‘…I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now)’ – St Paul

Dear friends,
When we were on holiday exploring south-west Scotland last month, we set out one day to explore a forest drive in the north of Galloway Forest Park. We had enjoyed a beautiful day meandering along a similar track just a few days earlier, so we were looking forward to it. We tried not to be put off by the dense fog that surrounded us as we drove up above the cloud level, and we emerged from the gloom to find the start of the forest drive. Unfortunately, what none of the websites had mentioned was that this drive was well and truly closed to the public this year, and our plan was scuppered!

Thankfully, we realised that there was a good ‘Plan B’ available. If we drove on for another half an hour, we would reach the coast… and for Matthew, a rather famous golf course at Turnberry – even if it is way out of his price range to play. As we descended, the cloud and fog gave way to lovely warm sunshine, and we found a footpath across the links out to the famous Turnberry lighthouse and adjacent beach ‘…make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.’ Romans 14:13.

While Pauline took in the sea views out to Ailsa Craig, Matthew enjoyed watching golfers take on the challenge of one of the world’s best courses, which he had only previously seen on TV… and we were both stunned by the plush marble interior of the facilities at the lighthouse (installed at the instruction of the current owner, who goes by the very Scottish name of Donald…)

Life doesn’t always go as planned, does it? We were reminded of that last week when we found that we had been in close contact with someone who subsequently tested positive for Covid. As a result, we joined the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Health Secretary and thousands of others in self-isolation on Monday’s rather ambitiously-named ‘Freedom Day’. Not much freedom where we were, effectively under self-administered house arrest! The consequences were inconvenient – two ‘in-person’ services missed, along with Foodshare and a couple of planned BBQs with friends and colleagues; and more importantly, the inconvenience of having to postpone Sandy’s baptism from today (hopefully it will now take place next week). Many things, however, were able to carry on almost as normal thanks to the benefits of modern communications.

Our holiday experience turned out for the best, even though it was not the day that we had planned. It doesn’t take too much research to find examples in the Bible when the plans of the characters involved in a story were thwarted, only for God to replace them with a much better ‘Plan B’. Think of the two disciples heading for Emmaus after Jesus’ death, only to be compelled to turn back after meeting the risen Jesus, so that they could bring their friends the good news that ‘…the Lord has risen!’ (Luke 24:34) Or the many times that Paul was prevented from making planned visits (Romans 1:13). What we might think of as ‘Plan B’ – second best or a last resort because our original plans have been thwarted – often turns out to be God’s best for us. So if in these days you face the frustration of your plans being undone, look for signs that the change of plan is leading you to something better – to God’s best for you.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Everyone in Judah was there… all present and attentive to God

Dear friends,

This week Baptists Together (the umbrella body of which we are part) published the following letter to member churches on their website:

On 12 July, the UK Government confirmed the move to step 4 of their Covid-19 recovery roadmap for England from 19 July. This will remove outstanding legal restrictions including:

  • All remaining limits on social contact are removed. People may meet with whom and with as many as they wish, both indoors and outdoors.
  • Social distancing is no longer demanded in any setting.
  • All restrictions on the numbers at and activities within weddings, funerals and other life events are removed.
  • Face coverings are no longer mandatory in any setting.
  • There are no restrictions on singing.

Nevertheless, as infections continue to rise, the Government recommends continuing caution. Good ventilation, diligence in hygiene, wearing a face covering in enclosed and crowded spaces, and limiting contact with those we do not live with, are all noted as beneficial behaviours. In the light of this, we recommend that it is both sensible and appropriate for churches to continue to take some measures to limit the spread of Covid-19. Churches have a responsibility to protect their staff, congregations, communities, and other users of their buildings. However, it is now down to each church to determine for itself what these measures should be.

We are acutely aware that the process for making decisions going forward has the potential to be divisive. In some respects it was easier when rules were more restrictive but at least definite. How we make decisions may prove to be as important to churches as the decisions themselves. We appeal to everyone involved to be kind to each other, to listen well, to appreciate the pressure leaders are under, and to compromise accordingly. This is a very vulnerable time for churches and we ask you to recall the exhortation in Ephesians 4 to ‘be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’.

