Blog

The St Mary's blog is a mixture of news pieces and topical articles. Each month a number of these are collated into a printed magazine, Touchline. Blog items over three months old are moved to the archive pages, which are available when logged in. Views expressed here are those held by the individuals posting, and not necessarily representative of St Mary's Church.

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Looking Back (Charlotte Faulkner)

It’s safe to say that this year has not gone as any of us imagined. As I look back it feels almost like it’s been two years not one, because things changed so much.

As I began working for St Mary’s in September last year, I was looking forward to trying new things and learning more about God and Jesus. I thought I had a good idea of what I would be doing each week: helping at Stepping Stones, Baby café, 7 up, X Focus, Pathfinders and Explorers. I would be going to Oxford to do the Ministry Training Course and writing/delivering my own talks and bible studies. I would be doing things around the church site like setting the hall up for the next group. All the things that I had seen Zach and Celine do before me.

And for just over six months, September to March, that’s what it was like and it was great! I loved the range of things I was involved in. But what I loved the most was the people I met, grew closer to and worked with. So many people with a genuine love for Jesus and for each other, all who are completely different and yet are all united as brothers and sisters. While I’m looking forward to meeting a new church family in Nottingham, I’m definitely going to miss this one.

Some particular highlights from this time include:

  • Holiday Club, always just so much fun!
  • Junior Youth Weekend Away
  • Christmas services
  • Real Lives

The main thing I’ve learnt over the past few years is that God has a plan for you that is probably quite different from the one you have for yourself. At the end of March as we went into lockdown, the routine I had made and was quite happy with was gone and I had no idea what the next weeks and months would look like, but God did.

Of all the skills I would have put on my CV back in 2019, video production wouldn’t have been one. And so, my week changed to look more like this: Bible studies, Zoom Growth Group, write an update letter for people not connected to the internet, film the craft for Sunday school, edit the video and send it off. Once a month I would write family focus, film family focus, edit it and send it off. Sometimes I did filming for Toddlers too. It was different and new, but as I did it I grew to enjoy this work as much as doing these things in person.

Lockdown also meant that I was able to take more time for myself and grow in my personal relationship with God. He challenged me and made me face things I didn’t want to, but he was there with me through it to the other side. He used this time to strengthen me in my faith.

As I remember this experience, I go to university knowing that things most certainly won’t go as I expect but that God has planned it for good. It’s weird to have finished working for St Mary’s but I’m so thankful for all that the staff team and the church family have done for me. And I’ll still be back in the holidays, so I look forward to seeing you all then!

Christianity Explored (Jo Jobson)

When I heard that St Mary's was running a summer Christianity Explored course on Zoom, I was excited by the prospect - what a great opportunity to invite others who might not normally be able to come in person. There was someone overseas who I was hoping to ask. However, as I prayed for the Lord to give me the opportunity (& the courage) to invite, it became clear that this was not the right time for this person.

I have a close friend with whom I have spoken about Christianity and about her own different faith over the years and she has come to various events at St Mary's. I have prayed for some time that the Holy Spirit might touch her heart. We met up for a socially distanced lunch and in the course of this I just told her very matter-of-factly about the course - and she, equally matter-of-factly, said yes she'd like to come. I was quite surprised!

I have been on Christianity Explored courses before and doing one on Zoom is quite different, but after so many months of Zoom meetings, everyone is used to this ‘new normal'. There were a lot of us on the course, including several from overseas or from elsewhere in the UK, which is a huge advantage of this format. We met altogether on screen at the beginning of each session then we were split into three breakout rooms led by Ian, Tim and Helen for our discussions, coming back again briefly in the middle of the session to watch the video. We stayed in the same groups throughout the course and it was good to get to know the others in the group. It is quite hard to run the course on Zoom - all attendees can be confident that they will not be 'put on the spot' but this does mean that there can be silences after questions are asked, and it's much harder to gauge body language as to whether people are comfortable. However, God can work through this.

My friend really enjoyed the course, and it was a joy for me to be there with her. She is continuing with her exploration of the Christian faith. If you feel the Holy Spirit prompting you to ask someone - go ahead and do it! It is such good news that the work of opening people's hearts and eyes to Jesus, is up to Jesus himself and not up to us - but it's a great blessing for us when we can share in his work.

The next Christianity Explored course starts on Zoom at 8pm on Monday 5th October. Why not send this short film a friend with in an invitation? Contact ian.miller@stmarysmaidenhead.org for more details.

Mission Hardship Fund (Will Stileman)

On Sunday 27th September we are having our annual Harvest celebration. Although most of us are not farmers and there is always food in the supermarkets, it is good and right that we take time to give thanks to God for the provision of our daily needs. God is the creator and sustainer of everything. It is ultimately down to him and not us that we have a roof over our head, food on the table and money in the bank.

And as God is generous and gives freely, so Christian people should be generous to those in need. As the Bible reminds us “God loves a cheerful giver.”

The Covid-19 crisis has caused widespread disruption, and a number of mission organisations are facing great hardships. So this year for our Harvest collection we are establishing a Mission Hardship Fund so that we can support any of our mission partners and gospel organisations with whom we have had contact which are facing financial difficulties.

If we are in the blessed situation of having a stable income it is likely that over the last six months we have become better off. Our expenditure will most probably have gone down whilst our income has remained the same. Praise God for that and prayerfully consider what you can give as ‘a thank offering’ at this time.

To make a Harvest gift via bank transfer, please transfer to the PCC account (Sort Code: 60-13-35, Account No: 64261883). Please use the reference HARVEST20.

