It shall be a jubilee for you… and is to be holy for you

Dear friends,
The combination of the Jubilee weekend and Pentecost seems to us to be a
particularly special one, as it draws together the Biblical themes of redemption,
freedom, empowering and celebration. Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee gives us a
reason to recall her many years of faithful service and personal sacrifice, and
many of us will share the celebrations with friends and family. But jubilees are not
just for reigning monarchs and their people – God originally designed them as a
gift that restored lost freedoms to his people every fifty years.
We can read God’s instructions to Moses in Leviticus 25: – ‘Consecrate the fiftieth
year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be
a jubilee for you… and is to be holy for you… Even if someone is not redeemed in
any (other) way, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee.’ In
jubilee years, slaves were to be released, property returned to its original owners,
and everyone was to go back to their homes and families in peace and safety.
Interestingly, there are few other references to jubilee in the scriptures – all in
Leviticus and Deuteronomy – so perhaps the concept was never really embraced,
and God’s wonderful intention was lost.
That brings us to the other significant event we are celebrating today – the Day of
Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, ten days after his ascension, and
the beginning of a whole new era. The Holy Spirit came upon those who were
obediently waiting for him – people who remembered Jesus’ promise that: ‘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, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s
favour.’ No wonder Jesus’ friend Peter could proclaim with such authority to
thousands of listeners “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of
Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy
Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all
whom the Lord our God will call.”
The promise is still the same today. This is the Year of Jubilee, and through the
gift of his Spirit, we are freed to be the redeemed people of God – Hallelujah!
With our love and prayers
Matthew and Pauline

The only thing that counts…

Dear friends,

Next weekend, we will both have the pleasure of attending the annual Baptist Assembly in Bournemouth. It’s an opportunity to revisit the town where Matthew grew up, to meet up with family there for the first time in over two years, and (hopefully) to take a stroll along the seafront. Above all, though, it will be a chance to find out what God is doing in and through other Baptist churches up and down the country and to be encouraged that we are but a small part of a much bigger family.

Looking back at the last time the event was in Bournemouth, we were reminded of one of the sessions we attended on that occasion. The speaker was reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, and pointed out that the economics of the world would say that we should protect the 99 safe sheep to prevent any more from getting lost. However, he went on to argue that the economics of God’s kingdom says just the opposite – it exhorts us to go out and find the one sheep that is missing, because people matter to God and the real party celebration lies in bringing home the lost.

We each have the privilege of being part of the church family that is Dedworth Green Baptist Church. The church is part of the wider family of Baptist churches in Great Britain and across the world, which in turn is just part of God’s family, His Church. The apostle Paul writes that ‘The only thing that counts is faith (in Christ) expressing itself through love.’ (Galatians 5:7) What unites us as God’s family – regardless of individual or denominational differences – is therefore far stronger and more important than the trivia that can sometimes threaten our unity.

When we prioritise our unity by concentrating on the only thing that counts, we find that we have a church family to which we actually want to invite the ‘lost sheep’ around us in our homes, offices and neighbourhoods. Our family is still incomplete, and it’s one worth joining, because it has the perfect Father – so let’s remember to look out for the missing family members, rather than simply enjoying time with the 99!

With our love and prayers
Matthew and Pauline

(PS – you can also enjoy time with the ‘99’ by joining us at the main service from the Baptist Assembly, which will be shown live at DGBC at 10.30am next Sunday)

