From now on I will tell you of new things…

Dear friends,
When we were on holiday a couple of weeks ago, we visited a couple of castles which we had never been to before. This is rare in our life, as Pauline has been dragging Matthew around castles for 40 years, and our children got so fed up with them that they referred to these beautiful ruins as ‘piles of rocks’ (although they did enjoy filming them on our video recorder and adding their own derogatory commentary as we read the information boards – far too slowly for their liking!). On this occasion we spent time in Goodrich Castle near Ross-on Wye, which is a very substantial ruin, and Farleigh Hungerford Castle near Bath, which is smaller but beautifully situated. Both looked wonderful in the spring sunshine, and we both enjoyed imagining what these buildings would have looked like in their prime, and learning about the lives of those who once lived in them.

It was a pleasant surprise to find two ‘new’ castles in one week, but it reminded us that finding new expressions of something familiar is an experience we have all had to grow used to over the past year. It would once have amazed us to imagine that we would take pleasure in visiting our friends and families in their gardens on chilly afternoons, as sitting in their living rooms would be unlawful. If anyone had suggested that congregational singing would be forbidden, we would have been horrified at the restraints imposed upon our right to religious freedom; and we would have found the thought of wearing masks in church laughable or even sinister. But perhaps what would have astonished us the most would be the idea that we would very quickly get used to these new expressions of familiar life, so that as the government began to release us into something a little more like what we had known before, we would now be hesitant to embrace our once taken for granted freedoms and begin to cling to the ‘new normal’ instead. So many of us have lost confidence in our physical and mental abilities over this period of enforced isolation and restrictions, even though it was meant for a good purpose, that we are reluctant both to embrace our previous way of life, or to find yet more new expressions of it.

This is completely understandable, and in many cases still very necessary, especially if we have responsibilities to others which mean we must put their safety first. But if this is not the case, staying apart in order to keep ourselves safe is not without its dangers. Jesus came that we might have life in all its fullness, and that includes negotiating new pathways to old freedoms, as well as to new ones. Be assured that our church is open for business, even though we are still negotiating just what that might look like in the coming days.  We can physically gather in worship on Sunday mornings, albeit in a new expression of our shared experience, and we are discovering that listening to our songs instead of singing them is no barrier to enjoying God’s presence. We have also been blessed by visitors who shared both our worship and their stories with us. So if you are ready and able to find what new things God is doing amongst us, even if they are unfamiliar at first, be assured that He will deal gently with us, and will draw us into fresh and unexpected blessings as we walk the journey together.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

…let all the trees of the forest sing for joy!

Dear friends,
In our garden at the manse, we have a rather lovely magnolia tree. This year we had a particularly fine display of pink and white cups, and although the wind had blown some of them onto the lawn, most were still bright and beautiful at the start of the month. But then came a succession of night frosts, and overnight the blossom turned brown and shrivelled up, so that now the tree looks sad and old, where so recently it had been full of vibrant young life. Of course, that is not the end of its story, as the magnolia already carries within it the hope of another flowering next year, and it might even throw out a few blossoms at other times throughout the coming months. It responds to the seasons so that although it is not immune to the harsh realities of a British spring, the frost does not signal the end of its life, and its God-given built in resilience will carry it through to the good days again.

What a metaphor for how we so quickly turn from hope to despair, caught up in the blight of very harsh circumstances just when life appears to be blossoming. We were struck recently by how much positive input was required by politicians, scientists, health professionals and journalists in order to stress the benefits of the Astra Zeneca vaccine since a very small number of tragic fatalities were associated with it. Although tens of millions of people have been protected from Covid because of inoculation by this drug, we are all much more inclined to be swayed by the difficulties it might cause than by the present reality of the good it has done. As one scientist said, the fact that the ill effects have been clearly identified and reported is a good sign that the appropriate systems are working, but we are still cautious, and need ongoing reassurance.

Of course, caution in dangerous circumstances is not necessarily a bad thing, and we learn from our mistakes, but it must not keep us locked away from the world, blighted and shrivelled, so that we do not recognise the hope that God gives us for better tomorrows. Similarly, lives which are scarred by grief, trauma and deep-seated hurts need time and compassion so that God can heal them and bind up their wounds, bringing in a new season to help them flourish again. We have a Saviour who knows our needs, and even in the darkest depths of despair he can and will meet us, bringing life where there was once nothing but decay and pain.

In our recent Sunday services, we have been looking again at how Jesus broke through the locked doors which his disciples were using to keep danger at bay. He needed to prevent them from shrivelling up, and their mission dying before it had even begun. We have remembered that we too are often in danger of becoming locked away by the effects of past experiences, and by fear of what tomorrow may bring. But we are also assured that through the saving power of our risen Lord, spring can be restored in our hearts and lives, and our futures can bloom as Jesus builds and cultivates our resilience and secures our hope for better days ahead.

So let us continue to declare the central truth of the Christian faith… He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest

Dear friends,

What a very long winter this has been! We are currently having a much-needed break and are very grateful to the government for allowing us to get away for a week. We can finally cross the Severn Bridge for a flying visit to Pauline’s mum, and the (hopeful) prospect of summer sunshine and further holidays to come suddenly make the coming weeks a more agreeable prospect than the ones which have passed. Not that we take these things for granted – the last year must have taught us all that plans can suddenly change, but perhaps that makes times of rest and refreshing even more precious now that we are less certain that they will ever arrive.

