In the Vicarage we usually wait until 2 February each year before we take down our festive Christmas decorations, reluctantly removing the last bits of tinsel only at the Feast of Candlemas, celebrating the time when Jesus was first taken to the Temple by his parents and when he as a young child was recognised by two older holy people, Simeon and Anna, as specially consecrated to the service of God and as a light for all humanity. This coming year as soon the festive sparkle has gone (as if the dark January days have not been bad enough), the serious penitential season of Lent will be upon us almost straightaway! Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday fall in the very next week after the Feast of Candlemas – on 9 and 10 February 2016 – all of which in turn has the knock-on effect that Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter will be here before we know it, towards the end of March! Probably nothing to do with it being a Leap Year, but it seems the Easter Bunny will be out and about in 2016 earlier than usual!
In 2015, Bollington commemorated 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo, and White Nancy was painted with shadowy figures from both Wellington and Napoleon’s armies. Seeing that the two neighbouring parishes of Bollington and Rainow have each long since made claim to owning the same territory on which White Nancy sits, we have decided to call a truce this year and to join forces in our practical keeping of Lent in 2016! The Revd Steve Rathbone, Vicar of Rainow, has kindly offered to host a Shrove Tuesday Party and Film Show on 9 February at 7.00pm in Holy Trinity Church, Rainow, open for any members of our congregations who wish to take part in a planned series of Lent Groups, which will be happening at various venues across the two parishes, for five weeks beginning on 15 February.
At the Shrove Tuesday gathering we will have the chance to watch the epic film “Les Miserables” together (even to sing along perhaps?!) and to enjoy one another’s company over light refreshments. (At least one of Bollington’s Churchwardens will be pleased, as I think this is amongst her favourite films!) Don’t forget to bring your hankies! The Lent Course we’ve chosen to follow explores some of the themes and characters from this moving and well-known story, and has been put together in a little book entitled “Another Story Must Begin” written by Jonathan Meyer, a parish priest in Oxfordshire, where apparently some of the scenes in the 2012 version were filmed.
Following on from us all watching the film together on Shrove Tuesday, Steve Rathbone, Michael Fox and I will between us lead one session each over the next five weeks, and anyone from either congregation will be most welcome to sign up to take part. Over the course of five weeks, we will each be offering the same content for that week’s session but on different days and at different venues and times, to offer flexibility for those taking part alongside your other commitments. You’ll be able to mix and match if you like! So the pattern will be as follows:
Mondays 1.30pm till 3.00pm, at Holy Trinity, Rainow: led by Revd Steve Rathbone (from 15 February to 14 March incl.)
Tuesdays 7.30pm till 9.00pm, at a variety of homes across the two parishes: led by Revd Michael Fox (from 16 February to 15 March incl.)
Wednesdays 7.30pm till 9.00pm, at St Oswald’s, Bollington: led by Canon Veronica Hydon (from 17 February to 16 March incl.)
It may seem a long way off, especially if you’re still out and about doing your Christmas shopping, but please do put these dates in your new diaries now! It promises to be an engaging course, reflecting on God’s grace worked out in our own lives and in the lives of Victor Hugo’s characters as portrayed in the film. You’ll be singing all the songs by heart before we’ve finished! It will also be good to meet with our Christian companions from across the parish boundary and so be able to look up at White Nancy in future from a different perspective when we greet the Easter dawn and celebrate the time when Jesus brings us all home!
There will be sheets at the back of both churches nearer the time, so that you can sign up to say you’d like to join in with this Lenten journey. Thank you!
Meanwhile, every blessing for a thoughtful Advent and a joyful Christmas!
As the clocks change and the nights are drawing in, as human beings we can be forgiven for turning inwards on ourselves. We think of building up provisions in the store-cupboard ready to survive the winter, or shopping early to beat the Christmas rush. We delve into the wardrobe for a familiar warm coat to wrap up in again. We dig out that well-worn Christmas card list and bring to mind good times we shared with old friends. We gather firewood to dispel the November fog and to keep out the chill. We light candles and wear red poppies to remember loved ones who have died, and we set off fireworks to celebrate the life and peace we can share with friends around us. We put on cosy gloves and fur-lined boots, and bright scarves veil our faces against the dull wintry weather.
