local churches to support Sheerwater, and I will be working on this for the next few months with churches of all denominations across the town. This is a great opportunity for us to support Christian mission on our doorstep and we will be talking about this much more over the next year. Issues of social justice have come to the fore since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis; we can make a difference to many of the same issues here on our doorstep.
 
This is time of huge opportunity for the church. People have been pulled up short by a simple virus and its ability to challenge so many things we took for granted. Many are asking big questions to which we have compelling answers. Tearfund research in late April showed that 24% of people had engaged with online content from a church during lockdown; that was after just one month, so the figure will be considerably higher now. More strikingly, the figure rose to 36% among young adults, the group least represented in most churches, including SMOB. At the same time our ministry has been turned upside-down. If we stay close to God and keep in step with the Holy Spirit, we will find wonderful new ways to tell our corner of Woking, our colleagues, friends and relatives the great news about Jesus.

Mark Wallace, 14/07/2020

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So, how was it?

I’m being asked this question all the time since our first physical church service on Sunday. People who were taking part online want to know what it was like in the church building. Leaders at other churches are comparing notes, as most are still considering how and when to go back. We decided to take this step early for a number of reasons: the appetite of the congregation to start on the road to the new normal; our fantastic tech team, who were willing to make it happen; and a large worship space which lends itself to social distancing easily.
 
And so, on Sunday, 28 of us gathered in our building to worship God, along with everyone else joining us online via our live stream. We had a few technical glitches, but nothing too serious. We combined recorded material on screen with leading, preaching and Holy Communion in the building. Those who came back were a broad cross-section of our church family – old and young, singles, couples and families.
 
So how did it feel? For a number of people, it felt emotional. We’ve missed being together and worshipping in our building. For those in the building, it felt safe. We had all the right precautions in place everyone was careful. (It felt a little chilly, so we won’t keep the doors open next week!) I wanted to hug everyone, but was able to exercise self-control. It felt different, but it was recognisably church. And it felt like a step forward, a step towards something better.
 
Since Sunday a couple of people have said that they are planning to come back soon, when they feel ready. For many of our older people, and some with health conditions, they are taking their time to be around others. We can seat 70 safely with social distancing, so we're ready for more to arrive. For the majority of churches who are watching and waiting, they will need to be aware that not everyone will join them straight away; it will take time for people to return. At SMOB we will continue doing things this way for the time being, building in features of our services which we haven't included for a while, taking into account any changes in government guidance and encouraging people to worship in person or online, in whichever way suits you.
 

Mark Wallace, 07/07/2020

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Back to church this Sunday!

Risk assessment? Check.
Hand sanitiser? Check.
Socially distanced chairs? Check.
 
We’ve been busy getting everything ready for our first physical church service in three months this Sunday. Last week I blogged about the different emotions that are around for people at the moment, and it would be safe to say that, between the staff team and the churchwardens, we’ve had all of these feelings and more in the last fortnight! It’s been a rollercoaster, but we’re confident that we are ready to worship together in one place again, and that we can do this as safely as possible, in line with government and Church of England guidance.
 
So what do you need to know before you set out for church on Sunday? Here’s a quick crib-sheet to help you know what to expect.
 
Practicalities

  • Covid symptoms  Please do not come to church if you or anyone in your household has a temperature, a persistent cough, loss of taste or smell.
  • Numbers  Our capacity is 75 (not 30 as we mistakenly said last week); the exact number in the building will depend on how many singles, couples and families arrive. We are not booking ahead, so we won’t allow people in if the building is full.
  • Social distancing  Please keep 2 metres away from people outside your household.
  • One way  We have a one-way system; everyone enters through the York Road entrance and exits through the Mount Hermon Road door.
  • Sanitising  You must sanitise your hands before you enter the building. We have hand sanitising points by every door.
  • Register  The stewards and welcomers will keep a register of everyone who attends. If you’re not on the SMOB membership list, you will need to give us your phone number and email address on arrival.
  • Masks  are not compulsory but you may feel more comfortable wearing one.
  • Handouts  We won’t give out any handouts. Any paper you need will have been left on your seat 72+ hours before the service. Please take away anything you pick up during the service.
  • Toilets  Our toilets are open. Please wash your hands and wipe down surfaces before you leave.
  • Collection  We are not collecting cash, but will have our ‘tap and go’ card terminal available for donations.
  • Refreshments  We are not serving refreshments. Feel free to bring a drink with you.
  • Shielding  If you are shielding or you have been given medical advice not to go into public spaces, please do not attend church. Attending is your decision alone but please stay safe.

 
The service

  • Music  We are not allowed to sing in church, so will continue to have songs on screen.
  • Liturgy  We are choosing liturgy carefully so that the congregation do not speak out as much as usual. When you speak, please use your normal speaking tone and don’t raise your voice.
  • Bibles  There are no Bibles in church, so please bring your own.
  • Children/young people  We won’t have any groups in church until at least September. If you bring children, please bring something for them to do. Kate and Tina continue to produce resources you can print out and bring; please bring your own pens/pencils if you do this.
  • Communion  We will be taking Holy Communion, distributing bread only, and taking appropriate precautions. Please stand at the front, 2m away from others.
  • Live-streaming  The service is being live-streamed online, so if you’re in the building you may be seen online. The recording will be available for 24 hours, with just parts like the sermon left up after that.
  • Live/on screen  We will blend live input with bits on screen, to allow for the fact that many of our congregation will continue to worship at home.

 
If you’re live streaming, this will continue to be available via our Facebook page and now also on our website - you don't have to be a Facebook member to take part. The individual bits of the service will be on our website soon afterwards.
 
Please bear with us. It’s hard to anticipate everything that might be needed, so we will need to develop and learn each week, just as we did when we first went online in lockdown. The people of SMOB have been generous-spirited and grateful for everything we have been able to produce; if things aren’t quite what you expect, do find a way to express this appropriately afterwards. This also goes for people watching at home – it won’t be such a smooth or professional experience as we’ve been able to achieve with a Watch Party. We’re improvising and learning together.
 
If you’re in church, it won’t be the worship you’re used to, but it’ll be better than what you’ve had over the last few weeks. If you’re at home, it won’t be quite the same either, but for the first time you’ll be joining with a group of your church family worshipping in the same place. The Holy Spirit is with us and wants to meet with everyone, wherever you are and however you’re feeling. God wants us to worship him; as we take this next step together, let’s rejoice in what this allows us to do.
 

Mark Wallace, 02/07/2020

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How's everyone doing?

This week the government announced the biggest relaxation of lockdown yet, paving the way for us to get back to physical church services from 4 July. We will be back in church at 10.30am Sunday 5 July; we are waiting for detailed guidance on this, so I will blog next week in more detail. Three things seem likely at this stage:

  • We will have to socially distance.
  • We will have a number limit based on how many people can socially distance in our building. (Fortunately our worship space is large.)
  • We won’t be able to sing. 


As well as these, we’ve decided already that our Sunday children’s and youth groups will continue to be online-only until September at the earliest. Our services will be live-streamed online as they have been throughout lockdown; for some of you, this will continue to be the best way to access them until restrictions are lifted further. Many churches have decided not to restart physical services straight away; we are following the principle we used in lockdown: doing what we can in a sustainable way. It will be church but it will be different, just like online services have been different but still recognisably SMOB.
 
So how does this leave you feeling? This week feels like a big moment and I have encountered a variety of reactions to the news. I want to encourage you to understand the different feelings that other people may have, so that we can bear with each other in a time of rapid change. Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:2: Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.
 
Excitement
If you listened to the government briefings, you could be forgiven for thinking that every relaxation of a restriction would lead to huge excitement for everyone concerned. And the reality is that many people are excited. Our social lives have begun again, meeting friends and family in parks and gardens. Shopping has restarted. For those who are excited, there will be plenty to do and more to look forward to: the pub, a holiday and so on.
 
Frustration
Some people face frustration as parts of life remain out of reach. If you are dying to go swimming or you’re worried about our theatres, this may be you. For those who cannot return to work, this is very concerning. For single people, the announcement that they could meet with others in bubbles was complicated: who do you ask? What if they say no? One friend said she felt like she was in a PE lesson when teams were being picked: would you be the last?
 
Worry
This is a worrying time for many. Older people and those vulnerable to illness have been shielding for months. The government advice about when to stop shielding is not necessarily backed up by their individual medical advice. Some people have not been able to access their usual treatment during lockdown, and it may only just be coming back on-stream.
 
If you suffer from any kind of mental illness, such as stress or anxiety, this is likely to be a particularly worrying time. During lockdown many people have had trouble sleeping. A lot of the things in life we thought were certain and stable have been removed, and there is still a lot of uncertainty about the way forward. For some this will include fears around their jobs. We are seeing the first wave of redundancies following lockdown; as the furlough scheme winds down, we are sure to see more. We will be picking up the consequences of this period in children's educations for some time.
 
One of the biggest questions that has come up for Christians around Covid has been, ‘I know I’m not meant to worry, but how can I not worry?’ We will be preaching on this and other big Covid questions in August. We hope these services will be particularly suitable for those exploring faith or with big questions.
 
Resentment
It is easy for any of these feelings to develop into resentment towards others. This bubbles up when you see the rules being ignored: someone gets too close to you in a shop, or you see a big group of people together in the park. One of the side effects of lockdown has been that we’re very aware of those around us. There is a danger of ‘othering’ those with whom you may have little in common.
 
No doubt there are plenty of other feelings in play. However you’re feeling, can I encourage you to take the time to listen and understand where other people are coming from? It’s all too easy to dismiss the concerns of others if you haven’t tried to empathise. A Native American proverb says, ‘Do not criticise anyone until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.’ We are all made in the image of God: this belief is at the heart of our Christian faith. Let’s talk to each other and embrace those who are vulnerable. In doing all of this we will continue to be God’s transforming people in our parish: To love Jesus; to serve and tell others; to be community.

Mark Wallace, 25/06/2020

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A season of opportunity

We are still waiting for news about when we can restart physical church services; the government is working towards July. The staff team and churchwardens have been thinking about our return to physical church and what this will look like over the next few months.
 
This continues to be a season of unparalleled opportunities for the church. Research shows that at least one in four people has watched something online from a church since lockdown. We are seeing a high level of engagement with our services and online content; not just on our Sunday Watch Party but on our website too, with people downloading a song or a sermon. Your ‘frontline’, the place where you find yourself day by day, may have changed; one family with teenagers at home said their main frontline is now their children, and they are having lots of faith conversations. Pray for the people you are with, and those with whom you have contact, that the Holy Spirit will be at work in them, helping you to share your faith.
 
We’ve had a good number of people fill in our online survey – over 80 at last count – and this has given us some ideas to shape our next season. We plan to have a summer sermon series thinking about some of the big questions people have had during lockdown. We aim to make these services particularly ‘seeker friendly’, so do pray about who you can invite.
 
Some guiding principles

  • We will combine online and offline, physical and digital as much as possible in our services and groups.
  • We will focus on what we can do well, starting small, so that everything we do is sustainable.
  • We will retain our spirit of innovation and improvisation, rather than planning too far ahead

Starting physical church services
We aim to start physical Sunday services as soon as we are allowed to. We will follow the guidance we get from the government, the Church of England and Guildford Diocese to keep everyone safe.

 
We have already decided that we will continue with a single 10.30am Sunday service until we can safely move to two services. We are developing plans for how we might make best use of the building to ensure we meet social distancing requirements, so we might try different options as we get started and see what works best. We would normally have a single service over the summer holidays, so we will not have two services until September at the earliest. We need to make sure we can meet any guidelines on cleaning, etc., before we make this move.
 
Sunday services will continue to be live-streamed online, and all the content will be available afterwards via our website as it is now. Online church is here to stay!
 
We have decided not to have any other meetings in church until September at the earliest. Prayer meetings will continue online for the time being. Our weekday 9am Morning Prayer will continue to be open to all online.
 
Restarting church groups
It is too early to say when we will be able to restart many of our physical groups, whether for adults, children or youth. Think about how much change we have dealt with in the last three months; the pace of change seems certain to continue to be very high as lockdown restrictions are relaxed. It seems likely that social distancing guidelines will be changed to enable schools to reopen fully this autumn, and this will affect what we are able to do. Here are some provisional thoughts.
 
The CAMEO team is very keen to encourage people to meet up physically over the summer. They are developing plans to have small-scale meetings in people’s gardens in a variety of locations, so that transport is not an issue.
 
Our children’s and youth team are looking to restart groups when the guidance allows. We need to strike a balance to make sure groups are as appealing and fun for children and young people as they would be normally, but that we are able to operate within the guidance that is in place. It seems clear that we will not be able to restart Bethany Babes, FNC or Friday FX in September, and it is possible they will not restart this year. Barnsbury School has already told us they do not plan to restart our Fun Club there until January.
 
Our team is working hard to stay in touch with children and families connected to these groups, and we are beginning to see more of them engaging with our online content. We are developing ideas to promote this move from the fringe towards the centre of church life, and this will shape our ministry through the summer and autumn.
 
For some of these groups it will not be possible to blend online and offline in one setting. We will need to continue to improvise and see how we can best reach people with different needs.
 
Homegroups will need to decide for themselves whether to start meeting in people’s homes again. Many of our groups have seen more members attend them than usual, as it is easier to engage with a meeting online. Groups will need to consider how to include online participation in physical meetings. We are exploring starting an online-only homegroup and running more courses online, as we’ve seen success with Alpha and Talking Jesus.
 
Over the last three years, God has been giving us pictures of a church without walls, a transparent church, the roof blowing off church. Right now SMOB is in everyone’s homes, so this picture could hardly have become more relevant. As we go forward, pray for God to continue to challenge us to be God’s transforming people in our parish: To love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community – loving, serving, telling and promoting community.

Mark Wallace, 18/06/2020

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What are churches allowed to do from 15 June?

Over the last few days the government has announced it is relaxing the rules about some of the things churches can do. From next Monday 15 June churches are allowed to be open for individual private prayer, and we are allowed to take funerals on the premises.
 
At SMOB our building is not normally open for private prayer, because of the nature of our space. If the worship space is open then people in it have access to a number of other rooms, making it hard to keep it sufficiently secure and clean. However, we can open the worship space by appointment for private prayer to anyone who would like to use it: just contact Mark to arrange this. One aim of our building project is to have the worship space open safely all day, every day.
 
We can now arrange funerals in church when we are asked about them by funeral directors, although what we can offer is restricted. While we have taken several funerals both at the crematorium and graveside since lockdown, we have not seen a large number of extra ones so far. With the ones we have taken, we are offering a thanksgiving service in church once we can do this without restrictions on numbers, and we continue to be in contact with next of kin about this. Burials of ashes are resuming too, at the discretion of churchyards and cemeteries.
 
We hope for news soon about weddings and other services, which the government aims to restart by the end of July. Please pray for wedding couples affected by lockdown; we have one wedding postponed, another scheduled tentatively for July and we are due to read banns for a couple marrying in September. It is a real blow to these couples not to have the wedding that they planned, and we hope and pray to be able to do things as normally as possible, as soon as it’s safe to do so.
 

Mark Wallace, 10/06/2020

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How are you finding things?

Bekah writes:
As we are all adjusting to a 'new normal', we want to ask:
 
How are you finding things?
 
Whatever has brought you into contact with SMoB at this time – whether you’ve been a regular member for years or you’ve just stumbled upon us, or any connection in-between, we’d love to hear from you.
 
As I’ve read the news over the last few weeks and engaged with others, I’ve been challenged by how quick we can be to speak and how slow we can be to listen.  It can be so easy to make assumptions about the experiences of others and yet all of us have our own story, will make different decisions and have different feelings, questions, hopes and fears.
 
A verse from the Bible that has comforted and encouraged me over the years is ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.’ (1 Peter 5.7) God doesn’t just want me to bring to him the 'big' things or the things that I think are 'worthy' of God’s time, what matters to us, matters to God – there’s nothing too big or too small for God. We all cope and respond differently, we all will have different needs, but God cares about each of us.
 
At SMoB we want to show that care and we want to try our best to hear the voices of as many people as possible and engage with you, our community, digital and physical, online and offline, where you’re at. We’d therefore be very grateful if you’re able to spend a few minutes completing the survey below, to better help us connect with you, through the content we’re putting out and as we begin to think about what church might look like moving forward.
 
It's anonymous and we really want you to be honest – if you want to learn more about prayer, but are nervous about admitting that as it can feel like everyone else knows what they’re doing, please tell us that, if you’re hurting and feel angry at God, please say that, if you’re feeling isolated, either physically or because you feel forgotten in the conversations going on in society, we genuinely want to know.
 
A couple of practical things:
 
There is a question asking you to select an age bracket – you’re welcome to skip over this if you’re not comfortable doing that – it’s there just to help us interpret the responses. 

We’ve tried to make it as quick as possible by including lots of tick box options, but please do select the other option and make a comment – the tick box options are not there to make assumptions, but rather to recognise that it takes a lot more effort to type a paragraph in a box! 