We take Jesus as our example in these things. He made it very clear that each day is special, either because it has enough troubles of its own so that there is not much point in worrying about the future; or because this very day is made by the Lord and so we should rejoice in it. He knew his scriptures because he would have been immersed in them like all Jewish boys, reciting them over and over until they were second nature and able to be recalled without hesitation in every circumstance. When he visited his home synagogue and was asked to give a reading, he knew exactly which scroll to take and read these words from Isaiah, which became his ‘manifesto’:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus is declaring here that in him there is freedom from all that binds us, so that the past no longer has a grip on us, and the present and future are secure. We are no longer captives to sin, darkness and oppression because the year of the Lord’s favour has arrived and it is very good news indeed. The Spirit of the Lord is on him and in us, granting us peace on earth and forgiveness of sins, so that we can be filled with his love and share it with others. It means that all of us have a purpose and a hope, a future guaranteed by the gift of Jesus’ death and the miracle of his resurrection, allowing his new life to be shared by all those who believe.

And yet… in the busyness of this mission, Jesus still knew that restful days were essential. Not for nothing did God give us the gift of Sabbath rest, a time when He works to restore and refresh us, and we must not deny it even though we recognise the imperative to be active in God’s service. Jesus took himself off from the crowds and spent time with his Father, resting and being restored, so we cannot ignore the need to do the same.  So let us thank God for the days when we can put aside our everyday concerns and instead intentionally enjoy his presence as he re-energises us for the mission to come.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

A lifetime of service

Dear friends,

Much has been said and written over the last two days in tribute to Prince Philip, who sadly died on Friday just a few weeks short of his hundredth birthday. There is little if anything of value that we can add to those tributes, many of which focussed on the years of unstinting service that he devoted to Queen and country, not only as he supported the Queen in her role, but before that during his years in the Navy.

Finding himself in a position where he had no constitutional role, the way that Prince Philip carved out a role for himself in leading initiatives such as the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and his environmental work with the World Wildlife Fund was remarkable, and often years ahead of its time. We give thanks for his vision and foresight in seeking to improve the lives of individuals from all backgrounds, and to improve the environment of the world that we call home.

So we acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of one who has played such a significant role in the life of this country, the wider world and indeed this town. With our friends in other churches across the country, we pray that the Queen will know the comfort of the King she serves, as she and the rest of their family mourn their loss.

We too serve her King, and Prince Philip’s example reminds us that our service is also a lifetime commitment. When we chose to follow Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we became part of God’s royal family, with our own royal duties to perform. The difference is that, whereas Prince Philip had no constitutional role and had to make it up as he went along, God clearly gives us a crucial role in his mission on earth. He calls his Church to continue the work that Jesus started. Our ‘constitution’ is the Bible, and our role is to tell people about Jesus in word and action, through our love for God and our love for others. It is not a commitment that we can pick up and lay down at will. A bit like Prince Philip’s lifetime of devotion and service as the husband of his Queen, ours is a lifetime of devotion and service to the King of kings, in our privileged position as the ‘Bride of Christ’. God calls to serve the communities where he places us, and equips us to do so by using the various gifts and abilities that he gives us. In so doing, we have the remarkable privilege of bringing a touch of God’s goodness, love and grace to the world around us.

The only question left for each of us right now is… how will I serve Him today?

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’

Dear friends,
Palm Sunday is the day when we remember Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem, surrounded by the excited crowds of his followers and hangers-on, along with the curious, the doubtful and the downright dangerous.

Of course, as the week unfolded, apparent triumph turned quickly to apparent disaster, as Jesus’ dangerous opponents had their way, and condemned him to suffer a criminal’s execution on a crude Roman cross.

How swiftly the voice of the masses can turn against those in positions of authority, as any defeated politician or sacked football manager will tell you. Even kings and queens are not immune from rejection, when long-established monarchist nations decide to become republics.

But Jesus? His status as king did not depend on whether his country was a monarchy or a republic. It did not even depend on the fickle whim of the crowds. Commenting on Jesus’ claims about himself, C.S. Lewis concluded that Jesus was either deluded (and therefore mad) or lying (and therefore bad) or telling the truth, in which case he was the Father’s only begotten Son, and therefore even more of a King than those Palm Sunday crowds realised. He was the King of kings, and Lord of lords – a status that was his by divine right, rather than one conferred by either the electorate or the constitution of a nation.

If that is true, then nothing that either the crowds or the authorities said or did to him during that momentous week leading up to his crucifixion could alter the fact. All they could do was to either accept or deny his kingship.

When his disciples cried out ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Luke 20:38) as Jesus entered Jerusalem, they accepted his kingship – even if they didn’t understand his full authority. When one of those disciples – Peter – later said ‘I don’t know this man!’ (Mark 14:71), he momentarily denied Jesus’ kingship. And when the authorities tried, convicted and crucified him, they actively rejected his kingship.

But the empty tomb of Easter morning was Jesus’ proof that whatever anyone said or did to him, he was the King that the crowds said he was – and more. In ascending to his Father’s side, he took his rightful place in heaven once more; and in sending his Holy Spirit to equip us to live for him as a ‘royal priesthood’, he gave us a place in his royal family, and the privilege of working alongside him as he builds his Kingdom on earth today.

Nothing can change who Jesus is. What can change is who we believe he is. If we believe that the Gospel accounts are the delusions of a well-intended madman, then we would be mad to follow him. If we believe that he was lying for his own self-interest, then it would be bad to try and convince anyone otherwise. But if we truly believe that he was – and is – the Son of God, King of kings and Lord of lords… then surely it would be madness not to confess him as Lord and King? So… what do you believe this Easter?

