Steve writes . . . It’s not rocket science, or is it?

I’m delighted to say that All Saints’ bid for a grant from ‘Scientists in Congregations’ has been successful! ‘Scientists in Congregations’ is a project funded by the John Templeton Trust to support local congregations in running schemes which show that Christians have nothing to fear from the results of modern science.

There are so many misunderstandings of the Christian view of science which have led people to dismiss our faith out of hand, assuming that you can’t be a Christian and a top-class scientist. Yet there are faithful, Bible-believing Christians at the highest level of academic and practical science in this country. For example, amongst the professors of astrophysics and theoretical physics at Oxford University are Katherine Blundell and Ard Louis, who both find no difficulty between their scientific work and discoveries and holding a robust Christian faith.

The planning group at All Saints’ working with me is Helen Wilson, Mark Ritchie and Keith Thrower. Having been awarded the grant, the project we now have to make happen involves bringing four high quality speakers on science and faith issues into the heart of our town. The talks, which will be free of charge, will be presented at the Corn Exchange and everyone in Faringdon and the surrounding area will be welcome.

There’ll be time in each evening to ask questions of the speaker and the idea is to make science and faith issues very accessible so that no special knowledge of science is required by anyone who comes.

Some of the subjects we hope to have talks on include: ‘Has science killed God?’; ‘God and the Big Bang’, ‘Creation or Evolution, do we have to choose?’ and ‘Designer Babies – should we play God?’.

I still recall my great annoyance at my daughter’s class being told by their physics teacher in GCSE year that it was a choice- either God or the Big Bang, but not both. This only reflected the physics teacher’s lack of understanding of the greatness of the living God.

If all truth (including scientific truth) is God’s truth, there’s no need to let Richard Dawkins and other scientists who deny God have the final word. So please get thinking and praying about who you might bring with you amongst your family and friends. Watch this space for further details and help us to achieve the goal of filling the Corn Exchange for these talks between September 2017 and February 2018.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes . . . Come and meet the Bishop

Our new ‘Diocesan Bishop’– that means the Bishop of Oxford – the lead Bishop in Oxford Diocese, is Steven Croft. He came to Oxford last Autumn from being Bishop of Sheffield for eight years. He’s currently going round all the deaneries in his (rather huge) diocese to meet church members. And he is inviting us all to come and meet him on Wednesday 7th June at Uffington Village Hall at 7.15pm for 7.30pm start.

In one of his books Jesus’ People: What the church should do next, Bishop Steven reminds us what a church is: “A Christian Church is not a gathering of loosely committed consumers or more or less satisfied customers. It is the living community of those who are offering their whole lives to Jesus Christ and will live in this dynamic rhythm of worship, fellowship and mission: coming together to be with Jesus and being sent out in love and service to God’s world. This, and only this, is what it means to be church: Jesus’ people”. Now there’s a challenge about being a missional church and not a consumer church.

The programme for Bishop Steven’s day in our Vale of White Horse Deanery is packed. It includes meetings with deanery clergy and lay ministers, school visits to Buckland School and Faringdon Community College (I’ll be going along on the latter). He’s having a visit to Pennyhooks Farm to meet the team working with young people on the autistic spectrum. He’ll also meet lay leaders across the deanery. But the event to which we are all warmly invited is the evening meeting at Uffington Village Hall. After an opening time of worship, Bishop Steven will tell us something about himself and his vision for the diocese and then invite any questions we want to ask, so please think about bringing your question along. Avril Coleman will be chairing this Q and A session.

So please make a point of coming along if you possibly can that evening. If transport is likely to be a problem, I’m sure we can find space in a car for you. And please pray regularly for Bishop Steven and our own area Bishop Colin Fletcher as they bear the responsibility of encouraging many churches forward in sharing the life-changing news of Jesus.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve Writes . . . Why is it easier to jump off a cliff backwards than to talk to my friends about God?

So begins an article on a brilliant website www.thykingdomcome.global which helps us to take part in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. Thy Kingdom Come is a special time of prayer between Ascension Day, 25th May, and Pentecost, 4th June. It’s the initiative of our Archbishop Justin Welby. He’s inviting us and all Christians across churches and countries to pray specifically for people we know to become Christians.

At All Saints’ we’ll be offering special opportunities to pray for friends and family to discover a living faith in Jesus (see the weekly notice sheet in May). There are great resources for individuals, churches and families at the website mentioned above.