Take the survey here - https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/9PJZJBZ
 
Any questions, please do email Bekah.
 
Thank you!
 

Mark Wallace, 09/06/2020

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Talking about race and Black Lives Matter

The events of the last ten days, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have focused our attention on racism. As a middle-class white British man, I come from a position of weakness in discussing this issue, so I have sought to understand more by reading the insights of various black friends and commentators over this time. Some links which have blessed me are below.
 
Aged 21 I spent several months travelling, spending three months each in Africa and India. This was the first time in my life that I had experienced being part of a minority. Suddenly people were assuming things about me: in particular that I was rich (which of course was true in relative terms; few of the people I met could have dreamed of visiting England). I felt much less secure and much more alien; how much more must this be true for people who feel like this in their home town? If you’ve ever been in a minority situation, you can use this to reflect on how everyday life must feel for British BAME people. But don’t assume you know how others are feeling; we will find ways forward by listening, empathising and understanding other people’s experience rather than by attempting to live it ourselves.
 
An excellent article about what white privilege means from a black perspective: https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2017/09/08/my-white-friend-asked-me-on-facebook-to-explain-white-privilege-i-decided-to-be-honest/?fbclid=IwAR0hrOZAOFryEzDlHMCg4hOAhZhgTXp4PqRi0_iyXMjqav7lpv0NlYfzyvA
 
A brilliant poem from a black London clergyman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=Cgl-IrIY-qE&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR24u9yuFUza5HQQRnUMiCs98HPheq5l4JvmI2wnKhNZVs2WDhs25CKtC8Y
 
Some insightful leaders you may be interested to look up/follow on Twitter (courtesy of my friend Rebecca McLaughlin, a British writer working in the USA):
Esau McCaulley @esaumccaulley
Christina Edmondson @DrCEdmondson
Thabiti Anyabwile @ThabitiAnyabwil
Vermon Pierre @PastorVP
Jordan Rice @JordanLRice
Jemar Tisby @JemarTisby
M.DivA @sista_theology
Rasool Berry @rasoolberry
Jackie Hill Perry @JackieHillPerry
Trillia Newbell @trillianewbell
 

Mark Wallace, 08/06/2020

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Wot, no singing?

As we wait for an announcement about when we can get back to having services in our church building, it’s helpful to reflect on what the ‘new normal’ might look like. Like so much of life, if you are assuming that church services will go back to normal and will be much the same as before lockdown, you are in for a few surprises.
 
This blog is not definitive: some of this may not happen and we will be given further guidance on things we may not have considered; but it reflects the conversations I have had with other clergy, some of whom are in contact with the group discussing with the government what is needed to resume public worship. Once an announcement is made, we expect detailed guidance from the Church of England and Guildford Diocese shortly afterwards, and we will then work out exactly what this will mean for SMOB, so please be patient and watch this space.
 
When?
The government has announced that they are aiming to move to the final stage of the relaxation of lockdown during July. This means that we could be able to resume church services as early as Sunday 5 July, but this depends on lots of factors. It is possible that small-scale weddings and funerals in church may resume sooner. At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister indicated that the government is not yet ready to make an announcement.
 
Social distancing
Social distancing will be the norm in all areas of life for the foreseeable future. This means every household group in church will need to be two metres away from every other one, which has major implications for how we space everything out. The furniture will need to be rearranged and we will probably use more of the worship space, including bits we normally use for busier services like Christmas and Remembrance Sunday. We won’t be able to exchange the peace with a handshake or hug. It’s likely we will have a one-way system with a separate entrance and exit. It is also probable that people leading services will need to be further than two metres away from the congregation, as speaking publicly is higher risk. We may need to wear masks.
 
Limited numbers
It is likely that the government will prescribe a limit on the number of people who can gather together. This may be an absolute number (say 100), or a proportion of our capacity (say 50% of our usual seating). As a church we will need to decide how we enforce this; guidance from the Church of England may be helpful here.
 
Things we can’t do
Singing
In covid terms, singing is a high-risk activity, as it projects droplets of spit much further than talking. Therefore it is very unlikely that we will be able to sing together in church. Our services will feel very different from normal as a result. One possible solution is to continue with the type of music we’ve had in our online services: we watch songs on video and worship differently. We could potentially have live instrumental music too.
 
Liturgical responses
Speaking out together is also high risk, for similar reasons to singing, so it’s possible that we will not be able to use spoken responses in worship, or even say the Lord’s Prayer together.

Sharing wine at Communion
Likewise, sharing a common cup is high risk and will not resume immediately. The Church of England does not allow individual cups to be used, so we will not share wine at communion.
 
Refreshments
If we are allowed to resume serving coffee and tea, we are likely to need to do this with restrictions above those we are used to.
 
Children’s and youth work
We are unlikely to be able to resume groups in the church building straight away, and may not be able to offer these until September at the earliest. We would not normally run these groups in the school holidays in any case. However, once we know what restrictions are in place, we may be able to offer something using our outside space. Judging by the arrangements in schools, our work is likely to look very different from normal.
 
Choices we will need to make
A single service
We have already decided that we will initially resume with a single service at 10.30am (which would in any case be our practice during the school summer holidays). We can decide whether to continue with our ‘one size fits all’ approach, as we normally would, or whether to alternate a more ‘9.15am’ and ‘11am’ style. Depending on our number limit, it may be that we ask church members to attend services less frequently than you would normally. Before we go back to more than one Sunday service, we will need to ensure that we can meet any guidance we are given on cleaning in between services.
 
Our online presence
Another thing we have already decided is that we will continue offering as much ministry as possible online. Services in church will be live streamed and you will be able to watch them online either live or later as you can now. We will have church members and visitors who will be unable or unwilling to come to a physical church service to start with, so it is important that we are as inclusive as possible of them.
 
I expect this blog might have given you more questions than you have answers! Please do keep praying for me, the staff team, wardens and PCC as we work through all of these things, and of course for all those in authority making tough decisions. And do feel free to email or call me or any of the team to ask questions or talk about anything you are uncertain about.
 

Mark Wallace, 04/06/2020

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SMOB success with online Alpha

Sarah writes:
In the days after the church ‘broke’ the meeting platform Zoom with their Sunday morning gatherings, churches all over the country have been considering running online faith enquirer courses. We have put together a video, with the help of our expert tech team, to encourage other churches and individuals to seriously consider running an Alpha course online. Watch our video here.

 

SMOB's Alpha group was over halfway through the series when the country went into lockdown in March. Without much technical knowledge, but with lots of prayer, we decided to continue the course online. The first session due to run after lockdown was the weekend away day. This is when the group goes to another setting to spend the day together learning about the Holy Spirit. They normally share coffee and chat, lunch, watch videos and have discussions, all face to face. This first online session was undertaken on Zoom, the leaders had access to a free account, had no idea how to share the screen or use the chat functions, but regardless they brought the group together and the day was delivered. 
 
The Holy Spirit showed up. He showed up in our studies, in our lounges, in our kitchens, in our bedrooms. Wherever we found ourselves the Holy Spirit was there. Each person who wanted to receive prayer was able to receive it, one to one, just as you would in a church space or a special place that you would choose for your away day.
 
Shruti, one of the attendees, said of the transition from face to face to online, 'When I was first told that Alpha is going to be online I was very sceptical how it would turn out, because I know that virtual interactions are never the same as face-to-face interactions. But after my first Alpha session online I was surprised…everything was the same and the transaction was pretty smooth.’
 
Statistics have shown that large numbers of people have been engaging with prayer during the Covid-19 lockdown. The church has recognised that, for some, the barriers of a building have been overcome by broadcasting services online, this has led to many running other activities virtually. 
 
John, another Alpha attendee, says to churches thinking about doing Online Alpha, ‘Go for it! You will perhaps get a different sort of audience than you would face to face. Some people would be happier I should think communicating like this.’  
 
The group at St Mary of Bethany has finished Alpha and has now gone on to study the gospel of Mark together. One member of the group said of it, ‘I am so pleased we are on this exciting gospel journey together.’
 

Mark Wallace, 02/06/2020

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Marking time

Guest thoughts from Becca Rowland
With church services moving into digital meeting spaces and more of us listening to podcasts, I decided that it would be helpful to have an audio recording of Mark’s gospel to accompany the current sermon series. At the start of the series, Mark had said that this is a book which is meant to be read in a single sitting and so I gathered members of my homegroup and put the idea to them that they record each of the sixteen chapters between them. Permissions had to be sought, and help with putting all the recordings together, but the whole of the gospel is now available here to be listened to as a single recording or as individual chapters.
 
Of the four gospels, the gospel of Mark was written closest to the actual events it records and is the most action-packed. Fast-paced, it races through the life of Jesus, from one event to another, telling what he did and said with simplicity and in chronological order.
 
For those of us familiar with reading the Bible, listening to this book as you would an audiobook gives a completely different perspective on the story, and will hopefully be a helpful resource to members of the church. Listening to it from beginning to end, as you would any other story, gives a sense of how much was packed into a relatively short life, a flavour of what drew people to the man Jesus and what he did that irritated the authorities he clashed with. It’s also been a nice collaborative project for us to do together during this difficult time and it’s great that some of our group who were unsure about using a new technology were able to get involved and be part of this.
 

Mark Wallace, 02/06/2020

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Craving social contact?

Over the last couple of weeks, it's been fantastic to start seeing people in person after weeks of having no contact other than online. I hope you are making the most of the opportunities that the relaxation of lockdown is allowing. Our pastoral team continues to be in touch with lots of people; don't be surprised if they suggest meeting up in a garden or for a socially distanced walk. 

The thing I've missed most about church is seeing our church family in person. So this weekend I'm trialling something new: a Vicar's surgery! I'll be sitting in the church car park with a few other chairs (2m apart from each other) from 10.30-11.30am. Do join me for a chat, to pray or just to catch up. I'm really looking forward to it.

Mark Wallace, 02/06/2020

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When is 'Back to Church Sunday'?

After eleven weeks of lockdown, the first signs of normality are returning. The first ‘non-essential’ workers have gone back to work. More shops are reopening in a couple of weeks’ time. Some children return to school next week. All of these things will begin to give a greater sense of normality to our day-to-day lives, and a hope that this strange period we have shared will eventually pass.
 
At the same time, we have all had to adjust to the idea that life isn’t going to go ‘back to normal’ anytime soon. Social distancing in public places is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Our hospitality and entertainment sectors face the most uncertainty: when can I go to the cinema, theatre, a pub or restaurant and what will it be like? What about the summer holiday season?
 
We are all wondering when we will be able to meet in church again, and what that will look like. The government is aiming to allow us to resume services from sometime in July, and our churchwardens are working to ensure that we can do this safely. Our building is large enough to accommodate social distancing for a good number of people, but we don’t yet know what we will be able to do. Once the government makes an announcement, we will receive clear guidance from the Church of England within a few days, and we will let you know our plans for SMOB as soon as we can once that is issued. As for other groups that use the church, it’s unlikely these will restart before September; there wouldn’t be any point in starting things in July when they would normally be suspended for the summer.
 
While many of us will be champing at the bit to start meeting again, you may have mixed feelings about returning to church. Most of us have missed seeing other people at church enormously. But if you’ve mainly been staying at home, it is a riskier environment. One older person I know went out to a local beauty spot last week – her first time driving somewhere since lockdown. When she arrived, she sat in her car, too nervous to get out. The risk of this first outing caused her to panic; fortunately she got over it and ended up having a nice time. These feelings will be common.
 
Add to this the significant number of people who will need to continue to stay at home because of health conditions. For these people, the relaxation of lockdown measures will not make much difference, and the transition to a new normal will be a longer one.
 
So whatever Sunday services look like initially, it seems clear that we will have to start without everyone being able to come in. This will be a strange experience, as we work hard to be as inclusive and friendly as we can; church doesn’t feel right if we can’t include everybody. We will do well to stick to one principle we’ve used as a church in lockdown: to do what we can do as well as we can, and not worry about the rest. We will continue with a much greater online offering than we had before the crisis, but this will be tied into physical services. And we will redouble our efforts to stay in touch with those we don’t see week by week, especially people who are struggling.
 
As Christians we live in the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom, something we remember this weekend at Pentecost. Now we have the Holy Spirit with us – God’s presence and power in our everyday lives; but it is not yet our time to see God face to face in his eternal kingdom. Lockdown has helped us to embody this truth: our ‘now’ has been new, sometimes peaceful, sometimes stressful, often uncertain; our ‘not yet’ will have bits that are resolved quickly and others which take longer. We do well to recognise just how much of life is uncertain and put our hands into God’s hand to lead the way through the darkness.

Mark Wallace, 28/05/2020

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Our building plans

Our plans to upgrade our building continue in spite of the current crisis. The church-wide consultation we held in March was well received with over 80 responses, including from three of our immediate neighbours. Everyone was very positive and there were lots of comments and suggestions, with engagement from right across the age range of church. Last week our church council decided to press ahead with the pre-planning stage, where the council will take a look at our plans before we put in a full planning application. The good news is that our architect can do this work without being on-site, so coronavirus is not slowing us down. This next stage will include a full consultation with our local community.
 
Out of the many suggestions, some stand out as particularly significant. We want to make the building more sustainable, so we hope to fit photo-voltaic (solar) panels to the roof to provide our electricity, and a system for harvesting rainwater to use in our toilets.
 
There are two distinct elements to our plans: a new extension where the current office entrance is, by the car park; and refurbishment of the rest of the building. The extension will give us:

  • A new, fully accessible entrance with step-free access into church from the car park.
  • A new meeting room where the current offices are, and new office space.
  • A reception area bridging the gap between the office and the church, to enable the worship area to be open all day. 


Our refurbishments will include:

  • More and better toilets, including disability-accessible facilities on both sides of the building.
  • A new kitchenette in the corner of the building, to make catering easier into the creche and worship area, which can both be used as café space.
  • Improving the current York Road entrance, with new windows and more user-friendly space in the creche, entrance hall and top hall.
  • Better storage and new, more user-friendly furniture.
  • Improving the church hall, including the acoustics.
  • Enlarging and redecorating the youth room. 


We hope to be able to start the work within the next two years. We are likely to do it in three phases: refurbishing the York Road side, including top hall, creche, toilets and new kitchenette; the hall and youth room; and the extension and new entrance. This will ensure that we can keep the building open during the works, although of course there will be some disruption.
 
One of the things which has particularly impressed people is the cost, currently estimated at £550–600,000. We have around £180,000 in the bank, so this figure seems achievable, although it will be a challenge in the difficult financial climate we will face in the near future. With improvements to accessibility and the scope for greater community use of the building, we hope to raise some money from trusts and foundations.
 
I hope that, as part of the project, we will be able to ‘twin’ with a church in a more challenging part of the country, to support building work of their own, for which they may struggle to fundraise on their own. This would add a cost to the project, but would fulfil our aim of tithing all our giving and supporting external mission in everything that we do.
 
What can you do now?

  • Please keep praying for the work that’s going on, which will necessarily be behind the scenes for the next few months.
  • Please pray too for the right teams of people to input into the work. Over the summer the church council will be considering how we structure the work so that we include as many church members as possible and make the most of the expertise we have available.
  • And pray for wisdom as our churchwardens and fabric team revise their plans for maintenance and improvements to the rest of the church building, which have had to change because of corona. 


…so pray, pray and pray! Not a bad set of actions for anything we do as a church.
 

Mark Wallace, 26/05/2020

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Today we hear from Tina

Following on from Kate's video explaining what they've been doing over the past few weeks. Today we have Tina our young families minister.
 


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First up, Kate

Following on from our last blog post we have the first video from one of our team explaining what they've been doing over the past few weeks. Kate, our children's minister.
 


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What's our children and youth team been up to?

During the lockdown we’ve all had to adapt and learn new ways of being and working. This is true for all of us on the SMOB staff team. Exiled from our building and our offices, we’ve been staying in touch with people, producing services and resources, all from our homes. This hasn’t stopped us doing many of the things we would normally do, but it has presented lots of challenges along the way.
 
I’ve asked Dave, Tina and Kate to use this blog to tell us a bit more about what they’ve been doing with our children and young people over lockdown, so watch this space for that. They’ve certainly been busy. Some highlights include:

  • Tina’s songs for Bethany Babes, especially ‘Old Macdonald’, complete with a cow on her sofa!
  • Kate’s weekly Zoom chats with her Explorers group.
  • Dave’s numerous YouTube clips shared with the young people on Discord.
  • The activity boxes which have materialised on the doorsteps of all the children in our groups as well as Friday Night Club.
  • I’ve even produced my first online assembly for Barnsbury School, with help as always from Doris the Dalek. 


I won’t spoil their fun by telling you more. We’ve had contact with a number of children, young people, parents and carers who we wouldn’t normally see regularly, so this time is giving us great opportunities to build these relationships. It’s exciting to be able to start meeting one-to-one in public as the lockdown begins to be relaxed. One feature of working online is that everything takes longer, especially while you’re working out how to do things, especially new and unfamiliar technology. We are all longing to see all the children and young people soon, but in the meantime our team will continue providing a full range of support to them and their carers.