The Church calendar draws to its close and we look forward to Advent Sunday, which falls this year on what would be the feast of St Andrew, 29 November. This month we celebrate all the saints of God, well-known or obscure, in whose faces we have glimpsed the compassion and challenge of Christ. We give thanks for the lives of those who have enabled us to be free. We look inwards at our own lives and examine our consciences in response to our children’s persistent awkward questions about our choice of lifestyle or the meaning of it all. Before we are tempted to close the door to keep out the more chilling factors about the imbalance and inequality of our world, we dare to hold it ajar a little longer by venturing into a church building once in a while to pray (or perhaps preferring sometimes to brave getting a different perspective from the breezier vantage point of White Nancy).
We may be pleasantly surprised to find others around us within and around our chosen places of contemplation, all trying to re-connect with that divine spark of hope and love offered to us first perhaps in difficult times. We are pleased to find that our companions in specifically Christian worship, gathered either here at St Oswald’s or in our local nursing homes, are likely to be people from every age-group, from tiny tots to centenarians. And we rejoice together that we can encourage one another to look beyond our immediate circumstances and to respond positively in dark times to those in greater need of comfort and support than we ourselves may be.
During the five weeks leading up to the October Half-Term Holiday, St Oswald’s Church has been overwhelmed by the generosity of those who have responded to our Bollington Refugee Crisis Appeal. As we have opened our doors each weekday, so multiple gifts of clothing, toiletries, shoes, tinned foods, coffee, tea, sugar, waterproofs, gloves, hats, scarves and camping equipment have been brought in, ready to be sorted, bagged up and forwarded on urgently to refugees now held up at various borders, especially those nearest to us in Calais. Someone from our local community recently said a profound “thank you” to us for enabling her to respond to this crisis, and many others have been grateful to have had a practical outlet for their concern, especially as the European winter sets in and refugees from war-torn countries are left exposed to our inclement weather. So may I pass on sincere thanks to all within our worshipping community who have both initiated and made this Appeal workable. At this St Andrews-tide, we might remember how the disciple Andrew once responded to Jesus’ call to “give the crowds something to eat” by noticing a small child bringing forward his lunch of “five loaves and two fish”. Although Andrew thought to himself, “What is that among so many?”, yet Jesus showed him that miracles can happen, if we are each simply willing give of what resources we have. In that instance the followers of Christ ended up helping to “feed over 5,000 men, let alone all the women and children in the crowd with them”, not to mention the twelve basketfuls of food left over! Elsewhere in the gospels we hear Jesus say that, in co-operation “with God, all things are possible”.
May we all have a renewed sense of God’s love and purposes for all his children, of whatever race, creed, sexuality or gender, and may we continue to open the doors, not only those of our church building but also those of our hearts, to be beacons of light and hope within our local community and in the wider world, this Advent and always.
During September our Sunday sermons had a common theme: they were all about valuing, respecting and encouraging children’s spirituality. I wonder whether your own sense of God and of following the Way of Christ developed first when you were a child or whether it was something you only experienced on becoming an adult? Psalm 116 reminds us that God is gracious and listens to us and watches over each one of us: the ideal parenting model. Whether sudden or gradual, the transformation of our everyday lives is part of the deal as we grow up into spiritual maturity: we learn to accept our need of God, we accept we don’t know all the answers, and we accept that we need to rely not so much on what we consider to be our own resources, to get through life as best we can, but instead to trust in God’s providence, to lean on God’s grace and mercy and to embrace the transformative power of God’s love for each of us as his beloved children.
It’s worth considering what early influences there might have been that brought us to be part of a church congregation today. As children or as adults, hopefully we were encouraged to join in worship at a church somewhere along the line, by a parent, godparent, sibling, neighbour or friend. Equally well, sadly, on becoming parents ourselves, we may have been discouraged from joining a particular congregation because we received not smiles of understanding, but frowns of disapproval when our children dared to clatter around a bit or to speak in more than a whisper when an inconvenient question occurred to them during the service!? I have heard that this does still happen, even in a church like ours that prides itself on being welcoming!
It may seem strange to us adults who are familiar with coming into church buildings, that other people outside these walls may be a bit fearful of coming inside, not knowing what to expect, or what might be expected of them, if they do get beyond the threshold.