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Signs of hope… 

Dear friends,
At long last, after the long, dark nights of winter, we have reached the point in the year when there is once again more daylight than darkness. Indeed, next weekend we will put our clocks forward and the evenings will suddenly seem remarkably bright. For many of us, these signs of hope of the warmer summer months to come help to lift our spirits and motivate us to use our time more creatively and productively, perhaps getting out into the garden to prepare it for the coming season.

We have recently touched on the fact that the government’s planned roadmap out of lockdown gives us signs of hope for a new season ahead of us, so this year more than most, the hope of the lengthening days of spring speaks to us on multiple levels as we look forward to gathering with friends and family once more, in whatever numbers are deemed to be safe.

We are probably all familiar with God’s ancient message through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel, saying ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’ (Jeremiah 29:11-13)

It is often used as a word of encouragement to those who are going through tough times, as indeed we all are. And although the promise was specifically for the exiled people of Israel at that particular time, it does reveal the heart of God to bless his people. A heart that is most fully expressed in the Easter story, as Jesus’ death and resurrection made it possible for our broken relationship with God to be restored and for us to have the hope and promise of a future with God both in this life and in the life to come.

By the time we reach Easter we hope to be able to resume ‘in-person’ services, albeit with the same limit on numbers that we had during the autumn. However, the sort of large-scale joint services and acts of witness that we normally hope to hold with other churches at Easter will not yet be possible. Instead, Churches Together in Windsor has arranged for a set of 14 ‘Stations of the Cross’ to be erected throughout the town, displaying artwork by Ken Cooke, along with suitable reflections and prayers. There will be a different prayer station outside each church, and they will be displayed from now until Easter Day as a sign to our town and its communities of the Christian hope we have in Jesus, and as a resource to help us to pray for those in need of the hope that God offers us all. So if you walk, run or cycle locally as part of your daily exercise, why not plan visits to the different churches, pause to read the reflections and to pray? If you are not so active, watch out for the leaflets that we will circulate and for a YouTube video that will be posted on our web site so that you can use the resources from the comfort of your home.

Either way, this Easter time, and as we continue to navigate our way out of lockdown, let’s pray for our neighbours and for each other to know the hope and future offered to us through the gift of Jesus.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Moving from the virtual to the real… 

Dear friends,

On Monday, children in England finally went back to school, and we are quite sure that many of them were very glad to do so.  If anyone had told them a year ago that the time would come when going to school would be much more welcome than staying at home for a very extended break, we are sure that some of them would have strongly disagreed, but the past year has changed our perceptions, so that we are now much more grateful for many things which we once either took for granted, or just about tolerated. Certainly, the little ones interviewed by the BBC as they arrived at school for the first time for months, were thrilled to be back with their friends and teachers, in spite of the obvious signs of the new safety regimes which were now in place.

Of course, there were a few tears, not least from the parents, who simultaneously were thrilled to be relieved of the demands of home schooling, but also anxious for their precious offspring. Some children were reluctant to leave Mum and Dad when the time came, and that is hardly surprising given that some of them had only experienced school as a fitful, interrupted thing where they had never been given time to settle down and feel at home.  We are sure that even teenagers, full of the insecurities which come with their age, would also have mixed feelings about returning to the classroom, and wonder if they would cope with the demands of catching up with the lessons they have missed. They have been labelled ‘The Lost Generation’, which is hardly likely to fill them with confidence, so teachers and parents will be keen to help them to re-establish their resilience, and to give them the encouragement they need.

We are very mindful that it is not only children and young people who have had their confidence knocked in some way over the past year.  Many of us have become wary of stepping outside, or of seeing other people, as the normal routine of family visits, shopping, holidays or trips to the cinema have all been curtailed. Even the rhythm of church life has been interrupted and we now see each other in small boxes on our computer screens instead of across the aisles at church or chatting over coffee in the foyer. Of course, the love and fellowship of God has never ceased, but even so, it is time to reimagine what life as a gathered in-person community will be like, so that we are prepared to step away from our doorsteps and experience the joy of being a gathered, in-person community, confident in the love of God and the fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Jesus.  So we hope it won’t be very long before we can once again say ‘see you soon’ and really mean it, as God works within us and around us to build His Kingdom here in this town.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Interpreting the signs of the times

Dear friends,
Now that March has arrived, our calendars and the budding daffodils in our gardens seem to confirm the weather forecasters’ assertion that (meteorological) spring has arrived – although we have to say that the cold wind in our faces during the walk that we’ve just completed would beg to differ!

The changing seasons remind us of the time when Jesus challenged some of the ruling authorities by saying ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’ (Matthew 16:3) In fairness to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were at the mercy of his challenge, they had seen the seasons change every year of their lives; and they had learned from experience what the sky looked like before a fine day and before a stormy day. However, they had never before encountered God’s Messiah, and sadly they had fallen into the trap of requiring him to conform to their expectations rather than to God’s perfect plan.

As we start to emerge from lockdown, we too face a situation that we’ve never faced before. It’s difficult to ‘read the signs’. The government relies on the signs given by ‘the data’ about the rates of infection and spread of Covid-19 and the effectiveness of the vaccination programme, interpreted to them by scientists and other experts. We in turn rely on the government’s legislation and advice, for example as set out in their recent ‘roadmap’, which is interpreted for us by our friends at the Baptist Union. Like every church or organisation, we then have to apply those laws and that guidance in the context of our own unique circumstances. It’s certainly not as easy as ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’!