May God be at work in us as a church so that we excel in this grace of giving.

Manuel Reynaga Obituary

It is with great sadness that we report the death in Peru of Manuel Reynaga from the Covid-19 virus. Manuel had links with St Mary’s for many years, due to the long friendship between his English wife Gay and Jill Coe (who moved from Maidenhead to Bridport a few years ago). They attended St Mary’s on many occasions and Manuel spoke several times about the work in Peru.

Manuel and Gay worked in the Peruvian evangelical church in Huancayo, a large city high in the Andes. In the mid 1980s the family spent three years in Ware in Hertfordshire, where Manuel studied at All Nations Christian College. On their return to Peru they found that the terrorist movement Shining Path, had murdered so many men from the surrounding villages that their widows and children were flocking to Huancayo for safety and were living in poverty in shanty towns. They felt strongly that God was calling them to help these people. After an unsuccessful attempt at starting an orphanage they realised that extended families wanted to care for the orphaned children themselves. So they set up the Peru Children’s Trust in 1992, calling on Gay’s many friends in the UK and elsewhere to sponsor children. The aims of the Peru Children’s Trust were, and still are, to give children an education, free access to medical care, and Christian teaching and counselling.

As time went by Manuel recognised the need for the children to have some vocational training in order to procure jobs when they left school. Initially he did this himself in his workshop in the garden.  He soon developed the idea of building a training centre in the town and bought a plot of land towards the end of 2001. With the generous financial help from UK supporters and much prayer, the building work began. Manuel planned for workshops in carpentry, cookery, metal work, sewing and baking. Besides helping the children this provided work for many people at a time of great unemployment and at the opening ceremony Manuel was commended by the mayor of Huancayo for his contribution to the community.

Manuel and Gay continued to run the Peru Children’s Trust and the training centre for several more years. Sadly Gay died in 2007 but Manuel carried on the work with the help of the Peruvian trustees until he retired in 2011. Since then he had been working closely in an advisory capacity with the team, for whom his experience and knowledge has been invaluable.

Manuel was a true visionary, led by the Holy Spirit, with a generous nature which enabled him to fund some of the work himself. He was highly regarded in Huancayo as he touched and improved the lives of thousands of young people. He will be missed by many and long remembered.

Annual Parochial Church Meeting (Melinda Stylo)

It was lovely to see so many of the St Mary’s church family joining the Zoom Annual Parochial Church Meeting (APCM) on 3rd September to praise God for his goodness to us and listen to the ideas and plans for the next few months. At the Annual Vestry Meeting our two churchwardens were elected: Rae Binning and Damian Eustace. Scott Bedford, Karnie Sharp and Elna Strydom were voted onto the Parochial Church Council (PCC). We also elected two new Deanery Synod representatives: Daniel Matovu and Neil McDonald. Melinda Stylo is our new PCC secretary.

We are aware that some people were not able to join the meeting as our Zoom plan is limited to 100 participants. Others may not have been able to make the evening so we have put a recording of the whole meeting here (APCM 2020 - please log into the website to view) which will be available until 25th September. All the documents needed to follow the meeting, and the results of the elections, can be found here (log into the website to view).

One of the core elements of the APCM is the Vicar’s Address which has been published as a blog article and included in Touchline on the website.

Racial injustice Prayer Meeting (Heidi Cooper)

What does racism look like in the UK? For many, the UK may have looked like a well-adapted multi-cultural society without major prejudices, but there are members of our church family who have been subjected to racial discrimination in this country and have been praying for unity long before George Floyd’s death catapulted Black Lives Matter into the public domain. When I heard of a new initiative, to hold a church wide prayer meeting on the topic, I wanted to support this. But it’s also something I find very uncomfortable (Greg and I grew up in South Africa under the deeply unjust Apartheid regime). I confess that I was hoping I could find an excuse not to make it.

But wow! The meeting was one of the most powerful meetings I’ve attended at St Mary’s, and I wish we could all have been part of it.

Rachel Meynell led the evening in August. It was the first of six planned meetings, and they will be focussed on 5 Ls - Love, Listen, Learn, Lament and Leverage, from Mark Vroegop’s book Weep with Me. We started with Love; studying, thinking through and praying on Ephesians 2:14-22. We discussed Christ’s amazing role of unifying a divided society, preaching peace and building us up together, so that through our unity in a divided world, we may bring glory to him. It is always encouraging and humbling to see what Christ is achieving in us. Not a finished work yet, but building, changing and drawing us together powerfully through his Spirit. What a joy to marvel at this and listen to the prayers of our church family delighting in Jesus’ promises.

Moving on to Listen, we heard from Gracy Crane and Daniel Matovu. Gracy spoke about her personal experience of racism in her life and in her workplace, suggesting topics we could pray through. It was inspiring to hear her personal testimony. Faced with disappointments due to racist attitudes, she is choosing to serve Jesus rather than herself, longing for him to be made known rather than fighting for her own wounded pride. It’s a battle many of us will have wrestled with, in various areas of our lives, and was comforting to hear how the Lord is giving her the power to endure and serve him.

Daniel spoke of the systemic racism evident in the legal profession, and the challenges faced by differing cultures. He was the only black barrister in chambers with 59 other barristers. One example he shared was that at the start of a trial he would sometimes be tested by a judge on a point of law or other that would not need to be discussed, displaying the judge’s curiosity as to whether he was fit for his job. He was treated as an outsider because he looks different.

