Time Capsule

This year, February had an extra day – a Leap Day. It happened to be a Saturday, so what to do with an extra day? Some of us arrived at St Matthew’s dressed for action. After a safety briefing, we set about cleaning and clearing the place. Cobwebs and dust were dispatched. Hymnbooks and bibles were boxed. Paperbacks and surplus vases were taken to charity shops. Hassocks and cassocks were bagged. Henry the hoover worked harder than he has ever done in his life and Charlie the eagle was covered like a parrot in a cage. (Admittedly, he has always been quiet.)

Our work party – average age estimated to be between 70 and 72, incidentally – fortified by tea and biscuits, was getting the building ready for the next phase of its life. On Monday, the reclamation people came in. They removed the pews from the back of church (from the cross-aisle, westward), apart from a couple of smaller ones which were bought by individuals, and took up the floor in that area. Work on the first phase of our Big Welcome project had begun! We are creating a space that will be used for serving refreshments after services and during the week, and for Praise & Play and other groups and activities to use. In the longer term, we hope to have kitchen facilities, level access from the car-park, and a toilet, assuming that the funds are available. The plan is to use our beautiful building to give a big welcome to all.

The following Saturday, a similar group (with a similar age profile) came and, once again, got everything ready for the work that was to come. While we were there, someone looked at the void where the pews and floorboards had been and asked, ‘Have we thought about putting a time capsule in, before the work is finished?’ Being a resourceful sort of chap, I got on with it and ordered a waterproof stainless-steel canister, big enough to take some A4 pages, rolled up. And then I asked people what they would like to be put inside for future generations to discover.

The Time Capsule: my hand for scale!

Suggestions included

  • Photographs of the church before and during the work, of the area, and of people
  • A copy of the current church magazine and this week’s newsletter
  • The church history booklet, written by David and Margaret Hart (which includes a list of clergy up to and including yours truly)
  • A leaflet about the Big Welcome project
  • An aerial view of the parish
  • Children’s writing and pictures of what church means to them
  • A copy of my sermon (!)
  • An audio recording of the latest news.
  • A newspaper article about the current world (and the coronavirus being declared a pandemic)

I’m not sure we’ll have space for all of that, but I would like to include a letter from me to whoever finds it. I could say something about myself, the church and the parish. Who knows what they will make of it?

The work has been made possible by generous donations and fundraising. But we need to continue if we are to realise the vision we have for our building. I know people hate being asked to give money – it’s always the same people who get asked, and the same ones who usually respond! – but the reality is that we need to reach out to our community and to coming generations, or, sadly, our building will be little more than a museum piece. And we are not in the museum business.

 I am encouraged today by support from folk at St Cross, who are inviting donations from those who visit their art and craft exhibition, and by the 5th Appleton Brownies who raised money with a cake sale. The St Matthew’s Praise & Play families held a sponsored treasure hunt and are planning a disco. My thanks to all who have supported the project so far, and all who are planning to do so.

What do you think will happen to the church in our two parishes, and in the nation, in the time between the capsule being buried and it being discovered? (The manufacturers say its good for 200 years, so if it fails, I’m going to ask for my money back!) It’s easy to be pessimistic about the church’s future. Recent surveys suggest that 68 percent of Anglican churches in this country have five children or fewer on a Sunday. 38% of churches have no children at all. A small number of churches are doing really well, but attendance by under-16-year-olds is dropping faster than adult attendance (20% decline in the last 5 years for children, compared with a 12% decline for adults). What future is there for the church if we lose contact with children and their families?

Our time capsule at St Matthew’s is a little gift from us to the future. But we have something greater to give: a church that is alive and well, and in the business of welcoming all.

Alan Jewell

From Now On…

This month, at St Matthew’s, we begin the first phase of refurbishing the church building. The original vision for a development project began when my predecessor was here, so to say it’s been a long time coming is something of an understatement. We need a church building that is fit for purpose, one that is comfortable, welcoming and accessible. In this first phase of the work, we will be taking out the pews at the back of church on both sides and levelling the floor. This will create an area that can be used for serving refreshments after services and for a variety of occasions during the week. It will also mean that our font, a major feature in the building, is more accessible and visible.

In the longer term, we would like to improve the building further with a kitchen facility, step-free access from the car park and even a new toilet! (The current convenience is functional but hardly convenient!) All of this costs money, of course, and you will know that our finances are hardly in a strong position. It is my view that we need to invest now for the future of the church in this community. Simply keeping things ticking over, while our reserves trickle away, won’t work. I know that not everyone in the congregation shares this vision but I hope that most will come on board and support it.

