Team's blog 

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

 

Living His Story Ch 7 

Stories of finding Jesus

 

‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you, but also all those who are listening to me today might become such as I am - except for these chains’ Acts 26:29.

 

Paul’s prayer in Acts Chapter 26, that all the people who heard him, might come to know and experience Jesus as he did, realistically notes that this could be a quick or a slow process.   Paul came to faith dramatically and famously on the road to Damascus.  I used to think that I too came to faith quickly; I did have a dramatic and instantly life changing Damascene moment, but I’ve come to recognise, and even more so in the wake of reading ‘Living His Story’ this lent, that seeds were sown, nudges were given, links were made and holes in my world view had already opened up.  The ground had been diligently prepared over the years for my dazzling moment of realisation by people who probably never thought for more than a minute or two that their words, action, or witness would have had such a lasting and transforming impact upon me.  

 

All of us who engage in evangelism long for those we witness to and those whom we love to instantly fall down on their knees in response to what we say about our life changing experiences of Jesus.  I wonder, as we reflect on our disappointment, when invariably they don’t, whether we ever stop to take into account our own route to a personal faith in Jesus.  Did we respond in the moment to just one conversation, one talk or one experience that touched upon the gospel message? Or have our own experiences been part of a much bigger and more intricate and imaginative journey?  

 

Jesus calls each one of us into unique roles in his kingdom.  What we experience and how we live prior to that call shapes us into the people we need to be to live it out - this process may be quick, or it may take a lifetime to build up the life experience, gifts and skills that we need to serve God where he calls us.  Our journey, like our faith, is a multilayered experience, rich and diverse, filled one moment with hope and the next with challenge. Our lives before we come to faith were not empty of meaning, they were a complex part of God’s plan, as are the lives of those we have the privilege to speak of Jesus to.  God is so much bigger than the church.  The church is the community that he calls us to be a part of, because we simply cannot do what he calls us to alone - we are made for community, but we would be wise to remember that He is not limited to the church or by the church.  

 

We need to keep an open mind as we mix with people for whom imagining a world other than the one they currently reside in quite impossible.  As Hannah reminds us, helping to initiate someone into the Kingdom is only the start of this extraordinary journey of discipleship, which is the joyful work of a lifetime, a road to Emmaus, where God reveals his truth and his love to us over and over. 

 

Hopefully this lent journey through ‘Living His Story’ has been for you, as it has been for me, a period of personal reflection and a period of equipping.  God doesn’t call us to evangelise because we know instinctively what to do, He calls us because we are ordinary and our ordinary lives are relatable to the hundreds of other ordinary people that he calls us to gently nudge along the pathway to faith. 

 

Click here at 1pm today to join us on Zoom for a further discussion, questions below.  

 

Questions one:

 

How do you feel the story of your journey to faith affects others?  How do those of others affect you?

 

 

Question two:

 

What are some of the ways you might be able to help gently nudge people along the pathway to faith?


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Living His Story Ch 6

Finding echoes of the story of Jesus in our world today

 

Over the years I have been the recipient of some truly amazing gifts from my husband.  I can confirm that he really does listen.  I have been given thoughtfully chosen and designed pieces of jewellery, that I will cherish forever.  Once I got a CD by a German band he knew I liked, that was almost impossible to get hold of.  Often he has been a master of the joyfully unexpected gift, going to any lengths, but once or twice I have received an absolute clanger.  A few years ago, after I had apparently declared several times that I needed them, he gave me some bathroom scales for my birthday.  A few years prior to that I got a set of alloy wheels for a valentines gift, because I had commented on how much I liked the way they made the wheels look like they were going in the opposite direction to the car!  

 

In Alcoholic Anonymous, recovering addicts often talk about the gift of recovery, and how in order to keep it, they must give it away.  Alcoholics are under no illusion, they know that if they don’t give away what they have, a process that reminds them of what the have received, they may well relapse and die.

 

The greatest gift I have ever been given is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 5:19, Luke 8:39 and Acts 1:8, Jesus tells us that it is also our job to give it away.  It was never intended that we would keep the good news to to ourselves, but that it would always be a gift that each one of us would continuously be giving away.  As followers of Jesus, we have the responsibility to tell others what we have experienced in our journey with Him.  It is a matter of life and death, so why do we struggle so much to do it?

 

The alcoholic has a unique way of speaking to another alcoholic because they have experienced the very same thing.  A recovering alcoholic knows the deep longing the active alcoholic has to get and remain sober.  But for some reason we fail to see that we too have this unique understanding of each other; the longing of every human being made in the image of God is the same, it’s just sometimes it can be hard to locate what the person in front of us has placed their hope in. 

 

We are called to deliver the gift of the gospel in ways that the people around us can relate to.  Like Paul in Athens we can gently reveal the truth by finding the fault line in a person or culture’s worldview.  We do this by understanding what they are searching for, and we find clues for this in what they listen to, what they watch, what they read, and what they value.  This way, as Paul did, we can place Jesus at the centre of their search for spiritual fulfilment.  Jesus as the one and only fix for the fault line.  

 

As we get better at studying the culture, and tuning ourselves to what the person in front of us is searching for, we will find common ground, because we all suffer from the same condition, separation from God, and like the alcoholic, each time that we give the gospel away, it will deepen and reaffirm in us the incredible gift we have received.  

 

But as always, even if we are attentive and even if we listen, we will make mistakes and we will be misunderstood, my scales and alloy wheels are testament to that, but we should never be put off, because each time we step forward we can be reassured, by the words of Jesus, who said that He will surely be with us in this, to the very end of the age.

 

Click here to join our zoom meeting today at 1pm, where we will be discussing the questions below.

 

Question One:

 

Do you regularly check out some of the things causing a stir in popular culture and, if not, how might you (enjoyably!) keep yourself well informed?

 

 

Question Two:

 

In what book, film, drama, musical, TV programme or radio broadcast do you find a winning presentation of the gospel?


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Staff team update

With the government roadmap well under way, it’s time for an update on our staff team. This time round, we have needed to wait for detailed guidance to cover our work, and some of this is still in the works. Our team is working hard doing the things we are allowed to do, and planning for the next phase. April to August will see a gradual restart of some of our ministry, and we will say more about that as we go along. I’m aware of speculation about things like our Sunday services; we have made no decisions and will be watching and listening with interest over the next few weeks as we return to in-person worship at 10.30am.
 
One piece of sad news to share is that our fabulous cleaner Carol Amber is retiring and will finish with us in mid-April after over 16 years. She has been an unassuming, hard-working presence behind the scenes and we will miss her enormously.
 
