• - There is life after Covid

    Dear Friends, Lockdown (3) – How is it for you? There is more to life than Covid. It is easy to allow the pandemic to overwhelm everything else that is happening; locally, nationally, even globally. E.g, BREXIT, whatever our view of it, barely registered. If it wasn’t for stories concerning Romanian truck drivers stuck in Kent trying to get home for Christmas, we may not even have realised it had actually happened. But there is a ‘world’ beyond that particular ‘front door’ and so, this letter is a virus free zone! A little over a week from now, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President of the United States. An occasion that will bring to an end what for many has been the most tumultuous period in recent American history; the presidency of Donald J Trump. We all have our personal opinion about ‘The Donald’ but none of us can but be shocked at events in Washington a few days ago; events for which there can be no justification. More intriguing has been the way in which large swathes of the Christian constituency gave him their wholehearted support. Even believing that in spite of his ‘behavioural track record’, especially with regard to women, he was appointed by God to ‘Make America Great Again’. And however unpalatable it might be, it remains true that even today Donald Trump continues to enjoy the support of many so-called Evangelical Christians, including a sizeable proportion of black, middle class, suburban evangelicals. It is hard to argue with someone who believes that the will of God has been thwarted by individuals who have deliberately manipulated the result of an election to suit their own ‘Godless’ purpose. As Christians we all have a duty to engage politically. But it is bad politics, and even worse theology to assume God favours one candidate over all the others. Politics is the means by which we govern ourselves; not as puppets acting at the behest of a Divine puppet master, rather as women and men seeking to do what we believe to be in the best interests of those whom we serve. Our faith shapes our character and it is our character that informs our politics. Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit being, ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control.’ Elsewhere he exhorted his readers thus, ‘all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is loveable and attractive, whatever is excellent and admirable, think on these things.’ This is not the vocabulary of your average party-political manifesto, but it does give us a template by which we might evaluate their relative merits. We may not reach the same conclusion. We may vote for different candidates, at least we would have subjected them all to the same ‘level’ of scrutiny. There is life after Covid; the effects of the Pandemic will be constrained; we will return to something like what we might call ‘normality’. Society will have to be rebuilt, and as Christians we will have a part to play in its rebuilding.

  • Dear Friends, And so, we come to January 6th – 12th Night – 12 Days of Christmas Festivities have come to their traditional end. Liturgically speaking, it could be argued that ‘Christmas’ continues until the Festival of Candlemas, 2nd February, being 40 days after Jesus’ birth, the occasion of the end of the ritual period of purification required of any newly delivered mother, culminating in the baby Jesus being presented in the Temple, as described in Luke 2, verses 22 – 38. But more usually, 12th Night is the time for taking down the decorations, putting away the tree, collecting up the cards, & eating the last of the Mince Pies. The decorations have been taken down in the church building. Maybe because of the circumstances, they seemed more ‘beautiful’, more ‘appropriate’, more ‘significant’ than usual this last year. It has been a real shame that so few people were able to enjoy them, and to appreciate the effort that went into them. Once again, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the team who worked so hard to organise everything. It was, as it is every year, very obviously a labour of love…Once again, we find ourselves in ‘lockdown’; not a brief ‘circuit breaker’ but one that is likely to last for months rather than weeks. We will all need to dig deep to draw on the resources necessary just to cope with the pressures that are bound to come with any period of prolonged ‘confinement’. And We should not underestimate the effort that this will demand of each one of us…Many of us will find it increasingly difficult. And we will need to support one another. Whether that be within the family home, our immediate neighbourhood, our local community, our church congregation. None of us is immune from the effects of what is happening around us; and for some of those effects, not even the promised vaccine will be sufficient…But at the same time, we should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. There is within nearly every one of us a basic resilience that can keep us going. Of course, the glass is never ‘half’ full, or ‘half’ empty – it is always more or less ‘full’ or more or less ‘empty’; however ‘empty’ it might seem to be right now, for all but a small number of us, it is not completely ‘empty’……None of us knows how all of this will end. And none of us should be so reckless to assume we do. But we do what we can, for ourselves and for each other. My hope and prayer for all of us, everyone who reads this letter, is that in some way or another we would sense the presence of God in our lives. No two of us are the same, and so for all of us, that sense of God’s presence will be unique, tailored to the needs of each one of us. Please, during these troubling times, don’t shut God out, but rather be prepared to let God in. And then, it will be between you/me and God. All we ask of each other is that we give God the opportunity to prove to be the God of grace, mercy, peace and love promised to us…In that Spirit, I wish you well…

