Earlier in the summer I helped with the first two of our Summer Sunday services, which brought our 3 largest congregations together at the reasonable hour of 10am, and enabled us to minister in a unified way through all the ‘absences’ caused by Christian Conferences and the holiday season.
We used the theme of “Amazing things that Jesus did” looking specifically in an “All Age” way, at those told in John’s Gospel. One week I was leading a service focussing on the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1-38) and wanted to make our “confession” and absolution visual in a way that the kids could watch up close.
I came up with the idea of using dirty and clean water: we started with a pint glass of ‘dirty water’ (I used a mixture of cold tea and coffee, so that it didn’t leave a residue in the glass), and talked about the need to get rid of the wrong things that we do, that make us “dirty”.
I then poured this dirty water into a bucket to go down the drain later – leaving an empty glass. As I did so we prayed the following prayer together:
We know we are a dirty people,
We mess up, get things wrong,
Dishonour you, and hurt each other.
We are sorry.
Then using a large jug of clear, clean water I filled the pint glass up again to the point where it overflowed. As I did I talked about God’s forgiveness, about Jesus making us clean through his death on the cross, about being full again through the Holy Spirit to the point where we can over flow into the world around us and start to make that cleaner and better too. We then said the following together:
We know that you sent Jesus,
To die on the cross for us,
And rise to life to wash us clean.
That we might be filled with the
Living water of your love and Holy Spirit.
Not exactly what you might call “authorised” but it seemed to work – and the adults liked the visual aid too!
You may be aware that I recently had the sad privilege of taking part in the Thanksgiving Service for Marine Adam Brown. In the days that have followed I have tried to reflect on the experience, including on what at the time I regarded as a pastoral ‘fail’.
After the service I was able to talk with some of the bearer party who I thought had taken a particularly difficult role in the day. One of them sought me out for a second conversation. He made it clear that he had no use for God stuff, because of unspecified circumstances in his life; I said something naff (but true) about believing God is there when we are shocked, hurt or lonely, whether we can acknowledge it or not – a stumbling reflection on the loss of my own mother.
But, he spoke movingly about the sense of brotherhood shared by all Royal Marines, who are by each others side in all the laughter and trauma of life. It was this that had led to him to volunteer for the bearer party.
I don’t suppose Royal Marine’s choose their brother Marine’s; but they certainly spend more time with them, at close quarters in difficult conditions, than most of us spend with either our own colleagues or our own families. It is no wonder that the image and experience of ‘brother’ is so important to them.
What he said got me thinking: who is the ultimate brother?
When we see Jesus in the Gospels encouraging (little children to meet with him), correcting (often Peter) and comforting (Matthew 8), and telling stories with those whose life he shared, he was being a brother. In his resurrection, Jesus stood like the bearer party, on the shore of his “brothers’” grief (John 21).
Jesus is for me the ultimate brother, because of many things: he is a 24/7 companion; a strong, dependable, constant presence; someone who both comforts and challenges, encouraging us to go the extra mile as we serve alongside him. But although a Royal Marine does not choose those he serves with, it was Jesus’ choice to serve alongside us, and he asks that we allow him that privilege of being our brother.
Now, why couldn’t I have said all this at the time? Perhaps, because it wasn’t intended that I should. When I exchanged a de-brief email with the lovely Royal Naval Padre who led the service, he told me this:
Don’t feel inadequate about your response to that lad, ministry with the armed forces really is cutting edge stuff (dare I say real pioneer ministry!) and you really get honest reaction, not just “nice sermon vicar” type responses…. He took the courage to be honest which is the starting point, and had you responded with religious stuff, however sensitive, you might have confirmed all his suspicions. Remember it’s God who calls and converts, we only play a little part when he wants us too.
The death of a young person is always difficult to come to terms with. For family and friends it is devastating. But young people belong to such large networks of acquaintances through schools and clubs, that the death of a young person will affect a community to the core of those who live and work within it.
The death of anyone serving in HM Armed Forces, also makes raw the feelings of many who have a connection with the services, or simply wish to support those who risk their lives in areas of conflict.
It was no surprise therefore, that hundreds of Yateley residents gathered in and around St. Peter’s yesterday to pay their respects to a beloved son, husband, and friend – a young man who grew up among us. It naturally became an opportunity for the Church to take an important place at the heart of the community it serves.
The church fellowship itself had rallied around to create an appropriate welcome, both to the family, friends and the service personnel involved, but also to those who now wanted to take often hesitant steps, through the doors of a building that was now a focus, outlet or ‘home’ for their emotions. Although as a Lay Minister, my role in the service was small, it was reassuring to know that a very professional and caring team of pastors, caterers, bellringers, sidespeople and sound technicians were seamlessly and freely fulfilling their roles in circumstances completely beyond all our experiences. They augmented those who had already completed their work; those that had prayed, or swiftly cleaned, flower arranged and gardened in the days beforehand. God is faithful and enabled each to serve and provide strength to others.
From a personal viewpoint, liaising with and working alongside the well-oiled machine that are our Royal Marines was a joy, even if the cause of the occasion was heart-rending. Losing another of their own, hurt. You could hear it in their voices, and see it in their eyes, but they could still be efficient and share a joke.