Easter – From the way things used to be…. to the way things ought to be

Dear friends,
Someone once asked Matthew what Jesus meant when he said that ‘no-one sews a (new) patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment… (or) pours new wine into old wineskins.’ (Mark 2:21-22).
We often lose the immediate meaning of Jesus’ illustrations that would have been blindingly obvious to his first-century listeners, so we are always grateful for the wisdom of those who write Bible commentaries or the footnotes in Study Bibles! They point out that Jesus used the people’s knowledge of repairing clothes and wine-making to point out that their old way of doing things was not flexible enough to accommodate his new way.
By the time you read this, Matthew will have led our deacons’ awayday. The plan is to take the opportunity given by the gradual return to a fuller church life, to reflect on whether we should be going back to ‘the way things used to be’, or whether, in some ways at least, we should look for a new way of doing things and discover ‘the way things ought to be.’
As we celebrate Easter, we remember that on Good Friday, Jesus took on himself all the consequences of our ‘old ways’ – the selfish nature that separates us from God – and found himself separated from his Father on our behalf. But we also remember the Good News of Easter Day, when he defeated death and rose again, to show that our ‘old ways’ can be replaced by a new way, and a new life with him. In other words, Easter is the moment in time through which Jesus gives us the opportunity to become part of God’s family and be transformed from ‘the way things used to be’ to ‘the way things ought to be’.
God still wants to do new things in all of our lives. So this Easter, it is worth reflecting on the opportunities that his new life presents us with today. Does my life reflect his new life, or have I slipped back into old, inflexible, comfortable ways of doing things? Am I flexible enough to accommodate the changes he wants to bring? We know what our answer often is – and what it should be… and the two aren’t always the same! How about you?
Thank God that a new start in life is always possible with him, because…
…Christ is risen!
…He is risen indeed!
With our love and prayers
Matthew & Pauline

They have turned the world upside down

Dear friends,
Events in the Ukraine over the last ten days have shown us just how easy it is for our world to be turned upside-down. At the time of writing, over a million Ukrainian women and children have been displaced from their homes, jobs and schools and are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Millions more are sheltering in basements, waiting and praying. Lawyers, teachers and binmen are taking up arms to defend their country. None of them know whether life will ever return to normal, or even whether they will see their loved ones again. Their world has been turned upside-down in an instant, and politicians, leaders and businesses around the world have been forced to take steps to prevent the crisis from deepening even further.
As we continue our current series in 2 Corinthians, we are frequently reminded that the Apostle Paul and his colleagues often faced such times of uncertainty. He recalls being in danger wherever he went – suffering hunger and thirst; being cold and naked; imprisoned, flogged, stoned and shipwrecked (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Reflecting on these experiences, he described these troubles as being ‘…far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.’ But as they experienced God at work in their upside-down world, they learned by faith to recognise that ‘…this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.’ (2 Cor 1:8-9)
Paul’s life and faith in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead is an invaluable example to follow when we are faced with a world turned upside-down, whether that turmoil is seen in world events or in our own personal experiences of sudden bereavement or illness, injury or job loss.
As we move through Lent towards Easter, we will increasingly focus on the central truth of the Christian faith, which is that God raised Jesus from the dead so that we could find new life in him. It was such earth-shattering news that those first Christians who proclaimed the Good News were themselves accused of ‘…turning the world upside-down…’ (Acts 17:6) Perhaps that should be our response to current events? After all, if like Paul, we put all our energy into the task of turning this world upside-down by praying and working towards the way things ought to be and by showing God’s love… then surely we will be turning this upside-down world the right way up?
With our love and prayers
Matthew and Pauline

Attentive to the rhythms of grace

Eugene Peterson, in ‘The Message’ version of the Bible offers us a beautiful interpretation of the familiar words of Matthew 11:28-30, which he writes as “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
We have just returned from the Southern Counties Baptist Association Ministers’ and Leaders’ Conference, where the keynote speaker was the current president of the Baptist Union, Geoff Colmer. He spoke on the subject of being ‘attentive to the rhythms of grace’ – in other words, watching out for and noticing the unexpected gifts from God that we receive as we go through life. For him, examples varied from longed-for sighting of kingfishers to the kindness of nurses caring for him at a time when even his wife couldn’t visit him in hospital due to the pandemic. Our own minds were drawn to the amazing starling murmurations that we witnessed five times during our sabbatical in 2017, and which we received as a picture of the way that Christians and churches should work together to create something beautiful for God.
Geoff pointed out, though, that all too often we are so busy with life that we miss these signs of God’s love and grace, and that we need to be attentive to what God is doing. Quoting Peterson again, he suggested that being attentive means ‘giving your entire attention to what God is doing right now.’ That’s a real challenge for most of us.
It’s a challenge that is accompanied by the encouragement that God himself first gives his entire attention to us, in the beauty of creation; in the life, ministry and example of Jesus; and in the gift of his Holy Spirit to help us live for him and for each other.
Perhaps it’s appropriate this week, when we celebrate Valentine’s Day, that we reflect personally on the fact that God shows his love for us by giving us his entire attention… and that we respond to his love with ours, by giving him our entire attention so that we start to learn more about his unforced rhythms of grace.
With our love and prayers
Matthew and Pauline

‘…do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!’

The text that we have chosen for the church’s 2022 text card comes from the ancient words of Isaiah 43:18-19: – ‘…do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! …I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’
As we leave behind another year ravaged by the Covid pandemic, with its associated loss of freedoms and of loved ones, it can be easy to want to forget most of the past two years. Of course, in many ways, it’s important to let go of the past if we are to venture freely into the future of a New Year.
But the irony of Isaiah’s words is that the preceding two verses contain specific reminders of what God had done in this ‘past’ that his readers were apparently meant to forget! In other words, whilst there are aspects of our past lives that it is helpful to forget and not to dwell upon, at the same time it is important to remember what God has done in the past, because that reminds us of his capability to work in the future.
One of the blessings of the last two years has been that we have seen God do new things in the life of the church which might not have happened without the pandemic. We have learnt new skills in making our services available to those who cannot attend in person. Our recent Carol Service was for the first time aimed specifically at our Noah’s Ark (toddler group) families and so was done in a new way, much to the delight of the children and the appreciation of their parents. And the way that Covid restrictions forced us to do Messy Church when it returned in the autumn turned out to be something that was particularly helpful to children with special needs – so we saw God do something new, which we wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.
As we enter this New Year, let’s not dwell on the past, other than to remind ourselves of what God can do… and let’s look out for the new things that he wants to do in our life together, and resolve to join him in those things.
With our love and prayers for God’s blessing throughout 2022,
Matthew and Pauline

Re-membering again

Looking back this week through my archived messages, I (Matthew) came across two from recent years which seemed so appropriate to our current circumstances that they seemed worth recycling and merging into one timely reminder of God’s healing love in the face of loss.

From time to time, we reflect on a literal understanding of ‘re-membering’ as involving putting back together something that has been dis-membered. When we are ‘re-membered’, broken, damaged and dismembered aspects of our past lives are put together again; mind, body and soul enjoy wholeness once more; and helplessness in the face of an unknown future gives way to resurrection hope. Our thoughts are often linked with Jesus’ instructions to share bread and wine in remembrance of him, as we remember that the good news of the Gospel is about finding God’s forgiveness through the power of the cross, and a new start in life through the joy of the empty tomb.

At a very practical level, one way that we seek God’s grace to heal our brokenness in the face of loss is to offer services of remembrance in which we bring God our feelings and circumstances. Remembrance Sunday is one such opportunity, focusing on lives lost in the horrors of war, and pointing us to the constant need to ‘…if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (Romans 12:18) So this Remembrance Sunday, pray for those who are nursing the wounds of the untimely loss of family, friends and colleagues. Pray that the God of all comfort will defeat the power of their experience of death, and that somehow he would use the good memories of their loved ones to nurse their wounds.

And if the loss of loved ones through any circumstance has been (or remained) a significant part of your experience during this difficult and prolonged season of pandemic, why not join us at 5pm on Sunday 5th December as we hold a special service to help each other find God’s comfort, peace and strength as we remember the past, struggle with the present and seek hope for the future.

Our prayer is that as we remember those we have loved and lost, we will reaffirm and give thanks for all that they mean to us; so that instead of being shaped by our loss we are shaped by the gains we still have from knowing them in the first place, which have helped us to be the people God calls us to be.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

‘Running on empty? …stop here for services!’

Dear friends,

Waiting for forty minutes in a queue for petrol the other day, I (Matthew) wondered how many of the cars around me were running on fumes, with their drivers praying that they would make it to the forecourt before their car broke down… and before the pumps ran dry!

Life’s circumstances are often a metaphor for our relationship with God. That’s why the Gospels are full of the parables of Jesus – stories with a meaning, wrapped up in a vivid example from day to day life. If Jesus were walking this earth now, I’m sure he would have made something of the current petrol crisis.

Instead, he simply tackled the issue of ‘running on empty’ mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually with these familiar words: – ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matt 11:28-30) The way to refuel, particularly spiritually, is simply to come to Jesus and rest in his presence – to set aside times to stop and let him refuel us. It is a form of prayer – but not necessarily one that involves words. It simply involves taking time out from our busy lives and allowing God to renew us in whatever way he knows we need.

Jesus modelled it – he often withdrew to lonely places to pray. But even he got caught in delays on the way – on one occasion when he planned to take his disciples for a retreat, massive crowds followed them and they ended up feeding the 5,000. Even Jesus ran on empty at times – so much so that he slept through a life-threatening storm as his friends battled the wind and waves.

Not without reason are motorway services sometimes also called ‘rest areas’. Resting and refuelling are closely linked. Resting with God in prayer is the essential fuel we need in life… so, have we planned our daily, weekly, monthly and annual journey so that it allows for stops to rest and refuel before we get into the red zone? Because one thing’s for sure – although there may be diversions on the way, when we get there, there’s no queue, and no wait for enough lorry drivers to replenish God’s stocks of grace, of which there are unlimited supplies to draw upon to sustain us for the next part of our journey. As one church poster that Matthew used to pass on his commute through Guildford years ago so succinctly put it: – ‘Stop here for services’.

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

‘They worked together…’ (Acts 18:3)

Dear friends,

Watching the Olympic Games over the last few days has rekindled memories of our involvement as a church in the events of London 2012, when we were asked to provide a safe place for the Team GB rowing team to meet their families away from the gaze of press and public after each day’s competition. It was a privilege to be involved in some small way and to meet some of the athletes who became household names during the course of those Games.

Looking back over our notes from that time, we were reminded that on several occasions during the fortnight, we heard the words “this is just what we needed,” alongside genuine and heartfelt appreciation of the service provided by volunteers in the kitchen. One small child was even heard to say, “But I don’t want to go home!” We took that as a compliment… and a challenge!

While reflecting on the service that we had offered Team GB that year, we noted that: –

Our hospitality has not been high profile. But “This is just what [they] needed.”

It has involved sacrificing our time. But “This is just what [they] needed.”

At times it has been hectic; at times dull and boring. But “This is just what [they] needed.”

We realised that in having the privilege of providing just what our rowers and their families needed by offering Christian hospitality, we showed God’s love. What happened next was up to God – but we could be sure that he is able to do far more than we can even imagine, according to his power at work in us (Eph 3:20).

Reflecting again on that experience as every church faces a new season, we are challenged by the question ‘what is needed today?’ One of the things that the last few weeks has taught us is that our circumstances remain fragile – it is still so easy for any one of us to be taken out of action at very short notice by the requirements of unexpected self-isolation. That means that whatever role we play in the life and ministry of ‘Team DGBC’, we all need to make sure that we have trained someone else up to cover for us… or that we have learned how to cover someone else’s role if required.  It’s a vital part of the commitment of being part of a team.

Jesus modelled the principle as he spent three years training up his motley crew of followers to continue his ministry once he had risen and ascended. That’s why he sent his Holy Spirit to equip them with the gifts and character needed to be his representatives in a broken world.

We’ve been reminded in the last fortnight that the Olympics is based on teamwork, as athletes, coaches, administrators and organisers work together to produce elite sporting moments. So, as we realise today that what is needed is teamwork – what gifts and abilities has the Holy Spirit given you to play your part in Team DGBC? And who might God be calling you to train up to take on your role when you are either not available, or move on to a different role?

With our love and prayers,
Matthew and Pauline

‘…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,

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