The church office is back to full capacity with Jess McNutt and Sharon Row back from furlough. Much of their work is still undertaken from home, but they are manning the phone and email, and if you need to pick anything up from the office, you can make an appointment. I’m delighted to report that Jess and her other half Elliot announced their engagement this week – congratulations from all of us!
 
Dave Doran, Kate Clarke and Tina Thomas remain on part-time furlough, as much of their work still cannot go ahead. Children’s and youth groups cannot restart indoors or outdoors until 17 May at the earliest, and workers are not allowed to meet one-to-one with children or young people except in emergencies. We are waiting for guidance for toddler groups but they are certain to be one of the last things to reopen. However, after-school groups are allowed, and we’re delighted that Kate will be returning with her team to Barnsbury School after Easter, so her furlough will end then. Dave and Tina’s furlough will be reviewed at the end of April.
 
Sarah Tapp’s one-day-a-week furlough ends next week; the co-operation of Guildford Diocese’s curates has saved them thousands of pounds.
 
Bekah Clark, our bookkeeper Christine Strutt and me remain working for our usual hours. My Extended Ministerial Development Leave is going ahead this year and I will be away from 28 May – 12 September, with Bekah and Sarah covering my workload. Dave is also planning to take some study leave this summer, probably covering the school holidays, and we will ensure his work is covered by the team, with help from outside if necessary. I’ll write more about what this leave looks like after Easter.
 
Do keep praying for all our team as we face an exciting few months!

Mark Wallace, 25/03/2021

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Day of Reflection Tuesday 23 March

A national Day of Reflection has been called this Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown. As we look forward to restrictions being relaxed, can I encourage you not to forge ahead to the new normal without reflecting and praying about what has happened? St Mary of Bethany Church will be open from 12–2pm on Tuesday for quiet reflection and prayer.

Everyone in our country has lost something to Covid. Over 126,000 people have died, equivalent to every man, woman and child in Woking and its surrounding villages; every death affects numerous other people. NHS workers have been overwhelmed, with many having to work outside their speciality, with all the frustrations that must have involved. They have seen far more patients die than they would normally, often after several weeks of desperate illness. They face huge backlogs in their work, with no end in sight.

People who died of Covid in hospital did not see an unmasked face again from the time they were admitted; no one was able to hold their hand or say goodbye properly. Bereaved families (of Covid and non-Covid fatalities) have been denied a normal funeral, the opportunity to hug loved ones or have a cup of tea with them. Care homes have been impacted enormously, with some losing a large proportion of their residents.

Thousands of people have lost jobs, been furloughed or seen their work reduced greatly. Many have had to take risks with their health to keep working. Others have worked from home, losing the day-to-day human contact of the workplace and facing the challenges of endless Zoom calls. Many face ongoing uncertainty and financial instability; a wander around the shops in Woking illustrates how many businesses have disappeared.

Children have missed months of school in person. Those in early years have missed key socialisation time; those in exam years face the uncertainty of how their qualifications will be regarded as they start their careers. Many more vulnerable children have received very little online learning and will struggle to catch up. Students’ lives have not been anywhere near what they had in mind.

All of us have been isolated from friends, family, activities we enjoy including church, places we love to go, holidays we were looking forward to. Even when we have been able to do normal things, we have had to work round many restrictions. Although life is slowly going back to normal, we face numerous ongoing questions and an uncertain future.

As you reflect on Tuesday, have a conversation with God about what you have lost. Don’t be tempted to belittle your losses; be honest about how you feel. Bring to God those who have suffered greatly in this time and will continue to do so. Intercede for those who will feel the consequences for many years in their mental health, and those helping them. Thank God for the good things that have happened: the relationships which have been fostered in our neighbourhoods, the appreciation we have for key workers, the outpouring of creativity and innovation in our technology, vaccine development and for many workers who have changed course fruitfully. Allow God into your uncertainty and concerns about the future. Let the Holy Spirit minister to you and keep track of any words or pictures you receive – do share them if that’s appropriate.

Our society has not shared an experience like this since World War Two; we have never been through a worldwide pandemic which has been so universal. Our children will always be able to ask people what their experience of Covid was; we must pray that this time will build a resilient, adaptable and positive generation. This Day of Reflection is an opportunity begin learning the lessons from what has happened, good and bad. If we are going to build back better, we must dig deep to understand just what has happened and how it has affected us. We can’t do this on one day, but this Tuesday will be a good start.

Mark Wallace, 20/03/2021

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Living His Story Ch. 5

Passing on the Story of Jesus

Welcome to week 5 of my thoughts and responses to chapter 5 of Hannah Steele’s ‘Living His Story.  This chapter entitled Passing on the story of Jesus, helps us to focus on the part the Holy Spirit plays when we speak about the Good News.  

 

 

I love mystery.  I love a whodunnit, but I also love the multi layered mystery that might lie in a painting, a piece of poetry or prose, music, or in a favourite view.  I’m sure I’m not the only one drawn back to certain things over and over, amazed that I am still interested and surprised that they continue to reveal something new on each encounter.  One of these for me is a painting found in the Tate Britain.  I love going to the Tate Britain, I love the familiarity of the journey and the comforting lay out of the galleries.  The anticipation that I feel when finally I reach the last room, the one that holds this painting, never wavers, the painting is small, but it always fills the longing in me to gaze at it, it always reveals something that connects with me in a very deep yet hard to explain way.

 

I think of The Holy Spirit very much like this.  When the Spirit of God is active and we get to be included, we are taken to mysterious and often very unexpected places; words that didn’t make sense or meant nothing suddenly come alive with hope; a mixture of notes, harmonies and melodies become powerful vectors of worship, allowing us to express things we didn’t even know we felt; the minutiae of everyday nature becomes pregnant with the creative promise of an all knowing and loving God.  When we get on board with the Holy Spirit life transforming things happen, a conversation can go from the greyness of Kansas to the glorious technicolour of Oz as eyes are opened and hope restored.  

 

Although we can find all of this inside the church, the Holy Spirit is much more imaginative and playful than just this, consistently we are being invited out of our churches, homes and places of comfort to where the people on God’s heart are to be found.  These places might seem unlikely and unrewarding to us, sometimes even threatening and intimidating, but they are where the mystery of God is to be found, where we get to experience the astounding reach and love of the gospel.  

 

When we accept the call to these places the Holy Spirit takes our words, our gestures and our intentions and forms them into intelligible and sometimes dazzling truth.  Peter’s eyes are opened to the inclusivity of God at the house of Cornelius, a place he was forbidden by Jewish law to even enter.   This revelation that changed the history of the early church, did not happen from the comfort of his own home, but in the house of someone Peter was unlikely to have even spoken with let alone receive hospitality from.   The Holy Spirit prepared the way, then called Peter out into what he thought was the unknown and the prohibited to share what he did know, the gospel.  Today we are being given the same opportunity; not only to invite others to come and see, but to have our own vision of the gospel enlarged and refocused.   