The evening was encouraging because of what Jesus is doing, and it was thought provoking. Greg and I had a long discussion afterwards, and we’ve had a few dinner table conversations with our children and their friends following on from it. Are we treating people as Jesus asks, with love, compassion and respect? Are we digging deeper to actively get rid of unconscious bias? And are we encouraging our children to do the same? Please do join us at the next meeting on 29th October. We will be hearing more testimonies, and as with all prayer evenings you will not be expected to pray out loud. You are most welcome to participate simply by listening.

Vicar's Annual Address (Will Stileman)

On Tuesday 17th March lockdown was announced and since then we have been constantly adapting as we do church in a Covid-affected world. We immediately moved to doing the whole of church online and as a result a huge amount of regular ministry has continued. Sunday services have been broadcast, Growth Groups have continued to meet, as have our courses, Christianity Explored, Christian Foundations, Life Matters events and much, much more. Since 19th July, as lockdown has been partially eased, we have been able to re-introduce some in-person services on Sundays while still maintaining the online provision.

It has been a huge team effort, involving many people putting in numerous hours of hard work. As a church we have continued to preach Christ and sought to look out for one another and care for those who are vulnerable. I want to pay particular tribute to our Growth Group leaders and members of the Congregation Oversight teams for their faithful labour in the Lord. I also want to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues on the staff team for their persevering service these past five and a half months. It hasn’t been easy; we have had moments of pressure and tension, but we have remained united in Christ and the Lord has brought us safely to this point.

However, one aspect of our church’s ministry has been particularly badly hit by Covid and that is our children’s and youth work. In recent years about 100 folk connected with St Mary’s would head off each summer to either attend or lead on Christian holiday parties for teenagers. For many this has been a highlight during which they have made great advances in their walk with the Lord Jesus. But this year all those summer camps have had to be cancelled. Similarly, we haven’t been able to hold Explorers Abroad or Holiday Club for our primary school aged children. Likewise, all our regular weekly children’s and youth clubs have had to stop.  Zoom meetings may work quite well for adults but they are not good for children’s and youth ministry.

Initially, loads of people engaged with our online services but, as many other churches have experienced, there has been a gradual reduction in those numbers. I am greatly encouraged by those who are still actively engaging with church online and we have had a good start during the summer holidays getting to grips with the in-person services. But sadly, I am also only too aware of those who were more on the fringe of things with whom we have had no contact for weeks despite our best efforts to follow them up. I also suspect that a number of folk who would describe themselves as committed Christians are similarly in danger of drifting spiritually as they struggle with the restrictions on our worship. I don’t enjoy wearing a mask in church and if you have been on a screen all week in your work, I can see how tempting it is to give online church a miss. I fear that doing church online has caused a number of us to adopt a consumer mindset when it comes to church. Certainly, when you cannot meet in person, it makes it harder to recognise the body of Christ.

However, despite these challenges I am not discouraged. Jesus declared to the crowds: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day’ (John 6:37-39). Jesus is still building his church and neither Coronavirus nor the gates of hell will prevail against it. And just as I am conscious of some professing believers in danger of drifting, I am equally conscious of a number who have come to put their trust in Christ for the first time in the last five months.

How long we are going to remain in this semi-lockdown period only God knows, but even if an effective vaccine is approved by the end of this year, I suspect we will still have restrictions until next summer. Scientists have long predicted a rise in the number of Covid cases during the winter and so we need to set up a pattern of worship and activity which we can maintain for the duration of the crisis and which is also adaptable.

So let me outline what we are planning on doing. We will maintain our current pattern up until 18th October, although if demand for in-person services increases markedly we will seek to add another morning “Worship Together” service. But from 25th October we plan to go to our pre-Covid pattern of five Sunday services and restart in a limited way children’s groups during the Sunday services. The children’s groups will operate within government guidelines and will observe the hygiene and social distancing protocols. We will be aiming for the services to last about 50 mins and the format will be like our current online services, with music, family focus and an adult sermon.

It is our hope, if we can recruit enough AV operators, to live stream all these services so that those who have to continue to self-isolate can participate in real time online. And whatever happens, some of the services will be recorded and made available both on YouTube and our website so that they can be easily accessed by both St Mary’s members and others. At this point our pre-recorded online service will cease. However, the pre-recorded online Sunday School will continue each week, so that whether children join us in-person or worship at home with their parents, provision is made for them.

In short, we want to encourage everybody to be active in Sunday fellowship. We have established good hygiene and social distancing protocols at church and I am glad to report that they are being observed. Thank you so much to everyone for co-operating. This means that our church gatherings are as safe as they can be. So, the advice I am giving everyone is this - if you are willing and able to attend a supermarket for your shopping, you should be willing and able to attend church on Sunday. I think that is a useful guideline to help people decide whether or not they should start coming back to church.

We want you to give the staff team a problem. Some have told us that they are not booking to attend church on a Sunday as they don’t want to take the place of others. Please don’t do that. If you are willing and able to attend church in-person, book in. That is the only way we will know what we need to be providing. There are those in our church family who rightly need to self-isolate, but otherwise we should be seeking to meet together for mutual encouragement and to express our calling as part of Christ’s body.

The other thing we are hoping to establish in the next couple of months is a buddy system in which we link two households together. So that if things do deteriorate with Covid and there is another lockdown, we have an additional support mechanism in place. We all need the encouragement of Christian brothers and sisters so that we keep going with Christ and with his people at St Mary’s and do not drift.

