As we prepare to return to church this coming Sunday for our 9.30am Parish Eucharist, first come with me down an imagined, but perhaps typical, London street..... Ben’s mother drank, a lot, sometimes an incredible amount. The kitchen surfaces were frequently covered with bottles, large quantities of lager bottles, sometimes whisky bottles too. Ben had noticed that alcohol made some people talk, even rant, but with his mother, it just made her silent. She would fall as though into a deep, dark place within herself and go further and further down. Ben couldn’t bear to see her in this state so he would go out for walks. He would put his haversack on his back and go to the door of their cramped flat, taking a furtive look at himself before leaving in the smudged mirror in the small hallway. Ben was ten. In many ways he was advanced for his age, matured by pain and a sense of responsibility for his mother, in some ways he was just an average boy of his age, in other ways naively young. He had big, milk chocolate coloured eyes that looked out at the world with frightened wonder. His eye lashes were longer than usual and curled at the ends, the envy of some of the girls in his class at school. His lips were a deep red, mainly from having bitten them and chewed them in anguish and his hair was that "impossible to do anything with" fuzz, a rusty dull brown. He wore clothes which either social workers or a neighbour who volunteered at a local charity shop occasionally thrust into his hand in an old, much used carrier bag, when she saw him in the corridor. That was on the outside of Ben, but inside he was different. Ben had great riches inside, he would sit for hours letting his imagination take him to places he had never been, only seen on the television or read of in books, which he explored, undisturbed, in his mind. Sometimes these places he would inhabit in his fantasies were more real to him that the realities around him in his flat, in his neighbourhood and in his school. He read, avidly, forming deep attachments to the books he read and then re-read. In some of these stories he would make his imaginary home, finding a sense of identity and purpose between the cherished pages, making friends with the characters described. Together they would laugh, smile, tell jokes, there he would be popular, succeed and achieve great things. These moments were amongst the most real and significant of his existence and a sense of contentment came upon him at those times which eluded him elsewhere. What else was there for him to do when he got home from school, on those days when his mother had been drinking? The television was boring, created for kids in homes and relationships with which he couldn`t identify, had nothing in common with. They spoke as though in a language he simply didn`t understand and experienced things which he had never encountered. Such programmes left him feeling even more lonely than just listening to the silence of the flat he shared with his mother on the outskirts of London, with the constant drone of traffic outside, the inevitable blaring of horns from impatient drivers, the occasional screeching of brakes. Night time noises were a little different: screams of laughter from gaggles of girls tipsy, swaying their way home from the pub, always dressed in bright exotic colours and walking on sharp spears of shoes; cans being kicked aimlessly down the road in an otherwise silent street in the early hours and always, the smell of cooking coming through their window which would never quite shut. In some ways, for Ben, it was the smells which were the most disturbing, making their way to him as they did when he was at his hungriest. His mother would spend so much on booze, there wasn`t much left for food. Thin slices of white bread, shiny slithers of tasteless, pink ham, margarine a bright improbable yellow, and whatever was on special offer or reduced because of the sell by date at the supermarket. Such was the food he ate at home, thank goodness for school lunches. What hope was there for Ben? What prospect of ever escaping the tired, monotonous boredom of his life? He would sometimes gaze at a fly, trapped on the wrong side of the windows which never opened, buzzing away in a frenzy, desperate to escape, finally falling down exhausted and Ben would look at the fly and feel the bond between them............. A few doors away from the flat which Ben shared with his mother, in a modern maisonette, Marjory is singing. Marjory is happier than she has been in months. For the first time since Christmas 2019 her son, Gerald, and his partner Katie and their two children, Alice and Peter, are coming to see her. She has planned the menu in her head a thousand times and has been down to the shops to get everything required. The oven is on, smells are starting to spread through the house and an excitement is similarly spreading through her whole body. It is going to be such a celebration, a combination of all the Christmas dinners, Easter lunches, Mothering Sunday meals, Birthday celebrations they have missed, because of the dreaded Covid. She smiles at her cat and laughs to herself as she waits for the ring of the doorbell, which will happen at any moment............. In the next house along, Charles is putting off telling his father that, after having converted the garage into a "granny annex" with the implicit agreement that, having made a generous contribution from his savings to the project, his father could come to live with them, Samantha, his rather domineering wife has unilaterally decided that she simply has to have a live in nanny, who will need to be accommodated in the extra space. Charles looks at the `phone and is dreading the conversation with his gentle, ever trusting, father..... In a semi-detached Victorian house a few more doors down the road, is George. George is a young executive, very up and coming. He had an easy time at University, sailing through with an easy First. He had been head hunted and given his first job immediately, earning an improbable amount of money from the start. Because of his specialist area of expertise, the huge global company for which he worked relied upon him hugely. But tonight George is in his daughter, Jennifer's room. Jennifer is five and the most perfect thing he has ever seen. Sometimes when he looks at her it is as though his heart will break for the pain of loving her so strongly. He sits beside her bed as she sleeps, a night light warming the air with its glow. He hears only her soft breathing, he sees only her face content in sleep, her lips slightly open, exposing the tip of her tongue and her milky white teeth. George has been asked to work in America. It is only for twelve months, they promised, hardly any time at all and the request has been accompanied by an incredible financial incentive, it would set them up for years. His partner Jill has refused to join him, so it would mean being away from them both for a year. How can he explain his leaving for so long to a child who relies upon him so completely? No, that's not the truth of it at all he realises, quite the reverse, it is he who has come to depend upon her. Her voice, her giggle, her wide eyed excitement, her energy, her zest for life. How could he even contemplate leaving? And yet, like a door slamming in his mind, like a hosepipe of