We agree. There is no doubt that decision making was far more straight-forward when the law was clear, but now that we have been given autonomy to make the best decisions for our own setting, we all have a responsibility to do what is best and right for those around us, as well as for ourselves.  As we said last week, we need to hear each other’s voices in order to reach a consensus on what we should be doing – not because we are opinionated, but because God speaks to us when we are in community. This is why it is essential that we gather together on Tuesday evening to ask God what in on His heart, and to hear His voice through each other’s wisdom and discernment. This will not be a debate, or an opportunity to be the most insistent voice, but rather to come before God in humility and to say to Him, ‘We don’t know what to do; we’re looking to you.’ (2 Chronicles 20:12, The Message). The meeting is open to all (though only Church members have the responsibility to vote) and you can find out how to take part elsewhere in this newsletter. What a privilege, and how exciting to be in God’s presence while He shows us the way ahead!

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

All the believers were one in mind and heart.

Dear friends,

Last week we encouraged you to return to church as soon as you feel the time is right, so that we could start to rebuild our sense of community, just as the exiles returning to Jerusalem did in the days of Nehemiah. This would be a blessing to all of us, and it has been so good to see members of our congregation gradually returning on Sunday mornings.  This week’s news has certainly helped too.  Premier Christian News reported this week that ‘Mr Javid (the new Health Secretary) said “…there will be no restrictions on communal worship or singing…” There were noises of approval from MPs.’ However, there were still voices of caution in Parliament, saying that this decision, along with the easing of other restrictions such as compulsory wearing of face masks in public spaces, is reckless. We are conscious that these voices can’t be ignored, as the great irony is that what we have been most looking forward to also brings the greatest risk of increased infections.

This is why we need to discern what God is saying to us at this crucial time. To this end, we urge you to attend the Church Members Meeting on Tuesday July 20th, either in person or online (non-members are very welcome to come and be part of the discussion). As Baptists we believe that when we meet together we discern the will of God, so these meetings are not committees, but opportunities to hear God’s voice through the gifts He gives each one of us. Please don’t deprive us of the things He has placed on your heart, as we need your wisdom to move forward into whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. There is no doubt that we will have to do things differently now that the times are changing, but we have a great longing for the renewal of our communal life, so even if you have felt disengaged from church over the past year, please be assured that we value you highly and we need to hear your voice.

There are rewards in sight for our faithfulness to God’s mandate to live life together. On July 25th Sandy Reynolds, our church secretary, is going to be baptised in our newly cleaned baptistery!  She has a wonderful testimony of God’s goodness to her, and we can’t wait to take part in this service. So please be there and be blessed, even as we pray for God’s blessing on Sandy.

In the meantime, we are still able to worship God together and to enjoy each other’s company. Last Sunday, Sarah sent us this message which we are sure will encourage you:

Dear friends, I found myself watching church online again today, sadly my son Mike tested positive for Covid yesterday which means we’re all confined to the house for 10 days (thankfully he’s not feeling too unwell and the rest of us are testing negative) 

It made me realise that although in person church is very different to what we were used to, it is much more spiritually rewarding than sitting alone watching at home.  It’s only having to go back online this morning that made me see how much I’ve been getting out of being in church in person.  I’m hoping this will serve as encouragement to anyone who is feeling it might be too distressing to be in church when it’s not ‘normal’.  My experience is that it’s a lot less strange than watching online.

For anyone who is concerned about Covid safety I think church is about the safest place I go. 

With much love from the confines of home, Sarah

And with our love and prayers too,
Matthew and Pauline

They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.

Dear friends,

Last Sunday morning we looked at the period of exile from the Promised Land experienced by the Israelites of the Old Testament, and how they came back to Jerusalem only to find it in ruins. We remembered that the Israelites were told not to hark back to the old days, but instead to pray for the blessing of the place to which they had been forcibly removed, as by so doing they would themselves be blessed – not an easy task when all that was familiar was gone, as Daniel and his friends discovered. Nehemiah and the other returning exiles also had to find the strength to pick up their tools to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, amidst attempts at sabotage by others unsympathetic to the work, but with courage and a great deal of community enterprise they got the job done. We likened this time of pandemic to being in exile in a strange land, and thought about how we will need to rebuild our own church and community life now that restrictions are easing. We concluded that now was the time to strengthen our own sense of community as the people of God in this place, so that we could rebuild the walls and see what God had in store for us.

We hope that that message encouraged you, so that you will plan to return to church as soon as you feel comfortable doing so. We keep saying that we have made church services about as Covid secure as anything else you might now be able to do, but we recognise that for some of you it’s your own sense of confidence that needs rebuilding before you can think about rebuilding community. This is a problem that is affecting countless thousands of people in this country, and we are very grateful that we have a Saviour who has walked our paths and knows just how this feels. Jesus himself experienced a crisis of confidence in the garden of Gethsemane, and we are sure that one of the reasons he took himself off regularly to meet on his own with his Father was to replenish his own sense of purpose and identity.