  • - A different New Year’s Eve

    Dear Friends, As a minister I conduct many services. One of the most moving has been the ‘watchnight’ service held on New Year’s Eve, starting at 11.30pm and leading up to the turning of the year at midnight. It provides an opportunity for folk to look back over the year that is approaching its end; to recall particular events, to call to mind family and friends, to remember before God the way in which one’s own life has moved on from this time last year. And then it invites us to think about what the New Year is likely to have in store; to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty that is the ‘future’, to commend to God all that will happen as the year unfolds, and the part we will have in it. I have always thought it appropriate that whilst for many people New Year’s Eve would be an occasion for having fun – fireworks on the square – and much more besides, we should make room for those who would just want to sit quietly in the church. This ‘new year’ will be different – no fun, no fireworks – and no service in the church. But that does not mean that it need be any less meaningful, just because we happen to be at home rather than in church……New Year as we know it has no great significance as far as the history of the Christian Church is concerned. Indeed, for the Church, Advent Sunday is New Year’s Day, the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. But we cannot ignore the fact that from December 31st to January 1st the calendar turns over unlike at any other time of the year. Actually, it means a new calendar for all of us. Turning over a ‘new’ leaf, making a ‘new’ start…What it does do is remind us of the passing of time; time does not stand still, nor can the clock be turned backward; time ticks on in its own metronomic way. We are creatures of time, and our life time is God’s gift to us. The challenge to us, and the events of this year bring it home to us, is to live our life, not watch the clock……At New Year, we often make resolutions. Outlandish promises to give up this or that; to do something new or different; to change our ways for the better. Perhaps 2021 is not a year for making resolutions. Maybe instead we should concentrate on just being ourselves, taking each day as it comes……As a Congregation, we are necessarily isolated; not able to meet together, and it is very easy to lose contact with one another. We have to continue to make sure that as far as possible we retain a sense of being ‘at-one’ with each other. I know that all of you have been doing this, and please do continue and if possible, increase your efforts……Sometime this year, things will change, we look forward to that, but until then, we are where we are and we have to live in the moment. Remember this, God promises to share every moment with us…

  • - A peaceful, happy and blessed Christmas

    Dear Friends, I grew up attending a South Wales Valleys Church, and reflecting its tradition, it never made that much of Christmas Day. You only went to Church on Christmas Day if Christmas Day was a Sunday. Sunday was the day of the week – the first day of the week – when Christians were to gather for worship. In so doing, making a decisive break with the Synagogue which kept the Old Testament Commandment, ‘honouring the Sabbath Day and keeping it Holy.’ So, you can imagine my surprise when coming to the Free Church, here in Hampstead Garden Suburb, to discover that the Christmas morning service – whatever the day of the week – was one of the best attended services of the year. This year, for the first time in over 15 years, we will not be holding a Christmas Morning Service. Following the decision of the Govt to place London in Tier 4, and as it seeks desperately to find a way of halting the spread of what we now call ‘variant’ Covid-19 across the South East of England, we have decided to suspend services until we are lifted out of Tier 4. Govt has said that communal worship can still take place, but sometimes the letter of the law can be more of a hindrance than a help. It was not for me to impose own personal preference, and I am grateful to the Trustees of the church for the sensitive way that have handled this matter. No one wishes to see the church closed, least of all me, but neither should any of us do anything that puts one another at increased risk of infection. But there will be a service on Christmas Day. We will be broadcasting live from inside the church and I hope as many of you as can will join us at 11am, or at whatever time is appropriate for you. All I ask is this, please wear your Christmas jumper… …But of course, all of this pales into insignificance when we think of the disruption caused to the plans we all had for family gatherings. Christmas is essentially family time, and not to be able to share Christmas with family members is bound to temper our enjoyment. The long-held tradition of ‘travelling home for Christmas’ has something of a hollow ring to it this year… …And we should think especially of hospital staff. Usually at Christmas time hospital wards would operate with as few staff as necessary to allow as many as possible to enjoy the holiday. But with many of our hospitals filling up with patients, many more NHS staff will be required to work this year… …But it is Christmas. My Christmas text has always been ‘The Light shines in the Darkness and the Darkness has not Overcome it.’ It is often said that the darkest hour is the one that immediately precedes the dawn. If that is so, then, slowly but surely, ‘The Light of the Morning is Breaking, the Shadows are passing away’… …In that spirit I wish everyone a peaceful, happy and blessed Christmas.