 

Each time we follow the call of the Holy Spirit, something is revealed afresh in us too.  We get to see a little bit more of the width, length, height and depth of the gospel.  Like my favourite painting at the Tate, but on a much more cosmic and mysterious scale, the Holy Spirit delivers fresh revelation to us over and over.  As we partner with God and invite others to join in, we can expect layer upon layer of inclusivity, forgiveness, mercy, grace and love to be disclosed to us, transforming and renewing our minds as we go.

 Click here for link to Zoom meeting at 1pm today. 

 

 

Questions we will be looking at together on Zoom

 

Question 1:

 

The Spirit often ‘propels us out of our comfort zones.’  Have you ever surprised yourself by speaking boldly, or can you think of someone else doing this with remarkable results?

 

 

Question 2:

 

The work of the Holy Spirit is mysterious….Can you think of a situation that has been transformed beyond imagining by the work of the Holy Spirit?


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 Living His Story Ch. 4

Communicating like Jesus did




 

Welcome to Chapter 4 of our Lenten journey through Hannah Steele’s Living His Story.  This Chapter is entitled Communicating Like Jesus Did.  

 

 

My mum is brilliant at having conversations with strangers.  She has an ease about her, and a desire to include, that shows neither embarrassment nor awkwardness that has always intrigued me and has sometimes shown me up.  When I was younger and my Dad was at the peak of his career, she would chat with everybody; sometimes it would be Judges, Barristers and those in Public office, and at others you would find her clearing tables, washing up and chatting passionately with the staff at an event she had attended or even hosted with my Dad.  She would always invite into proper conversations those who would least expect it.  Whatever my mum thought of a situation, organisation or place, she would always treat everyone equally, but I think, often subconsciously, what she was really doing was looking out for the lonely, the undervalued and the overlooked.  She still does it today, provided she can get out! 

 

In this chapter Hannah invites us to see the multi faceted ways that Jesus engaged with people.  We see that he never approached them in a formulaic or systematic way, but often spontaneously, always relationally, and always from the same starting point and incentive, Love. 

 

I’m particularly struck by the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at the well.  Her encounter results in her reflecting back to the people of her town how Jesus, whom she had only just met, knew her intimately, telling them ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done’, and through her sharing this encounter, many, we are told, believed in Him.   This realisation was one that I could barely process when it first dawned on me, the intimacy of the relationship we have with Jesus continues to astound me to this day, and it is a relationship that we can invite others to ‘come and see’. Jesus longs to be in relationship with every person whose path crosses ours.  It is our job to work out moment by moment, encounter by encounter, if God is offering us the opportunity to do the inviting! 

 

The power of us sharing our encounters of Jesus with others is unlimited.  It’s only us that impose limits; limits on ourselves, limits on the people we are talking to, and limits on God - but this passage in John Chapter 4 tells us that ‘many’ in that Samaritan town were transformed through that one woman’s encounter of Jesus.  God is limitless. 

 

So our challenge is to communicate like Jesus.  On the surface that sounds impossibly difficult doesn’t it, I mean we are talking about Jesus here, the living God, who knows everything about everyone?!?  But when we look closer we see that Jesus communicated in ways that met each person individually, talking to their deepest needs and desires, inviting them first into a conversation, and then a relationship.  

 

It seems to me then, that once we have identified an opportunity, the most important thing we can do is to listen.  There aren’t many greater human needs, than the need to be heard, and often in order to listen, we will need to ask questions.  Hannah encourages us to step out of our comfort zones and to ask questions rather than making assumptions about where people are at.  We need to remember or at least try to understand what it feels like not to know Jesus, and to recognise that there are those who think belief in God is ridiculous or unethical.  Once we have listened and understood, we will be in a much better position to speak.  

 

When we do come to speak, we can do so without fear, we can relax and be a bit more like my mum, unencumbered by embarrassment and awkwardness, because ultimately what we speak of is only ever going to be of what we know, what we love and what we trust.  Jesus.  

 

Click here to join Sarah on Zoom at 1pm today for discussion and reflection.

 

Questions for Zoom 

 

Question 1

 

Have you ever experienced an interruption that turned out to be a God moment?  How might you become more prepared for interruptions in your everyday life?

 

 

Question 2

 

What strikes you most about the way Jesus interacted with people?  How might you learn from His approach?


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Harry, Meghan and telling your story

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, made painful viewing this week. I’ve been reflecting on some of the issues around the couple and their story.

One thing which came across very clearly was that Meghan is an accomplished woman and an excellent communicator. As a woman of colour, she embodies something new for the royal family, especially in the context of their engagement with the Commonwealth. As she said, ‘If you can see it, you can be it’ – a royal princess of colour potentially speaks to marginalised people all over the world. Seeing some of the coverage around the interview, it’s clear that both Meghan and Harry are able to connect immediately with all sorts of people. This ability is a feature of many members of our royal family, but one at which this couple clearly excels.

What a shame, then, that someone with so much to offer has been unable to find her place in the working royal family. Having watched The Crown, it is tragic that Meghan’s experience on joining ‘the Firm’ was so similar to Princess Diana’s in the early ’80s, where she was largely left to herself, with no one to introduce her to all the important but often subtle ways of life she needed. The crushing loneliness and isolation of both women feels very out of place in this day and age. Why has so little changed in 40 years, given the pain that so many in their family went through with Diana?

Clearly Meghan and Harry want to set the record straight after years of unpleasant press coverage. I found it shocking to see the contrast in the way the British tabloid media reported Meghan and her sister-in-law Kate. It’s disturbing to see such a clear and vindictive agenda against a talented, self-made, independent woman, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some of this stems from instinctive racism. The couple pointed very clearly to this coverage and the royal family’s failure to shelter them from it or weigh in to defend them as the major reasons for their move to the USA.

Meghan and Harry obviously value the opportunity to tell their story in their own way. They are setting out on a new life together and attempting to take hold of the narrative. In the aftermath of the interview, some have questioned details in the conversation: how were those conversations about Archie’s skin colour really intended? Did the Archbishop of Canterbury really help Meghan and Harry exchange vows days before their wedding? (On a point of order, I always run through the vows with a couple at the wedding rehearsal, so he probably did, and was obviously not marrying them.) A generational divide is also opening up, where those in younger generations are more likely to sympathise with them, and older people being less open. Certainly younger people respond positively to an individual being able to tell their story and make connections to their feelings; the big picture is more important than individual details.