With these new arrangements in place we will be providing a pattern of Sunday worship that is both flexible and sustainable. It encourages us all to engage with the body of Christ and yet it also provides for those who have to continue to self-isolate.

However, if we are going to achieve all this, we do need help. We need more people to act as stewards on Sundays, we need help leading our children’s groups and in particular we need to recruit a further ten people to help with AV. We want to make the experience of those worshipping online as engaging as possible and for that we do need people to operate our web cameras. Full training will be given, so please do volunteer for this if you can, and please make suggestions of who else you think would be able to help out with this ministry.

Finally, as a church, we continue to actively support other local churches: St Mary’s White Waltham, Windsor Fellowship Church, Trinity at Four in Henley and Blenheim Free Church. The Windsor Fellowship Church are needing a lot of support at the moment as their pastor, Pete Matthew, has just left to take up a new post in another church.

It is a huge privilege to the vicar of St Mary’s. Thank you for your partnership in the gospel.

Introducing ... Nick McDonald

My name is Nick McDonald, many of you will already know who I am as I grew up at St Mary's. Over the years, you may have seen me attending and then later helping out at Holiday Club, 7UP, and Explorers. In 2015, I moved to Canterbury to study Primary Education at university. I have since graduated and have been working for the past two years as a Year 5 teacher at a school in Gillingham in Kent. I am now moving back to Maidenhead to undertake an exciting new role. Starting in September, I will be training to be a Children's Worker at St Mary's.

Having grown up at St Mary's, I am hugely thankful to God for everyone who was involved in teaching me the amazing news about Jesus Christ over the years. I am blessed to have been brought up in a Christian home and to have a faith in Jesus from a young age. Having seen the value in teaching children about Jesus and helping them to discover him for themselves, I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to do this.

I look forward to using and developing the gifts that God has given me to work with the children at St Mary’s and to teach them about him. Please pray that I will do this well and to the glory of God.

I am also really excited about the Cornhill Training Course in London that I will be attending (on Zoom for now). This will better equip me to understand and teach the Bible to others in different ways. I can't wait to develop my teaching skills and to practice giving talks to large groups, all for the glory of God. Please pray for me that I will learn well and become more confident in teaching the Bible to people.

I am really looking forward to seeing you all again, and to meeting some of you for the first time. Please feel free to say hi to me, or to introduce yourself to me. I can't wait to get to know more of you!

Update from Nicholas and Becca Edwards

Dear St Mary’s,

Becca moved to Maidenhead in 1989, aged four, and grew up in the church. I arrived after graduation in 2005 as an apprentice and left in 2007 just after we were engaged, to train as a primary school teacher.

After being married at St Mary’s in 2008 we spent three years living in Hertfordshire while Becca completed her training and internships with the Farm Team at the Royal Veterinary College, and I began a career in teaching. During our time in Herts, we were greatly edified by our time at Holy Trinity, Frogmore.

In 2011 Becca secured her first practice role as veterinary surgeon, so we moved to Towcester, Northamptonshire. We served at our local church where we were able to lead the children’s work for a time as well as Christianity Explored courses. With no evening services at Towcester, we sometimes took the opportunity to visit fellow ex-St Mary’s member Andy Byfield at Moulton Parish Church.

Our careers developed over time. Becca undertook further studies into camelid care and is now the go-to person in her practice and the local area for all things llama and alpaca. This has taken her far and wide, even to a conference in Ohio, USA. I ended up as head teacher of a primary school but, despite loving teaching, was persuaded to explore full time ministry again.

We moved to Oxford in 2018 for two years at theological college. Becca was able to commute to work from there, she worked part time so she could more meaningfully join in with college life as well as attend the South Central Ministry Training Course. While at college, our daughter Elizabeth came along.

Coronavirus and lockdown made our last term at Wycliffe quite different from what we had expected. Teaching went online, earplugs were bought in bulk to help with essay focus and we missed seeing our friends in 3D! Despite this, God taught us a lot. Thankfully all of our curacy arrangements had been made pre-COVID-19, so we were able to move in 2020 during lockdown to Moulton Parish Church.

It’s been interesting to observe how the church has adapted to the challenge and opportunities of ministering online, and to learn how to do this alongside the Moulton staff and church family, as well as my college friends. I confess that Becca and I have tuned in to some of your services too!

We trust that through lockdown the gospel will be heard by a wider audience and pray that God would soften hard hearts.

We’re looking forward to learning a great deal here at Moulton Parish Church. Our prayer is that we’d be equipped well for our future ministry and learn how to contend for the gospel within the Church of England.

With love,

Nic, Becca and Elizabeth Edwards

Praying for Real Change in Racial Equality (Daniel Matovu)

The Apostle Paul unequivocally condemned ‘slave traders’ as ungodly and sinful (1 Timothy 1:10). There is no place in the gospel of Christ for discrimination on the grounds of race. Most people recognise that overt racism is wicked; what is less well understood is the way in which structural or institutional racism operates, how widely it impacts the daily lives of so many of us insidiously. When a person says “I don’t see colour”, what that conveys to me is not a non-racist attitude but more a closing of the mind to the possibility of unconscious bias. We need to dig deeper to get rid of all forms of discrimination.

The Lord Jesus was, consciously, anti-racist as shown by his interaction with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 – the gospel writer expressly noted, for a reason, that Jews did not associate with Samaritans (John 4:9). Jesus, of course, readily associated with people from all backgrounds and of every status, including the wealthy and most respected (such as Nicodemus) and the poorest and most despised (beggars, prostitutes and tax collectors). Jesus does not care where you come from; he came to save the ‘lost’, whatever the colour of their skin, whatever their race, culture or background. Jews or Gentiles, all are welcome to receive the gift of eternal life, for God so loved the world, not a select portion of it.