  • Dear Friends, I remember, many years ago, an English lesson during which we were introduced to Proverbs. One of which was, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. If ever there was a sentence that summed up our present predicament, then that is it. From today, in London, we are being placed under increased restrictions concerning where we can go and what we can do. For some this will cause real hardship. But there are still many places left open, (including places of worship), and there is still the opportunity to carry on life pretty much as it was. We have been told just how precarious the overall situation is. Pressure on the NHS is increasing, at just the worst time of the year. More and more of us are at increased risk.  We know too that if we behave in a particular way that risk is minimised – ‘hands, face, space’ – and that the pressure on the Health Service is reduced accordingly. We have to decide for ourselves, we have to choose. And that choice will be all the harder to make over the Christmas period when for five days it will be as if the pressure is off, and we will be able to relax, finding ourselves tempted to ‘take time out’ from the otherwise disciplined regime we have imposed upon ourselves thus far. In the end, it will be our decision. No one can decide for us, no one can make us do what we choose not to do. I just hope and pray that we all choose ‘wisely’… …And then there is another choice we will all have to make. We have all marvelled at the way scientists have applied themselves during this last year in search of a vaccine to combat Covid-19. Now we have it, and already it is being administered to those whose need is most immediate. But when the time comes, what will we decide to do? Are we prepared to be vaccinated? I am old enough to remember being vaccinated against polio – via a sugar lump as I recall – and also standing in line to be immunised against Small Pox.  I remember too taking our children for their MMR vaccinations in spite of the small but highly vocal campaign against their being given. More poignantly, I remember the appalling consequences suffered by so many following the use of Thalidomide. Which, even though not a vaccine, was a drug that turned out to have not been properly tested before use… …Once again, ‘anti-vaxxers’ as they are known are making themselves heard. But what intrigues me is that ‘anti-vaxxers’ appear to be the same people who are ‘anti-mask wearing’, ‘anti’ anything that denies them the absolute freedom to decide for themselves what they will and will not do. And that would be ok but for the fact that they do not live in isolation, and as such are abusing their personal freedom by compromising the prospects of others…Again, please choose wisely. …I can’t tell you what to do, but remember, ‘You can lead a horse to water…’