Throughout March, while the work is carried out, the church will be inaccessible during the week but we aim to be open for services on Sundays. (Evening services will take place in the choir stalls.) Wednesday morning coffee will take a break until after Easter but we plan to hold Thursday morning communion services, and any funerals that come in, at St Cross. Praise and Play will move to the church hall, and start at the earlier time of 1.30pm (to fit in with other users). Some information about the arrangements are to be found in the March edition of the magazine. Other details will be given in notices.

The builders will work Monday to Friday and leave the building in a fit state for services on Sundays. We will need help from volunteers to clear and tidy the church ahead of the work starting, and each week to make sure that the building is clean and safe for worshippers. After Sunday services, we need to leave things ready for work to start again on Monday mornings. If you can help, please speak with me or with one of the Churchwardens.

All of this coincides with the Church’s season of Lent, so maybe there’s something we can learn about making changes and moving on. People often associate Lent with giving something up, or perhaps with taking something on. But abstaining from chocolate or alcohol, or supporting a charity or good cause – valuable things in themselves – don’t really get to the heart of things, and may be little more than a form of sanctified self-improvement. In the early church, Easter was the time for new converts to be baptised, following a period of instruction and preparation. Easter was also the time when those who had been excluded from the life of the church could be reconciled. After a while, others joined them in self-examination and penitence, as a way of preparing for the celebration of Easter. This period came to be associated with Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism and before his public ministry, but Lent hasn’t always had a fixed length. And, if you are good at counting, you might want to have a look at how the period from Ash Wednesday (26 February this year) to Easter (12 April) can be calculated as lasting 40 days. (Answers on a postcard to the usual address.)

Lent, Holy Week and Easter, are an invitation to share in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as God in Christ has chosen to share our lives with us. The bible says:

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6.3,4)

Some of us will be following a Lent course this year based on the hit musical, The Greatest Showman (2017). That might not seem an obvious starting point, but author Rachel Mann has written a book that aims to help us do just that. It’s called ‘From Now on: a Lent Course on Hope and Redemption in The Greatest Showman’. Rachel is a parish priest and poet with an interest in popular culture and its relevance for the gospel. She says that the film – which is a fictionalised and musical version of the life story of circus entrepreneur PT Barnum – speaks about how we (like the characters in Barnum’s circus) can overcome life’s obstacles and “begin to live authentic lives”.

Perhaps a goal for Lent (and for life) might not be one of self-improvement, but a journey of discovery of who we already are, in Christ.

Have a great Lent!

Alan Jewell

Saints and Souls

In the Church calendar, the first of November is All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows. In the early church, when believers died for their faith, they were commemorated on the anniversary of their martyrdom. With an increasingly full calendar of saints’ days, and the possibility that there might be some Christian martyrs known to God but not to us, the Church added a celebration of all the saints, which at some point settled on 1 November. If ‘All Saints’ feels a bit like the Church’s ‘Hall of Fame’, what about those who have died whom we knew and loved, regardless of whether or not the Church might regard them as ‘saints’? For them, we follow All Saints’ with All Souls’ Day, a commemoration of the faithful departed. (In a more ‘catholic’ understanding, we might pray to the Saints and for the Souls!)

In practice, we will mark both All Saints’ and All Souls’ days on the nearest Sunday (3 November this year). In our morning services that day we will consider the example of the saints who have lived out their faith in their day – “lights of the world in their several generations” as the 1928 prayer book put it – and pray that we will have God’s grace to follow them in our lives. The day also reminds us that the Christian life is lived as “members of a company of saints whose mutual belonging transcends death”. In the evening, we remember and give thanks to God for “those we love but see no longer”, the ‘souls’ whose memory we treasure.

In my preaching on All Saints’, I often like to say that the ‘Hall of Fame’ view isn’t necessarily very helpful or biblical. Sometimes, the example set by saints in their own day doesn’t transfer well to our experience. Take Saint Simeon Stylites. He was born in about 390AD, the son of a shepherd in what is now Turkey. As a 13-year-old child, Simeon heard a sermon on the Beatitudes and “developed a zeal for Christianity”. At 16, he entered a monastery but his extreme austerity led his brothers to ask him to leave. He shut himself up in a hut for 18 months and apparently went through the whole of Lent without eating or drinking. He then moved to a mountain in what is now Syria; but even there he couldn’t escape from the crowds of pilgrims who came to ask for his counsel and his prayers.