Too little, for far too long, has been done to root out systemic racial inequalities in our society. All at St Mary’s are therefore invited to join in a new prayer initiative for those committed to pray for the promotion of racial equality and justice in every institution and across every sector, reflecting God’s mercy and love for all mankind equally. First meeting: Tuesday 18th August 2020 via Zoom from 8pm.

Do You Remember This? (Rae Binning)

Do you remember this? 

Well, it is over half way through the year and I have been attempting to remember our 2020 verse from January. I was aware that I cannot properly remember it off by heart, and even now am struggling with it. I can remember it for a day, then it goes again, until the next time I review it.

During lockdown, when we are not easily able to meet up in person, falling back on encouragement from Scripture has been important to me and is helping me keep going when I have felt low or just a bit despondent and fed up. Memory verses have helped me focus on the truth, not on my feelings, and have also given me hope when I am feeling hope-less.

Seeing Scripture during the day is also good. I like getting my ‘verse of the day’ on my phone and having a quick pray because of it. Putting a verse up by your kettle can be a gentle reminder of a truth, or as a screensaver on your computer. We can encourage each other by forwarding truths from the bible too, especially if you are aware of someone in need. Another good way of getting Scripture into your head and heart without even realising it is through songs, especially some of the kids’ songs which contain so much truth.

There are many verses from Hebrews that I want to remember, but am going to review Romans 15:13 regularly too, so it does not keep disappearing from my mind. Maybe if you have never tried to memorise Scripture, this summer is a perfect time to begin. My brain is not what it was, but I am going to keep having a go and learn some new verses, I hope you can too.

Ministry Training Course (Angela McDonald)

Today was my last day. For the past year I have been attending the Ministry Training Course (MTC) run by the South Central Gospel Partnership along with a number of others from St Mary’s, for the first six months this took place in Oxford, then virtually on Zoom. I have always loved the Bible, God’s word, since the vicar in my church did a foundation course and I have been passionate with engaging in Scripture. However, as someone who became a Christian at twenty-one, I didn’t have a doctrinal basis for my faith.

Much of my engagement with sharing the gospel was through experiential eyes which has resulted in a limited vocabulary when engaging with others particularly on issues such as God’s goodness, and other people’s world views.

This past year we have been shown the provision of the Father, the heart of the Saviour and the searching light of the Holy Spirit. We’ve heard from speakers from all walks of the Christian life including church leaders, Oxford University lecturers, famous authors, with various life experiences. They have all focused on drawing us into a closer relationship with our Lord Jesus and growing in our desire to make him known.

This course is for you if you are someone who has little biblical knowledge through to the most learned of us. The course gives you the opportunity to uncover the treasure of God’s word as if it is a cloth cleaning away the dust to show you the gleaming light, depth and colour of the gem within. It will give you a new vocabulary that will impact on how you live, how you pray and how you share Jesus.

Below is a video explaining a little more. Matt Searles who runs MTC is the most approachable person, with him ‘no question is a bad question’. He would be very pleased to hear from you if you would like more information. https://www.scgp.org.uk/training/mtc/

Sunday In Person (David Singeisen)

I was a little trepidatious standing there outside the actual church building, face mask on, clothes carefully chosen from M&S’s ‘Comforting and Reassuring’ range, with the list of booked attendees in my hand, trying to look calmer than I was actually feeling. I was a sidesman for the first in-person service back at St Mary’s.

'So, what happens now, Lord?':

  • What if someone turns up not realising you had to book?
  • What if someone coughs?
  • Does St Mary’s even have a ‘what to do in case of alien invasion’ policy?

The answers in order:

  1. I take them to a staff member and leave it to them to explain why it is not possible for people who have not booked to attend.
  2. I’m hoping no one does that, because then we’ll be in trouble!
  3. No. It does not.

And then people started to arrive. This was like a bright ray of sunshine after a rainy afternoon. A sudden goal after frustrated eons of build-up play. As folk strolled down the driveway, the overwhelming feeling was just one of cheerful, cathartic relief that we could go back to meeting at our church family home.

The service was a little different certainly. We did the actions to the song rather than sing it. But there were prayers, and readings, and a cracking sermon from the Millers. (I confess it took me a little while to see Jesus there, as Tamsin and Becca made his name from shapes on a board. I must get used to these earlier starts on a Sunday again!).

If you’re thinking of booking to attend an in-person service one Sunday, my advice would be: Do. There’s nothing wrong with meeting online - I’ll be off to the 7:45pm Zoom next Sunday! It’s a real blessing though to meet together in person. I know that as I walked up to St Mary’s on that cool summer morning, that trepidation was nestling on top of a strong sense of peace.

Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts and Obsessive, Compulsive Disorder (Becca Stileman)

The recent Covid-19 lockdown has affected many things – we are all aware of its impact and that this has been greater on some groups of people than on others. One thing it may have done is to exacerbate existing tendencies – in isolation we have had less ability to ‘dilute’ these by mixing with others. As somebody who has experienced anxiety and OCD for many years at varying levels, I have been wondering whether there are some of us whose tendency towards having intrusive and obsessive thoughts has been running riot. We might be able to protect ourselves from a virus by shutting ourselves away, but we cannot escape our own thought processes. You alone will be aware of the sort of mental gymnastics your brain is capable of – it may be self-blame or guilt, it may be anxious thoughts that come from nowhere and turn themselves into what seems to be reality. When my anxiety levels have been particularly bad and when Anna went through a severe phase of OCD in her teens (which required therapy), I did some reading and thinking about this. We have no expertise, but we have learnt more about ourselves.