Mark Wallace, 20/05/2020

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Guest thoughts on 'going back to normal'

From the Dean of Guildford Cathedral, Very Reverend Dianna Gwilliams

As the volume of talk of going back to normal increases I wonder whether this could drown out the quieter volume of those voices which are asking, 'Do we have to go back to normal?'

Do we have to go back or can we instead find what God may be preparing for us as we move towards normal? What is it that we have prayerfully discovered should, and in some cases must, be left behind?

Many people, especially those who are not regular members of church communities, are learning new ways of prayer which aren’t centred on a building; new ways of prayer which can be alone but at the same time, gathered with others; new ways of experiencing the kind of praying left behind with childhood and now surprisingly inspiring and nurturing. How will we respond to what we are discovering?

Many have been discovering new ways of working which are actually more life giving – in that there are fewer hours spent commuting and more hours at home with ourselves or with others. Some have discovered that in their workplace there were practices that were just always done and that they are not being missed at all. We’re developing an attitude of gratitude and of kindness, not only Clapping for Carers, but looking out for neighbours, or doing extra shopping or collecting the daily paper or prescriptions for those who are shielding. This wasn’t an obvious feature of the old normal.

We have all discovered that there are quite a few things which we have not had during lockdown that we aren’t missing. We’ve been given opportunities to seriously consider what is really important for ourselves and for our communities.

Please let’s not simply go back to normal. To go back means turning our faces towards the past and our back to the future. Moving into the new normal requires us prayerfully to scan the horizon with as wide a field of vision as possible; to listen very carefully to God, sometimes straining to hear above the clamour of back to normal; and, perhaps the most difficult of all, to identify what we are going to leave behind.

Dean Dianna

Mark Wallace, 20/05/2020

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Tina and Sam connect over Zoom 

Every week during Lockdown, Tina our Young Families Minister is making short videos for our youngest Sunday School group Adventurers. As
well as a bible story video, there is a second one each week featuring Sam the puppet talking about feelings such as being scared, thankful and this week missing people.  This week Sam was able to see his Sister on Zoom. 

 


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Latest from Mark


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VE Day then and now

Tomorrow we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe. It’s a good time to consider whether there are parallels between the events of 1945 and 2020.
 
In some ways the situation is very different. In 1945 there had been six years of war; by contrast our current crisis has lasted five months. The best estimate of deaths in the War is 70–85 million worldwide; it is possible the virus will kill one million by the time the crisis ends. While governments have used the language of war in talking about coronavirus, there is one key difference: the pure cruelty and evil of so many acts in World War Two is unparalleled in this crisis. Whether you consider the industrial killings of the Holocaust, the ruthlessness of Stalin’s war machine, the merciless bombing of Dresden and other German cities at the end of the war, or the first use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, none of the parties in World War Two emerges with clean hands. By contrast, our ‘enemy’ in this war is a tiny virus with no malicious intent. Cruelty and ruthlessness have been in short supply; rather coronavirus has unleashed a wave of kindness and appreciation for those who help us, particularly in our essential services, as well as a rediscovery of community spirit and neighbourliness.
 
But some things about 1945 do resonate with our current experience. As the War drew to a close, people had a huge amount of new information to assimilate, at a moment where the nation’s reserves of energy and money were at an all-time low. January 1945 saw the liberation of Auschwitz and the revelation of the true horrors of the Nazi regime. American soldiers liberating death camps insisted journalists document everything, on the basis that otherwise people would never believe the story. (That didn’t stop shameful Holocaust denial which continues to this day in some quarters.)
 
May 1945 saw the end of the War in Europe and the division of the continent into east and west, USSR-facing communist states and USA-facing capitalist ones. New borders were drawn up. In July the victorious British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was ejected from office in favour of the reformer Clement Attlee, whose government gave us the NHS, nationalised industries and the beginnings of the modern welfare state. In August the atomic bomb emerged as the defining symbol of the new peacetime era, with the USA using it as a warning to Russia as well as a definitive end to the War. By the end of the year, a huge number of things had changed, and many countries would take years to adjust to new realities. In Britain some features of the War continued, most notably rationing, for years to come. Our days as a dominant world power were over.
 
In this and other ways, VE Day marked an ending which wasn’t quite an ending. Ordinary people’s lives took years to improve. Many soldiers were not to return home until 1946. The late 1940s became known as the austerity era, when we started to pay the bills we had accrued in winning the War. Some city neighbourhoods remained bomb sites for the next 20 years. With coronavirus we face another ending which isn’t quite an ending, as we are being warned that some restrictions could continue into next year, and our economy faces the challenge of repaying the huge debt we have accrued in keeping afloat. Our lives have changed incredibly quickly over the last few weeks; this is going to take time to unpack emotionally for individuals and our society for many months ahead.
 
Our generation would love to be compared to the wartime generation, the last of whom are a dying breed. We want some of their spirit, which takes the bad times on the chin, keeps calm and carries on. In the outpouring of community feeling, applause for the NHS and neighbourliness, the creativity that built the Nightingale Hospitals and people’s willingness to sacrifice basic freedoms for the bigger purpose of ending the outbreak, we see a reflection of that generation.
 
Christians have a unique take on this situation. We can lament with those who mourn, who are anxious and who face tough times, using a tradition which goes back three thousand years in the Psalms. We can sit with those who are sick or grieving, because we have always done this as churches. We can live with uncertainty, because we are sure that we have a God who loves us and is with us in the storm. When the Israelites stood on the verge of the Promised Land, with its milk and honey but also its God-hating giants in fortified cities, he said this to Joshua: ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ (Joshua 1:9) If you haven’t memorised this verse, it will be your constant companion if you do. God's people were told to remember his promises to them.
 
This promise is made good in the gift of the Holy Spirit to God’s people. Today the Lord is with us through his Spirit, bringing his power, his insight, his healing and his presence into every situation. We follow Jesus, whose journey to the cross took him through anxiety, despair, abandonment and torture. We trust that he is in charge in every situation, no matter how bleak things may appear. If we have a saviour, surely he can save us from these troubles? God's people can remember his promises to us.
 
One poem which helped carry our country through the War was ‘God knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins, quoted by King George VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

 
As we remember and honour the generation who won the War, we can keep hold of God’s hand today and trust him to lead us steadily through these uncertain times.
 

Mark Wallace, 07/05/2020

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What happens next?

As we approach the announcement next weekend of how we are going to begin to emerge from lockdown, it’s time to start reflecting on what happens next in our church life. As everyone keeps saying, we are living in unprecedented times. There has never been a time when so many people around the world have shared an experience, as we have in lockdown. If you haven’t already, do write down or record some thoughts on what this time has been like for you.
 
It’s been a period where we’ve learned a huge amount – the first few weeks of lockdown involved crunching an enormous amount of information. We adjusted to new ways of communicating online and we did our maths as business and government had to adapt. You may think you will remember everything about this time, but you won’t. Keep a record and think about the stories you want to tell. What have you learned? What’s been valuable? What’s been difficult? All of this will be relevant as we begin to plot a course ahead. I offer these preliminary thoughts to help you in this process.
 
Grief: a defining subject
So far in 2020 we have seen double the usual number of deaths in the UK. Many of us know people who have died of coronavirus; but we also know people who would have died anyway during this time. There is much more conversation going on about death and grief, which has the potential to be very healthy. The Church has always been very good at handling grief; for a start, we have always engaged with death as the ultimate reality affecting everyone. So we have a huge opportunity to help frame our society’s conversation on grief.
 
In addition there will be a hangover from the deaths that have happened during lockdown. People have not had the deaths they would have wanted, surrounded by family. In normal times, family and friends come together to hold a funeral, celebrate a life and mourn. This is both a sad and a happy time as we share memories, good and bad. Until the end of lockdown we have to do this by ourselves, which is so difficult for those grieving a loved one. The happier side of grieving is largely absent, as it’s something that you need to share. Funerals are very spartan (although they can be very special, quiet times); we are ‘parking’ bigger thanksgiving services until they can be conducted safely. Practicalities such as getting a death certificate are much more difficult.
 
Be prepared, then, to minister to a large number of grieving people, among your friends and colleagues, but also as a church. All of these issues will affect the grieving process for these people. This will stretch us – grief is very tiring – but God’s people are not afraid to look it in the face. We have the hope of something better after death. We trust in a God who is close to the broken-hearted. If you would like to read something about grief, I recommend some books below.
 
Weighing the positives and negatives of lockdown
I think it’s safe to say that life isn’t going to go ‘back to normal’, but rather that we are beginning the journey to a new normal as a country and as a world. To prepare for this, spend time reflecting on a few questions:

  • What have you missed during lockdown, that you definitely want to return to?
  • What have you not missed during lockdown, that you want to reflect on whether or not to return to?
  • Are there things that you have particularly valued or learned during this time? What will you do with these things going forward? 


You can usefully reflect on these questions for SMOB as well. Many of our face-to-face ministries are things we have missed terribly. Sunday worship is great online, but it can’t replace being there in person. Meeting on Zoom is useful and can include people who can’t make it out of the house, but it isn’t a substitute for doing it in the same room. We haven’t been able to visit schools or run our Friday night youth activities. There will also be ministries where we need to ask the difficult questions: did you miss it? If not, is it necessary? How can we do things differently using what we’ve learned? Do pray for our staff team and PCC as we think about all of this.
 
Continuing our new connections
One important question for every church is how we can continue to engage with people who have discovered us online. Some churches have seen hundreds of new people taking part in services this way. Can we build offline relationships with them, and, if so, how? It seems unthinkable that we will just abandon the online offering we’ve worked so hard to develop. How, then, do we continue it, bearing in mind the burden it places on a small number of people, who will have other things to do once lockdown ends?
 
It seems likely we will move to a mixed economy, where you can engage with many of our ministries either in person or online. We may have some ministry which is only online and some which is only in person. How will this work? Can an offline homegroup include people who can’t make it that evening but could join in online? These issues will all take time to work through. There will be an element of trial and error. But this more experimental approach to church ministry is something we must embrace – we’ve thrived this way during lockdown, so don’t expect to go back to something very settled and stable.
 
Some early lessons
One fantastic feature of this time has been seeing churches all over our country and the whole world learning new things and resourcing each other. Once churches were closed, you might have expected people to seek out the highest quality online worship they could, and indeed some people have. But in common with many other churches, SMOB has found people have connected with us because we’re local, or there’s a personal connection, and they have appreciated what we’ve delivered, even when it’s not been the most polished. In general churches have found that being authentic to their own communities has been more important than being technically polished. Of course, as we’ve gone along, we’ve learned lessons and improved, and we’ve been able to do more.
 
This spontaneous outpouring of creativity and cooperation mirrors how the early church spread. The positive response to the huge disruption of life during lockdown does seem to be a move of the Spirit. If we are to keep in step with the Spirit, we need to make the space for him in our individual lives and our life together as a church. For many people, this time has engaged them with new rhythms of life and faith, whether it’s morning prayer with other people, Bible reading or fasting. It’s important not to let these disciplines go as our regular routines begin to return.
 
We wait to see whether we will be given any kind of timescale for when we can meet again. The UK government will be observing other countries closely; some are allowing church services to restart now; others are delaying until later in the year. We need to engage with the different emotions that this relaxation will engender. For many of us, we will be delighted to meet again in person, and we may find ongoing restrictions frustrating. For some more vulnerable people, this will be an anxious time, as they put themselves in harm’s way for the first time in many weeks. It may be that we can’t all meet together straight away, even when church services begin again.
 
We will need the Holy Spirit’s gifts of patience and grace as we hold all of these complicated feelings together. And we will need to pray! Pray for wisdom for those in government making very difficult decisions with limited evidence to guide them. Pray for a coronavirus vaccine to be available soon. Pray for ongoing protection for the vulnerable in our society, our community and our church. Pray for God’s peace and comfort for all who mourn. Pray that we will continue to be God’s transforming people in our parish: to love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community.
 
Some helpful books:
God on Mute by Pete Greig
Where is God in a Coronavirus World? by John Lennox – a short, cheap book, particularly good for people asking big questions at the moment.
A Grief Observed by CS Lewis
Living with Dying by Grace Sheppard
Dying Well by John Wyatt

Don't forget to use EasyFundraising if you order any of these online!
 

Mark Wallace, 05/05/2020

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Protecting our ministry

The coronavirus crisis has hit many organisations and individuals hard, and it seems likely we will face an economic downturn for at least the rest of this year. In this challenging climate, our church council (PCC) has put together a plan to weather the storm. We are so grateful for our church members, who continue to give so generously to our work.
 
By taking some decisive action now, we hope to safeguard our work in the months ahead. Our actions include:

  • Furloughing our cleaner and our two office staff until the end of lockdown, as their jobs are not viable.
  • Postponing our annual staff pay rise, which was scheduled for April.
  • Allowing funds set aside for local mission work but not yet allocated to be used for essential church ministry.
  • Postponing the purchase of new laptops for staff.
  • Rescheduling maintenance work on our building so that only urgent work is undertaken this year.
  • Applying to the Diocese of Guildford for financial aid which they are generously making available.
  • Planning a Thanksgiving Sunday when restrictions are lifted, to enable people to give to our ministry and our mission partners at a time when everyone’s financial prospects should be clearer. (This will replace Making Mission Possible, which was scheduled for May.)
  • Releasing a small amount from our reserves, as we have a surplus over and above what we need. 


These actions have been informed by scenario planning from our finance team, which looked at bad and worse-case scenarios involving a drop in giving. At present we are not seeing this, but we also have opportunities like the government’s furlough scheme (which pays 80% of an employee’s salary while they are furloughed) which are unlikely to be available later in the year. We have looked at a variety of more drastic measures which we do not need to action at present, but which we will revisit if circumstances change.
 
Our office will continue to be manned virtually, with phone messages and mail being picked up and emails responded to by members of our staff team. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact Mark, Sarah, Bekah or any member of our PCC.
 

Mark Wallace, 29/04/2020

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Things I learned from my granny

My lovely granny, Lucie Wallace, died over the weekend at the age of 100, after a short illness (not coronavirus). I am hugely thankful to God for having her as a part of my life for so long. She has been a real inspiration to my Christian faith, and I would certainly not be doing what I do without her input in the background.
 
There are many things I could write, but I want to share a few thoughts based on her life and example.
 
What faith looks like
Never underestimate the power of a praying grandparent! Lucie’s faith was quiet but it was fundamental to her life. She showed me how to be a Christian. She wasn’t afraid to talk about faith, particularly what was going on at her church, people she knew and was inspired by and so on; but she was never heavy-handed and never stuck her faith down anyone’s throat. She prayed and read the Bible each morning; I remember staying with her as a child and finding her doing this numerous times when I got up. She would pray with me before bed when I was staying with her. I know she has prayed for me, my family and all her grandchildren every day of our lives; that’s a powerful thing (it’s at least 17,155 days of prayer!). She talked about the amazing Christians she knew, including the pioneer of the hospice movement Cicely Saunders and the former Bishop of Liverpool David Sheppard.
 
Lucie was unfailingly kind and generous with her time, her home, her possessions and her money. She rarely lost her temper or raised her voice. No matter what you had done or how you had let her down, her door was always open and she was ready to talk. My father said some awful things to her when he was ill with bipolar illness, but she always forgave him and moved on. In this she set a great example and provided wise advice so many times when things were going wrong. There are several people who have been instrumental in my Christian journey, but none has been more important than Lucie. She showed me what faith looks like and how it touches every part of your life.
 
How to grow old gracefully

In many ways it is tough living to 100. Lucie lost her beloved husband Jack in 1980, so she spent as much of her life without him as she spent married to him. As she grew older, all of her close friends died. During her 80s and 90s she increasingly had to say goodbye to those in the generation below her, including her own son, my father George. Grief became a daily reality for her. She came to dread December with its deluge of Christmas cards, as there would always be a number bringing sad news of terminal illness or death of someone she loved. She had to limit the number of funerals she went to.
 
In all of this, Lucie never failed to count her blessings. She had remarkably good health, with excellent hearing, eyesight and mobility (the latter failing her only in the last two years of her life), and never suffered from cancer or any other chronic illness. This fact made it much easier for her to bear everyday life.
 
One top tip I got from her was to downsize ahead of when you need to. She moved from her five-bedroom house to a bungalow a few years after my grandfather died, to be somewhere more manageable. She moved from there into a flat when the garden began to be a challenge. She went into sheltered housing from there, before it was a necessity, getting rid of her car at the same time, because local public transport was good. She had observed many friends holding on to their independence until the bitter end, but then being forced into decisions about housing or personal care when they were in an emergency situation and their options were limited, or even non-existent. She was determined to make good decisions while she still had options.
 
As a clergyman I am often struck by the number of people who don’t talk to their loved ones about what they want as they grow older, and what will happen when they die. Don’t make this mistake. Let people know what you want and make your decisions ahead of time. Make a will, organise power of attorney and talk to your loved ones about these. It is so easy to be caught out as life becomes more challenging in old age.
 