shimmering cold water directed at his face, he remembers that he has already spoken to the Company Director and more or less given his word............. Next door to George is the other semi-detached Victorian house, which has been turned into flats. In the basement, hanging up her washing over the bath which she has carefully done by hand, is Jewel from Nigeria. Jewel is a nurse and all the way through the pandemic she has worked in a busy London hospital. She has walked to work whenever possible, to keep to a minimum the opportunities for catching the dreaded Coronavirus on a bus or train. It extended her day and exhausted her body yet further, but there was no point in taking risks, people depended upon her. She had been living as frugally as she could from the meagre pay she got from the NHS, sending as much money as she could home to her family in Africa. But from now on there would be no need. They had all died of Covid within just a few weeks of each other. They had all been suffering, miles away from any hospital, while she had been caring for patients here in the UK. What purpose did she now have in life? She had no idea............ In the flat above Jewel live a young family. Two talented, vibrant, hard working, intelligent parents, always talking, discussing, entertaining. Two equally talented, vibrant teenage children and tonight they are all celebrating and cheering, for Tim has got the grades he needed for the course he wants to do at University and will be off there to start this new chapter in his life within weeks.......... In the bathroom of the flat above them is Kim. Kim too is celebrating tonight. She has longed for a child since she was in her teens, but it never seemed to happen. She is now thirty six and unbelievably, she has just done the pregnancy test and it is positive! She stares and stares at the small indicator on the test, trying to take in the full implications of what it is telling her. She screams. Paul comes running........"What is it? Are you alright?" She opens the door, eyes, face shining, aglow, looking at the man she adores, with tears in her eyes, the man who is the father of the child she now bares............. All these and countless other permutations of personal experience are going on all the time in the roads, streets, avenues and high rise flats of our neighbourhoods. Joys, tragedies, affirmations, disappointments and part of the uniquely treasured wonder of the Church of England is that everyone, everyone, is part of a parish, regardless of whether they attend church or not. Over the past 18 months, since I began writing these letters to you, parishes such as ours have been seeking to support, encourage, befriend, minister to, engage with, keep in touch with, those who are regular and irregular attendees at our churches and connect with those from other places too. And again, I would like to thank all those who have worked with me over these exceptional months. We had to rise to the challenge of maintaining a sense of "Church" while we were not able to enter our church buildings. We were tasked with continuing to celebrate God's presence at the heart of our community, when we couldn't physically meet together. We have needed to draw strength and inspiration from the scriptures together and eat and drink in a way that nourishes and refreshes us, whilst not being able to celebrate the Eucharist or receive Communion together, for the large part, and I am so grateful for the many creative ways in which the Spirit of the Living God has led us to know communion and a sense of community and togetherness, during some dark, cold, isolating, frightening and challenging times. The challenges, the opportunities, we must rise to now as we reopen our church for the Parish Eucharist on Sunday mornings, is to encourage people to come in and experience what being part of a community centred on the transforming love of Christ, is all about. People such as the ones whom I have described the lives and situations of earlier. We need to be a parish which attracts, welcomes, embraces Ben, Marjory, Charles, Samantha, Jewel, George, Jill, Tim, Kim, Paul and so many others besides. The church to which we return is not just for ourselves, it is a place which we must share with so many others. The love of God is longing to be invited into the lives, hearts, opportunities, experiences of everyone, as a resource and inspiration for deeper living. And ours is now the challenge to invite others into that encounter in ways which will empower people to help rebuild with compassion and care the communities of which we are part. And the Holy Spirit is already at work drawing people together, offering opportunities to connect, wanting always to heal, forgive, renew, liberate, accept, reassure, and the Holy Spirit is inviting us, you and me, to be part of this endeavour. The last 18 months have taken their toll on us all, I am all too aware of that in myself. None of us is the same as we were before March of 2020. Some of us are weaker and some of us are stronger for the experience. Some of us feel closer to others, some of us feel more distant at the moment, because of what we have been through, and we must try to be understanding and undemanding of each other as we try, at different speeds and with different thresholds and attitudes toward risk, to reclaim our lives and re-inhabit our church. The Church, you and I, must play our part in warming the places where we live with more genuine gestures of neighbourliness, more conscious acts of charity, more committed financial support for the things which really matter, more sincere offering of ourselves. Where we live is the raw material for what God is about to do in our midst and what He does is always of love, of compassion, of gentleness, of justice, of truth, that promotes harmony, unity, peace. This coming Sunday we will be celebrating, in church and on Zoom, the Patronal Festival of our church of Saint Mary's, a woman whom we are first introduced to in the scriptures when she dares to say yes, entrusting herself to whatever the Spirit of God has in store for her. Inspired by her example, let all of us say YES to how God is wanting to use us, and recommit ourselves to being part of the rebuilding of our church, community, country and indeed, the whole of creation. Thank you for being my companions in this sequence of letters and for reading them whenever you have had the chance. I will look back on these times as a rare opportunity in my ministry for the sharing some special moments together. With blessings and best wishes. As ever, your parish priest. Jeff
Collect for this Sunday:
Who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
And chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
Grant that we who are redeemed by His blood
May share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom,
This we ask through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and for ever.
WELCOME to our worship at St Mary's on this our Patronal Festival, whether you are joining us in church or on Zoom.
Today at both the 9.30am Eucharist in church and the 5pm Zoom service online, we shall be reflecting on the Gospel passage, which this week is Luke Chapter 1 verses 46-55.
We will also be remembering others in our prayers of intercession (click here to access our intercession list).