We’re not alone in struggling to talk about our faith to our friends – indeed Archbishop Justin recently spoke about his difficulty speaking about his faith when at university. He relates how a mission was being planned at his university and how there was someone he was wanting to ask to come along. He explained, “I was terrified, absolutely terrified, and I prayed for him every day but I couldn’t quite get up the nerve to ask him to one of the talks.” The mission started and he still hadn’t asked him. He described feeling like a complete failure because he hadn’t had the courage to invite his friend to one of the events. But God had been at work and his prayers were answered in the strangest way.

During the week of the mission he was in the library when the friend he had planned to invite came up to him. Welby recalls, “He said, “Oh Hi, Justin… I hear there’s some kind of Christian thing going on this week in the university.” and I said, “Yep, yes there is.” He said, ‘Is there any chance I could be allowed to go to it?’ And I said, ‘Yes… you can come with me if you like!’ He said, ‘Oh, can you spare the time?’ I said, ‘Yes.’

The friend went along and through that mission he found Christ and is still walking with Him today. According to the Archbishop, “The Holy Spirit is the one who opens ears and warms hearts, not us.”

No need to wait until 25th May to start praying for friends or family to come to know Jesus, but watch out for what All Saints’ is doing for ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes . . . We desperately need the truth of Easter

As I write, Faringdon is reeling at the awful news of the murder of a young boy. Nothing can make sense of this dreadful and tragic loss. Yet if Easter wasn’t true, then the bad would be far worse than we can imagine and there really would be no hope or justice or mercy or grace or redemption or future for anyone, ever. Absolutely all would be absolutely lost for ever.

In the face of death we are stunned, frightened, fearful – that’s exactly what Jesus’ disciples were feeling after the horror of Good Friday. On the evening of the first Easter Day, they were meeting together with ‘the doors locked for fear of the Jews’, fearing some heavy handed pounding on the door, dreading that they too would be arrested. Into this tense and anxious atmosphere, the Risen Jesus comes and says ‘Peace be with you’ – not surprisingly the disciples were overjoyed to see the Lord. And Jesus again says ‘Peace be with you’. A week later when Thomas is this time present with the others, though the doors are still locked, Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and says, ‘Peace be with you’.

Into the most distressing and painful situations, Jesus comes. For those first disciples, his peace and presence also brought relief from their grief, though many were to die standing up for the reality of Easter. When the living Jesus comes to speak his word of peace to us today, it may not mean the agony is over and all is instantly put right. But having the Risen Lord’s peace and presence in our less than perfect (and sometimes downright awful) everyday does bring a hope, a strength and a rescue that will finally end our fear.

A prayer we often use in a funeral service expresses something of this when it says ‘Heavenly Father, you have not made us for darkness and death, but for life with you for ever. Without you we have nothing to hope for, with you we have nothing to fear…’

Please use the Easter Cards, available in Church, to invite friends and family– especially to our Easter morning service as we celebrate the heart of our faith. Please also pray that those seeking peace and hope will find it in abundance in the Risen Lord

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes . . . The hope of the world?

The American church leader Bill Hybels has a memorable saying – that ‘the local church is the hope of the world’. The remarkable thing is that it’s true. At least it is when the local church is sharing the good news of Jesus and living it out in practical ways.

It’s always possible for us to lose our focus on Jesus and get bogged down on other issues, especially when we face large bills to just keep the building in good order (‘gutters’ is not my favourite word right now!). Add to that the fact that, over the last fifty years in the eyes of the general population, the church has moved from normative, to outdated, to marginalised, to irrelevant, and now among a small but significant sector – somewhat alien.

So it’s good to report that starting this month, I’ll be taking a small group from All Saints’ to the first two of a series of eight days (over the next year and a half) which are aimed reversing the negative sequence described above and leading us into fresh fruitfulness and growth. Our Area Bishop, Colin Fletcher, suggested we might like to do this course, which is aimed specifically at Market Town Churches. The diocese is so keen that we take part that it is paying some of the cost. We’re hopeful that Faringdon Baptists may also do the course.

A number of Market Town Churches, several from this diocese, will send a group of members to share in a ‘Learning Community’. This will enable us both to learn from others in similar situations as well as receiving input and coaching from leaders of the course, which is run by a group called ‘Lead Academy’. The sessions will look at Purpose and Vision, Culture, Discipleship and Mission. The aim is to help us develop a clear vision and strategy for God’s mission here and to enable barriers to growth to be removed.