  • - Everyone needs a ‘go to’ place

    Dear Friends, Living where I do, I am very fortunate. I am surrounded by green spaces. There is plenty of fresh air. Being locked down can have consequences that we never imagined. If truth be known, hitherto I had not been one for the ‘great out doors’, ‘staying in’ was always preferable to ‘going out’. But when told I had to stay in, I found myself desperate to get out. It was ok in lockdown (1). The weather was ideal for wandering aimlessly about, just for the sake of it. Lockdown (2) was not so easy. The weather was not so kind – why should it be in November/December? – and so to go out demanded more of an effort. But the urge was as strong as it had been before. During this 2nd period of lockdown, I have discovered what has become for me my ‘go to’ place. Those of you who know this part of London will be familiar with Golders Hill Park. A brisk walk up the hill rewarded with a piping hot coffee and a blueberry muffin from the kiosk, and then if the weather wasn’t too cold, sitting on a bench, reading a chapter or two of my ‘chosen book’ – presently a biography of Thomas Cromwell – before a leisurely stroll back down the hill to home. I imagine that all of us have had to (re)discover our ‘go to places’: not necessarily an actual location to be visited and revisited, though for some of us that may be exactly what it was and is. It might be an activity. A hobby we used to enjoy but for which recently we have had little time; or (re)learning a new skill, pursuing a new area of study, decorating the house, cleaning out the shed, re arranging the furniture, getting a dog. Those with access to the internet are spoiled for choice. If I’m not outside, trudging up the hill, I might be doing an online Sudoku puzzle or a Crossword – The Guardian makes their puzzles available, with no paywall – and in so doing I immerse myself in a world far away from the real world. We may have a ‘go to’ book that we reread, time and time again, or a piece of music we keep replaying. The eccentric in all of us has been brought out during these strange times. Eccentricity has its own attractiveness. We should not deny ourselves the opportunity to let it manifest itself. But we have to be careful. I refer to all of this as ‘go to’ because it is not where we are at, usually. It is a bolt-hole, not an escape tunnel. The awful reality that is the world of today is the ‘here and now’ for all of us. Its just good to know that there is somewhere we can ‘go to’ from time to time. We just can’t stay there. Church has often been described as a ‘sanctuary’, a ‘safe place’, a ‘go to’ place if you like. What someone has described as ‘coming apart to rest awhile’. Over the coming Christmas period, as a church we will be there – actually and online – offering a place to ‘come to’; an opportunity to spend time away from the outside world; in order that we might be better able to ‘go back into’ that same world. Anyway, have to stop now, the sun is trying to break through, its time to set off up that hill, once again…

  • Dear Friends, December has arrived. Today we emerge out of lockdown. From now on, in London at least, restrictions on our movement, our activities and our meeting together have been eased. As a Congregation, from this Sunday onwards we will be able once again to worship together in the Church building – suitably socially distanced and wearing face coverings – but nevertheless able to be together. This year, in practical terms, Christmas will be unlike any other for so many of us. But it will still be Christmas. As I walk around the Suburb and the surrounding area, I am struck by the effort being made by so many to decorate their houses, maybe even making more of an effort this year than they might otherwise have done. Almost as if it is an act of defiance thrown in the face of the ravages of the pandemic. It serves as yet another illustration, albeit unwittingly, of what is my favourite Christmas text, ‘The light shines in the darkness…and the darkness has not overcome it.’ We know that the Govt. has had many difficult decisions in respect of balancing the health and well-being of all us over against preserving the economic health and well-being of the country as a whole. Considerable pressure has been brought to bear from all sides of the argument. Trying to satisfy the wants and needs of all concerned is an impossible balancing act,  for whoever would be in power. Particular attention has been focussed on making possible, a ‘family Christmas’, with the result that for five days – 23rd to the 27th December – restrictions will be eased to allow extended families to be together. This is entirely laudable, but it brings with it a great risk. I don’t know how you imagine you will be affected, and it is not for me to tell you what to do, but I do want to urge all of us to be cautious. The very last thing anyone of us would want to do would be to put family members in danger. Neither would anyone of us want to see the progress made in bringing down rates of infection sacrificed just for the sake of having a fun-filled ‘family’ Christmas. Nor would we want to see the NHS unnecessarily overburdened at what it traditionally its busiest time of the year, just because we weren’t as vigilant as we should have been. Knowing my ‘readership’ as I do, I sense I might well be ‘preaching to the converted’ in this regard, but just in case anyone of you/us was thinking of flouting the rules please, please think again. I am disappointed that this will be the first ever Christmas for me when I have not been able to sing Christmas Carols in Church; however creative we might be concerning worship services during the Christmas period, it just won’t be the same without singing ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’, ’O Come all ye Faithful’ and all the other seasonal favourites. But it has to be, for all our sakes. So, as you plan your Christmas, please be sensible…