So along with the perseverance that we’ve been reflecting on over the last few weeks, we will need to exercise much patience, discernment and wisdom as we edge forwards. We know that what we will be able to do will be determined by the changing legislation and guidance along each step of the roadmap. We expect that we will resume meeting in person for worship once the ‘stay at home’ rule ends (hopefully on March 29th) and our neighbours are at least able to meet friends and family in their gardens. And we hope that each step along the roadmap can be taken on the earliest planned dates… but we understand that that is by no means certain. We will need to adapt as we go, initially returning to the sort of pre-booked, socially distanced services that we held in the autumn, but eventually looking forward to being able to remove the limit on numbers once we reach step 4.

As we interpret the signs given to us by scientists, government and the Baptist Union, we will also need to interpret the signs given to us by God. We must not assume that we should simply return to doing all the same things that we did until a year ago. We will be entering a new season, so what is God calling us to prioritise and prepare for in this new season? What part is he calling you to play in it? What is he saying to you and to us, that we need to listen to in order to fully ‘interpret the signs’ and fall into line with God’s perfect plan, rather than conforming to our expectations? As you reflect on those questions, please take the opportunity to share and discuss what you feel God is saying, so that together we can discern the way forward.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

(They) made a crown from some thorny branches and put it on Jesus’ head… 

Dear friends,
In our garden shed is a particularly vicious looking object which was left there by our predecessors at the manse. It is a crown of very long sharp thorns, and just looking at it makes us feel uncomfortable. We think it was made for a Good Friday event, and it sits on a high shelf at the back of the shed so that it is safely out of reach and sight of anyone who might find it both interesting and lethal! However, we had not anticipated an invasion by interlopers – two nesting robins, who for the last few years have found their way in through a gap above the door, and have decided that the crown of thorns, safely tucked away out of sight, is the perfect nesting place for their small clutch of eggs.  They arrived again this week, and the sudden flurry of activity was soon apparent as they flew in and out carrying twigs and leaves, pushing bigger birds out of the way and generally acting as if they owned the place. Matthew investigated later and there was the nest, fully formed in its dangerously sharp encircling thorns and ready for their eggs and hatchlings in due course.

We are both amazed at their ingenuity and amused by the irony of finding a place of safety in something we would find so risky. But as we thought about it we became increasingly aware that this is a message for us: it is through the crown that Jesus’ majesty is demonstrated; and through His ordeal on our behalf that new life is nurtured and our place of safety is assured. Jesus wore the crown of thorns on the worst day of His life, when every place of safety was denied him. He wore it in spite of the pain and humiliation it brought Him, as He knew it was part of the suffering which would restore our relationship with the Father. His sacrifice provided us with the ultimate place of safety where our new life could grow and thrive, so that we can take our place in God’s mission for the world. It is not naturally an easy place to be, and for many around the world there are hazards to be endured simply for being a Christian, but our eternal home is secure through Jesus’ work on the cross, so it is worth the risks involved.

In our current trials, may we find our place of safety with our Saviour, so that the encircling thorns protect us from the dangers of this world, and bring us eternal hope for the days to come.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Tunnel vision

Dear friends,
At an online conference the other day we were told about a picture shared by a friend and colleague of ours. She had been praying at the start of the pandemic and had been given a picture of it as a tunnel through which she was travelling. When she came out the other side everything was different and everyone spoke a different language, so that she needed to ask God what He was trying to teach her.

It’s a good question and one with which we identified, as this particular picture had resonance with us. We were reminded of our journeys through the Channel Tunnel on Le Shuttle where we stayed in our car for the entire journey, which takes about 25 minutes. There were no windows to look through, and we were entirely in the hands of the driver, who was the only person who knew how fast the train was going, and the direction of travel. There was some light in the body of the train, and it was a very comfortable and speedy experience, but in terms of trying to figure out where we were and how many miles had passed, we were completely in the dark. Not until the train slowed down and finally stopped, and the doors were opened, could we take the initiative again and find our way out of Calais and into France.

The image shared at the conference was therefore pertinent for many reasons. The tunnel was necessary as it was the quickest and easiest way to take our car onto the continent, but it still plunged us beneath the seabed, and turned out the lights. We could trust the driver of the train, but they did not feel particularly present, and when we arrived there was a steep learning curve to negotiate, as the familiar British road signs were exchanged for European ones, and we had to remember to drive on the right. Added to this, our French was decidedly rusty so we had to hope that we would meet people who understood us and with whom we could communicate easily if we were to stay safe and get the most out of the experience.

How many of us feel that this is what is happening in our lives at the moment? The end of the tunnel is still just a distant light and we know we need help to reach it safely and to negotiate the landscape when we get there. That might be disconcerting but it’s worth bearing in mind that it will be worth the effort. We drove all the way through Luxembourg, Germany and Austria and over the Alps to Italy, then home again via Switzerland and France before once again travelling through the Channel Tunnel, and although there were difficult and challenging times to negotiate along the way, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of our lives.

We might be in a tunnel now but it is a means to an end and the destination will be worth the effort. And unlike on our physical adventure, the driver through the tunnel stays with us on every subsequent journey and experience, setting the pace, guiding us through and aiming for the light.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

‘Jesus… walked along with them’

Dear friends,
One of my (Matthew’s) prize possessions is a small trophy that I won for coming second in the mile walk when I was at Police Training College. To be fair to me, the guy who won it had the distinct advantage of being 6 feet 7 inches tall… and in case you’re wondering, I completed the four laps of the athletics track in just under 9 minutes, at an average speed of 6½mph. It was the climax of my rather short athletics career…

When I graduated from the college a short while later, my training sergeants gave me a card with light-hearted advice to the effect that I needed to ‘slow down to regulation pace’ when I was walking the beat.