Another thing Lucie did well was to make new friends. Many older people suffer from isolation; she was certainly not one of them! She had dozens of friends and wasn’t afraid to get to know new people as her life situation changed. She cultivated an interest in all kinds of people, which helped her a great deal as she lost so many of her old friends. She was a natural extrovert, and of course this is a much harder thing to do if you are an introvert. But I would encourage everyone to invest in new relationships and experiences as you grow older. Don’t make excuses based on your age; be prepared to put the work in. It is hard getting to know new people, particularly when you are affected by grief and the weariness that comes from growing older, but it is hugely worthwhile. Having a good social life made Lucie’s life richer and fuller all the way through her senior years.
 
I cherish my memories of my grandmother, who always looked out for me and showed an interest in everything I and my family did. She never pretended life was easier or better than it was, and she always encouraged me. Our family gatherings already feel her yawning absence and we will miss her very much, but I feel inspired and blessed to have had such a remarkable woman at the heart of my life.
 
Lucie Wallace, 5 October 1919 – 25 April 2020
 

Mark Wallace, 27/04/2020

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Encouraging each other


Watch the latest from Mark about how we can be encouraging each other
 


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Easter Services

Below are details of our Easter Services over the next few days, please join us!


Good Friday

11am – Stay-at-home walk of witness, which can be downloaded from the website and guides you through a walk of witness, praying in different places around the home
2pm - Reflections at the cross – the theme is ‘The Sound of Silence’ and we’ll be thinking about the silences in the Good Friday story.  It will be organised as a Facebook Watch Party at 2pm or available on the church website.  They’ll be Bible readings, short reflections, periods of silence and music, and it will work to join in for as little or as much as you are able to – don’t worry if you can’t make 2pm – join whenever you can, or ‘catch up’ via the website!

 

Easter Sunday

9.15am – Holy Communion service, which can be viewed on Facebook or the church website
10.30am – Easter Celebration, which will be organised as a Facebook Watch Party or available on the church website.
 
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Is coronavirus a punishment from God?

A blog from special guest star John-Paul Aranzulla, a pastor in Bologna, Italy, lovingly stolen by Mark (with permission)

Is the coronavirus a punishment from God? A punishment spreading inexorably across the world, beginning in China and now ravaging Europe and America, before extending who knows where? Those who propose such ideas are not the first in history to reason in these terms: it happens whenever personal, family or even national suffering and tragedy is connected directly to sin, as if God were punishing the nations of the earth for living lives far from Him. Attempting to defend such a view by extrapolating texts such as, ‘if you are not careful to obey all the words of this law, which are written in this scroll…He will bring wondrous plagues on you and your descendants, severe and lasting plagues, and terrible and chronic sicknesses’ (Deuteronomy 28:58-59).
 
The story of a blind man
The choice is perhaps surprising, but let’s turn to a meeting Jesus had with a blind man. When His disciples saw the man born blind from birth, they had to ask, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2). In other words, there exists an implicitly indissoluble link between human sin, a denying of life’s moral fabric and the disasters that accompany such a choice; some kind of direct relationship between ‘sin’ and ‘punishment’. Assuming the premise this man was born blind, God must have foreseen he would lead a life full of transgression. Or at least he was inheriting a guilt ascribed to his parents; in either case, there was a definite direct, even hereditary link. According to this logic, the coronavirus would be the punishment of God on whole continents, for billions living lives far from His decrees.
 
A direct relationship?
Although it is true the Bible does recognize an existing relationship between sin and punishment, it is not one that is simply linear. It would be simplistic to read such relationship in terms of mere direct correlation. We should instead keep three aspects in mind:
 
a) There are times when there is a clear direct relationship between human behavior and suffering; the outworking of a created established divine order to life. If I treat my neighbour badly, I may end up being treated badly myself. If I am regularly angry with friends, I risk losing them. If I fill my body with harmful substances, I’ll be exposed to health problems. If I drive on the roads drunk, I may well cause a road accident. If I choose to evade taxes, I won’t have cause for complaint when a letter comes years later from the tax office. ‘The wicked is one thrown down by his own sin, but the righteous one has a refuge in his death’ (Proverbs 14:32).
 
b) Far more often however the relationship between actions and consequences is not evident. The Christian view is one of a world that is broken, fallen from its original state of innocence; a world now overrun by human sin and error, alongside the groaning of creation itself. All these elements make life at times appear a ‘lottery’, a cauldron of familial, social, national and international relationships in which we contribute and create problems for others, whilst at the same time suffering the consequences of others’ sin. Put simply whilst living in this fallen world, sometimes we are the perpetrators of harm to others, at other times we are those harmed by others. All of this remains under the sovereign hand of God! That’s to say, there does exist real relationship between sin and suffering, but it’s not perceptibly ‘direct’. It persists within a series of complicated connecting relationships which make up the global village we inhabit. Just consider how choices made in places far from us have had huge impact on the world’s climate!
 
c) As a result, it’s very difficult establishing with certainty a strong direct link between sin and ‘punishment’. All the more so in the case of the coronavirus, which could prompt many ‘if only…’ questions. Such as ‘if only the Chinese authorities had averted the international community earlier regarding the virus?’ Or ‘if only the world was not so interdependent in its transport and trade links!’ Or ‘if only the measures undertaken in Italy had been applied two months earlier!’ Or ‘if only every citizen had respected the national measures imposed from the start’! There’s no limit to the questions we could ask.
 
The wrong question
But in the final analysis we don’t believe the inhabitants of Codogno, Bergamo and Brescia (Lombardy) were worse sinners than those in Bologna. It’s impossible to understand the reason for certain events, if not to remember these are things that can happen, and in truth have already happened in human history enslaved to a world immersed in sin. The Bible does not pose the question, ‘what have we done to deserve this coronavirus?’ But rather ‘why do we somehow believe we ought to be exempt from it?’ I admit these words may sound harsh in a time of unbridled progress in fields of science and technology, in which we claim to know how best to manage the many uncertainties of life. But in truth there remain questions to which we cannot give an answer. I’m not penning these words as one safely untouched in an ivory tower; as I write, I risk losing to the virus a dear friend and brother in the faith, on the edge of life and in a coma.
 
Neither he nor his parents   
What’s essential, returning to the account of the blind man, is not having to explain why certain events happen (something beyond our responsibility), but rather knowing how to respond rightly to the reality of the situation we’re facing. To the disciples’ question Jesus gives the answer, ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned (as a direct cause of their son’s blindness), but it is so that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (John 9:3). That the works of God may be manifest in him! The Christian asks not so much ‘why has this happened?’ but rather ‘how should I respond to this (terrible) unknown, in ways that manifest the works of God’? In ways that bring glory to God? For we know that in the midst of thick darkness, we belong by faith to Him who is the Light of the world (John 9:5). His Light can never be overcome, nor even comprehended, by the darkness (1:5).
 
Hence the better question is, how can the blind man bring glory to God? How can the works of God be manifest in him? The account itself offers a reply: everything begins (rather than ends!) with the man’s physical healing (vv. 6-7). It is this event that stimulates the blind man to publicly announce the work of Christ (vv. 8-12). He cries out ‘I’m the one; healed by the man called Jesus’! The man finds himself constrained, obliged and empowered to speak of the miracle worked by Christ, even as the religious authorities grow in hostility to his words (vv. 13-17). Whilst his own parents distance themselves for fear of the same religious authorities (vv. 18-23), he continues to grow courageously in clarity and boldness of testimony, to the point of suffering a fair few insults from officials (vv. 24-34). After which he meets personally with Jesus. He sees Him for what He truly is; and in response all he can do is fall to the ground and worship Him, crying out ‘Lord, I believe’! (v. 38).
 
True sight
If any doubts remain on how the works of God are manifest in the blind man, we perceive how the Light of the world gives this man the real gift of sight. It is a spiritual sight, revealing itself in the profound courage of one who must by all means give testimony to the truth of Jesus. And in doing so, he inevitably unmasks the blindness of those who, believing themselves to be those with sight, end up rejecting the Light, and thereby being blinded by that same Light (vv. 39-40). That’s to say, the works of God manifest themselves in the clear and courageous testimony of one who was formerly blind, by means of whom Jesus renders vain the claims of those who consider themselves able to see. Put simply, having ‘sight’ does not mean having all the answers to hand, not even regarding this current pandemic. The gospel of Christ does not promise to unravel the motives for every disaster (why is this man born blind? Why not another)? Rather, it invites us to come to terms with the situation, in such a way as to ‘make manifest the works of God’. Following the example of the blind man, the reply takes the shape of a life centered totally on Jesus, dedicated to giving a courageous public testimony to Him, for which there will be a real price to pay (v. 34). Even after bearing the cost, the enduring note is that of a strong spirit full of thanksgiving and praise (v. 38).
 
Interceding before God
In summary, we don’t interpret the Coronavirus as a direct expression of Divine punishment. Neither do we dwell on the question of why God has allowed it. Instead we learn from the example of how the blind man responds. Before Christ’s return, there won’t be a shortage of catastrophic world events to ruin many lives (Matthew 24:6-8), including the current pandemic. But an awareness that there will be similar moments, more or less intense than the present one, helps to humble us before His holiness. And whilst we remember that He alone is God, we live as good citizens obeying national regulations, for love of our neighbor and not only to protect ourselves. Above all we want to be counted among those who are zealous in learning, both as individuals and churches, how to intercede before God, that He might gain glory from this situation, in opening the eyes of our own country regarding the fragility of our little lives, and the inescapable inter-dependence in which we all live.
 
First and foremost, may God reveal to many the natural blindness in which we find ourselves, in which we are born and from which there is no healing or cure, outside of the merciful intervention of Christ, courageously proclaimed from the mouth of those who love Him! May this be so, so that many people in Italy (and beyond…), by means of courageous words announced by His own through these days, might contagiously erupt in expressions of thanksgiving and praise, worshipping Him whom they have come to know personally, in the midst of days of great suffering.   

 

Mark Wallace, 08/04/2020

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Update from our staff team

 


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Covid-19: What is God doing

 


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Worshipping together each day and this Sunday – new instructions

It was such a blessing to live stream worship last Sunday, and thanks to everyone who sent lovely comments – it was a huge encouragement. With the new restrictions in place, unfortunately we can’t do it the same way again, but I’m hoping our new plan will be sustainable for as long as we need it.
 
So here’s the plan for this Sunday’s worship. We’ve got more of a ‘DIY’ service – I’m putting together a set of videos which you can watch for yourself in order, or you might want to pick and mix, substitute songs or whatever. These will all be on YouTube and there will be an order of service with links on this page on Sunday morning.
 
We still want to worship together on Sunday, so we’re setting up a Watch Party on our Facebook page, which will start at 10.30am, and you can use this to take part in the whole service without clicking through any other links. We will get together using Zoom after the service, and there will be a link on our Facebook page for this too.
 
If you want a bit of tech help, there’s plenty of time before Sunday – please email Simon or Phil.
 
There are two other opportunities to worship together outside Sunday mornings. I’ve recorded a simple Holy Communion service and a link to this will also be available on Sunday morning. If you’re not sure about the theology, as your priest I am taking bread and wine on your behalf, and you enter into this by joining in the prayers.
 
We are also joining together for Morning Prayer on Zoom at 9.00–9.30am Monday to Thursday. Check our Facebook page for joining instructions each day.
 
We’re conscious that not everyone has access to the technology which makes all this possible. If you’re in touch with anyone who can’t take part in our online services, please print out things from our website and share them by post.
 

Mark Wallace, 26/03/2020

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What is God doing?

One of our members had a strong picture a couple of weeks ago, which points to two things. Firstly God is pruning his church. In John 15 Jesus uses the picture of a vine to illustrate this. For shrubs and trees to grow well and be fruitful, they must be pruned back regularly. The current crisis is an opportunity for the church to put down all its usual events and do the most necessary things: loving Christ and loving other people. SMOB has been praying for opportunities to connect with our neighbours and our parish; I have never known a time when this is easier or more necessary. Of course, this pruning does not mean that the tragic loss of life is a good thing in any way, only that God can use the most unpromising situation.
 
We already have lots of stories to celebrate. Here’s an email our office received this morning:

Dear St Mary’s,
I would like to thank you on behalf of eight mothers and grandmothers on Mount Hermon Rd for the chocolate you left outside the church. All of them are in isolation, I think it cheered everybody up. So thank you for thinking of us.

 
Do share your stories – send them to the office and we will use them to encourage everyone.
 
A second thought is God is giving us a sabbath. There is sabbath rest for us as individuals, as a society and for our planet. The last few days have shown us how clear the skies are over China and the canals in Venice are the cleanest they have been in many years. Perhaps God is encouraging us to embrace the opportunities this time gives us to take time out from our normal routines, to connect in more meaningful ways with other people and to acknowledge what really matters in life.
 

Mark Wallace, 23/03/2020

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SMOB's worship continues

Well, we celebrated Mothering Sunday with our first ever live-streamed service, the licensing of our Associate Minister and chocolate for local mums! It wasn’t quite what we’d planned, but thanks to our fantastic AV team of Matt Browne, Simon Crosland and Phil Vale the live stream went off without a hitch. This post will include some frequently asked questions about our worship and how we continue from here, and a couple of other thoughts.
 
If you want to see Bishop Andrew’s talk, click here.

Worship FAQs
Thank you to everyone who encouraged us on Sunday. There is such a spirit of encouragement at SMOB, and so little complaint! You are a real blessing. Inevitably some questions have come up, so here’s a good place to think about them.
 
Can we have services on other platforms, for people who are not on Facebook?
Yes. We’re going to release a simple said communion service on YouTube over the weekend. Unfortunately at the moment it seems the only platform for a service with up-to-date music is Facebook, as they cover all the relevant licenses.
 
Will we continue with 10.30am services?
Yes. It’s powerful for us all to worship together, and we do not have enough AV people to run two separate morning services. This does mean we need to bear with each other, as these services sit in between our two usual services in style.
 
What about communion?
See the answer above! I hope to upload communion services regularly so that you can mix and match the versions you use.
 
What if everyone has to self-isolate?
We are working on this scenario as it seems increasingly likely. We might be able to live stream a service and make resources like song words available, or even an online playlist. We want to try to make sure that what we are doing will be sustainable over the medium term, while these restrictions continue.
 
Do we have to have Mark singing all the time?
No! We have a range of worship leaders and can use songs and backing tracks online.
 
What about preachers?
We will continue using recorded sermons from our preaching team and will make these available via YouTube so that everyone can access them.
 
Any other ideas?
Yes – churches all over the world are experimenting just like us, so do share ideas and resources. Broadcast media has stepped up its Christian content, with full Sunday services on BBC local radio stations and online. The Church of England also has a weekly Sunday services and resources for daily prayer. Most churches have services or resources to share via their website and social media feeds.
 
We don’t rely on a single person to make our worship happen. This crisis is also an opportunity to worship in new ways, to discover new ideas and practices and to be together differently. Do share what you’re learning and encourage others as you go along.

 

Mark Wallace, 23/03/2020

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Caremongering, Mothering Sunday and more

 
Sorry, your browser is unable to play this type of file. You can still download it

It’s been an overwhelming week and we’ve all been crunching an enormous amount of new information, and figuring out what our lives look like under the new restrictions. Today I saw the word ‘caremongering’: the massive outbreak of care and kindness that we are seeing all over the world. This is the antidote to some of the bleak scenes in our supermarkets.
 
I’m also seeing a massive outpouring of creativity from church leaders all over the world, as we think about how to resource each other and work together in uncharted waters. The Spirit is at work mightily, so do keep praying for his power, love and healing.
 
At SMOB we have a list of people who are self-isolating, those who are ill and those who can help. Our staff are working our usual hours and are available to help too. Although our church building is not open most of the time, we are opening it where necessary as a hub to drop things in or pick things up.
 
It’s a terrible time for anyone suffering from anxiety. I’ve found it helpful to limit my exposure to the news and to spend time praying and reading the Bible, just to reset myself. With so much of life changing, it’s important to acknowledge the mental and spiritual effect this has, and to bring it to God.
 
Tomorrow is Mothering Sunday and we have chocolate for all our mums. This will be available at the York Road and Mount Hermon Road doors to church from 10am–6pm, so do pick up a bar for the mum in your life, and do drop bars off for any other mums you know.
 
It’s also a national day of prayer – you can find lots of prayers and resources here. Put a lit candle in your window at 7pm and let’s stand together in prayer.
 
We have an experimental live stream of our service at 10.30am via Facebook. Our team is working hard to make this work, but please bear with us as glitches are inevitable! We are blessed to have a sermon from Bishop Andrew which definitely works (YouTube link coming tomorrow), and he will be licensing our new Associate Vicar Bekah privately tomorrow too. If you connect up, do get in touch!
 
Dave, Tina and Kate have been in touch with everyone in their children’s and youth groups to provide resources and ways of connecting. If you would like to be included in any of these, please let us know via the office.
 