The Naval Chaplain who officiated was a man of inspirational character and faith, who succeeded in repeatedly bringing a smile to my rather strained features, through our conversations and brief working time together. The calling to chaplaincy in our armed forces must be particularly challenging, not only for the circumstances that must be worked with and under, but also for the constant contrast those circumstances can provide with the love, peace, hope and justice offered by Christ.
My own brief, and poorly articulated thoughts in the last few days go something like this: There is evil in the world. We all live and work with evil, hurtful and difficult things hanging in the wings, and sometimes breaking through, to the centre of our lives. Some people, like every Royal Marine, make a concious decision to follow a way of life that means they know they will be affected by the truly horrendous acts of others.
Somehow, I feel sure that God is at work in each of the brave men I’ve met this week, whether they recognise it for themselves or not. Their work accepts the consequences of one line of authority, against often violent opposing forces who they can not predict or trust. They seek to influence for peace and the benefit of all, the thoughts and behaviour of strangers that they are daily brought into contact with. Is it me, or is that not a Christ-like way of life?
My only original liturgical contribution to the Thanksgiving Service for Adam Brown, was one of the prayers I led (the others being, sometimes adapted, prayers from Common Worship). Even this small offering has to acknowledge the influence of a prayer in Russ Parker’s ‘Wild Spirit of the Living God’ and the correcting pen of the Naval Chaplain! It marks my first small foray into pastoral and liturgical responsibility for the needs of those who find themselves bereaved and as they celebrate, remember and mourn their loved ones:
Lord of light and peace,
we remember the war-torn areas of your world,
asking your forgiveness for the willfulness of humanity
that causes conflict and despair.
We place into your loving care,
those in our armed forces who seek daily
to bring peace and stability
to the regions in which they serve.
Help us, with them to weave the light of your love
There was a brief interlude in the steep learning curve that is lay ministry in an interregnum (sorry, vacancy) last weekend, as we travelled north up the A1M for a wedding in Lincolnshire.
A truly excellent and relaxed occasion it was. The wedding itself, a civil service in a hotel, gave me much to ponder if contrasted with the language of a church ceremony. The reception was in a lovely marquee on the family’s farm with lots of games, a bbq buffet with few food miles, and I even danced (to the shock of my son I suspect). But another treat was on store, as we stopped on the way home at another farm connected with the extended family of our friends… this time at Hitchin (near Letchworth).
Hitchin Lavender has restarted a historic tradition of growing lavender in the area, and now makes a wonderful lunch stop between late June and early September, for anyone wishing to step off the A1M at J10.
The refreshments in the old barn were delicious, and there is shade to sit outside if you have a dog. There is also an excellent gift shop selling the delightful goods made from lavender grown on the farm. Then for a small fee (which includes the scissors and bag to cut some lavender for yourself) you can walk the fields, which now include not only lavender but the most gorgeous sunflowers. The whole thing just made my heart lift, as is a fantastic antidote to long-distance car journeys.
We were particularly impressed by the artist sat quietly in the edge of the sunflowers painting. I have no idea who she is, but would love to find out. I also thought the husbands photo a real cracker… and I think both could be real winners if they ever entered competitions!
We even bought a couple of lavender plants to bring home – one for us for the back garden (we’ve already got a plant of their lavender in the front) and one for Dad, as a thank you for looking after the dog!
One tip – be careful in the lavender fields if you’re wearing sandals; bees sting!
Today many of my Mothers’ Union colleagues, including my husband, spent the day at RAF Odiham saying thank you to RAF personnel and their families for the commitment and sacrifice they make in serving in our armed forces.
Due to other pressing pastoral commitments in my parish, I was unable to join them for the day, but Mothers’ Union members were able to serve thousands of free pieces of homemade cake, hundreds of drinks, and give away 200 copies of ‘Families First’ (the magazine resourcing family life published by Mothers’ Union.) The husband isn’t pictured… he was wielding the camera between bouts of giving away lots of cake!
It will be interesting to discover if my latent, amateur marketing abilities produce any press coverage of our gifts at this event, despite the poor amount of time I’ve been able to give them. It’s interesting where I find my priorities are being focused, especially now we’re in vacancy. The balancing act between parish and Mothers’ Union responsibilities is a tricky one.
Today CPAS have featured my posts about St. Peter’s search for a set of foundational values in their August e-bulletin.
It is therefore appropriate that yesterday as St. Peter’s shared its first draft Parish Profile among all its congregations for comments, with it was a prayer for our period of vacancy (life without a vicar) that I had been involved in writing, and which focuses on the values we hope will become foundational to our future.
It deliberately acknowledges our recent experiences, focuses on the values we want to share, and asks God to call both ourselves and our ‘as yet unknown to us’ leader, to focus on our service to God with enthusiasm and integrity.
We give thanks for your presence in the life of St. Peter’s,
and ask you to forgive us
where we have not honoured you in our words and actions.
Through your grace and love,
bind us together as a community willing to surrender
to the transforming power of your Holy Spirit.
Help us to celebrate the new life you brought
through the gift of your Son Jesus,
and, with Him, to meet the people of Yateley.
Inspire within us,
and in the heart of those who you are calling to lead us,
the will to serve you with integrity,
and the enthusiasm to experience the fullness of your Kingdom;
To the glory of your name,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our hope is that each congregation, homegroup and other event will share this prayer when they meet, and that individual members will pray it as part of their personal prayer lives, for the duration of our vacancy.