One of the effects of the current pandemic is that in many ways it has forced us all to ‘slow down to regulation pace’. As we do so, although we might not ‘do’ as much in terms of tasks completed, we can find that we actually achieve more in terms of enhancing our own (and others’) quality of life. I write this just after returning from a walk that we took to drop off a couple of items of mail. Normally I would have done that by car on my way between other commitments. But taking the slower option gave us time to talk through things that were on our minds… it meant that we bumped into and said hello to one of our Noah’s Ark families. It did us good physically, mentally and spiritually. God was present in our conversation; he was present in our encounters; and he was present in our walk.

As we continue through our series on perseverance, I am reminded of something that was said about Captain Sir Tom Moore in marking his death this week – ‘He used a walking frame, campaign medals catching the light as he purposefully, effortfully, put one foot in front of the other, day after day. And soon the eyes of a locked-down nation were looking on, mesmerised and moved by his unshowy display of resolve.’ (The Telegraph, 2/2/21) His daily walk last year became a metaphor for the perseverance (and effort) that we all need to get through life, one step at a time.

I was also reminded that in a much slower world, this was the example of Jesus’ lifestyle. No helicopters or flash limousines to get him from place to place. He went everywhere on foot. Slowly. When he walked with his friends on the Emmaus Road after his resurrection, he waited until the evening before disclosing his identity to them. When making his way to heal Jairus’s dying daughter, he paused to attend to another person’s long-standing suffering. And when his close friend Lazarus lay dying, he delayed his journey two whole days before answering Mary and Martha’s distress call. No blue lights or sirens. Just one foot in front of the other. Sometimes very slowly!

And yet he achieved all that he set out to achieve in his life and ministry, until finally he walked willingly and purposefully into Jerusalem to face his destiny, to show us the way of sacrificial love and to call us into God’s family. The risen Jesus still walks slowly today, patiently waiting for us to slow down enough… to catch up with him.

In reflecting on the impact of the pandemic, many commentators are reaching the conclusion that this season of perseverance is an opportunity for us all simply to focus on keeping on putting one foot in front of the other; to walk at regulation pace instead of racing ahead, and in so doing, to slow down enough to catch up with God’s plans and purposes for our lives, as we learn to walk at Jesus’ pace instead of ours.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’

Dear friends,
Several times recently we have heard people complaining that they have no idea what day it is. It’s hardly surprising given our current circumstances, as most of our usual activities are not taking place right now, and our diaries are blank because nothing new is scheduled. Our first thought on waking is ‘what day is it?’, because until we have established where we are in the week, we feel adrift and without helpful markers to get us through the day. Thankfully there are some events in our church calendar which have remain fixed, even if they are in a different format, so that we can still look forward to a new service on Sundays, home groups on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and Messy Church on the second Sunday of the month. Foodshare still gives out food parcels on Thursday afternoons; and if you are very small, Noah’s Ark will still provide you with stories and songs on Friday morning. These vital works of our church have not failed throughout the last ten months, and we are grateful for the continuity they provide, as well as for their joy and service to our community.

Even so, we are very aware that all of us are finding the continuing lack of everyday encounters difficult to handle. It has been a very long time since we sat in Costa with a friend and enjoyed conversation over our coffee, and even our regular Sunday morning virtual catch up can’t quite compensate for the pleasure of going out and having our tea and cake made for us! Our days have morphed and merged, so that we are all bewildered and a little lost, trying to find shape and form in a constantly changing landscape and finding at the end of another long day that very little seems to have been achieved.

It is enormously reassuring to remember that God is not affected by our notion of time and space as ‘with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day’, so He is not going to be confused and disorientated by the lack of routine which we seem to find so necessary. Instead, He provides us with the rhythms of the seasons, ‘summer and winter, and spring time and harvest’, and the slow but inexorable change to our hours of daylight, which are thankfully increasing at this time of year, so that the steady beat of life goes on in spite of the disruption to our busy lives which this pandemic has brought. As each new day dawns, it is good to give Him thanks for another sunrise, even before we try to remember which day of the week it is, and to recognise that however long the hours feel, they are a gift from God and are worthy of our praise and thanks. Let us also remember that He tells us to encourage each other daily, so please take every opportunity to do just that (the new Wednesday afternoon online group which Jenny has recently started is a very good way to share one of those long hours), so that this season will be one we remember for its daily opportunities for warmth, growth and developing relationships, and not just for its difficulties.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’

Dear friends,
A few years ago when my (Pauline) father was very ill, a close friend told me that they had a strong sense that I was going to go ‘through the rapids’ but that Jesus would be with me in the boat. They were right as the following months were very difficult, but I look back at that time and can see how God blessed us through it, not least because of my dad’s own faith and the way God gave my mum all the support and strength she needed. I was reminded of this experience when I read Matthew 14:22-33 as part of my daily reading. The disciples see Jesus walking on the water towards them and think he is a ghost, but he says ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’. Peter of course wants to walk to Jesus, who bids him ‘Come!’, but when Peter sees the wind and waves he gets scared and begins to sink. He cries out ‘Lord save me!’, and we read that Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches him, saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Jesus then climbs into the boat with Peter and the wind drops, much to the awe and wonder of the disciples.

