Vicar's blog 

Here you will find the latest thoughts from our vicar Mark

 

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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