So, we want you to know that when you are ready to do so, this place where God has placed us all is ready and most definitely waiting to receive you. You might not have entered the doors for over 15 months, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who have already ‘returned from exile’ don’t need you. Nehemiah was not the first to return to Jerusalem- in fact some had never left – but the walls had not been rebuilt by those he found there already. It required all of them to do the work and once they started to rediscover their identity as the people of God in that place, the work was done exceptionally well and in record time. God has a plan and purpose for our church in these new days, so when He calls you, please be ready and willing to come and help us fulfil them. Let’s get our children and families back in the building; take communion together even if we are using small disposable cups and wafers; share each other’s burdens and pray together again; and let’s see what God has in store that is new and full of promise, ready to bless the local community which has itself known exile and is so much in need of hope.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Reflections on Reconciliation (Part 1)

During the month of June, we are delighted that our mutual friend and fellow church member, Stan Bevan, will be sharing some thoughts on the challenging topic of reconciliation. We commend his reflections to you, and hope you find them helpful.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Dear Friends,

I had just finished reading the newspaper one day and realised there wasn’t a lot of ‘good news’ for that day!  The Government was destroying itself by arguing.  Worldwide there was fighting.  At home the streets seemed to be full of crime, the worst being young people killing each other in knife attacks.  How would it all end?

I started praying about it and strangely I recalled Sir Winston Churchill, although not a Christian, said in one of his famous speeches: – “It is better to ‘Jaw, Jaw’ than to ‘War, War’”

Talking can lead to a settlement of some sort, but war brings sadness and often a desire for revenge, which in its worst case ends up with further conflict, as Hitler did, leading to the second World War!

What is the answer to all this bitterness?

I was next reminded in my thinking of a sermon that really lead to a far better solution.

At my home Church in Portsmouth I sat with the young people in the gallery and became absorbed with a powerful sermon by our minister the Rev. T.J. Lewis.  His text was Genesis 33v4: – ‘And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept.’ (King James Version).  This was the concluding act in the story of Jacob and his brother Esau who had parted years before due to Jacob’s deceit in stealing Esau’s ‘birth right’ from their father, a sacred blessing from their aged and nearly blind father, meaning Jacob would receive wealth and position from their father which would normally have been Esau’s right.  (Read it for yourself from Genesis 27)

T.J.’s sermon was a passionate exposition on the word RECONCILATION.  As he delivered this sermon he paced up and down in our large pulpit and like many Welsh preachers wept along with his oratory.  To my surprise many of the congregation wept too.

The service concluded with communion, being the 3rd Sunday morning of the month.  As a youth group we were encouraged to observe.

T.J. wasn’t finished with his message, reading the familiar passage for communion in 1 Corinthians 11 he stressed v18 ‘…I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it!’  “Now,” said T.J., “is the time to put that right before God, before we partake of the elements.  So let us bow in prayer.”

A few seconds passed, then we heard footsteps from the gallery, down the stairs and along the aisle to the communion table.  A church member who was a senior science teacher in a local Secondary School (later to be called a Grammar School in the education reshuffle around that time) proceeded towards one of the deacons seated at the table and to our astonishment hugged him AND WEPT, as did the deacon, a well-known Junior School headmaster in the town!!  Now I saw my Dad (also a Welshman) was in tears, and many others.  Evidently these two men had had a violent argument at a Church Meeting and had not spoken to each other for years!  T.J. quietly said “This is Reconciliation; let us all now be reconciled with Jesus who died because of our sins.”  Many in that congregation fell on their knees and wept.

Many years later, on the evening of my baptism, I went to my middle brother, Alan, and said I was sorry I had hurt him so badly in an argument walking to our Gran’s for Sunday tea a couple of years previously.  “What are you talking about, you silly nipper.  Come here!!”  Yes, hugs and tears which sealed a loving relationship right up to his death, when I related the event at his funeral service.

What a different world it would be if all nations learnt the meaning of reconciliation – ‘FORGIVE and FORGET.’

God bless all who read this message – it can happen to you.

Stan Bevan

P.S.  In my next letter to you I’ll explain the significance of my reconciliation with my brother Alan.