If you know of people who aren’t online, let the office know and we can make sure they get resources on paper.
 
We have such opportunities to be God’s transforming people in our parish: to love Jesus; to serve and tell others; to be community. Keep praying and caremongering and the Spirit will do the rest!
 

Mark Wallace, 21/03/2020

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A message from Sarah

 


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Coronavirus, SMOB and you

 


If you cannot see the above video please try this link or go to the "talks and media" link on our menu system

As you will know, the Church of England revised its guidance to churches this week, and we can no longer meet for public worship on Sundays. All our groups and events are suspended until further notice. As with so much of normal life at the moment, things can’t carry on as usual.
 
So much for what we can’t do! What about what we can do? Church is not Sunday services or events; it’s God’s people. We are not defeated by these extraordinary times, rather we are adapting and learning to live within these limitations. This blog is designed to be a guide to where we are up to so far as a SMOB team and to answer some of the questions which have been coming in. Bear with us and watch this space for more. We’ll be blogging regularly and putting up videos too.
 
Thank you so much to everyone who has prayed and offered practical support to me, the team and the wider community. This is making life a lot easier all round. Do share your stories about what is going on in your neighbourhood and community – there is a real outbreak of kindness which we can promote.
 
Our church office is closed to callers and our staff are working from home as far as possible, but we can be contacted as usual.
 
Some groups including Alpha have already started using Zoom. If you haven’t already, do download the app, as it’s really useful for people to continue meeting in groups.
 
Sunday services

We are going to live stream our Sunday services at their usual times using Facebook. We will be running with only essential personnel, so they won’t be quite the same, but hopefully we will still be able to worship together. This starts with our planned 10.30am service this Sunday (bear with us as it’s a trial run) and will continue with our 9.15am and 11am services on 29 March.
 
Children and youth
Dave, Kate and Tina are making online resources available for our children and youth. They’re even doing some crafts which team members can drop round to families. We hope that some groups will be able to meet together using Zoom or other apps.
 
The Church Office and staying in touch with people who are self-isolating
Jess and Sharon in the office are keeping tabs on church members who are self-isolating, so please let us know if this applies to you, and whether you are doing this because of illness or because you are in a vulnerable group. We also have a list of people who have volunteered to help anyone in need, so please let us know if you can do this.
 
Our pastoral team is making sure that everyone in need has a ‘buddy’ who can keep in touch with them and provide practical support. Please call anyone you are concerned about to make sure they are OK.
 
Homegroups
Our homegroups continue to meet virtually and different groups are using different technologies. Alpha is using Zoom and we recommend doing this if in doubt; you can have a meeting with as many people as you like for up to 40 minutes, then hang up and start again, and you can see each other. Our preachers will continue to produce homegroup notes as usual.
 
Bekah starting
Thank you to everyone who has expressed concern for our new Associate Vicar Bekah Clark. She is being licensed by Bishop Andrew in a private service on Sunday, so will be starting work as planned, and is really looking forward to meeting everyone online. We will have a proper celebration once restrictions are lifted.
 
Sunday collections
If you normally give to SMOB via the plate or the card reader, please can you save up the money until we can start meeting normally again? You could also consider giving through a bank transfer – the details are on our website under Get Involved – Giving – How to give. If you’re doing either of these, it would be really helpful if you could email our Treasurer Nick Mendham, so that he can keep track of our giving.
 
Prayer
The Office is keeping a list of people to pray for, especially those ill or bereaved, and we will list these out here (first names and last initials only), so do let us know.
 
This Sunday 22 March is a National Day of Prayer, and churches of all denominations are asking people to pray and put a lit candle in your window at 7pm. (Mind your curtains!)
 
If you can, let’s all pray together for a few minutes at 8am every day.
 
Our prayer diary for April will be released online via our website when it’s ready.
 
Wednesday Morning Prayer will continue to be open to all via Zoom at 9am.
 
Foodbank collections
We will continue to organise a monthly collection for Woking Foodbank. You will be able to drop items into the Office at set times, which we will publicise here and on Facebook.
 
Being good neighbours
Some of us have been in touch with neighbours to offer help and support to those in need, whether by setting up a WhatsApp group or putting a note through people’s doors. These are great ways to connect with people – I started a WhatsApp group for our road last Saturday and it has 21 people in it, helping each other to find food and medicine.
 
Other questions
Our clergy can continue to take funerals and weddings, but we are advising people to have a maximum of 12 people present. For funerals, we are offering a thanksgiving service in church when restrictions are lifted.
 
Our PCC and Standing Committee will continue to meet remotely, using Zoom or similar technology. We are waiting for guidance about our APCM (annual church meeting), as this is due to happen on Sunday 26 April.

Mark Wallace, 19/03/2020

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Don't panic: thoughts from a neighbouring church

I was about to blog about coronavirus, but our neighbouring minister Steve Petch from Welcome Church got there first. I can't argue with anything he says, so click the link here and have a read. 

Mark Wallace, 14/03/2020

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Facing uncomfortable truths

It feels like everywhere you look at the moment there is coverage of sexual abuse. I write this just days after movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s conviction for abusing numerous women. Recently the church was rocked by the revelation that the founder of the L’Arche community, Jean Vanier, abused several women. This is made all the more shocking by the fact that L’Arche was set up to serve vulnerable disabled people and is renowned for its pioneering work on identity and disability. A few weeks ago BBC2 aired a two-part documentary, Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret, telling the story of Bishop Peter Ball and his abuse of boys in his care in the 1980s and 1990s.
 
One common strand in all these stories is the terrible cost which has been paid by the victims. In many cases they were not believed when they first told their stories. In Peter Ball’s case, the Church of England’s first instinct was to rubbish the accusers and protect their bishop. Victims already traumatised by these monstrous acts say they felt re-abused by the way they were treated by those who ought to have listened to them and taken them seriously, and by the whole process of seeking justice. Tragically Neil Todd, one of Ball’s victims, committed suicide as a direct result of this.
 
In the cases of Ball and Vanier, there are more uncomfortable truths for the church. Both men were revered for their holy lifestyles and were at the centre of monastic communities. Some evangelicals had a particular regard for this slightly alien way of life. Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey admitted he simply could not believe that a bishop would be capable of behaving the way Ball did. More than one Christian commentator referred to Vanier as a ‘living saint’. Appearances proved to be very deceptive.
 
It can be tremendously dangerous to put any Christian leader on a pedestal like this. Romans 3:23 says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. If we believe our leaders are immune from sin, we will fail to understand when they do fall. The most solid-looking leader could be the most vulnerable: Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 10:12, ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ We see Christian leaders torpedoed by sin time after time, whether their failings are money, sex or power. In cases of abuse, power is always an issue, perhaps even more than sex: both Vanier and Ball used their power to groom, abuse and then silence their victims. Ball’s powerful friends weighed in on his behalf, from Prince Charles to members of the House of Lords. Weinstein used his movie industry power to silence his victims, costing many their careers and reputations.
 
We have to hope that these stories will encourage other victims to come forward, and we continue to work hard to ensure that our churches are safe places for victims to tell their stories. In contrast to the 1990s, when the first allegations against Peter Ball surfaced, churches today have a highly developed safeguarding framework, where everyone working with children or vulnerable adults is required to be trained, and where we have strict guidelines shaping our response to any allegations. In Ball’s case it was the tenacity of safeguarding officials, often newly appointed, which ensured his crimes came to light. In every case the courage of the victims, and their capacity to shed a light on what has been done to them, and overcome it, has been truly inspiring. This Lent, pray for them and for church leaders, that we will understand our vulnerabilities and respond to our callings with humility and grace.

Mark Wallace, 29/02/2020

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Into the lions' den...

My first sermon of the year touched on the issue of abortion, and it certainly got people talking. I’ve had more feedback about this than anything else I’ve said over my time at SMOB, so I thought it would be worth unpacking a few thoughts here.
 
With a subject as emotive as abortion, people often come to it with their own filters. If you have a strong emotional reaction to a talk, it’s worthwhile going back and listening to it again (as indeed several people did before they got in touch with me). Did the preacher say what you think they said? Did they unpack what they meant? Are there any phrases which could be interpreted in different ways? If you are feeling upset, try listening with a slightly more generous ear.
 
One question that came up was about the ongoing trials and tribulations of the congregation at St Ethelburga-without-the-Cupboard. Are these real people in our congregation, someone wondered. Am I trying to make pastoral points in public rather than talking to people directly? Certainly not! St Ethelburga’s is a device to bring issues close to home. Most of the people I talk about are either real people or combinations of people I have known. Their stories are always anonymised and I am never talking about someone in the room. I have found that making challenging points in a humorous way like this can help ideas to land effectively for people; they are not intended in a passive aggressive way and I always handle pastoral issues directly with the people concerned. If I have something to say to you personally, you’ll hear it directly from me, not from the pulpit.
 
One of the key things I said about abortion is that it is an enormous source of unacknowledged pain in our society. It is one of the last taboo subjects; no one talks about it, and yet the sheer number of people it affects is enormous. There are millions of people out there who have decided to abort, for all sorts of reasons. One of the most important things a local church can do is to name this pain and sit alongside those who feel it. We won't do anyone any favours if we pretend the pain is not there.
 
SMOB is a church which embraces people in emotional turmoil. Like any authentic Christian community, we provide care, support and a listening ear to all sorts of people without judgement. This goes for abortion too. We are able to talk about it and unpack the complex issues around it, without judging or condemning people who have made these very difficult decisions. With any big issue we might mention, we always have pastoral care available from trained people; this is something we could talk about more.
 
One of the women I mentioned in my talk struggled with the idea that she could not mourn her child, because she had decided to end its life. I told her that she needed to mourn in order to move on with her life, whether or not she regretted what she had done. She had received a diagnosis of disability, so it would have been fair to have mourned for ‘what might have been’ if her child had been born healthy. It would have been quite fair for her to lament and ask why she had gone through this.
 
I used two examples involving disabled children. It’s worth pointing out that only around 2 per cent of abortions in the UK are carried out because of a diagnosis of disability (2018 figures). These decisions are terribly hard and put parents in an incredibly difficult position.
 
One statistic which is hard to find and rarely quoted is that up to one third of babies aborted because of disability or abnormality turn out to be completely normal. I only know this because friends of mine decided to have a child after a very serious diagnosis of disability, and she was born with no illness. It seems particularly tragic that parents would have made such an agonising choice in vain.
 
In general, churches are rich and diverse communities containing all sorts of people. My own experience of church (including SMOB) has been enriched greatly by the disabled people I have met. When I go to Christian festivals like New Wine, it is very special that you see large numbers of disabled people. Christians affirm the full, perfect personhood of every human being, and we believe that we are all made in the image of God. This does not mean that raising a disabled child is easy, but I think people facing huge challenges in life do not always realise what they will be capable of. Time and time again I have seen people coping with situations they would never have been able to face if you had told them about it in advance. For those who have made a different choice, we believe in the grace and redemption that comes from God, who meets us in our mess and puts us back in a level place. In Christ there is always forgiveness and a fresh start.
 
However, we need to face the fact that 98 per cent of abortions are undertaken by choice, and our society holds sacred the ‘woman’s right to choose’. Christians would say that those rights need to be balanced with an unborn child’s right to life and a father’s rights too. Some people questioned my talking about women in my sermon, rather than parents. However, this is what our society does: legally the mother makes the decision about abortion alone, with the father having no legal standing. One correspondent tried to find out how many fathers are affected by abortion, but there are no figures, which says something by itself.
 
Statistically one in four women in the UK has had an abortion. I pointed this out when I spoke and invited people to look around the room, an invitation aimed at highlighting the sheer number of people involved, rather than putting anyone on the spot. This was not well understood so clearly I should have chosen my words more carefully, and I hope this has clarified things.
 
All of our preachers value people’s direct feedback, even when you have found something particularly challenging. We can always improve and there are often things we need to think about more. You can be confident that we will not steer away from difficult issues; we will continue to teach the whole counsel of God even when that raises big questions.
 

Mark Wallace, 04/02/2020

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Seeing the Good News in our culture

One skill they tried to teach me at Vicar Factory was to read our culture. What are the norms and values represented by, say, that new movie you’ve just been to see? What are the underlying messages about life in our music and books? And how do these relate to the good news about Jesus? So I try to answer these questions regularly about the works I’m consuming.
 
Me by Elton John
I do love a good biography, not necessarily about someone I’m passionate about, but who’s interesting. Elton John’s autobiography is every bit as compelling as the reviews would have you believe. It’s all here: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll in liberal quantities, rendered in Elton’s trademark, chatty style. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it provides a no-holds-barred account of his addiction to cocaine, as well as the stark reality of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. What are the norms and values at play here? Being honest with yourself about your life and the state you’re in – if you’re familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and its twelve steps then you’ll recognise some of Elton’s approach. If you’re easily shocked, it’s not for you. Making a difference for good; Elton’s journey from watching, terrified and drug-addled, as many friends died of AIDS to being a leading fundraiser and campaigner for sufferers, is not straightforward. I wonder if a key message here is ‘deal with your demons and then you can make a difference’; not a difficult one to relate to the gospel.
 
Kiwanuka by Michael Kiwanuka
Kiwanuka’s third album is absolutely brilliant. Here he really comes into his retro-yet-modern funk style, still sounding not unlike Marvin Gaye and yet with songs that have a spiritual edge. Some musicians get famous and then struggle to write songs about real life – after all, life recording music and on tour is very far from most people’s everyday reality; but here is someone with both feet on the ground, who speaks to our multicultural society: raised in leafy north London by Ugandan parents. What are the values? Again, looking at yourself, but also thinking about how harsh our society can feel for those who are in a minority. Kiwanuka is certainly carving out a niche for himself; if you haven’t heard of him then treat yourself!
 
Come from Away at the Phoenix Theatre, London
Perhaps you need an antidote to the winter blues: this is the show for you! It is anything but a cheap ‘sing-your-problems-away’ show though. It’s a true story that got lost after 9/11: what happened to all the planes that were flying over the Atlantic when the attacks began? Well, 38 of them made emergency landings at Gander, Newfoundland. Here, then, is the story of what happens when a remote community of 9,000 almost doubles in size overnight. It is expertly told by an ensemble cast of twelve on a simple set: a revolving stage, twelve chairs and not much else. And yet you will not see a piece of theatre more brilliantly put together – each actor playing many different parts, but you always know where you are and what’s happening. It is a tribute to kindness and humanity, and how we often find out who we truly are when faced with a crisis. Again, not hard to relate to the gospel. And it has the most unforgettable scene in church (I won’t spoil it for you – just take a hanky!). The music is great too.
 
His Dark Materials
The BBC’s lavish adaptation has proved a big hit with audiences and will return later this year. Philip Pullman’s original trilogy of books is a tough one to adapt, but, with the help of some excellent actors and a lot of CGI, the compelling storytelling survives the transition to the small screen. Young Lyra Belacqua finds herself plucked from a protected life in an Oxford college in an alternative reality, as the viewer realises that there are connections with our own reality and another teen: Will Parry. Can Lyra escape the dangers all around her, including the pastiche of the church, the sinister, power-wielding Magesterium, and find the truth about existence? Here, writ large, is a conspiracy thriller: the truth is being hidden from you by those who want to keep control of your life. Break free and don’t listen to them! I expect the next two instalments to be much more openly anti-Christian (as they’re sure not to stray from the source material), and no less interesting.
 
Can I encourage you to consume culture critically – ask questions about it, probe at its values, and talk to people about them. An event like the new Star Wars or James Bond film is still pretty universal, and you can trace a conversation about society through the decades with them. Ask who is Jesus in this production, what is seen as good and bad? And feel free to recommend, especially to your local clergy!
 
Coming soon: a break
The news is steadily getting out there that I will be taking three months’ Extended Ministerial Development Leave over this summer. In the Church of England, ministers qualify for this after around ten years of ordained ministry. I will be away from SMOB from the end of June to the beginning of October, in which time I will take a break from frontline ministry. I hope to visit friends (weekends away are something you sacrifice in this job), do some writing (several projects both Christian and secular are in front of me) and generally have a change of pace. The church will be in the capable hands of the staff team, led by our new Associate Vicar Bekah Clark (who joins us in March), Curate Sarah Tapp and Youth Minister Dave Doran.

Mark Wallace, 07/01/2020

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It's that time again...

With only days to go until the General Election (drop your cakes into church asap!), I want to note a couple of things that are encouraging me amid the general noise of the campaign. Firstly, politicians are actually talking about big issues, and we have a genuine choice between competing world views. This is a major contrast from 2015 when it felt like we had several versions of the same thing on offer.
 
Secondly, the campaign has steered away from personal attacks, which is a very positive development. This is especially true as there are so many negative things to be said about both major party leaders! They are avoiding the slurs which have become such a big part of our public life – Christians can applaud this and join in.
 
Our former Archdeacon Paul Bryer tweets every day and follows a simple rule: only say positive things. Follow him and you’ll find out a lot about the churches he visits. We do well to call out good things on social media and avoid the general abuse and negativity which ends up poisoning our public life. As your granny probably said, ‘If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything!’