Over the years here at St Oswald’s we have offered a welcome for children and young people, especially in more recent years through our Schools’ Experience Weeks, and by developing our term-time Praise & Play and RiCH Groups, our monthly “Who Let The Dads Out” Saturday mornings or the Family Fun Days in holiday time. Through these encounters, some of our young parents, such as Nick, Rachel, Alison and Nicola, have come to Confirmation and their children have come to regard this place as somewhere to feel at home, hearing Bible stories retold in a way that makes sense to them and being encouraged at times to stop and listen alongside their friends to God’s voice. Amongst all the usual junk mail or stuff from the Diocese, I received an envelope in the post this week which held a lovely note from one family enclosing a tiny drawing. The note said: “Dear Veronica, Chloe made this for you after the Family Service today, so we thought we’d post it! Lots of love xxxx”.
The enclosed colourful picture shows what appears to be a family home with classic four windows and a door, but then surprisingly with a large cross attached to the side wall of the building, and the names of the four-year-old artist and her little brother written in the sky above the house, all under the umbrella of a large heart shape. I suppose you could interpret the drawing in many ways – it could of course simply be St Oswald’s Church with its stunning mosaic cross beside our entrance porch, but I like to think that Chloe’s picture intends to show the loving security and safety of her family’s own home, being very closely connected to their life of faith experienced here in church as well. Children who are nurtured and welcomed and cared for by the church (as I was myself many years ago) hopefully grow up to see Church as a significant and vital part of their life and well-being, leading on into adulthood too.
One of the enduring memories I have from my 1950’s childhood is of reading the Ladybird book, called “The Child of the Temple (The Story of Samuel)”. Though I no longer had a copy at home [Now I do, thanks to Roy and Hylda!],in my mind’s eye I can still see the picture on the front cover with the boy Samuel sitting up in his little bed under the temple sanctuary lamp, listening to God’s voice calling him by name. As the story unfolds, the child Samuel was encouraged by Eli (an old priest like me!) to respond to God’s call and to listen to the prophetic message that God wanted to speak through this young child, not necessarily a comfortable message, but one that had deep resonance in the history of the Hebrew people. It led to the adult Samuel anointing first Saul, then David, as King over Israel, David of course being the ancestor of Jesus himself. This ancient story points us to the fact that, amazingly, parents often dare to entrust us here with the care and nurture of their precious children (as Hannah, Samuel’s mother did, incredibly when the child was only just weaned – Hannah again being a spiritual ancestor of Jesus’ mother Mary, both singing to God the revolutionary and prophetic words we find in the first book of Samuel Chapter 2 and in Luke’s Gospel Chapter 1, which we know as the Magnificat).
The whole story of Samuel’s life is worth looking at again (a bit of bed-time reading as the nights draw in perhaps?!). But our focus today is on recognising that children often have a sharper sense of hearing than we adults do, an ability to hear the voice of God that perhaps we have become deaf to over the years, through thinking we know what God wants already and not listening out keenly enough for the fresh challenges God might be calling us to.
One of our Year One children, Teddy, was recently asking his parents what it meant to be a refugee, picking up on all the coverage on the news lately. On having their desperate plight explained to him, Teddy’s immediate and straightforward reaction was that “We should help them!” At our regular Growth Action Planning Meeting later that week, we listened to the childlike simplicity in this appeal for practical kindness and have organised for St Oswald’s to become an emergency drop-off point for much-needed supplies, particularly of men’s waterproofs, coats, socks, hats and gloves, walking shoes, blankets and sleeping bags, folding chairs, tea, coffee, sugar and toiletries. We hope that the whole of Bollington will readily respond to the desperate needs of those displaced from their homes within and beyond our borders. Our church building will be open between 8.30am and 5.30pm, each weekday from Monday 21 September until Friday 23 October, allowing people to bring along these life-saving items for onward distribution. There will also be an opportunity to leave monetary donations towards the Red Cross Emergency Appeal, as well as the chance to spend a moment or two in church praying for those in need and for a peaceful solution to be found to the terrible conflicts and wars that cause people to flee their homes in the first place. We aim also to have a petition available for people to sign, asking Cheshire East Council urgently to respond to the need for accommodation for those asylum seekers who do succeed in getting admission across our borders. Somebody has suggested that our Bollington Refugee Crisis Appeal should properly be named “Teddy’s Trumpet Call to Action”!