Reflections on Reconciliation (Part 2) – ‘Inner Peace’

During the month of June, we are delighted that our mutual friend and fellow church member, Stan Bevan, is sharing some thoughts on the challenging topic of reconciliation. We commend his reflections to you, and hope you find them helpful.

With our love and prayers,

Matthew and Pauline

Dear Friends,

I had two brothers, Harold the eldest and Alan my middle brother

Harold was my idol and I respected him from an early age.  However, Alan and I fought like cats and dogs as children and I’m sure contributed to Mum’s severe migraine attacks, although she blamed her poor eyesight.

The reason for Alan’s attitude, I feel, was due to the fact that up to my birth he had all the attention and Harold thought well of him.  As I grew older I became a great irritation to Alan.  Whereas previously he and Harold had gone out together, especially Saturday mornings, now Alan had to put up with young Stan spoiling all the fun.

All this escalated into early youth.  Harold was a good long-distance runner but only indulged in this activity whilst at school.

I too held the record for the 100 yards sprint race at school, a fair mile runner too, but excelled in most ball games, football being my best sport.

Alan?  He preferred to watch and sat in the hedge when his class did a cross country run, and joined in the final of the race as his mates returned from their efforts.

When I was 15 I had a trial for Portsmouth Football Club Junior side.  This was due to being spotted by one of Pompey’s scouts whilst playing for Portsmouth Southern Grammar School.  I didn’t play particularly well in the trial game.  As a sprinter I was selected as a right winger who could get the ball up field quickly and then pass to the centre forward to score.  However, in the trial game I was unknown to most of the team and as I wasn’t passed the ball I couldn’t perform.

Anyway, going back to Alan.  One particular day we were walking to my Gran’s for Sunday tea (Mum was already there).  As usual Alan and I were arguing and he remarked that I was a failure at football.  “At least I haven’t failed my exams,” I retorted.  I was surprised I didn’t get an acrid reply.  We walked in silence for the rest of the journey.  Instead after a moment or two he quietly said, “There’s no need to say that.”  We walked in silence for the rest of the journey.

All Dockyard apprentices had to attend the Admiralty Dockyard School, either the upper school or the lower school (according to one’s academic ability) for a maximum of four years if successful.  Harold, a brilliant scholar, did four years in the upper school.  Alan had failed in the 3rd year in the upper school but was successful later taking an H.N.C. at the local college.  But at the time of our argument he was feeling rather raw about his failure.

But his hurt was now felt by me also; it played on my mind but I didn’t know how to deal with it.

So it was on the evening of my baptism I went to him and said how sorry I was for the hurtful argument.  He looked at me with love and replied: “What are you talking about, you silly nipper – come here!”  He hugged me and we both dissolved into tears.

You see when you hurt another by words, you actually hurt yourself as well and your hurt becomes harder for you to deal with.

As a result of reconciliation, Alan came to me later on and asked me to be best man at his wedding – not Harold!

Likewise, he in turn became my best man and a loving brother as well.

In Matthew 18v21 Peter asks Jesus how many times should he forgive his brother, up to seven times?

Jesus replied, “not seven times but seventy times seven.”

In other words, always seek reconciliation, it brings an inner peace – at least it did for me.

Stan Bevan

Reflections on Reconciliation (Part 3) – No words needed

During the month of June, we are delighted that our mutual friend and fellow church member, Stan Bevan, is sharing some thoughts on the challenging topic of reconciliation. We commend his reflections to you, and hope you find them helpful.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Dear Friends,

When England declared war on Germany in 1939 due to them marching into Poland, all the children in Portsmouth were evacuated for fear of bombing, and this evacuation was arranged by one’s school.  If, however, one had relatives or friends in a safe place one’s parents were allowed to organise their own evacuation.

My brother Alan went with his school to Winchester but as I was only eight years old at that time I was sent down to my Dad’s old home in Waterstone, near Milford Haven, South Wales.

I was put in the care of a railway guard who lived in that area and sent on this 300-mile journey taking 12 hours – on my own!  But that’s another story!

In my Dad’s home lived an unmarried brother, Uncle Al, also his sister Sadie with three children, Doris, Betty and Marion, her husband having died when the eldest daughter, Doris, was 11 years old.  Also living there was Auntie Molly and her husband Uncle George.

And now little Stanley was joining them.  Auntie Molly was very loving and caring but Auntie Sadie was bitter, I think because at the hint of trouble my Dad had shipped me down to her, who had struggled to bring up three girls alone.