What are the implications for the Church? We will struggle to connect with younger generations if we invoke our traditional understanding of scripture and retell our stories in the same old ways. Rather we are called to reimagine the gospel for every new generation. In these days where telling your story and finding an emotional connection is key, we have the greatest story to tell. It doesn’t take much imagination to ask how biblical characters felt; they often spell it out for you. Jesus told stories with flair, using pictures that were so everyday that they are still relevant 2,000 years later. Younger people may be more understanding of the minor discrepancies in the gospel accounts; rather than pointing to the stories being fiction, they speak to their authenticity – it’s the big picture that counts.

Evangelism becomes far easier if it is simply about telling your story: how did you become a Christian? What difference does following Jesus make in your life? You may not think of yourself as a theologian, but I have never met a Christian who can’t answer either of those questions. Your story is relevant; people can’t argue with your experiences and they may well connect to them.

Sadly the Church has often been a community of people unable to embrace new ways of being, and people who aren’t like us. Over the last year it has been tragic to hear people of colour talking about racism in the Church, women recounting how their ideas and gifts have been belittled and LGBTI+ Christians relating outright rejection from churches which should have welcomed them. In 1 Corinthians Paul talks about the church as a body; every part has something to offer, and we need everyone; so when we sideline others, we hurt ourselves. If we can work to see other people as God sees them, and embrace those whom we might find awkward or uncomfortable, we will ultimately be much richer.

I hope Prince Harry and his Duchess can make peace with both of their families and find a new way of being royal without being part of the Firm. As they face their challenges, we can learn from their story how to be more radically inclusive and open to other people, understanding how their stories can illuminate our one, great story.
 

Mark Wallace, 10/03/2021

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Living His Story Ch. 3

Jesus was in the transformation business
 



Welcome to my reflection of Chapter 3 of “Living His Story’- Jesus was in the Transformation Business.  I hope you are enjoying this lenten journey as much as I am, and if you can make it at 1pm on zoom today or any other Thursday in Lent, for a further discussion, I would love to see you.  

One Monday afternoon early on in my theological training, the lecturer caught us all unprepared when he asked us to get into pairs and film each other for one minute as we explained the difference Jesus had made in our lives.  This was not what my friends and I had in mind at all for a post lunch lecture, we hadn’t known each other for long and it was awkward to think that as future vicars we might do a bad job of this in front of each other!!!!  Luckily there was no playback required and we were all just left with the recordings on our phones.  I confess to have only just played it back this week, of course I should have played it back much sooner, as its purpose was simply to help me grow in confidence and, as the apostle Peter puts it, to always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asked me the reason for the hope that I have.   

So why does the thought of speaking of Jesus make us so uncomfortable?  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a restaurant, film or book that had ‘changed my life’ to anyone, whether they asked or not, but when it comes to Jesus we can feel awkward because people in our post christian culture might think what we have to say is odd or deluded and what if we don’t do a good job of it, and sell Jesus short.   

I think there are forces at work in the world that delight when we struggle to speak of Him, and this makes me all the more determined to overcome my fears and to speak of the immeasurable difference Jesus has made in my life.   Cue my second confession, sometimes though, in my enthusiasm, I can be a bit one sided and speak for too long, I need to remember to invite the other person to ask questions, to make it a conversation and not just a one way story.  

The challenge as we practice telling our stories and speaking of Jesus, is to be alert to where we can improve, rather than put off by where we think we may have failed.  

I don’t believe we need to worry about selling Jesus short though, if our intentions are good, then our efforts will be honoured, and seeds will be sown, whether they take root or not, is no business of ours, the transformation bit is God’s department.  

The apostle Peter, and Hannah in this chapter, strongly suggest though that our efforts would be improved if we were properly prepared.  Transformation is big business in our culture.  When something in our lives is transformed, particularly from the outside, we talk about it, a lot, we photograph it, a lot, we publicise it, a lot. It could be weight loss, a reversal of a diagnosis, a new look or hairstyle.  Our culture loves transformation.  It would only seem sensible then to be prepared to talk of the only transformation we will ever experience in our lives that heals us thoroughly inside and out.  

When I need to prepare for something, it’s not the story of a lecturer or a Christian sage that comes to mind, but one of Adele’s. As a  family we were lucky enough to get tickets to one of her concerts in 2016, where in-between the singing, swearing and banter she relayed a short story about the importance of being prepared, she has permanently left me with the 4 P’s - Poor Preparation leads to Poor Performance, her story is now my story.  Stories stay with us.  

So then, what kind of job did I do of my 1 minute video without preparation.  Well although it felt awkward and I looked a little uncomfortable to begin with, I did get the message across, well I convinced myself at least! 

And this will be the story for most of us most of the time, if we step out confident in our experiences of Jesus, then we will be able to speak of them in a way that engages, because God is Gracious.  Our stories can and will become part of other peoples stories, all we have to do is be prepared to tell them.  

Click here to join Sarah on Zoom at 1pm today for discussion and reflection

Questions for Zoom

Question 1: 
Think of a story of encountering God that you have shared with others or others have shared with you.  What did you learn from the experience?

Question 2:
In what practical ways might you express God’s love to a neighbour this week?
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Some things I've learned about grief

Today marks the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. For whatever reason, after he died I wanted to find out a bit about the grieving process. Now with the benefit of hindsight, and having taken the journey with many people through my work, I have a number of observations about grief which I tend to share with people who are at the start of that journey.
 
(1) Grief isn’t just about death
The grieving process is about letting go of one reality and adjusting to something new, so it isn’t limited to someone dying. We grieve when we move house, change jobs or get divorced. Sometimes we underestimate the need to make space around major life events, to grieve the loss of our old reality and adjust to the new. If you have a relative who has a degenerative illness such as dementia, the grief process is extended, as you have to leave behind the person they were, well before their death. This can bring feelings of guilt when your loved one dies, because you also feel relief that their ordeal (and yours) is over.
 
(2) Grief scrambles your brain
It is usual when someone dies to lose your train of thought completely for some months. You can’t focus and forget things very easily. Simple tasks can become overwhelming. This goes alongside a time when there are generally a lot of complicated and unfamiliar tasks to do, from registering a death, to organising a funeral, contacting solicitors or banks. Most people find this incredibly challenging. The fog does eventually lift but it takes time.
 
(3) Anger is a universal symptom of grief

I am so glad I learned this at the beginning of the process! Everyone (yes, everyone) who grieves gets angry. In general this anger will be misplaced; it is a reaction to the overwhelming feelings that person is experiencing rather than to the precise circumstances they are in. If you have a disagreement with a grieving person, don’t be surprised if it suddenly escalates out of all proportion. You can’t stop this happening (and it would probably be bad to try), but you can understand it when it happens and let yourself off the hook if you feel bad. It’s helpful for the people around you to be understanding too.
 