I love the way that Teddy’s little brother Roo invariably waves as he leaves St Oswald’s after a service or event, and that having recently found his voice, he also now says, “Goodbye, Church!” – which as you know is a conflated way of saying, “God be with you, Church!” May we both encourage our children to listen to God’s unique call to each of them and be willing to hear the messages our children relay to us. May we all grow into spiritual maturity in a way that makes us not fearful of becoming compassionate, prophetic and trustworthy witnesses of Christ, himself a refugee as a tiny child and the One who ultimately calls us all home.
During August our Children’s Work Co-ordinator kindly organised an outing for a group of younger congregation members, with parents and a grandparent (plus the Vicar!) to Buxton Opera House to see a delightful performance of Julia Donaldson’s story “Room on the Broom”. Essentially the story is about an unconventional witch and her faithful cat setting out on a risky adventure and learning along the way the importance of making space for anyone who wishes or needs to share their companionship. After brief consideration of each new encounter, the witch’s default response to all enquirers is “Yes!”, being willing to embrace the new and unknown, whereas the cat is habitually more cautious, fears change and (before the opposite is joyfully proven towards the end of the adventure) cannot really see the benefit of letting anyone else find room on the broom. We all enjoyed an imaginative and interactive theatre production, lasting not much more than an hour (only just a fraction longer than our new Third Sunday Family Communions!), including a brilliantly improvised “frog in the throat” moment particularly appreciated by the adults (…you had to be there!).
If you get a chance to watch the story on DVD, do also look at the extras at the end, one of which is entitled “The Magnificent Broom” plus a description of how this animated version was created. The producer, director, composer and animators speak about the themes suggested by the book that can lead to a variety of possible interpretations and applications of the story to everyday life. One person suggested that, although it essentially seems to refer to relationships within a family, the ideas behind the narrative “can apply to all kinds of groups, anywhere you work or play or travel or live together” – and I would say that this description surely encompasses the whole of church life too! The overarching theme of the story is of Kindness – realising that your “kith and kin” are a motley crew, each of whom desires acceptance and being treated with respect and as worthwhile in their own right. As one commentator said, “You have to learn that not everything belongs to you – you have to share it!”
Applied to church life, it could be about being able to share both our inherited resources as well as our capacity for friendship, even with those we don’t perhaps feel a natural affinity to at first encounter. Having taken Christ’s parables to heart, we should be constantly willing to become known as people who warmly invite others in and learn to adapt our ways accordingly, as well as being people daring to go out together on the equally risky adventure of meeting others where they are and, of course, defeating dragons together! And if you were to equate the witch’s broomstick with our church building itself, then this further comment from a back-stage technician rings true as well: “The size of the broom should not define the group, but the group should find a way to shape the broom so there’s room for everyone.”
With that in mind, our PCC is now beginning practically to address the next phase of our church building development, that of making best use of the space at the West End of St Oswald’s and improving our kitchen facility, bearing in mind the most desirable feature we identified several years ago, that of achieving maximum “light and space” in whatever design we go for. Following on from discussions at our last GAP meeting in July, I have invited Irene Mills to convene a small Working Group to consider the range of possibilities open to us, both in spacial and financial terms, for enhancing our potential for hospitality at that end of the church. Do come along to our next GAP meeting, open to everyone, on Saturday 12 September from 10.00am till 11.00am, and share your own visions and thoughts about this for consideration by the new Working Group, leading on then to wider consultation and, in due course, to a well-informed decision being made by our PCC.
My personal opinion is that it would be good to bring more light back into the baptistery area (as was originally designed in 1908) by re-thinking the existing kitchen facility in a way that both meets our changing needs as well as visually “de-clutters” the back of the church. The Diocesan Advisory Committee Secretary has offered us guidance as to what procedures need to be followed prior to any firm decisions being made by the PCC and prior to the necessary faculty permission being applied for by the Vicar and Churchwardens from the Chancellor of the Diocese. But I’m pleased to report that we are off to a great start! £400.00 has recently been received from donations given in memory of our friend Peggy Wakefield, and in a timely way her family has requested that this sum should be used to launch St Oswald’s Kitchen Redevelopment Fund! So, whenever we raise our glasses in future in whatever form of new more workable kitchen and hospitality area we create, we will remember with fondness one of the special people who always made “room on the broom” and was often the last to leave any church social event! As members of St Oswald’s congregation, let us continually thank God for encouragement “not to be afraid” and to recognise God-given opportunities for enlarging and celebrating our membership of God’s worldwide family on the risky adventure of life, both now and in eternity.
