Revd Louise Williams shares her occasional thoughts with us.
This comes with my love and best wishes for Christmas and for God’s richest blessing in the coming year.
If you have seen our Christmas publicity this year you will have spotted a small box in the right hand corner with a stylised crib scene and the words ‘#God is with us’. One of the names we call Jesus is Emmanuel which means, ‘God is with us’.
And so, in the crib we see the outline of a simple building, a shed, an outhouse…nothing very special. We see 2 people, a baby in a basket and a star. It isn’t a photograph, video or even a great oil painting. Yet it manages to summarise the whole of Christmas and yet also the essence of the Christian faith.
The story of the baby in the manger is very touching. We are moved by the thought of Mary and Joseph stranded in an unfamiliar town with nowhere to go. Joseph, the bewildered fiancé of the young woman who has found herself pregnant through the presence of God impresses us with his trust and love. The unruly shepherds and exotic foreign wise men who will visit the child spark our imagination and give rise to many delightful nativity scenes in our infant schools and on Christmas cards. The presence of the guiding star points us to an event which isn’t just a cute, homely scene. It suggests something beyond this world, something we can scarcely imagine let alone understand. And as we look more closely we notice that the star is cross-shaped.
This baby, we believe is God. Paul tells us that God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Colossians 1.19) This is not just a cute, homeless baby. This is the Son of God. Who came to share the life of the world he had created in all its complexity and beauty, pain and wickedness. A child who would live like us, love, grow, learn and then do something outrageous. Because he is God and because he wants us to share in his life, he showed those around him how God wants us to live: with compassion, with love and generosity. He healed and set free because that is what God wants in our world. But he had another destiny, too. He was born to die for the sake of the world he has made and loves. Paul continues by saying that God reconciled the world to himself through the death of Jesus on the cross. The pain, sin and wickedness that we see in the world, and which never quite stops for Christmas, however much we wish it would, is held by Jesus in that offering of himself on the cross.
The star which is cross shaped reminds us that this baby is not just God with us. He is also God for us. He is God who loves us, always, passionately, eternally.
God is with us at Christmas. And Easter. And Harvest and Remembrance. And at every new birth and every death bed. Every day at work. Every day at home. Every holiday, bus journey, crisis or moment of boredom. God is with us. Which means he is willing to be with you. This Christmas, why not let him come into your life? Let him give you the gift of new life, forgiveness, hope and companionship. God is with you and that is why I want to wish you, once again, a very blessed Christmas and God-filled New Year.
I’ve been having a bit of a hunt on-line, for information about my most famous predecessor, Arthur Dent. He became Rector of South Shoebury in 1580 and his name can be found on the board in St Andrew’s. Born in 1553 at the height of the religious conflicts of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Arthur was well-connected with many of the leading Puritans of his day. He was educated at Cambridge and ordained in his early 20s. He was married to a relative of Ezekiel Culverwell …I couldn’t find out her name. And he didn’t have any children. He died sometime between 1601 and 1607
Arthur was a very devout and strict Christian. He preached with fervour; avoided ritual and was in trouble with his Bishop for not always keeping the rules: he was also a prolific writer. He wrote a very famous religious pamphlet called A Plain man’s Pathway to Heaven. Published after his death it had reached its 63rd edition within 60 years.
He wrote his pamphlet to help people live their Christian lives. He wanted to help people make an intelligent and conscious decision to follow Jesus throughout their lives and to be assured that they would be welcomed into heaven when they died. Having preached it and written about it throughout his life, it is moving to hear this account of his death.
H]is life was not more profitable to others, than his death was peaceable to himself: scarcely a groan was heard, though his fever must have been violent, which despatched him in three days. Having made a pithy confession of his faith, 'This faith,' said he, 'have I preached; this faith have I believed in; this faith I do die in; and this faith would I have sealed with my blood, if God had so thought good; and tell my brethren so.' He afterwards said, 'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness: and, with his last breath, added, 'I have seen an end of all perfection, but thy law is exceeding broad.'