(4) Grieving takes longer than you think
People often underestimate how long the grieving process takes. When asked, many people think they will be in a state of grief for a loved one for a year or two; experts encourage us to expect it to be more like three to five years. The end point is not one where you don’t miss your loved one any more; it’s one where you can invest in your new reality without that person. It’s a bit like the difference between the pain of an open wound and a scar which has scabbed over; eventually grief ceases to be part of your daily reality and becomes something you notice from time to time, never completely gone but not in life’s foreground.
 
(5) There is no going ‘back to normal’
It’s common for grieving people to be asked when they will be going back to normal. Don’t ever ask a grieving person this! Your normal life would include the person who’s gone, so it’s impossible to go back to normal. The journey through grief is one where you eventually find a new normal, one which somehow makes sense without that person.
 
(6) Beware more than one grieving process at once
A single grieving process is a lot to cope with emotionally; more than one at a time can put you at risk of depression. Losing more than one loved one close to each other, or having other major life changes either side of a death, can make you vulnerable. Keep an eye on your own mental health; if it’s your friend who’s grieving, find some help if they need it. Cruse Bereavement Care provides free, local bereavement counselling all over the country; churches can signpost to other local services, and never underestimate the value of talking things over with your GP.
 
(7) People around you don’t always handle grief well
As a society we have moved away from experiencing death as a daily reality. In previous generations it was much more common for children to die, people tended to have shorter lives and most died at home. People who haven’t experienced a death first-hand tend to have no vocabulary for it today. This can work its way out in unhelpful ways; friends who avoid you in the street or a lively conversation which goes quiet when you walk into the room. Well-meaning people sometimes say, ‘Please let me know if there’s anything I can do’, but a grieving person will struggle to articulate what they need and be able to ask for it. In the early stages of grief, I couldn’t even tell when I was hungry. Another unhelpful thing people say is, ‘I know just how you feel.’ You don’t; no one ever knows just how another person feels. It’s better to listen and try to put yourself in that person’s shoes.
 
If you want to be a true friend to a grieving person, just be present. Let them know you’re there. Don’t wait for them to ask you to cook dinner; turn up on the doorstep with food and be prepared for them to take it without a conversation. Ask if they want to come round just for time with someone else (and be aware that they might need to accept your invitation at an inconvenient time). Grief is a very lonely process and it takes a long time; true friends show up and stay for the duration.
 
A few days after a particularly tragic death, I turned up to see my grieving friends. They were staying with people, one of whom said she had asked them before I arrived, ‘Is Mark safe?’ In that situation it was vital that I wasn’t going to bring my own feelings into a situation which already held quite enough emotion; I needed to be able to hold my friends’ feelings and put mine to one side while I was there. Not everyone can manage this, but you will be an invaluable friend if you can.
 
The Bible’s longest text about grief and suffering is the book of Job. Commentators vary in considering Job’s friends, but when I was grieving I found it hugely significant to read that their first action on seeing Job was to sit in the dust with him in silence for a whole week. Sometimes there is just nothing to say and your presence is enough.
 
One of the brilliant things about church life is that there are always people who have been on these journeys in life before you. We can be good at connecting people and finding meaning together. Don’t be afraid to flag up needs when you see them, either for yourself or someone else. It’s much better to have lots of people mentioning the same need than for it to fall by the wayside.

Mark Wallace, 03/03/2021

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Living His Story Ch.2

Catching up with God 

 

Welcome to Chapter two and week of two of our Lent Journey with Hannah Steele’s ‘Living His Story.’ Each week of lent, I will be reflecting on my experience of reading the book chapter by chapter, and you can join us for a group discussion on Thursdays at 1pm on Zoom.  

 

 

Catching up with God has always made me smile, spotting all the times His spirit had broken through and I hadn’t noticed.  Once I had switched stories I could see that the Books I’d read, music I loved, movies I’d watched, and places I had seen, were all pregnant with God.   To re listen to a song or watch a movie from my teens and to hear God speaking loud and clear, was so affirming, it made me wonder how I had ever missed Him in the first place?!? So, when Donna Lazenby, a lecturer at my theological college pointed out that the most popular Disney movie of all time, Frozen, one which I had watched over and over with my girls, was basically the gospel message encrypted, I realised that my job was simpler than I had thought, I had to catch up with what God was already doing…. 

 

Today I don’t question that God is active and that God is loving, but I’m not sure that I am always quick enough to recognise Him in my day to day life.  Even though it's completely contrary to what I believe I don’t always credit God where He is due, especially if I am finding it hard to see Him in a situation.   This can make me do one of two things; to give up, or to try too hard in my own strength.  Both inevitably lead to dead ends.  I need to be reminded as Hannah does in this chapter, that ‘Evangelism is defined, directed, energised and accomplished by God.’  When I understand that the starting point of evangelism is God, that it is ‘always only and ever because God is love’, then I can avoid many of the pitfalls that would befall me and those to whom I am a witness.    

 

I’ve never been anything but a body surfer, but I feel that evangelism is a bit like catching a wave, I have to read and translate the wave, before I can invite others to take it with me; even thought it is the same wave, they might see it and experience it differently to me.  Jesus, in the gospels approached each individual he met in a way that spoke distinctly to them.  As Christians fixed in a particular tradition of the church, we can get stuck when people don’t see things like we do, but if we trust Gods initiating, then we can know that we do not invite people alone, if we help them to see and to ride the wave, someone else will accompany them from the beach to the street and God will provide the rest. 

 

God not only provides for those we witness to, but he provides for us in our evangelism too.  God gives us what we need, if we ask for it. 

 

One thing I want us all to feel, is a deep and genuine desire to share what we have in Jesus.  I want us to be like Peter and John in Acts 4:20, completely unable to stop ourselves from speaking of what we know of the love of Jesus.  Pope Francis, Hannah tells us, expresses this perfectly in his exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, where he says ‘if we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts…’. We can even ask for the love that will be our motivation in evangelism.  

 

God provides everything that we need.  We can ask him for heightened senses that can become better at seeing the ways that God is already at work, we can ask him for the wisdom to read and interpret the waves, we can ask him for motivating love, and we can know absolutely that even in the most awkward of moments, when we’ve misread the wave and our intentions have been mixed, that his spirit will have already broken through and that we are never ever alone. 

 

 

Questions for this weeks Zoom Discussion:

 

Question one:

 

Have you ever noticed yourself catching up with God either in your own life, or in the lives of others around you? 