So Simeon did what any of us might do. He spent the rest of his days out of reach on top of a pillar. There he could stand and pray, experiencing the scorching heat and numbing cold, kept alive by gifts of food sent up to him. He still couldn’t escape attention (some said he did it for attention!) and even emperors sought his counsel. Walls were built around his pillar to keep people away – especially women. (He wouldn’t even see his mother until after her death when her coffin was brought to him so he could say his goodbyes.) (See this article by Margaret Visser.)

As I said, sometimes the examples of the saints of history are not all that helpful. The second thing to note is that the New Testament doesn’t recognise a ‘Hall of Fame’ model of sainthood. In fact, we are all called to be saints (Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2). Many New Testament letters are addressed to “the saints” in a particular place (e.g. Ephesus, Philippi or Colossae) with no distinction between those who are doing a cracking job of it and those (the majority, I think) who were struggling. These ‘saints’ are not those who have died and passed on to glory. They are living out their calling in this world with an imperfect faith and the constant experience of ‘falling short of God’s glory’ (Romans 3.23). They will also catch glimpses of God’s grace and know that they have this “treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4.7). I also like to point out that the New Testament always uses the plural form – ‘saints’, never the singular, ‘saint’. In other words, being a saint isn’t something that we do on our own. It’s always something we do together. Which is why we have a church to belong to. God might occasionally call someone to live their Christian life atop a pillar, but I doubt that that would be true for many. No, we are called to be saints together, encouraging one another in the tricky business of living out our faith in a world that needs a demonstration of what love looks like. There are no solitary saints. Come to a church service near to you and get your encouragement to live out your calling to be a saint!

Alan Jewell

All Good Gifts Around Us…

In 1843, the Revd RS Hawker[1], a parish priest in Cornwall, decided to hold a service in church to give thanks to God for the harvest. Secular celebrations of ‘harvest home’ had long been held but Hawker is usually credited with beginning what we now know as the Harvest Festival – an annual service of thanksgiving in church. (Hawker, a poet, was also the author of the Cornish patriotic anthem, ‘The Song of the Western Men’, published anonymously in 1826.) He adapted the older tradition of Lammas or ‘Loaf Mass’, when, in thanksgiving for the first-fruits of the wheat harvest (at the start of August) a fresh baked loaf made from the harvest was presented as part of the eucharist. This had been a traditional celebration, known to the Anglo-Saxons as Hlafmaesse.

In the 1940s, there was an attempt to revive the old Saxon agricultural festivals, including Plough Sunday and Rogation Sunday. Plough Sunday is the first Sunday of Epiphany, marking the end of the 12 days of Christmas and a return to work – the plough and seeds would be blessed to ensure a good harvest. Rogation seems to have its origins in Graeco-Roman religion where processions were held to invoke divine favour and the protection of crops. (The Latin word rogare means to ask.) Christian processions around the parish boundaries were made with prayers for God to bless the land. Some parishes still ‘beat the bounds’ in the week before Ascension Day.

The Reformation tried to put an end to the more superstitious practices associated with the agricultural year, and to make a distinction between praying to God, the Creator, and pagan cults of fertility; but many local customs and festivals trace their origin back to some of these traditional commemorations, or at least to their revival in the Victorian and later eras (such as Walking Days and Bawming the Thorn). In 2006, the Church of England published resources for the agricultural year as part of Common Worship: Times and Seasons. This recognises that our scriptures (Jewish and Christian) “give eloquent expression to the creative power and wisdom of God.”

“It is therefore a natural instinct for worshipping communities to develop patterns of worship and prayer around the agricultural year.”

Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year

The cultures in which our scriptures were produced were ones in which people lived much closer to the land than most of us do today. The Jewish festivals with which Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar were closely tied to nature and the seasons. Our supermarket culture, in which we can buy strawberries at any time of the year, grown somewhere in the world and transported for us to pick off the shelves when we want, is a very modern phenomenon. We are very distant from the realities of seedtime and harvest. But in our day younger people, especially, are reminding us that human activity now endangers the very ecosystem that sustains our lives and that of the planet. Perhaps within our church year, we need to look more closely at our dependence on God our creator and the world we have been given to care for as stewards.