Anyway, that was my conclusion in the years that followed.  Aunt Sal, as she was nicknamed, gave me a very rough time when it was her week to look after me.  She was always making biting remarks and made me collect water from the well carrying two 1½ gallon water jugs that bashed against my ankles.  She also looked after my food ration books for that week – and the girls benefitted from it.  There was no electricity or gas lighting and she always gave me the smallest paraffin lamp to go to bed.  So I could go on and on!  But I just wanted to point out how much I resented her.  To make matters worse, in front of visitors or especially family she became ‘smarmy’ and put her arm round my shoulder and addressed me as ‘Dear Stanley’.  Oh, how I came to loathe her.

But the years passed, the war ended, I became a Christian, married and became a father to three lovely children.  We used to go camping for our holidays, mainly because it was the cheapest.  One year we went to Pendine Sands in South Wales.  After a couple of days Pat, my wife, said “What is wrong with you, you seem so restless?”  “I think I want to visit Waterstone.”  “Right, we’ll go tomorrow.”

I didn’t sleep well that night, but next day off we went.

When we arrived at the old house I sensed something was wrong.  Auntie Molly had died and Auntie Doris, another sister, had moved in and she greeted us.  But in the front sitting room there was a bed facing the window and in it was a very ill and frail old lady – Auntie Sadie!!  She was in her last days suffering from cancer.

She gazed up at me with an appealing sort of look and held out her frail old hand to me.  I took it and it was feverishly hot.  She had very little strength but I felt a gentle squeeze.  I said as gently as I could “Hello, Auntie, I’ve come to pray with you.”  I now cupped her hand between both of mine and prayed for her.  I didn’t close my eyes and neither did she.  She just gazed into my eyes and a tear rolled down her cheek.  I thanked God for sending me to her.  Without any words a glorious peace welled into my heart.  She couldn’t speak but her eyes seemed to say “I’m sorry” – at last Reconciliation, I was at peace with God and my dear Aunt Sadie.

Actions often speak louder than words.

God bless you all
Stan Bevan

P.S.  I went back down for her funeral soon afterwards and I can assure you my tears were genuine.  The past was healed.

Reflections on Reconciliation (Part 4) – It takes two

During the month of June, we are delighted that our mutual friend and fellow church member, Stan Bevan, is sharing some thoughts on the challenging topic of reconciliation. We commend his reflections to you, and hope you find this final one helpful.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

Dear Friends,
This Is the last of my thoughts on reconciliation based on personal experience.

After my experience at sea in National Service days when I had a glorious experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence, I came ashore and worked in Slough on design and development of diesel engines.

I recounted my spiritual experiences at a service at Datchet Baptist Church where the Pastor, Bob Anderson encouraged me to join the Baptist Lay Preacher’s Association.  This led to part time studies at Regent’s Park College, Oxford and I became an accredited Baptist Lay Pastor.  One year I was elected as the President of the Berks Baptist Association.

Through Boys’ Brigade work as President, I was invited to a Mission Church in Chesham to preach at their Church Anniversary.  I accepted and with all acknowledgments preached T.J. Lewis’s sermon on Reconciliation, in my own words, of course.

Being an Anniversary, they concluded with Communion, so I put T.J.’s comments into the service stressing the need for reconciliation between ourselves before taking the bread and wine.

After the service two men approached me and said they had heard the Lord’s call to settle their differences.  Wonderful!

About two years later I was invited to preach and again the Lord led me to say something further on the subject of reconciliation with an account of an experience with the industrial organisation ’Faith at Work Trust’ of which I was Chairman.

Again, after the service the same two men who had come forward previously came up to me.

One of them explained to me that last time when they came forward it had been the initiative of the other man and in actual fact he was saying in his mind “It’s about time he apologised, let’s hope he is sincere!”

Of course, the desire for peace didn’t last!  This time it was the insincere man who was seeking forgiveness.  Hugs and genuine tears from both parties.

When we seek peace with Jesus you can be sure that He accepts us with a forgiveness offered long before our response to Him.

‘He died that we might be forgiven’ says the old hymn – believe it, it’s true!

Yours, Stan Bevan

P.S.  Summing up of my four letters:

Reconciliation needs action; it gives inner peace; not always words but it does mean sincerity of both parties; and it is the work of our ever-loving Heavenly Father by His Spirit.

How wonderful.

From the Manse… …or not, on this occasion!