Please pray for the first sessions on 22nd and 23rd March that our group may be inspired and enthused to share with the church the insights and possibilities we’ve been discovering. Perhaps the most direct answer to our prayers for the course would be that we see more evidence that our local church is proving to be the hope of this corner of the world in the new and life-changing ways that Jesus wants.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes – “Justin Welby and the Duracell Bunny”

I’ve been to (and sometimes managed to avoid) some pretty dire Lent courses in my time. You probably know the kind of thing- when your commitment to ecumenism is tested to the limit by content and questions which are theologically obscure and spiritually dry.

But this year I want to encourage as many of us as possible to come along to the Churches Together in Faringdon Lent Course. Entitled ‘Faith Pictures – a fresh way to talk about things that matter’; it’s a course I was planning to ask us all to do anyway, but it will work equally well for us to do it with friends from the other churches, as long as we all do come along.

Most of us find it hard to know what to say to friends or family about our faith -or at least how to say something in a way that doesn’t seem forced, awkward or preachy. That leads to a constant danger that we can begin to resemble Canadian rivers in winter when it comes to faith-talk (frozen at the mouth). We can also convince ourselves that no-one amongst our friendship circle or family is interested in hearing about Jesus anyway.

But a recent survey entitled ‘Talking Jesus’ tells us otherwise – at least one in five of our friends are very ready to have a conversation with us about Jesus, and it’s often the case that if we pray for opportunities, God provides us with encounters in which friends raise questions about faith. The Lent course has been designed to appeal particularly to people who would normally run a mile from courses on faith-sharing. It has a special focus on helping a wide variety of folk to talk naturally about their faith.

The course starts in the week beginning 27th February and is available in groups meeting on various evenings in the week (as well as an afternoon group). Just ring one of the hosts’ numbers shown on the list in this magazine or available at Church and book your place at their home. If the groups fill up, we’ll make sure extra venues are available.

I was impressed when I attended Church Army’s launch of this course during General Synod, when Justin Welby spoke of his support for it. And his connection with the Duracell bunny? – all will be revealed on the course, so please do come along and enjoy it.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes …. Ready for Christmas

I came across some helpful advice for Christians which beats the ‘101 Things to Do Before Christmas’ check-list that’s doing the rounds on social media. It began by asking if God really does care about every area of our lives, how does that shape what we think and do and feel over Christmas? How can we show those around us, who don’t know Jesus, that our preparations and celebrations are transformed by him?

First, we can remember what matters: many events of the past year have reminded us that we live in a broken, confused and hurting world. The coming of Jesus really is a bright beam of hope for a messy and lost planet. God loves us too much to give us anything less than himself. So perhaps during Advent this year we could make time for a book of daily readings and reflections – amongst many available examples are Tom Chester’s One True Light and Mark Greene’s Adventure.

Second, we can enjoy God’s gifts: as well as the greatest gift of Jesus, God has also poured out many other blessings on us which it’s good to recall at Christmas: family, both the church and biological varieties, the chance to rest and take a slower pace and be refreshed, the music of this season and the crisp star-filled winter nights, the chance to express appreciation to others or meet a need.

Third, we can share our story: we could pray that our thankfulness for God’s generosity to us will spill over into opportunities to share Jesus and something of how he is working in our lives. As family and friends enjoy time off at the end of a busy year, it can be the chance for them to reflect on what’s important and search for meaning. We can make sure we’re ready to answer someone’s questions, to say the right thing in a Christmas card or to invite someone to Carols by Candlelight, Messy Nativity, or the All Age Celebration on Christmas morning.

Fourth, we can ask what’s next: the opportunities mentioned above are just part of the big picture of what God is doing in us and the lives of those we know. As we head into 2017, are there ways we could commit afresh to seeking how God wants to work in and through us?

Wishing you a very Happy Christmas filled with the peace and joy of Jesus

Steve

Steve writes … time to remember

In November, we remember- and do so in a number of different ways. With All Saintstide beginning the month, we recall how God has encouraged and helped us through the loss of those friends and family members we have known and loved but are no longer with us. The biblical definition of ‘saint’ extends far beyond those commemorated on special days or in stained glass.

The saints of God are the faithful Christians of every church in every age. The New Testament makes that clear when we read in various letters to churches, ‘Greet all your leaders and all the saints’ (Hebrews 13:13); ‘All the saints greet you’ (2 Corinthians 13:12) and ‘All the saints greet you, especially those of the Emperor’s household’ (Philippians 4:21).