Looking closely at this story I found much to encourage and challenge us. Jesus is not some shadowy spirit gliding over the water but a real robust flesh and blood participant in our humanity, so he knew the threat those waves held. The disciples still had to take courage, so there was an act of will involved, but all that was necessary was for them to see that it was really Jesus and recognise his presence. I love the way that Jesus tells Peter to come to Him, knowing that this was a man of good intentions but sometimes too hot headed to follow them through, and I wonder if Jesus knew what was to follow. As soon as Peter cried out for help, He reached out his hand and caught him, so even though Jesus questions Peter’s lack of faith He didn’t leave him to drown while he waited for the answer! Instead, He takes him into the boat and calms the storm, no doubt with Peter trembling, shaken and soaking wet, but alive and safe.

What an amazing story this is. Right now we are all surrounded by a storm in varying degrees of intensity and some of us are clinging to the sides of the boat. Others of us are taking tentative steps on the water but the surrounding waves are taking our eyes off Jesus. How marvellous to know that Jesus shares and overcomes the danger, encouraging us to see that it is really Him, so that we can cry out ‘Lord save me!’, confident that He will reach out his hand to rescue us before getting into the boat with us to continue the journey together. We might be trembling and shaken, and still conscious of the storm around us, but we know that those wind and waves are subject to His command and that He truly is the son of God.

We are about to start a new sermon series on the theme of persevering, and I find it very encouraging that the man who sank in the waves in spite of having the living Word of God right there with him, still held on to the hope of salvation right to the end of his life. Years later, Peter would encourage his readers to ‘humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.’ Let’s learn from Peter’s voice of experience and recognise Jesus’ presence when He says ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy – John 16:22

Dear friends,
This morning the picture provided by Microsoft when Pauline turned on her computer was of a mountain range in South America. Beautiful enough in its own right, but she was suddenly aware that in the very top of the picture, floating above the peaks, were several hang gliders with brightly coloured canopies. These thrill seekers immediately reminded us of our nephew Andrew, the quietest of young men but a lover of adventure, who loved to spearfish, cycle (he once carried his bike up Ben Nevis then rode down, filming his journey via the camera on his helmet) and hang glide, once landing in his village, much to the astonishment of his parents. We lost Andrew in a diving accident in 2017 and any photos of extreme sportsmen and women always make us think of him.

This morning’s memories triggered others, all concerning people we had lost, and we realised that many of them had died at this time of year, including both our fathers who died in January, though twelve years apart. Our most recent bereavements occurred just before Christmas and we still carry that raw grief, but like all these experiences they trigger memories of how we felt and coped on those earlier occasions. We believe that the loss of a person never leaves us, and that it informs our character in subtle ways, so that we carry them with us in all our subsequent relationships and life experiences. A friend who has themselves suffered the loss of a spouse, and has subsequently very happily remarried, still holds their first spouse very closely in their heart, and this morning sent us a link to a very useful talk by someone in their own position (see link below). The speaker said that the memory of her husband’s death would always make her cry – but the memory of how she met him would always make her laugh. She hadn’t moved on from grief… she had started a new chapter when she met her second husband, but she had moved forward with her grief, not left it behind. It had made her who she is now, and that experience had marked her, and made her, permanently. ‘Some things can’t be fixed, and some wounds don’t heal’ but we will still laugh and find joy in life.

We hadn’t intended to write about this today, but the picture on Pauline’s computer, followed so soon afterwards by the message from our friend, felt like a prompt from God to express these feelings, in these dark days at the start of this year. So much feels uncertain, and many of us are housebound and isolating, so that the memories of the past, and the griefs we have known, may well loom larger than usual. It would be easy to feel guilty that we have somehow not ‘made progress’, especially as Christians who are supposed to rejoice in all circumstances, so that we begin to spiral down into despair and self-loathing. We want to say today that God knows about grief, that through Jesus He felt the whole range of human emotion, and that he understands only too well the isolation which occurs when much needed human contact is lost. If this message speaks to you then please pick up the phone and call us, or call someone else whom you know and trust, and if ever you hear us say the words ‘you should move on’, feel free to put us right, and remind us that we will never move on from grief because we are not meant to. The lessons we learn and the character that is formed when we experience it are far too important for that.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

… none of us lives for ourselves alone

Dear friends,
It won’t be a surprise to any of us that the start of this new year looks much the same as the end of the old one. The rise in Covid cases which has led to the closure of our schools and shops and forbidden our family gatherings, must cause us all concern and we have a responsibility as Christians, as well as good citizens, to ‘do the right thing’ and obey the law. But, unlike in previous lockdowns, churches are this time legally permitted to stay open, leaving us with the freedom to meet in the limited form we have become used to. In spite of this, the Baptist Union has encouraged us to close our doors to all but essential services like Foodshare, giving us these reasons for doing so:

Our freedom must always be held in tension with love. As Christians, we have always had something profound to say about the nature of sacrifice and selflessness. At this time when our society is speaking and relearning the language of laying down their life for their friends, it would be deeply ironic if we put our own need to worship in person before the common good. We are listening to the experiences of church members who work in hospitals and healthcare. In the sacrifice of losing a Sunday gathering, we believe, we join with our communities to ease the strain on the NHS and save the lives of friends and strangers… For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.