 

Question 2:

 

How do you think you might become more aware of God at work in relationships and conversations you are involved in?



Click here to join Sarah on Zoom at 1pm today for discussion and reflection
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Questions about coming out of lockdown

With the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday bringing a huge amount of information, all of us will have had questions. There were no specific announcements that affect church life directly, as we have been allowed to continue to worship in person during this lockdown, but it feels like a good time to have a quick Q&A about our journey through the next few months as a church.
 
When will our physical services restart?
We aim to be back in church by Holy Week and perhaps before. We are discussing restarting at our church council meeting on Monday 8 March, so watch for news in the days after that.
 
We have decided to resume our monthly 8am traditional Holy Communion service in person from Easter Sunday.
 
How long will we continue with our 10.30am service?
For the time being. We have no immediate plans to go back to two morning services, but we do foresee the need to have a more traditional and more contemporary service at some stage. We will look at how people return to physical church when we reopen; it may be that we reach our socially distanced capacity and need to add another service, or things may change when children’s and youth work on a Sunday restart. For now it feels important that we continue to worship as one body together, and continue to do this on- and off-line for a while longer.
 
When will children’s and youth work start in person?
Not yet. We expect to receive detailed guidance next Monday, but we expect to be told that it will be at least April and perhaps May before groups can meet. The government is prioritising keeping children in school, which means minimising contact in indoor groups outside school for some time to come. Dave, Kate, Tina and Joel continue to be in contact with our families, leading online meetings and providing weekly resources.
 
When will we be allowed to sing in church?
Not yet. (Sorry, this is getting repetitive!) We’ve no idea, but expect this to be one of the last things to return to our church life, so probably June at the earliest.
 
When will live music restart?
Probably not until we can sing together, but this is an ongoing conversation with the worship leaders. We are allowed a band at the moment, but this is difficult to arrange with social distancing. It is also a challenge for our tech team to mix a band so that it sounds good simultaneously in church and online. Watch this space.
 
What will we be doing for Election Day on 6 May?

Election Day is a highlight at SMOB, although I confess to being relieved that we’ve had a long break after having three elections in short order in 2019. Unfortunately it looks like we won’t be able to offer refreshments or encourage people to stop for conversations indoors this year. However, we still want to offer people a warm welcome and help them to experience something of us as a community, so we plan to have a fantastic exhibition in our worship space, a display about our building plans, our usual live music and friendly faces on hand all day (outside, weather permitting) for conversations, and to signpost to information.
 
What does Holy Week and Easter look like?
We will publish our programme next week and will have invitations available to collect and deliver by 14 March.
 
Are weddings allowed again?
Yes, from 8 March weddings can go ahead with six guests, with the government road map aiming for 15 guests from 12 April, 30 guests from 17 May and no restrictions from 21 June.
 
When will we offer thanksgiving services for bereaved families?
In March 2020 we committed to offering a thanksgiving service in church to anyone who had held a funeral with us within Covid restrictions, once these were lifted. We will wait until the final restrictions are being lifted before we organise these services, as we want people to be able to hug each other, sing hymns and eat together afterwards, and we don’t want people to make arrangements which then have to be postponed.
 
Do keep praying for our leaders and all those involved in healthcare and vaccination as they continue to plot our course out of the restrictions. Whether you’re desperate to get back to doing things you love, or feeling anxious about this, be sensitive to those who have different feelings and make sure you continue to follow all the government guidance. Get a vaccine as soon as you’re offered one, and encourage anyone who’s unsure about this to do the same.
 

Mark Wallace, 25/02/2021

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Living His Story Ch. 1

The Greatest story of all time


I offered you an invitation to come on a lent journey with me, if you are reading this, or watching this, or coming to our zoom meeting on a Thursday lunchtime, then happily you have accepted my invitation.  You weren’t coerced, forced or tricked into accepting, you have signed up of your own free will.  According to Hannah Steele’s book ‘Living his story’, this is what evangelism is, simply offering an invitation to ‘come and see’.

For the next 6 weeks I am going to draw my thoughts and experiences of reading ‘Living His Story’ into some kind of coherence here on this blog.  This week we start at the beginning with chapter one and what immediately struck me was our very deep need to be part of a story.  My own upbringing was not Christian, we didn’t go to church, but I learned my story from hearing about how I was part of something bigger, my family.  There were stories that were funny, like the time my mum and grandma pushed me around the South of France in my dolly’s buggy because my dad had taken my pushchair to the golf course; and there were stories that were surprising, like the time as a toddler I approached my grandpa, a very formal man, and permanently softened him with my interest in and childlike love for him.  He became part of my story and I became part of his.

As I grew up though and life became more complicated the anchor of family alone didn’t provide the stability that I needed to thrive, and I floundered.  Those floundering years provided the evidence I needed to be open to something different.  With God out of the picture, I had no concept of God at all,, I was utterly powerless in the face of my own brokenness.  I couldn’t fix it.

So who were the people who invited me to ‘come and see’? What were they like and how did they do it?  There were many over the years, some, like Grace, would never get to see the results.  Grace was our babysitter, she was a Christian, my mum had found her through the local Methodist church, my sister and I adored her, outside of close family, she was our favourite.  She prayed for us and blessed us, the impact she had upon us reaches us still today through her son and his family who have miraculously after decades become part of our story once again.  And then there was Anna, who came alongside me, to become my best friend, during the struggles of motherhood.  Anna was (and is) a Christian, never did she suggest she had it right and I had it wrong, not once did she point to my sinfulness, but only showed me the relentless and extravagant love of Jesus, sometimes that was in the form of a massive chocolate muffin and a coffee delivered to my door when my world was falling apart, sometimes it was accompanying me on a Hindu meditation course and one time it was the sending of a bible verse, that changed my life forever.

Not a single invite, prayer or word about Jesus will ever be wasted.  Two very ordinary women evangelists, have changed my life forever.  They invited me to come and see in gentle and subtle ways, they met me right where I was.    Anna spoke of her struggles, and journeyed with me in mine, Grace modelled holiness, so attractive, that it stayed with me permanently.   Many of us feel that over the years, our efforts to evangelise have not been fruitful, but can I encourage you, our efforts often bear visible fruit, its just we aren’t around to see it.

When I accepted Jesus’ invitation, I experienced a change that pervaded everything, I had gone from a fearful lost soul, to knowing that I was loved, forgiven and no longer needed to fear death.  I had switched stories.  Part of this new story is to tell others, and Hannah lists 4 ways we can do this; firstly to tell our own story and how Jesus has made a difference, secondly, by connecting the gospel to the stories we see around us, thirdly, by listening to others and making a connection and fourthly through prayer and living out the story we have become part of.   Anna and Grace did this for me through the power of Jesus.  In partnership with Jesus and other Christians, I can do it too, and so can you.

Click here to join Sarah today, Thursday 18th February, at 1pm on Zoom for further reflection and discussion.


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I've watched and read some things, so you don't have to

It’s always worth thinking about what you see of the gospel in the media you’re consuming. I also like getting recommendations from other people. In that spirit, here are some thoughts on what I’ve been reading and watching recently.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
A really well-made period drama set in the world of 1960s chess. It’s more interesting than it sounds! It opened my eyes to a subculture which has always existed in plain sight, and reminded me that there used to be a chess show on TV in the olden days (but can you name it?). It was great to see an outsider looking in on this culture, a strong female lead in a man’s world. It included a tough portrayal of addiction, which was perhaps a little bit straightforwardly wrapped up. In gospel terms, we had adoption and redemption, rescue and finding light in dark places.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
You may not be familiar with Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1938, the setting for this well-written novel. It makes for pretty grim reading, as you see the last gasp of colonialism played out in the lives of ordinary people. The history is interesting, and so are the characters, as we see much of the story through women’s eyes; it brought home to me how much history is told through the eyes of men, in particular leaders. I found it a book to admire rather than love; well researched, interesting rather than compelling. Gospel themes include how hope can win through in tough situations, and the value of perseverance.

The Crown, series 4 (Netflix)
The compelling series about the royal family arrives in the 1980s and turns away from the Queen for the first time, balancing the stories of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The central performances are in general terrific, with stand-outs for these three. As always, the series sends you to Wikipedia to see which of the details are true and which have been dramatized, but it’s clear that the salient points of the troubled marriage of Charles and Diana are well attested. The pressures and loneliness of many in the royal family come home in a very human way, and we see the cost of the Queen’s single-minded dedication to her duty on her family, in particular her heir. Some gospel thoughts: our actions have consequences, on our own you can’t break the cycle of sin and brokenness in your life, no matter how important and famous you are.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
I confess to being a devotee of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s many years since I read the book, but I am totally immersed in the TV programme, with its unflinching account of an alternative America overtaken by a Puritan theocracy. It’s not for the fainthearted: it’s remorselessly depressing, with no humour, a good deal of violence and often disturbing themes. In her long-awaited, bestselling sequel The Testaments, Atwood answers the question, ‘How will the state of Gilead come to an end?’ I couldn’t put it down, much like every one of her books I’ve read. Gospel themes include how humanity can survive even the most appalling circumstances and how goodness and love win through; also how human attempts to create totalitarian order are always doomed to fall victim to corruption and failure.

Wonder Woman 1984 (online rental)
Wonder Woman returns in the 1980s, facing an unhinged wannabe millionaire and a super-powered villainess, in a sequel which will just about satisfy fans but is unlikely to win over new recruits. The action was concentrated in the second half of the film, making it slow to get going, and we didn’t get enough of a villain who is compelling in the comics. There was the same sense of fun as in the first film, but not quite as much as in many of the Marvel franchises. The plot played on the ‘greed is good’ mentality of the 1980s without getting too laboured by the setting or the message, but I felt the director could have had a bit more fun with the setting. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ was a clear moral of the story; in gospel terms, that you don’t necessarily know what will be good for you in the long run.

Bridgerton (Netflix)
A fun and frothy romance set in an alternative, candy-coloured, multi-racial Regency London, this series was a welcome antidote to Lockdown 3.0. It managed to convey its period setting without any of the details or dialogue being too creaky, and the accomplished cast helped you buy into a show which would have fallen flat if they lacked conviction. It’s not for those of you who will be embarrassed by on-screen sex (which is plentiful here, and, as always, fairly gratuitous). Apparently there are nine books in the series; I wonder whether the viewers will last that long. Gospel themes included the possibility of a fresh start and the redemptive power of love.

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland
A very readable and accessible account of how Christianity worked its way into the social, intellectual and cultural fabric of the western world. Tom Holland is particularly good at charting the journey from the collapse of the Roman empire to the Reformation; I knew very little about the Dark Ages, and he shed some welcome light. This would be a good read for someone who takes it as a given that a Judeo-Christian moral compass is somehow part of our natural order; in fact, Roman citizens thought little of disposing of unwanted infants on rubbish dumps, and the Holocaust had its roots in the atheism and denial of the intrinsic value of humanity explored by Nietsche in the 1800s. This book made me think again about the features of our society which are rooted in our faith.

Finding Alice (ITV)
An unusual drama about grief, with Keeley Hawes playing a woman whose long-term partner falls downstairs and dies. We watch his family pick up the pieces, and we’re presented with grief from various different angles, balancing desperate sadness with humour and understanding. Television often portrays grief poorly; think about the characters in soaps who move on terribly quickly after a tragic death. We have something of an antidote here; I can't think of a more realistic depiction of grief in a mainstream TV series. What lets it down is some rather sloppy plotting around inheritance tax (a quick chat with a high street solicitor wouldn’t have gone amiss), and a final episode which throws in too many threads for a potential second series. In terms of the gospel, there’s food for thought here in what you want to leave behind when you die, and what creates a lasting legacy.

It’s a Sin (Channel 4)
Probably 2021’s most publicised drama so far, in which writer Russell T Davies gives us the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s through the eyes of five flatmates. It is unsparing both in its portrayal of gay life in the early ’80s (again, not one for those of you uncomfortable with on-screen sex) and what AIDS did to a whole community. The show creates an atmosphere of creeping menace from its start in 1981, with headlines about a mystery disease, and the first unexplained illness and death, before taking us down a heartbreaking road with the lead characters. You can’t help but be struck by how much attitudes have changed since the age of casual homophobia and Clause 28, looking back from our world where high street banks have a rainbow flag on their logo in Pride month. There are two brief portrayals of Christians; we start with a minister colluding to keep an AIDS victim’s homosexuality covered up at his funeral, balanced near the end by a very sympathetic scene of a Nigerian father begging his gay son for forgiveness for his ill-treatment of him. Some gospel themes: facing the truth about yourself is better than shame; love and friendship are powerful things; we live in a fallen world where some people suffer greatly and others never face the consequences of their actions.
 

Mark Wallace, 10/02/2021

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Identity, sexuality and the Church of England

Issues around identity and sexuality have been deeply divisive within the Church of England for many years. Over the last 50 years attitudes in society have changed enormously, with same-sex marriage being legalised relatively uncontroversially in recent years. The Church has not changed at the same pace, and finds itself divided between people who want to liberalise our doctrine and affirm the equality of all loving relationships, and those who argue for a traditional understanding of sexual ethics. Debates have often been rancorous and highly personal. How can we move forward positively and find a way through this together?
 
This is the question which faced our bishops in 2017, after a vote at General Synod which rejected their previous approach. They commissioned a major piece of work which was launched in November: Living in Love and Faith (LLF), a study project with a set of resources. This provides a thorough examination and airing of all the relevant issues, to provoke engagement with views other than your own. This builds on the previous process of ‘shared conversations’, where a wide range of people shared their views and got to know and hear from each other about their views of life, the Bible, the Church and personal experiences. People of all backgrounds were able to embrace each other and affirm their place together in the Church without agreeing on many issues.
 
LLF aims to bring this approach to every church during 2021. We are encouraged to create safe spaces to hear everyone’s views and experiences. Rather than debating, the aim is to listen to each other; to bring your own views into the room, but to be open to points of view and experiences with which you may not have engaged. LLF is a set of resources: a book opening up all the theological, cultural and historical issues, a set of videos where individuals and couples speak personally about their own Christian journey, podcasts exploring the themes of the book, and a course which can be studied in groups.
 
Every Diocese is appointing an Advocate to help churches engage with LLF, and Bishop Andrew has asked me to take on the role for Guildford Diocese, along with a small team to help. We will be making contact with deaneries and church leaders to encourage the widest possible engagement and collect feedback. The bishops have set aside the whole of 2021 for this work, with the aim of finding a way forward together in 2022.
 
I have been very encouraged by what I have found in LLF. A full range of views is presented without judgement, and is set alongside the experiences of individuals. It is very simple to engage with part of it: anyone can take five minutes to watch a video; the complete set of sixteen takes less than two hours. In those alone are points of view you may not have heard before. I was sad, but not surprised, that every single same-sex-attracted person featured had bad experiences within the church. I had heard very few Christian trans voices before. Another view rarely featured, and ignored totally by our society, is that of the celibate single person.
 
It may seem overwhelming for us to think about these issues in the middle of lockdown. Many clergy are exhausted and churches are struggling to minister in extreme circumstances. It may be that you need to park LLF until later in the year; the encouragement is to set aside time and not have it fall off your radar. Some people are arguing that this is not the right time to tackle the difficult issues LLF presents; others say there is never a good time to think about contentious issues, and the Church has been kicking the can down the road for long enough. This process is not a bulldozer; if wide engagement proves too challenging this year, there is likely to be more time set aside. Here at SMOB we have a wide range of views on these issues within our congregation, so we are giving careful, prayerful thought on how best to engage with LLF.
 
The Church needs to recognise that many LGBTI+ people have suffered at the hands of fellow Christians. In Guildford Diocese, Bishop Andrew has set up a chaplaincy to provide pastoral support to anyone from these groups for whom church does not feel like a safe place. Others in our churches will need particular care, especially our single people; each church has pastoral care in place if anyone needs help or someone to talk to.
 
Most Christians have thought carefully about these issues and have formed their views over a long time. LLF is not a space which challenges you to change your mind, but it is somewhere where you are encouraged to enlarge your experience and understanding of the full range of views. We will never agree on everything, but we can see God’s image and find common ground with people whose lives are very different from our own. We find this fellowship because of our shared commitment to walking as Jesus’ disciples. If we can maintain this different kind of conversation, holding the tension of differing views, but knowing and appreciating each other, then this may be a new model not just for the Church of England, but our whole society, as we face the challenges ahead.

Living in Love and Faith can be accessed here - everything is available to download free when you register.

Guildford Diocese's LGBTI+ pastoral link is Preb Steve Cox, and details of the group will be available in due course.

 

Mark Wallace, 04/02/2021

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Human number crunching

The UK has passed the tragic milestone of 100,000 people dying of Coronavirus. Some of the coverage this week has sought to put human faces to that number, recognising that each of these people was known and loved by others, and is sorely missed. As a church we’ve lost our first members to the virus too. Even those who were in their 90s have not had the deaths or the send-offs that their families hoped for. There will be many others, like my own granny, who did not contract the virus, but who were utterly defeated by lockdown and its attendant isolation – a human cost far greater than the numbers.

I am writing this on Holocaust Memorial Day. When we talk about the Holocaust, we talk about six million deaths. But as with our 100,000 victims, the number only takes you so far. Each one of those six million was a son, a daughter, a mother, father, brother, sister, colleague, friend, loved and missed by many people. The Holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary people too: citizens who had been fed lies about their neighbours, in an orchestrated effort to dehumanise, remove people’s rights and ultimately destroy whole people groups. It was not an isolated incident which was limited to a particular historical situation; since 1945 we have seen the same thing happen in Cambodia and Rwanda, among other places, in various very different cultures.

Today we still see a tendency to characterise unwanted people groups negatively. Refugees fleeing wars in the middle east or central Asia are talked about as a ‘swarm’, as though they are ravenous insects and not victims of conflict. We talk negatively about ‘economic migrants’, as though moving countries to build a better life for you and yours is an unacceptable thing to do. At a smaller scale, we do this when we ‘other’ groups of people. For example, over the last year I’ve seen comments locally about gangs of youths ignoring social distancing in the park. Beware such casual generalisations; for every young person flouting the rules in a group in the park, there is another who won’t come out of their room, because they are so anxious. The Holocaust had its roots in people making assumptions about Jews: that they were all out to make money, that they were running an international conspiracy among governments and businesses. These things still get said today. Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us that, given political power, these lies became deadly on an industrial scale.

Central to the Christian faith is the idea that human beings are made in God’s image. Every human has intrinsic value. The Holocaust shows us that this is not just a natural human belief. One action which made early Christians distinctive was that they would rescue unwanted infants from the burning rubbish dumps where they were abandoned in the Roman empire. This may sound shocking, until you think about how naturally we can walk past homeless beggars in our streets, choosing to ignore a fellow human (even understanding that it’s better to give money to your local homeless project than direct to someone begging). Slavery defines people as primarily economic units; there are more slaves worldwide today than at any time in history. If people are defined by what they can produce, then disabled people automatically become largely worthless. I have even heard Christians wondering whether a disabled person’s life is worth living, as though any of us can judge what would make someone else’s existence worthwhile.

Thank God that he does not lump us together in groups or judge us by our tribes. He knows us individually and loves us just as we are, in spite of all our flaws. Christians believe we can embrace people who are different from us because of our shared humanity. Jesus himself reached out to the outcasts: the adulterous Samaritan woman, the men with leprosy, the Roman centurion. We can challenge the lazy generalisations of our media or our fellow citizens; if we don’t, we know exactly where it can lead.

Mark Wallace, 27/01/2021

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