In October, we mark the harvest season with services in both churches. At St Cross, the harvest festival will be at 10.30am on Sunday 6 October, followed by a lunch in church. At St Matthew’s, there will be a harvest festival service at 10.30am on Sunday 13 October. In addition, we have a Church Family Harvest Extravaganza at 3.30pm on Sunday 6 October.

Please come and join us for any of the above and let’s reconnect with the LORD our maker:

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

From Psalm 95

The Revd Alan Jewell


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hawker_(poet)


[i] Sources: Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year © The Archbishops’ Council 2006 and published by Church House Publishing. The English Year, by Steve Roud © 2006, published by Penguin.

The Big Welcome

It’s five years since I became vicar in the Benefice of Stretton and Appleton Thorn. My institution took place in a service at St Matthew’s on 10 September 2014. Doesn’t time fly! If you have heard me speak about that occasion, you will know that my clearest memory is of getting whacked in the face with a bell rope. I was carrying out the new incumbent’s traditional job of tolling the bell to let the parish know that it had a vicar. I was determined to give it my best shot, as people say that the number of times the bell rings is the number of years that the vicar is planning to stay. To begin with, I couldn’t hear anything so I pulled a little harder until I knew that the bell was moving. I also knew, from watching Dave Allen on the tele, that church bells are capable of lifting you off the ground if you are not careful. What I didn’t realise is that, unless properly controlled, the rope can whip back and smack you about the face, which is what happened to me. The Archdeacon and Rural Dean were the closest witnesses: they saw the whole thing but were not injured in the process. To be honest, it was only my pride that took a blow, but it’s quite something to be welcomed with a slap in the face!

For someone whose youthful ambition was to be a rock guitarist, it’s also humbling to think that some of my favourite moments from my time here so far have involved not the guitar, but the ukulele. The guitar (especially the electric guitar) is a cool instrument. But no one ever looked cool playing the uke, and that’s part of its charm. It’s a fun instrument and it makes you smile. At Praise and Play in both churches, I enjoy sitting on the carpet at the front of church, and singing with the little ones and their carers. I have on one occasion played the uke at a wedding – at the Bride’s request – and once at a Baptism – at the child’s mother’s request.

The uke also features in another of my favourite regular activities, The Singing Kettle, where we meet once a month in the church hall and sing through some old favourites, mostly from the 1950s given the age of the audience and the musicians, but older and newer songs too.

You may also be aware that the past five years have not been without their struggles, both personally and professionally. I won’t dwell on that here, but I am happy to acknowledge the support that we have had, and I hope that the next five years will see progress and growth in the life of both churches.

At St Matthew’s, we have now launched the Big Welcome project. When I first made enquiries about the post here, I was interested to see that St Matthew’s had plans to develop the building, to make it more accessible and welcoming, not just for regular churchgoers but to the community we are called to serve. It is an ambitious undertaking and not everyone is persuaded, but the Chancellor of the Diocese issued the Faculty which gives us permission to do the work on the basis that the parish has

“demonstrated clear and convincing justification for the changes proposed… (which) will better serve the ministry and mission of the church in the parish and area.”

With the permissions in place (from the Church and the Borough Council) it is up to us to raise the funds if the reordering is to go ahead – no easy feat, granted! At Walking Day, there was a presentation (by Eric and Kylie no less!) and display. We have had leaflets produced outlining what we hope to do and inviting people to show their support by returning a pledge card.

At its heart, I think this is a matter of what we believe the church to be and what we think we are here to do. I know that, like most churches in the country, we are struggling with numbers and with fabric and finance. (Both churches have had damage done to their churchyard walls within a matter of weeks!) But I don’t see any point in simply battening down the hatches waiting for the storm to blow over. We need to engage with our communities and I believe that the Big Welcome project is part of our vision to do that.

At the time of writing number of fundraising events and ideas are being planned – from mugs and pens, to a barbecue, quizzes and a band night. Please look out for details of these and support them if you are able.

I hope that you will return your pledge card, if you haven’t already done so, and commit yourself to pray, to work and to support the Big Welcome project.

Alan Jewell

Derek Redmond’s Emotional Olympic Story – Injury Mid-Race | Barcelona 1992 Olympics

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

https://youtu.be/t2G8KVzTwfw

The unforgettable story of Great Britain’s 400m runner Derek Redmond, whose hamstring snapped during his event but was determined to finish the race at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.