Sometimes fearful thoughts are rational in origin but become irrational. For example, we are hearing so much about infection currently that it would be rational to have a heightened fear of getting ill. We are being directed to wash our hands so it would be rational to feel that we must be doing this. But these helpful and protective thoughts may begin to impact our lives to the extent that we can no longer ‘function’. All enjoyment is gone – we are ruled by our anxiety – afraid to step outside, washing our hands until they are red and sore.

Sometimes our thoughts are so unexplained and personal to us that we feel we are going crazy, or at least would sound that way to a ‘normal’ human being. Christians are not exempt from unhelpful thought patterns that make us less able to enjoy life and to function the way we want to. These thoughts are often the product of a sensitive conscience. Recognise your tendency to have intrusive, fearful thoughts and talk to God about them. We often try fixing ourselves before we turn to God. A feeling of helplessness can be a blessing in reminding us to depend on God.

Anxiety may impact us for a distinct period, many children experience a phase of obsessive thoughts, with or without accompanying compulsive behaviour; or it may be a longer-term battle. Like other health problems that come with an imperfect world, it is important to identify it, talk about it, and seek help.

We are loved as we are by our God. He knows us completely and loves us completely and sent us his Son who really can understand us and really does step between us and God to make us perfect in a way that we can never do.

Feel free to talk about this with me and/or others. You are not alone!

Lockdown Reflections (Karen Martin)

We are now inhabiting some strange almost-post-lockdown world where no-one is quite able to keep up with current advice on how to co-exist safely with Covid-19. Whilst battling to remember how many people are allowed in our gardens, in our homes and in our churches, it felt like a good point to press pause and reflect on some of our varied experiences of recent weeks. I took on the role of amateur roving reporter and was privileged to chat with several members of St Mary’s.

Starting at the heart of the NHS seemed like a good place to begin. Liz Kershaw is an ODP (Operating Department Practitioner) – this means that she is trained to work in operating theatres assisting in anaesthetics, surgery and recovery. It would perhaps be easy to assume that she had an easy ride in the first weeks of the pandemic – weren’t all non-urgent operations postponed? Indeed they were, but her skills in airway management meant she was rapidly redeployed to the Intensive Care Unit.

Never having worked in ICU before, Liz experienced anxiety, feeling both unprepared and overwhelmed. She described the first day as being ‘the worst in her career,’ surrounded by very sick patients in an unfamiliar environment, with procedures and practices that were different from those she knew from her ODP position.

Here her faith really helped. Knowing the pandemic was going to throw challenges at her, she learnt Psalm 91:1-2. “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” She read this psalm each day during the crisis and sought his comfort in song on the way to and from work. “I played Ancient of Days on repeat,” she said, with these words speaking directly to her, especially as she prepared for a night shift:

Though the dread of night overwhelms my soul
He is here with me, I am not alone
O His love is sure, and He knows my name
For my God is, the Ancient of Days.

Reflecting on the intensity of the peak of Covid-19 admissions and gravely ill cases, Liz can see that she learnt quickly and gained skills and confidence that will help her in her normal job. She spoke with humility, but it is clear that she was one of those frontline workers we were clapping for each Thursday. She was in the thick of it, making a difference to the life and death outcomes of the seriously ill.

The fact that she knew friends were praying for her made a huge difference and she acknowledges that the experience has made her faith even stronger. “I learnt to rely on God much more each day. It reaffirmed for me that God is real, present and active. In moments where I couldn’t cope, he gave me strength.”

Renewed reality of God’s provision is a common strand through many of the stories I gathered. Viv Lee explained that the lockdown came at a very serendipitous time for her and Peter. “Lockdown brought immense relief. It gave us time to process the news that Peter was likely to face a future of significant disability.”

Speaking with characteristic realism, Viv told me that it was immediately apparent that Covid-19 was a potential threat to Peter. Reduced mobility after surgery in 2019 had affected his fitness. It was clear that they should shield from all contact with the outside world. This lack of interruption felt God-given, providing respite from the stresses and strains of everyday life. “He’s my best friend,” she said, “spending time together is not a chore.”

But with Peter experiencing pain that was becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate, Viv felt desperate. She spent sleepless nights wrestling with God, finally crying out to the Lord for mercy.

Her prayers were answered. A second opinion was given, and the bleak news of a few weeks before tentatively reversed. “He needs another operation to repair the damage,” Viv explained, “but being forced to sit tight during lockdown meant irreparable damage hasn’t occurred.”

“How did faith help you through this?” I asked.

Viv looked a little perplexed as she replied, “What do people do without God? I lean on him constantly. Even when he feels far off or unreliable, he is there. I shout at him sometimes, ‘Let us know your plan,’ but like the persistent widow, you cannot let go.”

Such dependence on Christ was cited by two mums who have had to learn to become teacher to children of various ages, abilities and concentration spans. “When I hear people say how much time they had to themselves during lockdown, I cannot help but give a little chuckle,” said Ester Schoeman.

She and her husband worked out a schedule. “Johan worked from 6am-12noon while I manned the kids, and then we swapped, so that I could work the afternoon shift. But even though it was tough, it was a gift - a gift of time with my children that I don’t usually have because I work full-time. It was also a blessed time where we bonded as a family and drew closer to our Maker. I was strangely conflicted when the announcement came that schools and nurseries were to reopen – on the one hand we had become used to having them close by, but on the other hand we were exhausted and knew we couldn’t sustain the intense routine.”