As the school year comes to an end once more, we enjoy the longer summer days and look forward to some leisure time, whether in joyful company or in blessed solitude. Being part of a church community can be a valued feature of many people’s lives, whether it seems a passing phase or a more constant guiding star. Last month we celebrated with Michael, our Assistant Curate, his evolving ministerial calling in our midst as he was ordained to the priesthood. This July sees yet another batch of Year Six children leaving their familiar primary schools and looking forward to joining us next term at RiCH! Of course some of our older teens, like James, are busy planning an autumn move farther afield to the greater independence afforded by university or college life. Other people, like Angela, Viki and Eddie, find themselves now at a crossroads in terms of deciding to move house elsewhere in the country to be nearer their children, and though we will naturally miss each of their unique contributions to our worshipping life here, we do wish them well as they settle into their new abodes. Clearly for many in our community these summer months are a real time of transition, in the throes of which we are urged to hold on especially firmly to St Oswald’s motto: Be strong and of good courage, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go…
And as we notice the changing seasons, with a mixture of sadness for our loss and yet thanksgiving for lives well lived, we mark the recent passing of others who are dear to us, especially our good friend Peggy, a faithful member of our congregation, who even in time of illness had a sparkle in her eye and whose lively yet thoughtful presence we will miss very much. Yet even as old and trusted companions pass from our sight, we are equally blessed to greet new friends, especially the very young as they venture in, shyly at first, through our church doors, maybe for Praise and Play or Who Let The Dads Out or for a christening, and having found a home here, then to worship with us at Family Services. May we recognise in these little ones that same delight in life that those (like Peggy) who are older and wiser take care never to lose. Because of the relaxed welcome their children receive, parents are encouraged themselves to take further steps as companions with us in the Way of Christ, as we saw happen with our three recent candidates for Confirmation. Whatever our age and at whatever stage in our life’s journey, old and young together, may God truly bless our going out and our coming in, from this time forth and for evermore.
Once or twice a year I venture up the steep hill to look at the view from White Nancy! From there on a clear day I can take in the whole panorama of my parish, picking out the hidden chimney tops of the Vicarage at one end and the distinctive red roof of St Oswald’s Church at the other end, with Kerridge nestling just out of sight in the valley between. Whilst I recover my breath after the slow climb (yes, I know I’d get fitter if I tried going up there more regularly!), I always take the opportunity to pray for the people and places I am called to serve here in this beautiful part of Cheshire. I also give thanks for my many predecessors who have ministered as Vicars and Assistant Curates in the Parish of Bollington, especially mentioning some of my favourites: George Palmer the first Vicar, who opened St John’s School and built Bollington Cross School, but after thirteen years sadly died from overwork and anxiety about the financial burdens of the church, and Charles Brooke-Gwynne, who in his thirteen years as incumbent had the vision to oversee the building of our Vicarage, Holy Trinity Kerridge and St Oswald’s Bollington Cross, whilst simultaneously moving a lot of the furniture around in St John’s Parish Church, including making it a more flexible worship space by replacing the original pews with chairs! As someone who so far has only served eight years in the parish, I hope (God willing) to survive well enough until my retirement within the next five years, if possible unscathed by too many financial worries and having helped in my time to encourage similarly constructive developments in the ever-changing life and work of our local church community.
At the Vestry Meeting before our Annual Parochial Church Meeting at the end of April, you elected your two Churchwardens for 2015/16: I’m pleased to say Jackie Pengelly was willing to serve another year and Christine Osbaldiston has been elected in place of Sue Whitehurst who, after serving the parish faithfully as Churchwarden, had come to the end of her possible six years in this role. Alongside Jackie and Christine I look forward to continuing to seek God’s will in our way forward as a worshipping community. We also are fortunate to have a newly elected member of our PCC, Sally Garnett, who is willing to serve as our new Treasurer. Many thanks once again go to her two excellent predecessors in that role, Ray Mills and Mike Hall, without whose dedication and skill we literally would have been so much the poorer! We are currently on the look-out for a new PCC Secretary, as Chris Ward has indicated that he’d prefer to relinquish this role, after nearly six years dedicated service, so watch this space! The people inhabiting these four roles (Churchwardens, Secretary and Treasurer) form what we call the Ministry Team, alongside the clergy, who take a lead in formulating the agenda for our PCC Meetings and try to keep an overview of what’s happening in the parish generally (although we have not so far trekked up to White Nancy to do this bit!?) If this is something you feel you might like to join us in doing in the role of PCC Secretary, then do let me know.