“Derek Anthony Redmond didn’t win a medal at the Barcelona Olympics. In fact, the British 400m runner didn’t even make it past the semi-final stage. But it was his determination to finish that will live forever in the minds of millions. Injury forced the Briton to withdraw from the 1988 Seoul Games just ten minutes before the start of his 400m heat, so Redmond felt he had everything to prove in Barcelona four years later. Not to his peers, that is but, as he later admitted, to himself. Redmond wanted a medal whatever the colour and he started well, qualifying for the semi-finals by clocking the fastest time in his heat. As the gun signalled the start of his semi-final, Redmond charged out of the blocks, making good speed over his first 250m. At that point his right hamstring snapped. The one-time British 400m record holder pulled sharply up as the rest of his field ran away from him, leaving Redmond on his knees and crippled, his Olympic dream over. What followed, however, is one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history. Redmond got back to his feet and tried to finish the race. In an act of true courage against adversity, Redmond could only hop on one leg towards the finish line. Pain etched on his face as each step became more painful than the last, Redmond would not give up. He had promised himself and his father, that he would finish the race ‘no matter what,’ and he would keep that promise. Halfway to the finish line on one leg and crying with desperation, Derek was joined by his father Jim. The moment Redmond crossed the finish line brought sixty-five thousand spectators to their feet in a standing ovation, many also in tears. Few can remember that Steve Lewis of the USA won the semi-final in a time of 44.50. But no one who saw it will ever forget Derek Redmond’s courage on the day he defined the essence of the human and Olympic spirit.”

The Rich Fool

You Fool!

Up and down the country today, preachers are standing in pulpits declaiming these words to their congregations, making sure not to catch anyone’s eye. It’s cathartic, but, of course, it’s not the preacher speaking. This is scripture.

“You fool!”

In fact, Jesus tells us that if call someone a fool, you should go to hell (Matthew 5.22). If you call someone a fool, you are saying that they are worthless in God’s sight, and, clearly, that’s not our call.

In the Psalms we read that

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
(Psalm 14.1 and 53.1)

You might think that this is a criticism of atheism – that those who don’t believe in the existence of God are fools – but that’s not what the psalmist is saying. The fool is not someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God (the idea would have been unthinkable) but someone who does believe in God but lives as if God did not exist. And that is the man in our parable. He lives his life as if God doesn’t exist and other people don’t matter.

In the Old Testament Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) there is a lot of reflection on what it is that makes someone foolish or wise. Proverbs (9.10) tells us that

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…
Proverbs 9.10

Wisdom (the opposite of folly) is founded on a relationship with God. Jesus makes the same point in his parable of the wise and foolish builders (Matthew 7.24-27). The wise man or woman builds a house on the rock which is like building your life on the words of Jesus. When the storms of life come, the house stands firm. The foolish builder builds on shifting sand and the house collapses. What they have built crumbles to nothing. It’s not that the foolish person didn’t hear the words of Jesus. They did. But they chose not to act on them.

The rich person in today’s parable should have listened to the preacher of Ecclesiastes whom we hear in today’s Old Testament reading (Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 2.18-23)

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1.2

Here’s something I learned: the word which is translated in our bibles (NRSV) as ‘vanity’ (NIV: ‘meaningless’; GNT: ‘useless’) is the Hebrew word hebel which means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. Everything, says the Teacher, is vapour or breath. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is fleeting and insubstantial. Which is to say that

“Without God, ‘everything under the sun’ is as significant as vapour.”

That’s what the rich person in our parable hasn’t grasped. He thinks that his grain and his goods, stored in bigger barns, will make him happy. The wealth he has accumulated means that he can “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” It won’t. God says, “You fool!”. ‘When you die – which will be very shortly – they will mean nothing to you.’

Today’s reading from Colossians (Colossians 3.1-11) lists the things that don’t belong to those who “have been raised with Christ” – the things because of which “the wrath of God is coming” (‘anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language’), and among them is greed. Which is idolatry – putting something before God. Unlike the character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street who says

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Conclusion

You will know the expression “money is the root of all evil” and you may think that that is a quote from the bible. Or from Pink Floyd.

Money, so they say
is the root of all evil today

But that isn’t what the bible says. What the bible (1 Timothy 6.6-10) says is

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil
1 Timothy 6.10a

Not money but the love of money. What the letter to Timothy says is that godliness with contentment is our goal – “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” (v8)

9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Jesus warns us about the love of money. If we reject his warning, we are at risk of being fools.

As someone said

The best things in life aren’t things