Dear friends,
We are always delighted to hear your stories of how God has either blessed you or used you in unexpected ways, and even more delighted when you are happy to share them more widely. One such story came to our attention at the end of last week’s in-person service… but we will let Sarah Howard tell the story. We hope it encourages you!

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

The Lectio 365 devotional this morning asked the question, “when was the last time you felt a whole-body response to Jesus”.  Happily, my answer was “last Sunday”.  Following the Baptist Assembly service, I felt physically rocked by seeing, laid out in front of me, where God’s plan has been at work.

The catalyst for this was the talk by Shane Claiborne.  I first heard him speak at New Wine in 2012.  When I’ve been asked to talk about Foodshare I’ve often started the story in 2013 out of concern for talking too long.  However, 2012 is where my personal story starts.

That evening at New Wine I’d decided not to go to the evening worship as I was feeling quite overwhelmed with all I’d been hearing.  Part way through though I suddenly knew I had to go and just as Shane started to speak, I’d sat down at the back.  Among a great deal else, Shane talked about Mother Theresa.  He had wanted to witness her ministry and managed to make contact, she simply told him, come.  He talked about all the plans and logistics on his mind, and how she just dismissed them as irrelevant details.  So, he simply went.

It catapulted me back to when I was about 8 or 9 and heard about Mother Theresa in a school assembly.  I vividly remember being fired up about her ministry and desperate to help.  Without any regard for the impracticalities, I decided that my class should knit a blanket to send.  The challenge was that only 2 people in my class knew how to knit, so I taught anyone who was willing.  The resulting squares (aka random shapes) presented their own challenge to my wonderful Mum who had offered to sew them all together.  The blanket was eventually completed and sent to India.

The reason this came back to me in 2012 was that I wanted that spirit back, I wanted to be able to do things without being held back by fear or feeling that the challenge was too big.  I went to the front that evening to ask for prayer, I think I babbled incoherently to the person who came to pray with me, but God heard.

Nothing happened or particularly changed for almost exactly a year.  This is where the testimony becomes familiar to most who know me.  At New Wine in 2013 I heard God’s command that I should respond to the need for a Foodbank in Windsor.  I know this was God’s voice with absolute certainty as I really didn’t want to do it, I didn’t have the obvious skills needed to undertake such a project.  But, my prayers of a year before came back to me.  That 8-year-old didn’t have the skills but did it anyway.  A further similarity is that my classmates got behind the project in exactly the same way that so many fantastic volunteers and church leaders were right alongside me getting Windsor Foodshare up and running.

The short version of the following 7 years is that Windsor Foodshare opened its doors to 5 families in October 2013.  Our store was a shelving unit in a cupboard which rapidly spilled out to cover the back of the church.  The church then rented a portacabin for us, we outgrew that too and the Windsor Lions donated the money needed to buy a shipping container.  Through all of this God was with us, in fact more than that, leading us.  I often felt that my prayers were answered before I’d even got round to praying them.  In parallel with Foodshare, I was dealing with a challenging issue in my personal life at the time.  It felt that my prayers for that problem were falling on deaf ears.  I couldn’t see it at the time, but looking back it’s clear, despite the challenges Foodshare gave me, I always knew God was in control and that was keeping me faithful.  In the same parallel way last summer, at the point that I knew God was saying Foodshare had grown too big for me to manage there was a miraculous breakthrough in the personal issue I was struggling with.  I handed the running of Foodshare over to 3 amazing volunteers in September 2020 – at this point we were able to support up to 80 families each week, but this has since increased even further.  With fresh ideas and energy, they are now offering families even more each week by way of fresh produce.

On Sunday, Matthew suggested that we left the building via the Cooper Hall which has been used for storing food throughout the pandemic.  As the food is gradually being moved back into the portacabin and container he wanted us, as a church, to remember what a blessing our building has been to Foodshare over the last 14 months.  When the building was closed for worship, Foodshare practically took it over.  It allowed it to continue to operate as volunteers could work spaced out and remain safe.

As I walked through the room with its stack of food crates, I found myself physically shaken by the enormity of what God has done in me.  There were many times that Foodshare felt like an unbearable burden, one I was ill-equipped for, but, God always gave what was needed.  Most often this was in the form of other people with the necessary skills, time and willingness.

Shane is an inspirational speaker and his passion for social justice is limitless.  I would thoroughly recommend watching the Baptist Assembly service if you missed it, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhPTvsRDfb0

Sarah Howard, 20th May 2021

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