Arthur’s pamphlet was widely read, including by John Bunyan. It helped Bunyan make a decision to follow Christ and Bunyan later wrote the classic Christian devotional book, Pilgrim’s Progress. This book has influenced generations of Christians with its story of Christian who was seeking the heavenly city but is constantly in danger of being knocked off course by doubt, despondency and other spiritual distractions. One of our windows in St Andrew’s has scenes from the story of Pilgrim’s Progress.
Arthur died in his forties. But he died full of faith and love having served God diligently and whole heartedly. He had realised that our journey to faith in Jesus can be troubling and hard. It is a journey which requires a decision to turn and follow the Son of God, putting our trust in him. It is a decision which isn’t simply an emotional response. Within our own ability we need also to think about our faith. It is also a journey which requires determination and courage.
Jesus invited his followers to take up their cross and follow him. The life of faith isn’t always easy. But the assurance that we can be forgiven, loved and welcomed into heaven gives us energy and determination in that journey.
St Andrew’s Church is now open to visitors most days from about 9am-5pm. You are most welcome to come is and look at the board with Arthur Dent’s name or the Pilgrim’s Progress window. And while you are there, maybe consider your own spiritual journey. Say a prayer; write in the prayer book; simply sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. And maybe you will also decide to set out on the journey following Jesus, taken long ago by Arthur Dent and John Bunyan; and followed every day by members of St Andrew’s, St Peter’s and all the other churches in our area.
God bless you,
PS. For those who associate the name of Arthur Dent with ‘Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’, according to the website I checked, the choice of name was entirely accidental..!
What sort of church does God want us to be? I wonder if we ask ourselves that sufficiently often. We ask about what we like. We think about what people ‘out there’ might like. But surely as God’s people, our first point of reference is to be the people God wants us to be.
In English the words for church and church are the same!! In some languages they are different. We have to distinguish between the building, the institution and the community of the church. At present we have a great opportunity to think about our church family or community as we are in exile in the church hall. As exiles go it’s rather pleasant. Warm, sunny, spacious. Loos close at hand. (The work in St Andrew’s is going well and should be finished by the end of the month!)
But I remind us of the question: what sort of church community does God want us to be?
Surely above all he wants us to be people who both collectively and individually are getting to know him better and are seeking to live more closely to him every day. To be disciples of Jesus means that we are faithful followers. People who are consistent. Consistent in worship, prayer and Bible study, in service and generosity. People who are growing to see the world as God sees it. People who want to share the hope we have with others and to make the world a better place.
Not long after the resurrection the disciples were walking to Emmaus when they were startled by Jesus’ presence as they discussed the Scriptures and shared in a meal. As they broke bread together they recognised his presence. So, what about us?
Do we make every effort to learn, to understand, to have our minds stretched? Do we make ANY effort to learn?! And how do we come to Communion? With loving penitent hearts? With minds and hands open to receive all that Jesus is and will be in our lives. Or do we come unthinking, gossiping on the way back to our seats and then glaring at anyone who has the temerity to interrupt our peace and quiet!
It seems to me that our first priority as a church is to be people who make scripture and communion our priority and the food which powers us along.
In Romans 16 Paul writes with great affection to the church in Rome. He thanks them for their hard work and commends their courage and faithfulness. But he doesn’t give a great list of the things they do. He just commends them for their sharing in the life of the church. His friendship with them was more important than their actual productivity!
What does God want our church to be like? Well surely this is part of his answer. A church where people care for each other, not just their friends. Where people care for the strangers who walk in and who look after visitors who aren’t sure what to do and who need help with the service book. I still see people struggling and no one helping them! A church where we actively take steps to befriend one another and take responsibility to see if people are all right if they miss a few weeks. A church where we involve others by sharing the work. Where we don’t see things as OUR job. We just naturally share the work of God.
Churches should be communities of people who are seeking God in word and sacrament, faithful, committed, determined. Communities of people who work hard and love one another. Communities which are warm and attractive irrespective of the building; people who are outward looking, generous, kindly and full of God’s love.
People like to visit St Andrew’s because it is a very beautiful grade 2* listed building. But when it’s closed, and if St Peter’s were closed, why would they visit? Surely they will only visit because we are people who love God and one another and who extend that love to our neighbours and wider community. It should be that when we come together in worship they glimpse the presence of God among us.
If that is what we believe God wants our churches to be like. And if it isn’t quite there yet, what can you and I do to make it happen?