Later this month, we have Remembrance Sunday on November 13th when the nation pauses to give thanks, many of us during a time of worship, for our deliverance in wartime and the maintenance of our peace. We recall the millions of costly sacrifices in this and earlier generations which were made to win our security and freedom. Many of us will be remembering, with love, friends or family members who were lost or harmed in war.

Alongside these special annual moments for remembering others with gratitude, we regularly remember, at Holy Communion, what Jesus has done for us. But there’s an amazing difference when we obey Jesus’ command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Our times of thankfulness are important and thought-provoking when we remember Christians who have helped us through their loving examples and also when we celebrate our liberty won by members of our armed forces. But our remembering at the Lord’s Table is of a different kind. This is because the one who died on the cross for our eternal freedom is no longer dead but risen and alive and with us today. This remembrance is done in the living presence of the person we’re remembering.

All these kinds of remembering can inspire us to reflect on how our lives can be lived more thoughtfully and fruitfully. But remembering at Communion what the Living Lord has done opens us up to Jesus actually remaking us. He can change our opinions and attitudes, increase our ability to love and serve, forgive and renew us as he graciously fills us with his Spirit.

Yours in Christ

Steve

Steve Writes … urgent harvest(s)

The upside of being a family history nerd is that some of the things you find out are quite interesting (at least to you). Some years ago I discovered to my surprise that my great grandfather, William, was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher in Nottinghamshire in the 19th century. It was even more of a discovery to find him and his brother Charles mentioned in the minutes of the East Retford Circuit.

At one point they were being ‘admonished for missing Ranby’- meaning they’d got a telling off because they’d not fulfilled an open air preaching engagement one Sunday. Later in the minute book however, the next meeting exonerated them as it heard that their reason for missing the preachment was that they had to get the harvest in. The harvest of the land was urgent and it was necessary for everyone to get involved immediately when the crops were ready and the weather was right. So much so, that bringing in the harvest was even an acceptable reason to miss one Sunday’s preaching.

Of course on every other Sunday, they’d be engaged in bringing in another kind of harvest – the sort Jesus referred to when he said ‘the fields are white for harvest’ and ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few’. Normally this harvest of lives being transformed by Jesus was the one uppermost in their minds. It demanded all their skill and effort as they exhorted and preached and pleaded with people to turn to Jesus and follow him.

This month we celebrate the harvest of the earth which God graciously provides for us. And some of our harvest hymns have within them the dual meanings of harvest- thankfulness for the harvest of crops as ‘God our maker doth provide’ but also rejoicing at the harvest of people who are safely gathered in ‘free from sorrow, free from sin’.

Just as both harvests were vitally important to our ancestors, so they should be for us today. That’s because God is both the creator and saviour of the world. That means our discipleship includes both caring for our planet so it produces a harvest that feeds the hungry and also working and praying for the harvest of changed lives.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve Writes

As we head into the autumn, it’s a time of new beginnings for many of us. Perhaps a new school or class, starting at university, beginning a new course or job. It’s the latter for me of course and, for Wendy and me, it’s a new home (very kindly prepared for our arrival by some superb decorating efforts of church members!) and a new church family to get to know in a new place to live and serve.

As is always the case when we start on a different phase of our life – as individuals and as a church – there will be unexpected and surprising things that we couldn’t have imagined a short time ago. One example is the way a stream of people from Faringdon who normally wouldn’t walk up the path to All Saints’ are doing so, mobile in hand, because of the Pokemon stop not far from the entrance!

One of the things the Parish Profile said was ‘We are looking for a new vicar who can help us grow further in our faith, prayer, love and care for each other, and for our neighbours who do not yet know the love of God in Jesus’. Aiming to grow under God’s good hand is an important starting point for the fresh vision that the Profile also looks for. Seeking God’s vision for his churches at All Saints’ and St Mary’s will include listening and praying. Listening to where we are at the moment in our following of Jesus and to what possibilities we long to explore to help others discover the love of Jesus for them.

I’m looking forward to listening to the stories of faith that we have and hearing what God has already been doing in the lives of his people at St Mary’s and All Saints’. And we can all join in with praying – asking God to help us see his way forward, but also praying very specifically for God to grow his church here – and that includes praying regularly by name for someone you long to become a Christian.

Just as having a Pokemon stop on the Church path couldn’t have been imagined a couple of months ago, so we’ll find that there are new ways in which God is wanting to grow his church and change us and those around us with his love.

Steve