Mark Wallace, 02/12/2019

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All I want for Christmas...

I hope you haven’t finished your Christmas list yet, as I thought this month’s blog would be an opportunity to make a few recommendations. You’ll be pleased to know that lots of these will not cost you a penny – I’ve asked around the staff team to get thoughts about resources you might like to use, as well as books or gifts.
 
It’s worth spending a bit of time this month figuring out whether you want to do something different with your quiet times in the New Year. If you’ve never read the Bible in a year before, it is easier than ever. The Bible in One Year app from the Alpha stable is fantastic, free, and the app will read it aloud to you (courtesy of Nicky and Pippa Gumbel and the great John Suchet). It’s on Apple and Android as well as www.bibleinoneyear.org.
 
While we’re on free apps, YouVersion is a fantastic Bible reading app, with loads of options, from five days to a year. It’s great to do with friends, suitable for curious non-Christians and will work for all ages and stages of faith.
 
One book we’re looking forward to reading is Keep Your Love On by Danny Silk. It’s a guide to building healthy relationships across your marriage, family and with God.
 
One of my discoveries of this year has been The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Pete Scazzero; next year I might follow it up with Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and The Emotionally Healthy Church.
 
Krish Kandiah is a brilliant commentator and thinker on Christian issues. His new book is The Greatest Secret; God is Stranger and Paradoxology are great reads too.

Another highly recommended read is Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton.
 
And of course every book you haven’t read is a new book: I’ve come very late to the party in discovering Eugene Peterson (who wrote over 30 books including The Message translation of the Bible, and who died last year). I loved Leap Over a Wall about David and the Psalms; all his other books are on my Christmas list! Other authors who always deliver are Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen and Paula Gooder. If poetry’s your thing, Malcolm Guite is always worth the price of admission.
 
If you like a good magazine, you could try Women Alive or Sorted (for men), as well as Christianity, which each cast a Christian eye over current lifestyle and culture issues, with a variety of thought-provoking writers.
 
Our Christmas Eve Crib Service is coming, and you may like a stocking-filler to provoke good conversations on the back of this: The Hoity-Toity Angel by Caroline Hoile (for 3-6-year-olds). Your child will be amazed at Santa’s joined-up thinking if this is in their stocking!
 
If you want a thought-provoking way into the Nativity story, the Natwivity page on Facebook and Twitter is well worth a share.
 
Here’s a good website for young families, ideas for simple activities for during Advent:
https://godventure.co.uk/news/how-to-do-faith-at-home-at-christmas/
 

Mark Wallace, 02/12/2019

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The horror of human trafficking

I am writing this with the news unfolding that 39 people have died in a shipping container coming into the UK. It seems likely that some, or all, of those killed were from Vietnam, with one texting her mum to tell her she was suffocating and to say goodbye. Each of these people was someone’s precious child, a brother, sister, grandson/daughter, friend. They were deceived because they were seeking a better life; they took a journey described by many who have done it as the most traumatic in their lives, and what they faced was most probably modern slavery: the women destined for nail bars or prostitution and the men for cannabis farms.

I love living in the UK. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where we have good roads, hospitals and schools, and, at least in theory, we look after the most vulnerable. Part of the cost of this is that we live in a country which many people from all over the world want to make their home. If you live in a place where there is little work and no hope of a better life, of course you will want to go somewhere better. It is a proud part of Britain’s heritage that people from all over the world have made their homes here for many generations. The statistics show that immigrants pay far more into our economy than they take out. We see this in Woking, the most racially mixed town in Surrey.

But there is a terrible underside to this story, written in the blood of the thousands who try unsuccessfully to make their way here. Boatloads of migrants continue to sink in the Mediterranean, something our media has ceased to report. The EU continues to fail to have a coherent policy to manage these people. Most have been hoodwinked into thinking that, if they can just get here, their lives will be fine.  

The truth is that there is a better life for people who come to the UK legally, willing to do the jobs that local workers don’t want: cleaning our hospitals, picking our fruit and so on. Many of these places face major shortages because of the uncertainty that goes with Brexit. We all know, or are related to, people who have come to Britain and built new lives for themselves.

Jesus was himself a refugee, his family fleeing from Herod’s terror to settle in Egypt when he was an infant. ‘Do not oppress an alien,’ it says in Exodus 23:9, ‘you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.’

Our faith is built on the shared experience of the Israelites escaping the slavery of Pharaoh. Our God sides with the outsider, the enslaved and the rejected. Churches all over Britain have superb ministries helping immigrants and asylum seekers, whether they are learning English (as with our own Talk Easy) or helping to make ends meet while they wait for papers. As you respond to the deadly events in one shipping container, how can you show God’s attitude towards people different from yourself?
 

Mark Wallace, 26/10/2019

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Embracing difference

One of the things people often say about SMOB is what a friendly church it is. Newcomers routinely receive a warm welcome and we are a generous place to walk into for events like our community day, summer/Christmas chill and election day. Recently, though, I’ve been wondering just how far this welcome goes. My observation over the last two years is that we are not always as good at welcoming those who are not like us, for example people from a minority ethnic group or with special needs. This is an uncomfortable truth for us to face as a church.

As a church leader, I tend to assume that, when a newcomer arrives in one of our services, I introduce them to a few people and, after that, they have some people they can catch up with each week. Recently, though, another church member picked up on a newcomer from a minority group who had a particular pastoral need. Over the weeks they had been at church, people hadn’t connected with them the way we would have expected. I’m afraid part of the reason is that they are different, both in ethnicity and in family circumstances. Their face doesn’t quite fit.

This was backed up by a conversation about a church member on the autism spectrum. In order to engage with services, they need to use their phone or tablet to occupy themselves when they get bored, otherwise their behaviour might become disruptive. People sitting near them have not been understanding, and this has left them feeling unwelcome. Of course those people probably don’t realise, but it is easy to be judgemental of others when it would be better to try to understand.

Jesus reached out to all sorts of people, and especially those who were beyond polite society: the unclean, those with leprosy, gentiles, Romans and children. As a church we seek ‘to be community’ in his name, to be a safe place for everyone who comes in. This must mean that we come to church not just to see our friends but to get to know new people too. We cannot stay in our safe cliques if we want to reach out to others. We seek to embrace those who are not like us – our gift to each other is that this is a set of people where all ages and stages of life mix freely because we love Jesus. If you’re a regular at SMOB, I encourage you to pray into this, so that everyone can find the warmest welcome with us.
 

Mark Wallace, 01/10/2019

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What does a Christian festival look like? 

A month ago, a group of us from SMOB went to New Wine United, one of the biggest Christian festivals in England each year. It occurred to me that, for many people, an event like United might seem alien. Just what goes on at a Christian festival? And with the big adverts coming up for early bird booking for next year, why should you consider going? As a veteran of several such events, among them Spring Harvest and Word Alive, I thought I’d give you some pointers.

The nearest comparison to make to a Christian festival would be to a music festival. Here you get a large number of ‘acts’ together in one setting, where you’re surrounded by like-minded people for a few days. You can see your favourites but also discover new ones in a variety of venues large and small. At my last church I remember Pauline, in her 80s, going to an event run by Hillsong at Spring Harvest – she must surely have been the oldest person there. ‘How was it, Pauline?’ I asked. ‘It was very loud!’ she said. ‘I loved it!’

The main events at United, Spring Harvest, Keswick or Greenbelt are on the main stage. At United there are main sessions in the mornings and evenings, with children and young people in their groups at the same time. Typically you will get a ‘big name’ speaker who will provide Bible teaching each morning; and a variety of people in the evening. At United this pattern is mirrored in several smaller venues, where the style of music varies from the main auditorium. The main venue seats around 5,000, so it can feel like a pop concert during the opening songs. The music consists of new songs they want you to learn, mixed with favourites you will know. This year’s main stage Bible teaching was from Jordan Seng, the pastor of a church in Hawaii with a strong emphasis on supernatural ministry. He was fascinating and challenging, and his book Miracle Work is a great read too.

I mentioned children’s and youth work. One of the great features of the big festivals is the work they do with children and young people. This provides a glimpse of a much bigger Christian context than they are used to; even the largest churches tend to have only a couple of dozen children. It is powerful for Christian children to see they are part of something that is much bigger than their church.

There are also dozens of smaller events, from seminars to movies. These provide opportunities to engage with particular topics or speakers, with lots of scope to discover new things. There’s also a huge marketplace with many Christian organisations represented. Different sites have extra features: the New Wine skatepark; the swimming pool at Spring Harvest and so on. United has an emphasis on equipping Christian leaders, and provides space to network.

For us at SMOB, one key feature of United is that we all camp together, with a big marquee in which to eat our meals. A week of communal living is a lot of fun and makes the whole experience much easier for the less confident. One advantage of United’s move to Peterborough this year has been that it’s much easier to come and not camp; there’s a budget hotel by the entrance and a huge variety of accommodation within 20 minutes of the site. One of our members found an AirBNB a week before, something that would never have been possible in previous years.

So when the ad comes up on the screen, don’t just skip over it thinking, ‘That’s not for me.’ Have a think – what new things might I discover? How might I encourage and bless other people? What might God do if I give him a week next summer?

Mark Wallace, 29/08/2019

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Why it's OK to cry in church 

A group of us has just got back from New Wine United, a big Christian conference where 10,000 people camped out for a week in the Cambridgeshire countryside to worship together, pray and experience God. I was going to write a blog describing what such a conference looks like, but I’ll save that for another time. One thing that happened a lot there was that people cried. And people cry a lot in church. This is normal, it’s OK and I’m going to explain why.

First, a confession: I am a terrible weeper. I cry in Disney films and when TV characters get killed off. I was on the top deck of a bus in Zimbabwe when I finished reading Nicholas Nickleby and I was a complete mess. When I was at Vicar Factory, both my parents died just over three months apart from each other; I cried a lot then too, and I still shed the occasional tear thirteen years later. Leading worship can be a very emotional experience too and I’ve cried at the front numerous times.

It’s common to cry in church; I should know, I’ve been at the front of a lot of services. In any given service, there’s a number of people in tears. Yet when you see people crying, they often apologise. I suppose we’re British, and any public display of emotion is potentially challenging. I’ve even heard people apologise for crying when they’re newly bereaved, but surely if there’s any time when it’s OK to cry, it must be when someone you love has just died?

Here’s the thing, and the connection with New Wine: when the Holy Spirit touches you, it’s common to be in tears. God’s Spirit ministers to the broken parts of us, the deep hurts that may go back a long way. Sometimes your spirit will need to let go of strong emotions, and that can mean tears. As an experienced pastor, let me give you permission to cry. Let it all out. And don’t reach straight for the Pastoral Tissues (you know, that box that’s handy in every church). It’s OK to be in a mess with God for a while; don’t wipe it up straight away.

Of course God himself is a weeper: the shortest verse in the Bible says, ‘Jesus wept.’ (John 11:35) He’s also the one who makes the most incredible promise about the future for believers in him: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (Revelation 21:4)
 

Mark Wallace, 05/08/2019

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To be community... 

So says the last clause of our vision statement: God’s transforming people in our parish: To love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community. As we approach our St Mary of Bethany Community Day on Saturday 20 July, I’ve been thinking about how church is at the centre of local communities all over our country.

Suburbia is a harder place to find community than a village. In Horsell or St John’s you find a much stronger sense of local community than in our Mount Hermon neighbourhood; even though you are still in suburbia, there is still a village feel. But scratch the surface in Mount Hermon and you find a very strong community: neighbours who know each other, roads which host street parties, warmth, welcome and friendship.

SMOB is a key part of this community. Walk around our neighbourhood and you will see many homes where children have been through Bethany Babes, where young people have been to Friday Night Club or FX, where older people have been part of CAMEO, where we’ve read a couple’s banns of marriage or who come to church at Christmas and Easter. Our vision is to use both our church family and our building to help define local community in this part of town where it is less obvious.

We have just appointed architects to help us think through how best to develop our premises in line with our vision. We’re not the biggest public building in our parish (that would be either the Pool in the Park or Morrison’s), but I think we are the largest multi-purpose community space. The work we are planning will help us in our vision to grow our family and be more of a community hub.

None of this is a new or radical idea; it is the bread and butter of what churches everywhere have always done. It is often said that the church is the only organisation which exists for the benefit of those who are not members. Every community in England has a parish church. The church is defining community in many villages which have seen their local shop, pub and post office close down. The church family is where you find people who care about justice and vulnerable people. Here in Woking, both the York Road Project for homeless people and Woking Foodbank were set up by Christians. We would rather neither project was needed, but we care about people who are struggling and we won’t stand by and ignore them.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, a prominent atheist cabinet minister went out to see the relief efforts. He was moved by the number of Christian agencies helping, and reflected wryly that he did not see any groups representing atheists or humanists. Faith gives you a framework to care for people you don’t know.

So join us 11am-4pm Saturday 20 July to experience the warm heart of Mount Hermon. Experience our church without walls, God’s transforming people of all ages and stages of life.  
 

Mark Wallace, 03/07/2019

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What are British values? 

I’m writing this on the 75th anniversary of D-Day – a day which makes me proud to be British. But what does it mean to be British? In the three years since the Brexit vote, we seem to have lost some of our sense of who we are as a country. These days children are taught British values in school, but the guidance on exactly what constitutes ‘British values’ is rather nebulous. It covers things like democracy, fair play and tolerance, but there is nothing uniquely British about these things, nor are they things which many people from other countries would not affirm.

Turn back the clock to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. There we saw a powerful presentation of what it means to be British: it’s about history, innovation, creativity, inclusivity and good humour. I would suggest that not taking yourself too seriously is a real British value. One of the sad things about the tone of public debate over the last few years has been the absence of any humour or fun.

A more sinister feature of our public life has been the ugly way some people have felt able to talk about immigrants, asylum seekers and people on benefits. It is no bad thing to want to move countries to make a better life for yourself and your family. I would rather be a citizen of a country which is a desirable place to live, than of one which is not. Of course it is necessary to have boundaries around immigration and asylum, but it is not acceptable to refer to our fellow humans as a ‘swarm’, to use one example of language from our public square. The existence of foodbanks, working poverty and homeless people on our streets is deeply shaming in the fifth largest economy in the world. Ten years ago there were hardly any beggars in our town centres and no one had thought of foodbanks.

Another British value is hard work. One of the things which gives me confidence that we will survive and thrive post-Brexit is that we are a country where people work hard and make things happen for ourselves. One common refrain in the recent elections was, ‘We just want to know what’s happening, and then we’ll get on with it.’ We are pretty pragmatic – one more British value. And there’s an important one I haven’t mentioned: the fact that almost any situation can be resolved with a nice cup of tea!

Behind all these values is our country’s Christian heritage. The value we place on every human life is based on the idea that we are made in God’s image. The respect we show to others is based on Jesus’ ‘golden rule’, to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Our approach to work is what used to be called the ‘Protestant work ethic’: the idea that we are made for work and rest. We may be a post-Christian society, but, when we ignore these ideas, we begin to lose our sense of who we are.
 

Mark Wallace, 08/06/2019

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Woking's Forgotten Benefactor 

Woking’s Forgotten Benefactor: The Story of William Hamilton and His Family by Richard Langtree

It’s not every day that one of our congregation writes a book, so I was delighted when a small pile of these appeared at the back of church. I’m a great believer that Christians need to read more biographies: it’s so encouraging to learn about those who have gone before us. Richard’s book is a treasure trove of fascinating information which will inspire many people in Woking and further afield, as well as being invaluable for all local history buffs (and there are many).

Richard is well-known at SMOB as the custodian of our church’s history, as there have been Langtrees in the congregation since we were founded in 1907. He more than justifies his reputation here, with an enormous amount of data and illustrations packed into his book. The story of William Hamilton, the clergyman who founded SMOB, is picked through in minute detail. We are reminded repeatedly of many of the challenges of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, whether it’s the many unexplained deaths through illness or the carnage of World War One. The excitement of the rapid development of the new town of Woking is evident as the story unfolds.

Woking’s Forgotten Benefactor has been self-published, so the former editor in me did occasionally bemoan a slightly clunky turn of phrase or misuse of the possessive apostrophe! However, most readers will not be picking this book up expecting Proust, and it takes just a bit of imagination from the reader to put yourself in a world which is both remote and familiar: Woking of yesteryear. It also has enough fun facts to keep any pub bore amused for years.

In these days of church-planting, it is great to be reminded that there are few things new under the sun, and to give thanks for the work of Hamilton and the others who saw the need for new churches in Woking as the town grew. He was truly one of God’s transforming people in what was to become our parish!

Woking’s Forgotten Benefactor: The Story of William Hamilton and His Family by Richard Langtree, published by Twin Bridges and available from Richard or in church, £14.
 

Mark Wallace, 01/05/2019

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Brexit woe and the hope of the world 

As I write, our country’s leaders are in a state of unparalleled chaos as they try to find a way through Brexit. For some weeks now I have had to limit my exposure to news: it all feels so gloomy. However, I find one habit quite helpful: whenever Brexit comes on the news, simply intone ‘We’re all dooooomed!’ in the style of Private Frazer from Dad’s Army. If nothing else, this may put a smile on your face.

Christians also looking forward to Easter and the hope of Jesus’ resurrection. Easter means hope for the world; hope for our country; hope for every individual you know. Jesus rises from the tomb and shows us that God wins in the end, that even death, our ultimate enemy, is defeated.

Since the 2016 referendum, our news media has given us nearly three years of rolling speculation. This has fed a febrile atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity: businesses cannot make long-term investment decisions; homeowners struggle to buy or sell. Human beings need to feel safe and secure; for a very long time, British people felt like our country was stable, well governed, that we were a place which did things properly.

The Brexit referendum exposed our complacency and the huge divisions in our society. The referendum did not create these divisions; they were there for anyone who cared to look: north/south, rich/poor, young/old; all made worse by a political class which has existed in an increasingly insulated Westminster bubble, remote from the concerns of ordinary people, especially those in the post-industrial north. The referendum opened up a Pandora’s box of ugly attitudes, particularly towards immigrants, as some politicians stoked division by blaming those different from ourselves for problems which are complex, deep-seated and long-running.

And yet the last three years also hold in them the hope of resurrection for British politics. People have been talking about politics more than I can remember in my lifetime. We are raising a generation which is deeply committed to making a positive difference in the world. Our public life has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. I think we will see better things ahead, although it may be a long haul through tough times before we get there.

Easter tells us that we are not all doomed. There is hope and a fresh start with God for anyone who wants it. At the cross there is redemption, the forgiveness of sins from the one who died in your place so that you can be right with God. Christians believe there is always a hope and a future, because Jesus rose from the dead. We pray for our leaders, because God cares very much about how we are governed. We stand with those who are anxious or uncertain about the future. We call out bad behaviour and unacceptable language from our public discourse. And we live as people who can say every day, ‘He is risen indeed! Alleluia!’

Mark Wallace, 04/04/2019

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What you need to know about kids and screens 

In my new role as a school governor, one thing has struck me: many parents are not paying enough attention to what their children are doing while they’re on screens. Schools are trying to resource parents with information sessions and Safer Internet Days, but people in Surrey are busy and struggle to engage.

The internet has changed the world for this generation. When I grew up, children could safely watch TV in their rooms up until the 9pm watershed (with certain boundaries: you can tell a lot about Generation X’s parents from whether you were allowed to watch Grange Hill or EastEnders!). To contact someone you had to knock on their door or call their landline. Today things are far more complex; parents need to be intentional to help their children navigate this brave new world.

A teacher I know told me about a ten-year-old child who let slip that they were on Facebook. In under five minutes the teacher was able to find out where that child lived, who their parents were and what car they drove. The child and their parents were horrified, but the teacher said that this is an everyday occurrence for the primary school children they deal with.

If you were to unlock your smartphone and hand it to me, I bet I could look up something you wouldn’t want children to see within two minutes (not necessarily something you’ve looked at, but using your browser or social media). It is impossible to avoid this completely, but there are a number of sensible, practical things that parents can do.

(1) Talk to your kids – make sure they are used to talking to you about their feelings, about things which make them happy, sad, upset or uncomfortable. If they know you will listen to them without judgement then they are much more likely to disclose any problems they have. Talk about what’s online – how useful and wonderful it is as a source of information and a means to stay in touch, but also how people can misuse it. People who you meet online may not be who they say they are. Some people like experiencing things that would make you feel uncomfortable. Some use social media to bully others. Encourage your kids to talk to you about all these things and don’t overreact when they share something challenging with you. Be prepared for conversations when you least expect it and when it doesn’t suit you!

(2) Look at yourself first – think about how you are using screens – are you leading by example in your family? If you reach for your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night or check social media whenever you have a free moment, you may be addicted. It may help to set a boundary: no screens for the first and last hour of each day, for example, or a screen-free day in your home. Check your own privacy settings regularly for all your social media, so that strangers cannot see more about you than you are comfortable to show.

(3) Set up filters on your broadband and all your screens – every UK broadband provider has to provide content filters, but if you haven’t changed broadband provider for a while, it’s worth checking what you’ve got set up. Check your home computer, laptops, phones, tablets, games consoles and TVs. Check the PEGI rating on games and apps, and whether you can speak to others online on them. Make sure Netflix/Amazon Prime/Now TV is set so that children can only access age-appropriate content.

(4) Set screen boundaries with your kids – many parents find time limits helpful, and there are apps which can help you to police these on your kids’ tech. Research shows that watching a screen within an hour of going to sleep has a negative impact on rest, so make sure tech is switched off early (and perhaps is out of children’s hands). As with anything in parenting, if you find you need to move a boundary, don’t be afraid to. Be firm but fair: social media can be highly addictive and using it overnight can lead to sleeplessness and consequential mental health problems including anxiety and depression, especially if your child becomes a victim of cyberbullying. Setting boundaries when your kids first get tech is much easier than rowing back on loose boundaries later.

(5) Set up your kids’ tech and social media – when your child has a new piece of tech, take responsibility for setting it up and don’t leave it to them. Make sure you set boundaries for downloading apps and spending money online, as lots of apps are free to download but then make it all too easy to buy extras. Most social media including Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat, Twitter and Facebook recommend that under-13s do not sign up. When the time is right, sign your child up yourself and set their privacy settings for them. Keep their passwords safe and talk to them about how they will use social media – you may want to log into their accounts from time to time just to check they are safe, but talk to them about this and don’t invade their privacy unnecessarily.

(6) Brilliant advice on setting up social media – I have never seen this written down! When you set up social media, put in your child’s date of birth so that their age is 50-60. That way the ads they see will be things like life insurance and Saga holidays, rather than the more dubious stuff which gets sold to teenagers!

(7) Keep your eye on your kids – be interested in the media they are consuming and watch for anything untoward. No content filter will remove references to self-harm, the occult or suicide.

(8) Be ahead of the game – many parents find that issues come up sooner than they expect, so be prepared ahead of time. Your kids’ friends have older siblings and families with a variety of boundaries which won’t match your own.

None of this advice is distinctively Christian, but God is very concerned for what his people fill our minds with (see, for example, Colossians 3). Somewhere along the line, some parents lose confidence that their children are their responsibility until they are 18 and that you set the boundaries in your own home. As a parent you are a leader at home; for any leader, you cannot always expect to be liked or appreciated by the people you lead! Whether or not you have children, do pray for families you know as they navigate our complex modern culture.
 

Mark Wallace, 05/03/2019

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On hugging a complete stranger

The love of God is like a hug from Stephen.

On my first Sunday at SMOB, this man I’d never met before came up and gave me a warm hug. Shortly afterwards he said, ‘I like you.’ This has happened to me most Sundays since then and I don’t think I will ever get tired of it.

If you come to our 11am service, you’ll probably know Stephen. He is in his late 30s and sits on the front row in church, just in front of the band. He is an enthusiastic worshipper – the first with his hands in the air when we’re singing. He has a lot of love for Jesus and for other people, which he shares freely and unconditionally. You can’t help but love him; he is one of the characters who make our church so special.

Stephen was born with Down’s Syndrome. This is a condition which affects all sorts of things in life and can be diagnosed in a child before birth. The statistics tell us that nineteen out of twenty parents in the UK make the heartbreaking choice to terminate a pregnancy rather than give birth to a child diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. In Iceland this has gone up to very nearly twenty out of twenty, thanks to new, more reliable genetic tests.

As Jesus’ family, the church values everybody. One of the most life-affirming things about being part of the church is just that: we do affirm life, with all its mess, imperfection and complexity. The church is the only set of people I can think of which combines young and old, rich and poor, working, retired and unemployed, single and married, parents and childless, straight and gay, those with all kinds of illnesses and disabilities both mental and physical, rubbing along together with love and care and without judgement. Jesus said he came to give us life in all its fulness (John 10:10); I think this is part of what that means.

At SMOB we try to be genuinely inclusive; a community where we learn about faith from the youngest child and where we encourage our oldest members to continue to serve in the most important way they can: by praying. Many people have found us to be a safe place for those struggling with messy lives, including thinking through tough choices you might have made with God (including divorce, abortion and all sorts of other things). Some of the mess in our lives comes from outside and some is self-inflicted, but in the end it’s just mess, and God can use us to help clear it up.

Or maybe you just need a hug from God. Or a hug from Stephen. And my experience week by week is that one is much the same as the other.
 

Mark Wallace, 06/02/2019

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How can 4,000-year-old literature be relevant today? 

Happy New Year! This January we pick up where we left off last year in the book of Genesis, thinking about Abraham’s journey in our Sunday services and homegroups (Genesis 12–22). You may well ask how a piece of ancient literature which is probably at least 4,000 years old can be relevant to your life today? And if you’re asking this, I hope you will be pleasantly surprised as we think about Abraham’s story.

Here are some questions this story helps us to ask:

  • Can I trust God?
  • How does God speak?
  • Why does God sometimes make us wait for things?
  • How long should I wait for God to act?
  • Does God change his mind?
  • What does godly leadership look like?
  • Does God sometimes send us towards a destination only to change course on the way?


To me, these look like highly relevant questions to ask in 2019! We certainly need better leadership in our nation’s life. Christians need to learn how to wait for God in a culture which majors on instant gratification. We need not just to listen to God but to do what he says, even when that costs us a lot. And it’s important to know that, with God, your journey is just as important as your destination.

As we look through Abraham’s story, we see a variety of incredibly difficult and involved issues with which Christians need to wrestle. Abraham is given a key role in salvation history when he is over 70 years old. He bargains with God over the fate of the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He walks his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him when God asks him to. There are hard questions and hard truths about God and humanity here; of course, this is true about any section of the Bible we might think about, but there is plenty of fruit here if you will engage with it.
 

Mark Wallace, 04/01/2019

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Born sleeping or gone too soon

9-15 October marks Baby Loss Awareness Week, where we mark the lives of babies who died in pregnancy, at or soon after birth and in infancy. Many people in our church family have been touched by the tragedy of miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion or cot death. All of us know people who carry the grief of these events with them for the rest of their lives. Some of them have never shared their pain, but I am hugely thankful that we live in a climate where it is increasingly normal to share your own story with others.

Early in my ministry we were invited to lunch with a family. When I went to the loo, I noticed a family tree next to the sink. On closer inspection, it revealed that their youngest child was a twin, whose brother died shortly before birth. This was a key thing to know about this family, revealed very sensitively to anyone who was interested. Their dead child was very much a part of the family, remembered and cherished along with his siblings. On Facebook this week it has been very moving to see others who mark their children’s too-short lives in their own personal ways.

Let me tell you about Victoria. Victoria was born in the early 1960s, the second of Griselda’s children with her first husband. When she was about three weeks old, Victoria fell asleep in her crib and never woke up. Griselda was utterly shattered and overwhelmed with grief. About a month after Victoria’s death, Griselda’s husband and father both told her never to talk about her again, that she had to get on with life and not dwell on her loss. This was the early 1960s, a generation raised with a stiff upper lip, to keep calm and carry on in the face of adversity. Griselda was never able to grieve her beloved daughter properly, but she never forgot her. In later life she would speak about her, never lasting longer than a minute before tears were rolling down her face.

After Griselda’s death in 2006, her son Dan found Victoria’s crib in the loft. It was the only thing she kept of her daughter; there are no photos of her or any of the other things people keep to remind them of their baby days. When the family scattered Griselda’s ashes, they also scattered those of Victoria’s crib, to mark their reuniting and the end of the terrible grief which ate her from the inside. Why am I telling this story? Because Victoria was my sister and Griselda my mother.

Thank God that we live in different times, where mums and dads alike can share the pain of their losses. As we mark Wave of Light in church on Monday 15 October, we also give space to those who continue to suffer in silence and we recognise that as a society we still have a long way to go. I think of one young woman who shared with me the pain of having aborted her child after s/he was diagnosed with a disability. Because she did not regret her decision, she felt she had no right to mourn her child. I told her how wrong she was, that she was not disqualified from the pain and loss of that little person and all she had hoped for just because she had made that choice. We can embrace people affected by abortion, which remains one of the greatest taboo subjects to talk about, without offering judgement.

Jesus insisted the little children be brought to him and he put them at the centre of his work. He brings hope, healing and comfort to those who mourn. As his people we sit in the dust and ashes with those who struggle and suffer with the grief of those born sleeping or gone too soon.
  

Mark Wallace, 11/10/2018

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Halloween and the reason for the season

Go shopping at this time of year and it’s hard to avoid Halloween. Over the last generation it’s become a major commercial festival; last year UK consumers spent around £320 million on it.

Over the years the Christian response to Halloween has been varied. Many Christians want nothing to do with it. They argue that there is nothing to celebrate in darkness, witches, horror and devils. Christian parents find themselves torn by ‘everyone else’s children’ enjoying dressing up, trick or treating and eating buckets of sweets. Lots of churches now run light parties to give children and young people a more positive and life-giving message at Halloween. This year we are giving people the choice of a fantastic light party at Christ Church Woking or a big community event in Old Woking. We hope to run something ourselves next year.

I’ve been talking to SMOB Youth Minister Dave Doran, who thinks we may be missing a trick by not returning to our roots. After all, Halloween is a festival which has a long history in the Christian calendar: All Hallow’s Eve (or All Saints’ Eve), the night before All Saints’ Day. Allhallowtide is a three-day festival which goes back well over a thousand years, covering All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. On those days we remember the dead, martyrs, saints and the ‘faithful departed’.

Just as churches have a lot to say about light and positivity, we also have fantastic stories to tell about those who have gone to glory before us. If you think the people of SMOB are great, imagine being in a church filled with all of them from 1907 to the present day! I think we would be bowled over by everything God has done among us.
There would also be all sorts of ‘random’ connections. My grandparents spent many holidays in the 1950s and 60s smuggling Bibles to Christians in Franco’s Spain. I feel sure there will be a connection to the evangelical churches in Spain today, and thus to our mission partners the Yanez family in Malaga. Of course, in God’s economy there are is no randomness, no coincidence. He has amazing plans and a big picture for all of our lives.

Can I encourage you, then, to remember the faithful departed this Halloween and All Saints’ Day (or maybe we could even reclaim the name ‘Allhallowtide’)? Let’s be intentional about thanking God for those who have gone before us and asking the Holy Spirit to stir up the same gifts in his people today. That way we won’t just be responding defensively to the darkness we see around us; we won’t even be painting a brighter and more positive picture; we’ll be telling our own powerful story and recovering the reason for the season.

Mark Wallace, 11/10/2018

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What I read in my summer holidays

This week thousands of schoolchildren are starting a new year armed with summer projects about what they did in their holidays. Not wanting to be left out, I thought I would share my holiday reading! I hope one or more of these will tickle your fancy.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years before I finally picked it up. Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize with it a few years ago, and it’s a compelling read – I read it in one sitting. It’s the story of a man in his 60s who has his steady, comfortable life thrown upside down by a revelation about an event from his 20s. I found myself thinking about how we construct our own past and the stories we tell about ourselves. How much of our own thinking would be open to question if new facts emerged? What and whom have I left behind from my past? A really interesting and provocative book, which ties up its various mysteries very quickly – I had to re-read the last few pages several times to understand the conclusion.

Dethroning Mammon by Justin Welby
How does someone as busy as the Archbishop of Canterbury find time to write a book? Putting that question aside, I am grateful for his 2017 Lent book on money. We are blessed with an Archbishop who is an excellent communicator and who handles the Bible well. He encourages his readers to think of money as a person – he dubs it Mammon – and challenges us to work through the ways it can become an idol for Christians. It’s another short book but a very helpful one – well worth engaging with prayerfully during a period such as Lent (but you don’t need to wait until then).

A New Day by Emma Scrivener
The subtitle of this excellent book is Moving on from hunger, anxiety, control, shame, anger and despair. Emma Scrivener is a vicar’s wife and a survivor of anorexia, who describes her fight against the disease in her unforgettable first book A New Name. A New Day is partly an account of her next steps, but more importantly it provides a toolkit for thinking through all sorts of mental illnesses from eating disorders to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and addiction. It’s a brilliant resource to dip into and it will stay on my bookshelf ready for when I need it – not a time I am looking forward to. It’s vital that anyone with an interest in pastoral work thinks through issues of mental health, and particularly conditions with which you are less familiar. There is very little Christian literature about eating disorders; Emma Scrivener is blazing a very important trail here. I should declare an interest: I went to theological college with Emma and her husband Greg.

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
I read Kingsolver’s brilliant novel Flight Behaviour earlier this year, having read her bestseller The Poisonwood Bible several years ago. Pigs in Heaven dates back to the early 1990s but the writing is as luminous and distinctive as both the others. Like a lot of good fiction, it introduces a subject I would never have thought about: what happens when a Native American child is adopted by a white mother. The USA has laws designed to protect Native American tribal identity and culture, and to prevent irregular adoptions outside the tribes. Through the eyes of single mum Taylor and her daughter Turtle unfolds a story which becomes part road trip, part intergenerational family saga, with a little Thelma and Louise thrown in. If you’ve never read any Barbara Kingsolver, you definitely should.