This month sees another exciting development in our life together! Our Assistant Curate, Revd Michael Fox, will be going forward for ordination as a Priest in the Church of God (can it really only be a year since he joined us as a Deacon?!). The ordination service will be at Chester Cathedral at 5.00pm on Saturday 20 June and members of the parish are very warmly invited to attend! Please pray for Michael as he prepares for this next important stage in his faith journey. In the service, the Bishops and some invited clergy (including me as Michael’s training incumbent!) will come forward to lay hands on Michael’s head, asking God to continue to inspire and encourage him in his ministry and to bless him as he becomes a priest, authorised from then on to pronounce God’s absolution and blessing and to preside at Holy Communion. Those who were able to attend the recent Confirmation Service at St Michael’s Macclesfield will know how moving that sacramental act of laying on of hands can be, in that case Bishop Libby blessing our three young Mums (Alison, Rachel and Nicola) and praying for God’s Spirit to encourage and inspire them in their life of faith. (I’m sure the three of them have since that evening looked ten foot taller as a result of their experience!?)
Michael will be presiding at our Parish Communion service for the first time at 10.30am on Sunday 21 June, followed by drinks and light refreshments to celebrate this great occasion in our parish! Please do make a note in your diary to be there for this Sunday service, which, although it falls on a Third Sunday of the month, we have decided will best be in the form of our “regular” Parish Communion on this occasion and so we’ll not be using the “Family Communion” books this time – though of course children and families are, as on every Sunday morning in our church, very welcome to attend! That day happens also to be both Father’s Day (we probably won’t need to start calling our Curate “Father Michael” though!) and the 200th Celebration of White Nancy in Bollington (and in Rainow, who do make some territorial claim on this lovely local folly too!). So there promises to be much to celebrate that particular weekend!
May God richly bless all of us as we seek to overcome whatever “enemies” we encounter in life (praying that we may be victorious in finding hope and peace when meeting our personal Waterloos in times of illness or bereavement). May each of us truly know ourselves to be “called by name” by God in Christ and to be empowered every day by God’s Holy Spirit, to work and witness in our various places of employment or leisure, amongst friends and family, and equally in the company of strangers we meet along our way. May we be enabled, young or old, ordained or lay, to fulfil our true potential as servants of Christ, this day and always.
The first Sunday after Easter is what people call “Low Sunday”. The flamboyant earrings are put away for another year…the chocolate eggs are all eaten…(particular thanks, by the way, for the delicious little box of eggs left for me in the vestry, coming from that most heavenly of all holiday resorts: “Hotel Chocolat”!) …and now after all the drama of Easter, it’s back to work as usual. So I guess we can readily identify with those Gospel stories of Jesus’ disciples gathered again in the Upper Room, after the trauma of Good Friday, coping with what they felt were unlikely and unsubstantiated rumours of the Resurrection, put about by “some of the women”, and as a group generally not feeling very optimistic at all about the future.
Sometimes I think your average Parochial Church Council is the natural successor of that small group – huddled together in a small room somewhere set apart, behind closed doors, discussing a little gloomily the state of the church finances and whether or not we have a future at all. Maybe we are not always aware of Christ stepping into our midst and calling for “Peace!” Occasionally as a group we are tempted to give up and follow our ancestor St Peter out through the door, saying in effect “Blow this for a lark! I’m going fishing!”, and then being surprised and delighted to encounter Jesus already out there in ordinary everyday life, cooking a simple breakfast on the lakeside. (Perhaps our equivalent is finding bacon butties on offer for our new Dads’ and Grandads’ group on the fourth Saturday of each month!) Daring to go beyond our walls, to keep asking questions about what’s important and to push our boundaries of expectation, reminds me of how amazed and delighted we were, just two years ago, to hear Christ speaking words of encouragement through people “out there” who told us they were so pleased to be asked their opinion about what kind of artwork should adorn the redundant doorway of our church extension, the splendid new addition to an old and well-loved building which in essence is both “ours” and “theirs”: clearly the Parish Church of Bollington, open for all.