  • - Looking Forward

    Dear all, Firstly, thank you everyone wo replied to last weeks letter. My ‘post-bag’ was bulging. Thanks’ to those who were concerned for me personally. Be assured I am ok. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that all of us will have been affected mentally and/or spiritually just by living through the Pandemic with all its necessary restrictions ……Anyway, good news. Whatever ‘Tier’ we will be placed in after December 2nd, we will all be allowed to attend Sunday worship in Church once again. We will restart on December 6th, @11am, with a Celebration of Advent Communion. Still no singing, and face-coverings still have to be worn. But whatever ‘Tier’ we are in will affect other activities being organised in and around Christmas So, when we get the news we will be able to ‘firm up’ on the arrangements, (or not!)…This coming Sunday is Advent Sunday, the beginning of a time of anticipation and preparation. We are look forward to celebrating the Birth of Jesus. But Advent Invites us to set the birth of Jesus within a wider context; daring us to believe that the baby born in the stable is the One who was ‘in the beginning with God’…the One ‘though whom all things were made’…’The Word becoming flesh’. But more than that, this Jesus is the One whose death we proclaim every time we celebrate Communion, ‘until He comes’. The One whose ‘second’ coming will usher in a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. All things will be made new…To affirm this is to demand that we widen our horizon, going beyond the reality of the ‘hear and now’. That is why, much of what is written about Advent is elevated above and beyond the mundane prose we use to describe our present reality. It dares us to embrace the poetry that can take us to an altogether different place…I give you, one such example… ‘…O King of our desire whom we despise, King of the nations never on the throne, Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone, Rejected joiner, making many one, You have no form or beauty for our eyes, A King who comes to give away his crown, A King within our rags of flesh and bone. We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise, For we ourselves are found in you alone. Come to us now and find in us your throne, O King within the child within the clay, O hidden King who shapes us in the play Of all creation. Shape us for the day Your coming Kingdom comes into its own…’  

  • Dear Friends, Well, it’s actually arrived. The day I dreaded has finally dawned. I’m sat in front of the computer, about to start writing my latest Wednesday letter, and I cannot think of anything to say. I’m not someone who is usually lost for words. But this evening, that is how it is. I guess I’m just feeling a bit flat. I’m not quite sure what the future has in store; the immediate future, or looking further ahead. Hoping for the best, while fearing for the worst is an oft repeated mantra precisely because it sums up the mood of many of us right now… …Anyway, enough of me. What about you? We all have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that to a greater or lesser degree, as the pandemic continues to radically disrupt our lives, whether we like it or not, all of us have been affected mentally. Is it too much to suggest that for all of us, our mental health has taken a hit?  Perhaps not to the extent of needing professional medical intervention, or of needing to take particular prescribed medication, or of requiring any other form of treatment, but we know just how much we have been affected, or do we? We are heartened by the news that a vaccine may well become available sooner rather than later. But it will not automatically cure all our ills. As we wake from this Covid-19 induced nightmare, none of is likely to emerge totally unscathed. All of us need to take seriously the likely lasting impact this whole experience will have had on our mental health… …And the same will be true for our spiritual well-being. What we are presently experiencing is bound to have caused us to ask questions of ourselves concerning our faith in God; our understanding of how God works in the world; wondering why God allows all of this to happen; how can God stand idly by while so many people suffer illness and death; where has God been while all of this has been going on; why is so much more difficult to pray; why, when I do pray, don’t I get the answer I wish for. If as a person of faith, you have not found yourself wondering about any or all of this, then of what value is faith. For faith to flourish, it has to be confronted by doubt… …There will be some for whom this whole experience has been so overwhelming, that they have ‘lost’ their faith; their ability to ‘believe’ in God has been tested beyond breaking point. We all ought to sympathise with those who are presently feeling this way. You, as you read this, may be one such person. All I would say is this; even if you have lost faith in God, God has promised not to lose faith in us. Even if we can no longer say that we believe in God, God promises never to stop believing in us. It may not mean much to you now, but maybe, sometime, it will come to mean an awful lot……There, I found something to say. It may just be that I’ve been talking to myself as much as to the rest of you…