The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine
Ruth Rendell’s alias Barbara Vine is always worth a read. This book tackles the early-20th-century taboos around childbirth outside wedlock and homosexuality. It exposes a world where choices were very limited and the negative social and legal consequences of your decisions could last your whole life. Vine constructs a story within a story; her present-day framing narrative is less satisfying than the ‘lost’ novel at the centre. The thing that has stayed with me is the grubbiness and fear connected to being an outsider between the wars, whether you had become pregnant without being married or you were gay. She also paints a picture of a woman who grows bitter through the choices she has made; again this made me think about the stories we tell about ourselves and how we can become victims of a negative narrative of our own making.

 

Mark Wallace, 03/09/2018

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Reading our times 

The apostle Peter writes, ‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul’ (1 Peter 2:11). Generations of Christians have taken seriously the call to be aliens and strangers in the world. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Puritans had lives which looked radically different from the world around them.

These days most Christians are so immersed in our culture that we struggle to live distinctive lives. We consume media uncritically, without asking any questions of the music we listen to, the films and TV programmes we watch, the newspapers, books and magazines we read or the social media we use. We take information at face value far too readily, in an age where the 24-hour news cycle means that what we consume often has less basis in reality than ever before. 'Fake news' anyone?

Take Brexit for example (I hesitate to mention it!). Recently we were being told by many news outlets that the government’s new blueprint was falling apart and that they could not get any legislation through parliament. This was pronounced even as the government won numerous votes, albeit very narrowly, demonstrating that they could get things through at a moment where lots of people were saying they could not. Our media is quick to pronounce gloom and doom, because crisis is a better story than things progressing well; it does not mean it is true. My 98-year-old granny, who survived the Blitz, often says we would never have won World War Two if we had today’s grim media.

Can I encourage you to approach our media as an ‘alien and stranger’? Ask some basic questions of everything you consume: What is the key message? What facts are being assumed? What are you not being told? Who is being portrayed positively and who negatively: is there a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’? Our media’s simplistic portrayal of President Trump as a ‘baddie’ does not help us to understand what is actually happening in the USA or why people voted for him; many people voted on single issues or simply could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton.

When you scratch the surface there is often much more to our culture than meets the eye. Underneath many stories of young children dying in their homes is a deeper narrative of abuse, depression or suicide which is rarely presented. Underneath a hit movie like The Greatest Showman is a powerful set of assumptions about the positive influence of diversity, tolerance and equality, values which dominate our culture. There is no single ‘Christian view’ of all these things, just a way of consuming them which requires more effort and critical thought than many of us are used to spending.
 

Mark Wallace, 26/07/2018

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What does it mean 'to be community'? 

At SMOB our vision is God’s transforming people in our parish: to love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community. What, then, does it mean to be community? I was brought up in the north London suburb of East Finchley, where there wasn’t a strong sense of community. Our corner of Woking can look like that at first glance. Where is our community? How can we promote a stronger local community? If people need to belong before they believe, we need to make people feel like they belong among us.

In East Finchley some community-spirited individuals made a difference, starting a community festival in our local park. All the local groups came together in the biggest open space which belonged to the community. Not long afterwards, a local free paper started, reporting with wry humour the events on ‘Pigeon Corner’ outside Budgen’s, and the perils of Bertie Bollard, who kept getting crushed by articulated lorries coming round the corner. We discovered that, where there isn’t an obvious community, you have to promote your own.

Scratch the surface in Mount Hermon ward and you discover some signs of true community. Local residents had street parties for the royal wedding a few years ago. Neighbours know each other. As the biggest public building in our parish, we have real opportunities to build community, but we will need to put the work in. We have good form here in the shape of Bethany Babes and CAMEO, which have each served generations at either end of the age spectrum. On 7 July local churches are running a stall at Party in the Park; a great opportunity to expose our church communities to our local community. People need to know about the activities we run, and they need the space to get involved. 

One of the ways we can build community in the longer term is to think about what we want from our building. We have started a consultation, we have some money and we aim to have plans that we like by the end of 2019. Our buildings are our biggest physical asset; how can we use them to build community and draw people in? What space do we need, to start up different groups and activities, or give more room to local groups? We aim to start dipping our toes in the water in months to come, starting with England’s World Cup game next week (and, if we win, the rest of England’s games). We’ve invested in our audio-visual, so why not start using it for more than our Sunday services? Let’s be talking to friends and neighbours in the parish to see what they want.

Psalm 133 has a tenuous connection to our local area as it talks about ‘the dew of Hermon’. It begins, ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!’ There is power in unity and in a truly inclusive and transformational community where everyone can belong. We do this so well as a church; let’s pray that we can bring it to more and more people.

Mark Wallace, 28/06/2018

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Dirty Glory and the power of prayer 

‘Seven days without prayer makes one weak.’ So goes the old board spotted outside many a church. As Christians we know the importance of prayer. Yet often we struggle to pray. We get into tired routines. We reel off cosmic shopping lists of requests for God. We find our prayers are restricted to a quick cry for help in a moment of distress, or when we can’t find a parking space.

I was challenged to think again about prayer by reading Pete Greig’s excellent book Dirty Glory. Greig is the founder of the 24/7 prayer movement and the Pastor of Emmaus Road church in Guildford. His previous book Red Moon Rising charts the first five years of 24/7; his second book God on Mute is probably the single most useful book I have for pastoral work. In it he explores the conundrum of unanswered prayer, and the times in life when God seems distant or even absent.

Dirty Glory is full of miraculous stories (which come with the caveat that they are not the norm in Christian life, and cover a large number of people over a long time). There’s a woman who finds a huge amount of money in her cleaning cupboard, which she knows no one could have put there. When she removes it, more appears; this happens several times. We read of healings and God’s unmistakeable calling to new places. And this is all surrounded by the reality of a Christian community praying as though their lives depended on it.

The challenge for us at St Mary of Bethany is to be a community that prays like we mean it. My sense is that our prayer lives as individuals are stronger than our corporate prayer life. If we are going to grasp the challenge of being God’s transforming people in Woking: to love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community, we will need to be alive to prayer. We will need to intercede with God powerfully. We will need to listen to him. We will need to unleash the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at every opportunity. We will need to pray into our situation as a church: is there something restricting us? What is holding us back?

May I encourage you to use all the resources we have to offer? Our monthly prayer diary is excellent and covers every area of our work and mission. There’s something powerful about the whole church praying for the same thing every day. We have a Prayer Warriors email list where we share urgent prayer requests. Every month we have either a Prayer and Praise service on a Sunday evening or a Wednesday evening Central Prayer Meeting. All our Sunday services include the opportunity to pray with other people.

As you pray, invite God to transform your heart and empower our life together as a church. Spend time listening to him through his word in the Bible, and asking his Holy Spirit to speak to you. Share what you hear. God wants to do amazing things through us!

Dirty Glory is published by Hodder, priced £9.99, and is available at our local Christian bookshop Origin at Christ Church Woking.

Mark Wallace, 01/06/2018

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Christians transforming communities

‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
‘The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”’
  Matthew 25:37-40

Recently I visited Woking Foodbank for the first time. It is one of St Mary of Bethany’s proudest achievements that we give more to the Foodbank than any other not-for-profit organisation. Not just that, but the thing they value most is that we keep closely in touch with them, so that we give items which they need. If in doubt, they are always short of toiletries and washing powder!

It was striking to find that the majority of volunteers at the Foodbank come from local churches. In fact Christians are at the centre of the food bank movement all over Britain. You will find Christians driving all sorts of community projects from Street Angels to youth drop-in centres too. Did you know that the Church of England is by far the largest provider of youth work in England? Our response to the needs we see around us is built on our faith. Principally it is based on the simple truth that human beings are made in God’s image, and deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity which we would ourselves like to receive. It’s all part of loving your neighbour as yourself. It is also based on the idea in Matthew 25 that what we do for the needy, we do for God.

I remember an atheist MP reporting back after a visit to the flood relief operations in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He was impressed by the Christian agencies and volunteers who were helping in huge numbers. He wondered where the atheist and humanist organisations were in the aid efforts.

Christian faith galvanizes people because it is driven by compassion and the recognition that hard times can come to anyone. When I have made bad choices in my life, I have had the resources to put things right. Many people are not so fortunate; for many at Woking Foodbank, a bad choice can make the difference between being able to shop for food and going hungry. Many of us take for granted the fact that we were brought up by loving parents in a safe, stable home environment. For many of the poorest in our society this is not so.

We have a great story to tell when it comes to Christian involvement in our local community. And we can ask questions of others: without a belief in God, or a faith that people have intrinsic dignity because they are made in his image, why should anyone help another person? If we are all random collisions of atoms, how can anything be said to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As Jesus’ people in the places he is placing us, we bring him to everything we do, and we see his transforming presence in others.
 

Mark Wallace, 30/04/2018

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What is church for? 

Most people have no idea what a church does. If you don’t believe me, ask a non-Christian friend. They might have a vague idea of what a Sunday looks like (although if you probe this, you will find it’s generally based on something between EastEnders and The Vicar of Dibley); but they will lack any insight into the seven-day-a-week ministry of the average parish church.
 
This was brought home to me some time ago by a committed church member who had been talking to a friend about bereavement. The church member was talking about the holistic, wrap-around care that the church provides to bereaved people, from planning and delivering a funeral to follow-up and pastoral care which can go on indefinitely. The friend was surprised, not realising that a church would cover anything other than the service. When the church member explored this further, his friend had no awareness of homegroups, work with children and young people, ministry to senior adults or any of the other things the church was running.
 
This reinforced something for me that I have believed for a long time: churches do not need to launch lots of new ministry or do things in radical new ways. What churches need to do much more is to tell their stories, simply to paint a picture of what our life as a family looks like. Thirty years ago many people would have had some idea of this; now they really don’t.
 
So can I encourage you to think about our life together as a church. What is it that you particularly value? What ministries are you involved in and why? What difference does church make in your life? If you are prepared to talk about these things with non-Christian friends, you will be surprised at the interesting conversations that will result.
 
If you want your faith to impact the people around you, you don’t necessarily need to be able to explain the gospel in five minutes or less (although this is a very good thing to be able to do!). You don’t need to be one of those natural evangelists who can turn any conversation into a challenge about Jesus. You just need to be able to tell your story. Why does your faith matter to you? What does it look like? What does our life together look like and why is that something you value? These things are personal to you and they are very hard to argue with. People can say the gospel isn’t true; they can’t say that your faith doesn’t matter to you.


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Our church's new vision statement unpacked 

Last week I launched the new vision statement for SMOB: God’s transforming people in our parish: To love Jesus, to serve others, to be community. Our last vision statement lasted fourteen years and helped us to define who we are today. I hope this one will help us to do the same. It talks about who we are and who we want to be.
 
Let’s think about transformation. Christians believe that we have been transformed by an encounter with Jesus. Some people experience this at a very deep level at conversion, perhaps by being healed of an illness or addiction. For many of us it is a much more gradual process: God is transforming us through his Holy Spirit, but he isn’t finished yet! At SMOB we are a community where people are transformed, in worship, in discipleship, by encountering Jesus for the first time themselves. ‘God’s transforming people’ has a double meaning: we are God’s transforming people and God is transforming people with us.
 
Why does our vision statement talk about ‘our parish’? Because it’s where we are rooted. This slightly haphazard corner of Woking runs from the tower block and Tesco, down along Goldsworth Road, all the way over to Barnsbury, up to the Hoe Stream and Woking Park. Our people share the ‘cure of souls’ for our parish. Only 40% of the regular worshippers at SMOB live in our parish, but we have a responsibility to the many people here who do not yet know Jesus. As we planned this vision, we talked about saying ‘Woking’ instead of ‘our parish’, but felt that other churches might feel that they are God’s transforming people too!
 
Three aims go with our vision. Firstly, the key to everything we do: to love Jesus. If we lose track of our faith in Christ, we will just be a cosy club with nothing distinctive to say to our world. We bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection: there is forgiveness of sins through his work at the cross, there is a fresh start and hope for the future.
 
Next, to serve and tell others. When we reach Holy Week later this month, we will remember Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. There, he got down on his knees and did the most menial job anyone could have done: he washed his disciples’ filthy feet. Then he told them to do the same for others. We are called to radical acts of service for others, and we believe in telling them about Jesus too. Our service will only make a real difference if we can tell people our story. As we show others God’s love and tell them what we believe, they will come to know Jesus for themselves.
 
Finally, to be community. Our church is justifiably known for the strength and warmth of its community. We embrace all sorts of people at every age and stage of life. This has not happened by accident; it has been the work of generations of worshippers here. We need to continue to work hard to build community and open it up to others.
 
If you’re a member of SMOB, please commit to praying about your part in our vision. God’s transforming people in our parish: To love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community.

Mark Wallace, 06/03/2018

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The challenge of the poor

The church is failing the poor and we are not willing to face the many challenges that poverty presents us. Recently I was challenged by an article by a colleague working in a tough area of the country, and this was the broad thrust of his argument. I think it applies to us here at SMOB.
 
Although we live in leafy Surrey, there are many pockets of poverty and deprivation on our patch. In conversation with a local headteacher recently, it was apparent that a significant number of children come to school having had no breakfast, with parents who struggle to get out of bed themselves, due to health or addiction issues.
 
And here is the problem: as a capable, well-resourced professional, church meets my needs by preaching the gospel and providing a strong, caring community of faith. People in poverty have much more complex needs. Their lives can be chaotic, with unreliable incomes, poor physical and mental health and unstable family situations. Is it any wonder that churches feel more confident in dealing with people whose needs are straightforward, than with people whose needs we find overwhelming? In any church, a few people with major pastoral needs can take a huge amount of time, energy and effort for those helping them.
 
Yet God calls us to walk with the poor and that means working to meet their needs. James 2:15–16 says, ‘Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?’ Faced with the complicated needs of struggling Christians, Jesus calls us to get stuck in. We have a track record of this at SMOB: think about our Hope weekends on Barnsbury over the years. I suspect, though, that many of us are afraid of the darkness and chaos which often surrounds those struggling with poverty. Are we prepared to walk into church on Sunday and see our rows filled with people who don’t look like us, who say the wrong thing or smell a bit funny? If church is your ‘safe place’, might God be calling you to something a bit more edgy?
 
As I prepare to launch the new vision statement and plan for SMOB on Sunday 25 February, we need to recognise the positive impact we can make on poorer people on our patch if we can overcome our fears. Many people are struggling alone, without the resources and confidence that we can provide together. Church can seem remote, alien and intimidating to them. Let’s pray and ask God to show us how we can reach across the barriers of class and life experience, so that we can really make a difference to all kinds of people.
 


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New Year, new you?

Happy New Year! And welcome to my new blog. Each month, or more frequently from time to time, I’ll be giving you my thoughts on anything and everything that takes my fancy.
 
It’s the time of year when the newspapers and magazines are full of ‘New Year, new you’ articles. Since my days in book publishing, I’ve always been amused to see who’s jumping on the bandwagon with a January book about diet or lifestyle. My favourite recently was Tom Daley’s book. What do you think his tips would be? Be a professional athlete? Train for six hours a day?
 
From time to time everyone’s spiritual life needs a bit of reviving. Finding the right rhythm of rest, reflection, time alone and time with God is key for all of us. My own practice has developed over a number of years and is the scaffolding around which all of my work gets done. I get away for a retreat once a year, typically for four or five days. I sometimes go to a retreat centre; these are generally in very quiet, rural places, with good food and people who can help guide your time. I have generally spent time on my own up till now; next month I go on a guided retreat for the first time. Every other year I go on a conference which acts as a retreat. It’s a combination of spiritual input and time with friends, which does me the power of good.
 
As well as retreat time, I put aside time for a quiet day once a month. It’s deliberately frequent: if I only take a quiet day every two or three months and miss one for whatever reason, it leaves a long gap between them and puts a lot of pressure on the day. If I have one in the diary every month, I can relax and use it as I choose. Sometimes I pray, other times I go for a walk or a bike ride, but generally I try to be away from home.
 
The other regular part of my schedule is meeting with a Spiritual Director, which I do every couple of months. This is a space to talk things through and pray with an experienced, older Christian leader, who often brings a different perspective from my own.
 
You may well be reading this thinking that your work or your family commitments would never allow you to take time out like this. That might be true, but everyone can think of ways to do something outside your normal routine. You don’t have to do any of the things I do; different things work for different people. For some, the idea of being away in a plain room in the countryside will help them connect with God straight away; for others, time with other people doing something fun is what helps. The important thing is to build in regular time away from your normal environment, to spend time with God and reflect on where you are in life. Just the thought of getting off life’s treadmill every now and then is likely to do you good. What can you do to give yourself that space this year?
 

Mark Wallace, 08/01/2018

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