Vicar's blog 

Here you will find the latest thoughts from our vicar Mark

 

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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