The leadership team at DGBC agrees with the BU, so we are not holding any in-person services for the time being, though our online services will continue as before. We are in the very fortunate position of being able to distribute recordings of the services to all those in our fellowship who do not have internet, so no-one needs to be left out. Furthermore, we know that our online services are appreciated by others who live elsewhere in the country, as well as overseas, so our mission has not been curtailed by the pandemic, for which we give God glory. That doesn’t mean that we are complacent, or have failed to understand that meeting in person is of vital importance for the growth of our love and fellowship. Some churches will doubtless stay open for that very reason, and we honour their decision which we are sure was not taken lightly. However, at this vital time, with the vaccine already being administered and hope beginning to grow that the end of this pandemic is on the horizon, we will close our doors and continue to trust God to work through the new and significant opportunities which this pandemic has given us. Messy Church goes live at 3 on Sunday afternoon; our prayer meeting is active on Saturday mornings at 9; homegroups are up and running via Zoom and there is a chance every week for us to catch up at 11.45 on Sunday mornings, where even though we meet as small faces on a screen, we still enjoy our coffee and biscuits together!

This past year has shown us that our church is resilient and alive and that God is using us in the lives of many people throughout our community and beyond. What personal stories do you have of new opportunities which God has given you because of the pandemic… conversations and chances to serve which would never normally have come your way? Please share them with us so that our sense of fellowship will be strengthened, as we continue to give God glory together, keeping connected in whatever ways we can, while we play our part in keeping our community safe.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

…if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

So there goes 2020 and most of us are probably breathing a deep sigh of relief. This time last year we had barely heard of Covid-19, and Pauline would have thought that being forbidden by the government to stay overnight with her mum in Wales was the stuff of bad fiction. But now these things are an ordinary part of everyday life, along with face masks and track and trace, and quite honestly, we have had enough of them. So bring on 2021 and let the good times roll again.

Alas, no… because in spite of the famous midnight chimes of Big Ben, and the fireworks which usually accompany them (noticeably absent this year) it turns out that January 1st looks pretty much like December 31st. We are still in Tier 4 and our New Year’s Day get-togethers were just as curtailed as those at Christmas – in other words they didn’t happen. No browsing at the sales either! Instead we still have short days and cold weather, rain and cloud and the sneaking suspicion that we might have eaten too many mince pies and not enough vegetables. But hang on – we feel like that every year, regardless of Covid. Winter is frequently dreary, the weighing scales are often unkind after Christmas and the sales are never good for our wallets, so why do we always feel as if the change of year is going to make things better?

Perhaps it’s something to do with the eternal optimism which says that we have learned from our mistakes. We can forget about the ways we messed up during the year we are leaving behind, as a brand new year must surely signal brand new opportunities, which we will recognise and use to our advantage. We will naturally find it easy to cut down on chocolate because it does us little good, and we will stick to a new diet and exercise regime because a new year will bring with it a new resolve to do what is right. We will find a better job, curtail unnecessary spending so that, with Del-Boy and Rodney, ‘this time next year we will be millionaires’! Is it any wonder that most New Year resolutions don’t make it past January? Our desire to do better might be sincere but our will power so often fails us, especially when the Christmas chocolates are begging to be eaten. Why, then, should 2021 be any different, even once we have a vaccine and the masks are gathering dust? We will still be the same people at heart, and although we might have learned lessons which only Covid could teach us, we will still face the struggles we endured before the first case ever emerged.

Thankfully as Christians we can have a different perspective. It is not a different date which makes things new and better, but a change of heart, and our God is in the business of re-forming us as new creations. He has promised to remove the stain of sin, regardless of its previous hold on us, through the love and sacrifice of His Son. The apostle Paul wrote that ‘…if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here’; and that ‘…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’, so the trials of 2020 can take their place in the past without breaking us in the present. The even better news is that this is true of any and every year, because this gift of God is eternal and ever-present. All we have to do is accept it, and allow Him to make us the people He always intended us to be, secure in the knowledge that with His help, love and grace, that is a new start we can truly expect to bring us into new and better things.

With our love and prayers for a very happy New Year, with Jesus at its heart,
Matthew and Pauline

‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ 

Dear friends,
The BBC news headlines the other morning felt rather familiar. After months of Covid-dominated news, we are once again in Brexit territory, as the big story was ‘Strong possibility of no trade deal with EU’. We can be forgiven for thinking that we have been here before, and that nothing much seems to have changed. But in reality, the situation is different, as the end of the Brexit transition period draws ever closer, and all the years of debate and politicking, as careers have waxed and waned and the majority of us felt ever more bewildered, are coming to an end. The time of fulfilment is near – and we have yet to see the consequences of what has gone before. It’s the end of an old story – but it’s also the beginning of a new one.

It might seem unlikely, but this has some resonance with the early chapters of the Gospels written by Matthew and Luke, where the birth of the Messiah is announced and then takes place, and a new story breaks into the old. Matthew is keen to tell us that Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of prophecy: speaking of the circumstances of Jesus’ conception, he writes, ‘…all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)’ (Matthew 1:22-23). Later, King Herod’s advisers tell him that Bethlehem was foretold as the place where the Messiah would be born, because ‘…this is what the prophet has written.’ (Matthew 2:5). But Luke is more subtle. Instead, he focuses on people whose stories already have resonance for his audience, so the birth of John the Baptist to old parents reminds them of the birth of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah; and God uses Mary, Jesus’ mother, to sing out the truth that God is still in the business of bringing justice to the poor and hungry, through the gift of a Saviour from the house of King David himself (Luke 1:5-56).