Each year around this time at our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, I believe Christ breathes his Spirit afresh on those we have chosen as our representatives to serve as Churchwardens and on the PCC, empowering them to pray, study and act in his name, so that the good news of forgiveness and love can be spread and increasing numbers of people are enriched and transformed and enlivened for the good of the whole community and thus we become some of the “many other signs” St John refers to towards the end of his Gospel, and as St Paul puts it, we become “living stones”, building God’s kingdom on earth.
Amongst the Bible readings set for Low Sunday, we heard of that very down-to-earth disciple, St Thomas, “known as the Twin”. Let’s just focus for a moment on that almost throwaway description, “the Twin”. The Bible tells us nothing about Thomas’s twin brother or sister; we can only imagine that somewhere out there, outside the Upper Room, Thomas treasured a deep intimacy of shared life experience with another human being; in other words, he had a natural affinity and connectedness with at least one other person beyond the group of disciples and his close friend Jesus. Sometimes people who come regularly to church find that those closest to them, their families and friends, just “don’t get it”, and don’t understand the attraction of this church-going thing at all. Maybe your wife or husband or children say they’ve tried it and it’s just not for them – “After all you can be a perfectly good person without going to church, can’t you?” Maybe Thomas felt a similar disappointment in those circumstances, when his twin sister or brother declined to come with him to see what it was all about. And it’s so hard to explain your faith, isn’t it, even to those nearest and dearest to you?
In the penultimate chapter of John’s Gospel, we hear of Thomas the Twin coming back into the group on the evening of the very first Easter Day, but finding he’d just missed out on an unbelievably powerful encounter with the risen Christ! After all that! Having followed Jesus faithfully for the past three years and never having been afraid to get to grips with the painful and difficult questions, he missed hearing the definitive answer with his own ears! Remember Thomas had been the one at the Last Supper to interrupt when Jesus was mysteriously trying to explain that “his hour had come”. “But, hang on a minute, Lord,” says Thomas, “We do not know where you are going! How can we know the way?!” And this elicits the clear and resoundingly memorable words we often hear at that common deeply traumatic time of transition when someone we love has died: Jesus says to Thomas, and to each of us who seek authentic answers to life’s agonising mysteries: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life… Peace I give you, not as the world gives… Do not let your hearts be troubled… neither let them be afraid!” (a response finding an echo of course for us in St Oswald’s excellent motto 600 years later!)
All human endeavour and discovery comes from often a small group of people not just taking things at face value, but painstakingly and sometimes at great personal cost, probing deeper into the mysteries and complexities of the created order. Jesus said equally memorably elsewhere in the Gospels: “Ask, and you will receive; Seek, and you will find; Knock, and the door will be opened to you.”…. in other words (especially resonant with those who have been on a Cursillo Weekend): PRAY, STUDY, ACT! (Incidentally, please do ask the Vicar about joining her on the next Cursillo Weekend taking place in Crewe from 21 to 24 May! I wonder whether God may be courteously holding open that door for you this month, inviting you to take advantage of being treated to three whole days away – absolutely free of charge! – in the company of friends, with plenty of cake, but more importantly, the luxury of time to pay attention to yourself as God’s precious child on your unique journey of faith. Worth asking, don’t you think?!)
Once again as the Easter season unfolds into Pentecost, we celebrate St Thomas, affirmed in his continuing quest for Truth and Life by the risen Jesus. Tradition has it that Thomas went on with great courage to preach the message of new life and hope through Christ to the people of India who, like our friends in the Delhi Brotherhood, remain today acutely conscious of a need to respond creatively in the face of human vulnerability and mortality. May we learn to recognise in Thomas the face of our own Twin Self, asking deep questions, reaching out to be in touch with God through prayer, social action and the sacraments of bread and wine, and seeking new meaning in all the complexities and woundedness of our own relationships, choosing to renew our baptismal promises to go on being followers of “The Way”.