  • - The Presidential Election

    Dear Friends, As we entered lock down just a week ago, it was with something approaching light relief that we were able to follow the fall-out from the Presidential Election in the United States. To everyone except the outgoing President and his political entourage it is accepted that Joe Biden has been elected to serve as their 46th President – (although I hope nothing happens to overturn the result and make us all look foolish. But it is America we are talking about, so anything is possible, just). More seriously, as time passes, the expectation as to what a Biden presidency might achieve continues to be ratcheted up. It will be very tempting for him to be forced into a situation in which he finds himself ‘over promising’ only to be criticised for ‘under delivering’……Whenever an election is held, we do well to be reminded of the words of the Psalmist, ‘…Put no trust in Princes or in any mortal, for they have no power to save. When they breathe their last breath, they return to the dust, and on that day their plans come to nothing…’ (Psalm 146, verses 3 – 4). The pressure cooker environment that is the world of politics conspires to drain the energy – physical, intellectual, emotional – of even the seemingly most prepared, most suited candidate for High Office. We have to remember that they are made of the same stuff that we are made of…Hence Paul’s injunction to Timothy, ‘…I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour…’ (1 Timothy 2, verses 1 – 3). It doesn’t matter whether we voted for them or not, it would be unchristian of us to want them to fail. Why? Because as Paul says when writing to the Romans, ‘…Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God, and the existing authorities are instituted by Him…’ (Romans 13, 1). There will be the exception that proves that rule, but however grudging we might be about it, in the end we get the politicians we deserve… …The days are getting shorter; the darkness is deepening. But this week, a light has begun to shine; the prospect of a vaccine that can be used to combat Covid-19 becoming available sooner than we might have thought. But for now, we still have to remain vigilant, keeping to the rules – obeying the Government – and it isn’t that easy for everyone. But we do so now, with a sense of real and hope-filled anticipation that the end is in sight. So, we have to be patient for a while longer yet, but maybe, just maybe for not too long… …All being well, you will be reading this on Wednesday 11th November. Armistice Day. Last Sunday we held a service of Remembrance, but today, wherever you are at 11am, that would be a good time to pause, to be quiet, to say thank you…

  • - There is life after Covid

    Dear Friends, Lockdown (3) – How is it for you? There is more to life than Covid. It is easy to allow the pandemic to overwhelm everything else that is happening; locally, nationally, even globally. E.g, BREXIT, whatever our view of it, barely registered. If it wasn’t for stories concerning Romanian truck drivers stuck in Kent trying to get home for Christmas, we may not even have realised it had actually happened. But there is a ‘world’ beyond that particular ‘front door’ and so, this letter is a virus free zone! A little over a week from now, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President of the United States. An occasion that will bring to an end what for many has been the most tumultuous period in recent American history; the presidency of Donald J Trump. We all have our personal opinion about ‘The Donald’ but none of us can but be shocked at events in Washington a few days ago; events for which there can be no justification. More intriguing has been the way in which large swathes of the Christian constituency gave him their wholehearted support. Even believing that in spite of his ‘behavioural track record’, especially with regard to women, he was appointed by God to ‘Make America Great Again’. And however unpalatable it might be, it remains true that even today Donald Trump continues to enjoy the support of many so-called Evangelical Christians, including a sizeable proportion of black, middle class, suburban evangelicals. It is hard to argue with someone who believes that the will of God has been thwarted by individuals who have deliberately manipulated the result of an election to suit their own ‘Godless’ purpose. As Christians we all have a duty to engage politically. But it is bad politics, and even worse theology to assume God favours one candidate over all the others. Politics is the means by which we govern ourselves; not as puppets acting at the behest of a Divine puppet master, rather as women and men seeking to do what we believe to be in the best interests of those whom we serve. Our faith shapes our character and it is our character that informs our politics. Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit being, ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control.’ Elsewhere he exhorted his readers thus, ‘all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is loveable and attractive, whatever is excellent and admirable, think on these things.’ This is not the vocabulary of your average party-political manifesto, but it does give us a template by which we might evaluate their relative merits. We may not reach the same conclusion. We may vote for different candidates, at least we would have subjected them all to the same ‘level’ of scrutiny. There is life after Covid; the effects of the Pandemic will be constrained; we will return to something like what we might call ‘normality’. Society will have to be rebuilt, and as Christians we will have a part to play in its rebuilding.

  • Dear Friends, And so, we come to January 6th – 12th Night – 12 Days of Christmas Festivities have come to their traditional end. Liturgically speaking, it could be argued that ‘Christmas’ continues until the Festival of Candlemas, 2nd February, being 40 days after Jesus’ birth, the occasion of the end of the ritual period of purification required of any newly delivered mother, culminating in the baby Jesus being presented in the Temple, as described in Luke 2, verses 22 – 38. But more usually, 12th Night is the time for taking down the decorations, putting away the tree, collecting up the cards, & eating the last of the Mince Pies. The decorations have been taken down in the church building. Maybe because of the circumstances, they seemed more ‘beautiful’, more ‘appropriate’, more ‘significant’ than usual this last year. It has been a real shame that so few people were able to enjoy them, and to appreciate the effort that went into them. Once again, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the team who worked so hard to organise everything. It was, as it is every year, very obviously a labour of love…Once again, we find ourselves in ‘lockdown’; not a brief ‘circuit breaker’ but one that is likely to last for months rather than weeks. We will all need to dig deep to draw on the resources necessary just to cope with the pressures that are bound to come with any period of prolonged ‘confinement’. And We should not underestimate the effort that this will demand of each one of us…Many of us will find it increasingly difficult. And we will need to support one another. Whether that be within the family home, our immediate neighbourhood, our local community, our church congregation. None of us is immune from the effects of what is happening around us; and for some of those effects, not even the promised vaccine will be sufficient…But at the same time, we should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. There is within nearly every one of us a basic resilience that can keep us going. Of course, the glass is never ‘half’ full, or ‘half’ empty – it is always more or less ‘full’ or more or less ‘empty’; however ‘empty’ it might seem to be right now, for all but a small number of us, it is not completely ‘empty’……None of us knows how all of this will end. And none of us should be so reckless to assume we do. But we do what we can, for ourselves and for each other. My hope and prayer for all of us, everyone who reads this letter, is that in some way or another we would sense the presence of God in our lives. No two of us are the same, and so for all of us, that sense of God’s presence will be unique, tailored to the needs of each one of us. Please, during these troubling times, don’t shut God out, but rather be prepared to let God in. And then, it will be between you/me and God. All we ask of each other is that we give God the opportunity to prove to be the God of grace, mercy, peace and love promised to us…In that Spirit, I wish you well…

  • - A different New Year’s Eve

    Dear Friends, As a minister I conduct many services. One of the most moving has been the ‘watchnight’ service held on New Year’s Eve, starting at 11.30pm and leading up to the turning of the year at midnight. It provides an opportunity for folk to look back over the year that is approaching its end; to recall particular events, to call to mind family and friends, to remember before God the way in which one’s own life has moved on from this time last year. And then it invites us to think about what the New Year is likely to have in store; to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty that is the ‘future’, to commend to God all that will happen as the year unfolds, and the part we will have in it. I have always thought it appropriate that whilst for many people New Year’s Eve would be an occasion for having fun – fireworks on the square – and much more besides, we should make room for those who would just want to sit quietly in the church. This ‘new year’ will be different – no fun, no fireworks – and no service in the church. But that does not mean that it need be any less meaningful, just because we happen to be at home rather than in church……New Year as we know it has no great significance as far as the history of the Christian Church is concerned. Indeed, for the Church, Advent Sunday is New Year’s Day, the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. But we cannot ignore the fact that from December 31st to January 1st the calendar turns over unlike at any other time of the year. Actually, it means a new calendar for all of us. Turning over a ‘new’ leaf, making a ‘new’ start…What it does do is remind us of the passing of time; time does not stand still, nor can the clock be turned backward; time ticks on in its own metronomic way. We are creatures of time, and our life time is God’s gift to us. The challenge to us, and the events of this year bring it home to us, is to live our life, not watch the clock……At New Year, we often make resolutions. Outlandish promises to give up this or that; to do something new or different; to change our ways for the better. Perhaps 2021 is not a year for making resolutions. Maybe instead we should concentrate on just being ourselves, taking each day as it comes……As a Congregation, we are necessarily isolated; not able to meet together, and it is very easy to lose contact with one another. We have to continue to make sure that as far as possible we retain a sense of being ‘at-one’ with each other. I know that all of you have been doing this, and please do continue and if possible, increase your efforts……Sometime this year, things will change, we look forward to that, but until then, we are where we are and we have to live in the moment. Remember this, God promises to share every moment with us…