Whilst Ester could see the blessings of lockdown, she also acknowledged the burdens. Both she and Johan were time and energy depleted. This is an experience shared by Penny McCrabbe. A community physiotherapist in charge of a team, she continued home visits to vulnerable patients who needed ongoing care in lockdown. With her husband working in IT, they were denoted as keyworkers which meant their three children were still able to go to school.

The irony was that keyworker children, though safely provided for in school, were not really taught. Work other parents were doing at the kitchen table during the day, Penny felt compelled to take on in the evenings and at weekends. “There was never a break,” she explained.

Like Viv, Penny found relief in the absence of social pressures. “I coped by running early each morning before the rest of my household got up. I found space to enjoy God’s creation and just be a part of the beautiful scenery.”

Mutual support has been vital through this period, and many have found Zoom meetings helpful. Ester said that she depended on weekly spiritual support and prayer through virtual growth group meetings and was grateful for spontaneous gifts dropped through the letterbox by friends helping to keep the kids entertained.

I met Heidi Yoder through online Sunday coffee mornings and was privileged to listen to some of her very difficult experiences of lockdown.

Like many people, Heidi found the initial stages a relief. As cabin crew, she is more accustomed to being away from her home, and she really enjoyed the enforced time to step away from the demands of everyday life. “The early days were heart-warming,” she said, “neighbourliness existed in a way not felt before.”

At the point some of us began struggling with the monotony of continued lockdown, Heidi found herself in the centre of a drama when one of her closest friends was taken ill with Covid-19 and transferred quickly to Royal Berkshire’s ICU. Named as his first point of contact whilst he was in hospital, she was faced with anxiety and responsibility. Living alone, there was no-one close by to share the burden of the daily phone calls with the doctors, the rollercoaster ride of hope and fear.

When he died after three weeks in hospital Heidi clung to the knowledge that as a fellow believer in Christ, her friend was with Jesus. In her own sadness she depended on the truth that “ultimately, even in the terrible things that happen, God is in control.”

Grief is never an easy path to negotiate, but with all the restrictions in place, lockdown made it even harder. She is grateful to the friend from St Mary’s who came to her garden before the rules were relaxed, purely so that Heidi would have someone real to talk to and weep with. Support has been ongoing from growth group friends, the leadership team and other family in Christ, “it is wonderful to be part of this church,” she said.

Looking to the future, Heidi is cautious. “We are all going to return to our freedoms at different speeds,” she said, “I hope we all have the grace to allow each other to do that.”  She acknowledges change has already happened – at first friends brought their own chairs and mugs of coffee when they visited her garden, now she asks their preference and is happy to comply.

Kat Adams explained that though it was sad not to meet up with other new mums, there was relief in being compelled to stay in while her son, Josh, was so young.  Like Heidi, she identifies her character as introvert, and she was happy to be at home. She valued Zoom contact with her ante-natal group and explained that worries about Covid receded as they discussed normal things like teething, nappies and sleep patterns.

The online services have also been a bonus for Kat, enabling her to focus on God, trusting that he is sovereign over everything. “Having a baby makes a difference to church – you spend much of your time in creche and don’t worship or listen as you did before.”

As lockdown progressed Kat felt the absence of grandparents and church family. “It’s hard not being able to share Josh with others. It feels unnatural not to pass your baby around for cuddles.”

Though recognising it depends very much on how and when rules are relaxed, Kat expressed some concerns at whether lockdown might have long-term impact on Josh. Unused to being with other people, how will he cope when socialising is possible again? How will she feel about handing him over when she and Tim have had sole care? In keeping him away from Covid-19, Kat is also aware that Josh has not been exposed to other everyday bugs and bacteria – could this compromise his immunity?

Questions about the future are common to all of us. Some carry anxieties about what lies ahead whilst others seek to jettison some of the busyness of life before lockdown. Liz said her frenetic working life during the peak of the pandemic was a strange contrast with quiet days off, when there was little traffic or noise, “It made me long for a quieter, calmer, less manic life post-lockdown.” Heidi is beginning to enjoy her pretend retirement, and Penny has found relief in fewer social gatherings.

If lockdown has taught us anything, perhaps it is that we need to slow down and do a little less, take some conscious rest as advocated in Genesis 2:2-3. The pandemic has taught us to depend on God, whatever our circumstances, secure in this knowledge:

“He will cover us with his feathers, and under his wings we will find refuge; his faithfulness will be our shield and rampart.” Psalm 91:4 

4pm Escape Lockdown - Legally (Brian Jones)

Six families in six canoes met in the rain at Cricklade early one Sunday morning to wend our way for ten miles down the upper reaches of the Thames to Lechlade. With the weather clearing and the wind blowing strongly behind us, it was an intriguing paddle under fallen tree arches (some so low you needed to lie down in the canoe) and through narrow reed beds. On one occasion it was a case of climbing out and hauling our canoes over sunken branches. 


First stop was at a pub enjoying their last weekend of peace before restrictions end, so no refreshment there! Then it was a picnic rudely curtailed by a short sharp shower. Finally, just short of Lechlade an impromptu game of cricket and a deliberate swim for one brave crew. Another crew had capsized earlier trying to avoid being spiked by some bushes (dry clothes being provided by the surviving fleet). 