One commentator writes this: ‘The new is at the door, to be sure, as new as the young Mary who visits the old Elizabeth. But for now, it is enough to be assured that the new continues and fulfils the old, with the same God remembering covenants kept and making good on promises made.’ It seems to us that we need to remember and hold on to this, most particularly at this time. The past year has forced us to face new uncertainties, and in spite of the good news that vaccines against Covid are already being administered, we cannot expect a return to ‘normal’ life any time soon. The Brexit situation might also feel like an unwelcome visitor whom we thought we could ignore for a while, but who has turned up anyway without an invitation. We might all be wondering if God has forgotten that it’s Christmas and that we have a right to do what we have always done – but He hasn’t, and anyway, it’s up to Him how we celebrate, if at all. Instead, if this eternal Christmas story is to remain relevant and true, safe from the temptation to turn it into a fairy story, we have to focus on the promises that it contains. It is still a new story, which breaks into the old, bringing with it not uncertainty and the threat of unlooked for change, but rather showering us with abundant hope in a Saviour who loves us.

The angel Gabriel told Mary that ‘…no word from God will ever fail’, so we can be reassured that whatever new story God has planned for us will always be part of His old story – the one He has purposed from the beginning, and He will bring it to fulfilment when the time is right.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

O come, O come, Emmanuel….

Dear friends,
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Hope. On this same Sunday one year ago we lit the first of the candles in our Advent ring, as we do every year, and could not have imagined that twelve months on we would not even be able to meet physically to do exactly the same thing, due to an unseen threat which had killed thousands of people in this country alone. Our government has asked us to be very careful in these pre-vaccine days, so our regular Christmas services are suspended or at the very least held in socially distant forms. Travel plans must be curtailed, and we are allowed just five days over the Christmas period for rather limited contact with family and friends. We have discovered this year that we can take nothing ‘normal’ for granted, and as 2020 draws to a close we are most definitely in need of hope.

We might be tempted to feel that because Christmas won’t be the same this year, we are somehow missing out – but the message of Advent is the same as it has been for generations, so even if our celebrations appear to be muted, they can be no less sincere. Advent reminds us that the church is waiting for the return of Christ in glory, so that He can finally bring into reality His eternal kingdom. In many ways we are in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament, when the people were in exile, remembering how God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, while also waiting and hoping for the coming of the Messiah.  During Advent, we look back and celebrate that Jesus came to be one of us, while at the same time looking ahead to the time when He returns for us, his people. We know that Jesus was born in poverty, lived amongst us, died and rose again to overcome sin and death, that He lives with us today and that He will call us home in His good time, so we can still be glad because that message is unchanging regardless of our own ever-changing circumstances.

Our hope today lies in the truth that we are known to, and loved by, Emmanuel, God with us, so His church is as excited by Advent as it ever was. On this first Advent Sunday of this difficult year, we will meet, albeit virtually, with our brothers and sisters in our local Baptist cluster, and will worship together even though we are apart. We will remember again that we are the church of the risen Saviour, who gave everything that we might be forgiven and reconciled to the Father. We will be glad that we live in a generation where this technology is available, and rejoice that in spite of all we see and experience around us, we can live in hope because our future is secure with Him.

So let us pray the words we always use on the Sunday of Hope, when we light the first of the candles in the Advent ring:

O God of Hope, Emmanuel, God with Us – we ask you to send your light into our hearts at this time. Thank you that you were prepared to come into this world to rescue us. Help us to be ready for the day and the hour of your final appearing.  Live in us and help us to live in you. By the power of the Holy Spirit, transform us so that our worship, our celebration, our time of preparation, may be pleasing to you – both now – and forevermore.  Amen.Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

On the loss of a friend…

Dear friends,

Many of you will have heard by now that our friend Jem Sewell died very suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday. We knew him from his time as pastor of Slough Baptist Church, where Matthew trained for ministry. He was far more than a colleague and mentor, quickly becoming the closest of friends. We loved him dearly and have found this week exceptionally difficult. Jem pastored Slough Baptist Church for twenty years, during which time he moderated for DGBC twice, and he preached at Matthew’s induction service here. In 2012 the family moved to London and the following tribute is on their current church’s website. We echo all their sentiments:

‘It is with overwhelming sadness that we announce the death of our friend and pastor, Jem Sewell. Jem passed away very suddenly on Monday 16th November at home. As there was no warning of this, shock and disbelief is the pervading emotion for his family and our church family. Jem has been the Pastor at Westbourne Park Baptist Church since 1st October 2012, when God led him and Hil and their family to us. Over this time he has been committed in care, support and spiritual leadership of the church here. He has been the God-given person that saw our new church building to completion, and has pastored us through the uncertainty of the pandemic with consistency and love.

Whilst Jem’s death has been so sudden, there are many things that comfort us. Jem always began to pray and consider his sermons on a Monday. His Bible is open on his desk at Matthew 6:19-21, the passage for this coming Sunday. The title of this section is ‘Treasures in Heaven’. Amongst our grief we know that Jem is now with God in heaven. He is receiving the reward of the years of his service to his Lord, and his ministry for His kingdom. Our hearts are broken and we don’t understand why. However, we do know that God is in control; That God holds the masterplan and we WILL trust Him.

The verse that Jem has chosen for our motto text for 2021 is Philippians 4:6-7

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

As a church leadership team we pray that we will all know God’s peace and comfort at this time. And we particularly pray this for Hil, Luke & Emily, Bryony, Ruby and Lydia and that they will know God’s everlasting arms holding them in their grief.’

Jem was an avid reader, and during lockdown he recorded himself reading three books from The Chronicles of Narnia, which can be heard on his church’s website. It felt right to us to recall here the final words of the final book in the series, as our own tribute to him. After their death Peter, Edmund and Lucy stand before the great lion Aslan, who reassures them that they will never leave him again:

…and as [Aslan] spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Jem is at the beginning of Chapter One and we know the best is yet to come.

With thanks for your love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline