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Yesterday was the Second Sunday in Lent. And ten minutes before our live in person Sunday service was meant to begin, the Joker appeared downstairs looking a bit peaky and announced that he’d been up all night coughing. Cue a small amount of scrambling…

We seem to have a thing for timing in this Vicarage. It was late on a Saturday that we all came down with a cough just at the beginning of the first lockdown. There was no testing then, so we isolated ourselves for a fortnight. And it was a bit of a panic (understatement) to get everything ready for the Sunday, as all our plans were extra complicated by being confined to the house. And here we are, heading towards the end (hopefully) of the third lockdown, and the Vicar had to send everyone home who’d already arrived at church and then come back to the Vicarage and record the service to upload it. Thankfully, we were able to get a test very quickly and the results came in the middle of the night – and they were negative, so we’re free again.

These unexpected interruptions are such a great reminder that we are not in charge. In fact ‘we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves’, as this week’s collect puts it. We’re thankful that we’ve been kept outwardly in our bodies from Covid19. And are praying to be kept inwardly in our souls too this coming week.

COLLECT FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

ALMIGHTY God,

who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves:

Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls;

that we may be defended from all adversities

which may happen to the body,

and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

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I took the Vicarage Hound out for his weekly race with his greyhound pal today. On the way home, I spotted this crow (I think, my bird identification skills are rather limited) peering down at us from the clock tower. He watched us for quite a while, presumably checking that the hound wasn’t going to run up the clock tower or find some other creative way to attack. What was he actually waiting for up there though? Did he have an appointment with someone? Was he expecting a bus or is he a fan of our trams?

It’s a good watchtower, up there. You can see up to the High Street, and down to the flats at the bottom of the parish. And you also have a view over to where the car racing happens, on the dual carriageway, past the stubby street that leads to the Metro. And at the moment, from that pillar, you could get a good view of the scaffolding round the church and the stonemasons at work, if you time it right.

What are you watching and waiting for? It feels like we’re all waiting at the moment – for kids to go back to school, for vaccination, for the end of lockdown, for this pandemic to subside, for life to go back to normal. But I need to turn my mind to better waiting, waiting with hope.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

Psalm 130:5-6

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This afternoon the Vicar called me over to the church to exercise my world class form filling skillz. Well, not so much world class so much as a bit better than his (he’s dyslexic). I was there to help a lovely young couple from church fill out some driving licence application forms. They need some help with forms because they have not been living in the UK all that long and aren’t confident in negotiating government bureaucracy hoops, especially in interpreting the vast ream of information that you have to wade through. And who can blame them?!

After we’d worked our way through the forms, all masked up and socially distanced, the Vicar showed them around the building. He talked about some of the plans we have to improve access and to make our building more visible to passers by. Our friends are an engineer and an architect/interior designer, so they started getting excited by the possibilities we have to make changes to help people by improving our building. It was lovely to see them thinking with their professional expertise. Neither of them have been able to use those skills since they’ve been in this country but are hoping that they will be able to soon.

And then we had the joy of speaking about the world and about Jesus. We talked about the countries that the Vicar and I used to live in, and others we have worked in. We have a world map on the wall of the church, so we were able to point and make sure we all knew which places we were discussing. And then we spoke about the country our friends come from, and some of its history – especially the parts that are in the Bible. Fascinating.

I think I probably already mentioned how much I love living here, among people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9). Today was a great taste of that once again.

Photo by Aaditya Arora on Pexels.com

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This evening we met at church for an Ash Wednesday service. In previous years, we have had ashing. And on one notorious occasion the Vicar managed to burn my forehead with incorrectly mixed ashes.

This year, with the need for social distancing, the Vicar, like several others, has decided to return to the older liturgy of the Church of England, and lead a service known as A Commination (The Confession of Cursed Sinners). We used a modern, shortened version, provided by Church Society. The original 1662 one is in the Book of Common Prayer.

The service is not all that popular in the Church of England. People find it quite harsh, because it reminds us of all the things that God does not like – that are under his curse. It is a painful exercise, to remind ourselves of our sinfulness and the ways in which we break God’s laws and reject his rule in our lives. But the phrase that struck me the evening, as we went through the service was towards the end of the confession:

and so make haste to help us in this world,
that we may ever live with you in the world to come,
where there will no longer be any curse

That reminder that there will ‘not longer be any curse’ is so helpful to carry out of a service of penitence and mourning for sin. The promise that we will be free of the heaviness we feel when we think of the Lord’s standards and the way we fail to keep them. To remember that

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us

As I was looking for pretty pictures to illustate this post, I came across a poem by Wordsworth. It seems that The Commination wasn’t popular even in his day. But he too realised that this service where we contemplate the darkness of our sin is needed, that we should deal with our guilt and seek pardon from the Lord. So my prayer this Lent is that I would have that fruit of peace and love and joy as I thank Jesus that there will no longer be any curse.

Ecclesiastical Sonnets – Part Iii. – Xxix – The Commination Service
Shun not this Rite, neglected, yea abhorred,
By some of unreflecting mind, as calling
Man to curse man, (thought monstrous and appalling.)
Go thou and hear the threatenings of the Lord;
Listening within his Temple see his sword
Unsheathed in wrath to strike the offender’s head,
Thy own, if sorrow for thy sin be dead,
Guilt unrepented, pardon unimplored.
Two aspects bears Truth needful for salvation;
Who knows not ‘that?’ yet would this delicate age
Look only on the Gospel’s brighter page:
Let light and dark duly our thoughts employ;
So shall the fearful words of Commination
Yield timely fruit of peace and love and joy.

William Wordsworth

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I thought I’d tell you something new I learnt about recently. I was introduced to Canva, which is a free site for creating publicity of all sorts – flyers, Facebook posts, animations – all sorts. I’ve used it for a couple of flyers before, and have uploaded them to our church Facebook page. But this evening I went for it and created a bunch of posts for our notices tomorrow morning. Nothing like a proper deadline to generate creativity. Here’s a sample:

So pleasing, eh? It’s so much easier when someone else has chosen the fonts! And made a layout too. I’m not on commission, honest, but it’s definitely worth checking out. Maybe a project for next week, now all the clergy have got live streaming sussed *laughing hysterically emoji*?

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So today was the day of the Vicarage getting up to speed with tech. The Vicar and I are  already fairly comfortable with technology – we both blog and tweet and have Facebook accounts. We’ve uploaded videos online before and we can populate a website. Perhaps the advantage of our backgrounds in engineering – we’re not scared by machinery.

Because now church is going mostly online – there will be no Sunday services or midweek meetings for the foreseeable future. And so we’ve had a big day of pretty fast learning. We had to get a church YouTube account, we’ve been drafting blog pages and we’ve been getting our heads round Zoom and finding out about Facebook Live.

The plan is also to record and broadcast a daily prayer service at the times we’d usually host our Open Church. So people will be able to connect when they might normally come in for tea and toast. And we’re going to broadcast a morning service live on Sundays. And we’re hoping to run youth Bible studies and prayer meetings and maybe even some toddler and kids work over the internet too.

We’ve also found a telephone service which is accessed through dialling in, so people who don’t have the internet will be able to listen to a short message or a sermon over the phone. And we’re going to deliver leaflets with details around the parish and service sheets to those we think would like to join in with the services. And of course we’re making lists and aiming to phone people up and contact them individually throughout the week too.

Phew.

And I’ve been having to remind myself that this Sunday is just the start of an extended time of doing things differently. So we can adjust and improve as time goes on, but hopefully start in some sort of helpful way.

The old joke made to vicars is that they only work one day a week. And now of course the joke will be that they don’t have anything to do at all. But actually what is happening is that the week long work is changing and there are steep learning curves being climbed by gospel ministers here in the UK and all over the world as they develop ways of pastoring through this pandemic. Pray for us – for videographic mercies, for photocopying grace and for our bandwidths on Sunday morning.

 

exponential learning

Graph of time vs clergy competence in tech since last week

 

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So yesterday the Church of England announced the suspension of all public worship. So things are going to look very different here for a bit. And then today we learnt that schools are closing, so homeschool is looming. And the Queen is up at university, making lockdown lists.

Our Open Church has been running this week, allowing people to see one another and connect briefly, as well as pray and seek help if they need it. And we’re thinking through how to keep everyone connected online. We’re not a very techie community – many people don’t have broadband at home, and some don’t even have a mobile phone, not even a text and dial one. So we are going to try and get creative, maybe delivering paper service sheets and looking into a dial a sermon/podcast service, as well as looking at other stuff that many churches are doing – Facebook Live and YouTube services and general online things.

But although we’re going to be doing things differently, we serve a God who never changes. Tonight, in a fit of Anglicanism, the Vicar and I prayed Evening Prayer from the 1662 BCP together. The set Psalm for this evening was Psalm 93 – The Lord Reigns – a truth to hold onto when everything else is different.

[Yellow text on background of grey slate roofing tiles] Psalm 93 The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting. The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty! Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O Lord, for evermore.

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It’s really not normal, is it? Such strange times we are living through now. We had a PCC meeting tonight and were discussing some issues with our services, and timings for the APCM (the annual meeting), as I checked in on Facebook to see what Matt Hancock had said in the House of Commons about whether churches should continue to meet. My FB feed told me that they shouldn’t, but the Church of England guidance isn’t out yet. So we are in limbo. This level of uncertainty is something pretty unsettling to be living with. And making any plans feels a bit pointless. But we have to keep on looking ahead, even if things are cancelled in the morning.

So I’m going to leave my worries with Jesus and try and get to sleep before midnight. PCC was enough trouble for today. Jesus said so.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. Matthew 6:34/picture of church and Victorian terraces across metro line, blue sky with clouds behind

A view of our church from the other side of the metro line

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This coronavirus crisis feels a bit like election season did – there’s just so much news. Every half an hour something new is cancelled. There are graphs all over the internet giving a fresh perspective and interesting and learned experts giving opinions which help you feel like you might get a grip on what’s happening. It’s a big global event with huge repercussions and it’s also a close to home personal one, with some disruption and changes in view for our family.

I’m staying with my mum at the moment and we’re discussing various planned holidays and family events over the next few months and wondering which ones, if any, will go ahead. The Queen’s university (I know! How can she be that old?!) has suspended face to face lectures, and she thinks the exams next week might be cancelled. (So she rather regrets staying up very late last night to study the genetics of viruses for the biology test. Although, who knows if it might come in handy some time soon?) I get an email from the boys’ schools every day with an update of cancelled events, and I send messages to the family Whatsapp group with handwashing reminders.

The Church of England is updating its guidance to churches frequently – no cup at communion, no full immersion baptisms, standing for communion and other procedures to help us to protect people from infection. Behind the scenes clergy and laity are energetically debating how to serve and guard their flocks and parishes and bring God’s grace into a frequently overwhelming situation. My timelines are awash with random pundits asking what the government or the church are up to and making alternative pronouncements. It’s confusing and stressful, and there’s so little I can do about it all.

So I’ve made some decisions about what to pay attention to, although the drama of the frequent announcements will probably keep distracting me. But I’m going to read some things by proper scientists, and I’m going to keep on washing my hands often and for 20 seconds (whilst praying the Lord’s Prayer, which fits). I’m going to try and read things written by Christians who lived through plagues previously, and say some of their prayers. I’m going to pray about how I can serve those who will be in need because of this crisis, especially in our parish. And I’m going to pray the Church of England’s Collect provided to be prayed In the Time of any Common Plague of Sickness. Pray with me?

In the time of any common Plague of Sickness. O ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Until Lent began this year, I’d not written on here for a long time. But I had written some things elsewhere. I’m struggling to remember what most of them were, but one of the things was a study guide for the Church of England Evangelical Council on a book they published called Glorify God in Your Body. As I prepared the guide I was particularly struck by this passage from Glorify God in Your Body, talking about how Tim and Kathy Keller describe friendship in their book The Meaning of Marriage.

What does it mean, then, to love one another as friends? The Kellers identify three
characteristics that mark out friendship: constancy, transparency, and common passion.

Friends are always there for each other, they are open and honest, and they share a
common enthusiasm for something or somethings (in the words of C S Lewis ‘even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice’). In the Bible we find that all three of these characteristics apply to the relationships of love that should exist within the life of God’s people.

As I thought about this, I reflected on how these three characteristics are not only a  wonderful description of love between friends, and love between a husband and wife, but they also describe how we should love one another in local churches.

If we show constancy, we’ll have a ministry of turning up – we’ll be there on Sundays and at other things: hall cleaning parties, coffee mornings, prayer meetings and Beetle drives. We’ll be there for each other, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping those who weep.

If we show transparency, we’ll be honest with one another, vulnerable, open. We’ll not shut down conversations by telling one another that things are fine when they aren’t. We’ll not ask people how they are without really wanting to find out.

If we have a common passion, surely it will be a passion for Jesus, for holding out the word of life to our neighbours. It will be a passion that lights up our parish with the joy of knowing sins forgiven and the promise of eternal life.

constancytransparencycommonpassion

So let’s work on those relationships of love in our churches. I’m so thankful for the love of many dear brothers and sisters in our congregation here, shown in many different ways, but we still have much work to do. I’m praying for more of the constancy, transparency and common passion which deepens the love of God in our lives and demonstrates it to our needy world.

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