Thanks to Chris for organizing an adventure which lifted us all out of the “sameness” of lockdown and particularly gave the children some contact with their peers. It was very telling when our Growth Group leader said “Hi, nice to meet you in the flesh,” and we then realized that although we had had weekly contact it had all been on Zoom. Another bonus of technology was the ability to log on to the 4pm congregation get together as we stopped in a lay-by on the way home. Thank you, St Mary’s staff team, for the effort you have put in to keep us all in contact.

Five Habits of Deeply Contented People (Simeon Human)

On the last Saturday in June around twenty of us had the opportunity to meet on Zoom. It was good to see familiar faces of our church family. Those still in and around Maidenhead but also our friends currently living further away, ranging from 15 to 1500 miles! Our subject: the five habits of deeply contented people, plus one extra secret habit. Our guest speaker Callom Harkrader, referred to principles written in Andrew Page’s book (resource 1 below) but based our discussion on Genesis 2.

The habits that enable us to experience a deeper level of contentment are:

1. Enjoy beauty: ‘The Lord God made trees that were pleasing to the eye’ Genesis 2:9.

2. Tend your garden: as Admiral McRaven said, ‘If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed’ (resource 2 below).

3. Practice self-control.

4. Be creative: and if you feel this isn’t possible, ask your close ones where they see your creativity, you might be surprised.

5. Embrace others: difficult to apply during lockdown, but see 3 John 1:13-14, ‘I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.’

And last but not least:

6. Spend time with God: which can be as simple as training your spiritual discipline bit by bit. For example, it can help to tell others not just that you’re praying for them but what it is you’re praying for on their behalf.

We found that it can be difficult for us in our 20s and 30s to reach a sense of contentment. One factor that trends as a source of this difficulty is moving home more. We also identified some of the other things that can make it difficult to find contentment, including pornography, alcohol abuse, unexplained depression, the morning alarm, pulling out weeds only to find several more metaphorically and literally sprouting, and so on. It was encouraging to be able to speak up about the little details that pull us down. Especially during this lockdown era, an event like Saturday’s has helped us to at least survive relationally.

Some practical tips we shared in our breakout rooms and main room: when chores feel like they never end, try to pause briefly after finishing a task, and just enjoy that accomplishment for a moment. If you wonder if there is such a thing as too much contentment, consider complacency, and where you see yourself on that particular spectrum. In order to reduce the pain of that morning alarm, try expending yourself during the day so that you can fall asleep earlier and have a chance to wake up naturally.

Aside from hearing heartfelt musings, there was some light-hearted drama, including a game of wink assassin, and some play deaths on camera!

Thank you to our hosts, speaker and contributors for a worthwhile time together. Thank you, Jesus, for being there too.

Resources: 

1. Buy the 'Five habits of deeply contented people' book from Blackwells or Amazon

2. Watch Admiral McRaven 'If you want to change the world' youtube. And also on a second youtube clip.

Gospel Poverty (Will Stileman)

During my sabbatical earlier this year, I had the privilege of staying at George Whitefield College in Cape Town. During my time there I was able to meet a number of the faculty and students. I was hugely impressed by what I saw. There was a great ethnic mix amongst the students who came from all over sub-Saharan Africa. It was also a joy to witness faculty members leading a church in Khayelitsha, a large black township on the outskirts of Cape Town.

The strategic importance of this college, not only for South Africa, but the whole African continent was clear. George Whitefield College has a large vision and is having a significant impact.

This coming Friday at 7:30pm, I am hosting a webinar in which there will be a chance to hear first-hand from the Principal of the College Mark Dickson and his colleague Phumezo Masango about the challenges and opportunities that face Christians in Africa. The webinar is entitled “Crossing the gospel poverty line in Africa.” It will be interesting. There will be opportunity to ask questions and meet the staff in breakout groups. We expect that the webinar will last just over an hour.

Do join us on Zoom through this link.

Details will also be sent out on this week’s email update.

When Inner Strength Isn't Enough (John Furley)

When inner strength isn’t enough: lifting the lid on the real causes of anxiety.

The annual all-congregations men’s summer event, normally a barbecue, moved online for the first time this year. Ste Casey spoke on anxiety – a topical subject, as we are living in challenging times.

Ste described anxiety as the radio noise, the buzzing in the background, or a sense of dread that sometimes we can’t put our finger on or identify its source. Anxiety is the gap between the position in life that we think we have, compared to the position we put our high-achieving friends on.

And anxiety affects us all, at different times and in different ways. Ste asked us to think about what pressures and anxieties we face and what are the causes. Discussing in smaller groups showed a variety of causes – reassuringly mundane in many instances, but all having the ability to cause acute anxiety and all are genuine threats to those suffering at the time.

But in taking us to Matthew 6:25-34, Ste showed how the Bible is clear: ‘Do not worry’ about life, food, clothes or image. In looking at the passage Ste encouraged us, challenged us and reassured us that anxiety affects us all. The Bible’s King David, a superman of the Bible in many ways, suffered from anxiety and wrote about this in Psalm 62.

For us today, anxiety can reveal four things:

  • It reveals our reality – our uncertainties and threats, and our concerns about personal failure
  • It reveals our lives – our fear of missing out, or what we think we have to have
  • It reveals our faith – in what or whom do we trust to provide for our needs?
  • It reveals our Father – showing that he is present and active, his character giving us confidence when we lean on and trust in him

So, do we trust and turn to the Lord, or do we as Matthew 6:32-33 says act like the world instead of first seeking God’s kingdom?