  • - A peaceful, happy and blessed Christmas

    Dear Friends, I grew up attending a South Wales Valleys Church, and reflecting its tradition, it never made that much of Christmas Day. You only went to Church on Christmas Day if Christmas Day was a Sunday. Sunday was the day of the week – the first day of the week – when Christians were to gather for worship. In so doing, making a decisive break with the Synagogue which kept the Old Testament Commandment, ‘honouring the Sabbath Day and keeping it Holy.’ So, you can imagine my surprise when coming to the Free Church, here in Hampstead Garden Suburb, to discover that the Christmas morning service – whatever the day of the week – was one of the best attended services of the year. This year, for the first time in over 15 years, we will not be holding a Christmas Morning Service. Following the decision of the Govt to place London in Tier 4, and as it seeks desperately to find a way of halting the spread of what we now call ‘variant’ Covid-19 across the South East of England, we have decided to suspend services until we are lifted out of Tier 4. Govt has said that communal worship can still take place, but sometimes the letter of the law can be more of a hindrance than a help. It was not for me to impose own personal preference, and I am grateful to the Trustees of the church for the sensitive way that have handled this matter. No one wishes to see the church closed, least of all me, but neither should any of us do anything that puts one another at increased risk of infection. But there will be a service on Christmas Day. We will be broadcasting live from inside the church and I hope as many of you as can will join us at 11am, or at whatever time is appropriate for you. All I ask is this, please wear your Christmas jumper… …But of course, all of this pales into insignificance when we think of the disruption caused to the plans we all had for family gatherings. Christmas is essentially family time, and not to be able to share Christmas with family members is bound to temper our enjoyment. The long-held tradition of ‘travelling home for Christmas’ has something of a hollow ring to it this year… …And we should think especially of hospital staff. Usually at Christmas time hospital wards would operate with as few staff as necessary to allow as many as possible to enjoy the holiday. But with many of our hospitals filling up with patients, many more NHS staff will be required to work this year… …But it is Christmas. My Christmas text has always been ‘The Light shines in the Darkness and the Darkness has not Overcome it.’ It is often said that the darkest hour is the one that immediately precedes the dawn. If that is so, then, slowly but surely, ‘The Light of the Morning is Breaking, the Shadows are passing away’… …In that spirit I wish everyone a peaceful, happy and blessed Christmas.

  • Dear Friends, I remember, many years ago, an English lesson during which we were introduced to Proverbs. One of which was, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. If ever there was a sentence that summed up our present predicament, then that is it. From today, in London, we are being placed under increased restrictions concerning where we can go and what we can do. For some this will cause real hardship. But there are still many places left open, (including places of worship), and there is still the opportunity to carry on life pretty much as it was. We have been told just how precarious the overall situation is. Pressure on the NHS is increasing, at just the worst time of the year. More and more of us are at increased risk.  We know too that if we behave in a particular way that risk is minimised – ‘hands, face, space’ – and that the pressure on the Health Service is reduced accordingly. We have to decide for ourselves, we have to choose. And that choice will be all the harder to make over the Christmas period when for five days it will be as if the pressure is off, and we will be able to relax, finding ourselves tempted to ‘take time out’ from the otherwise disciplined regime we have imposed upon ourselves thus far. In the end, it will be our decision. No one can decide for us, no one can make us do what we choose not to do. I just hope and pray that we all choose ‘wisely’… …And then there is another choice we will all have to make. We have all marvelled at the way scientists have applied themselves during this last year in search of a vaccine to combat Covid-19. Now we have it, and already it is being administered to those whose need is most immediate. But when the time comes, what will we decide to do? Are we prepared to be vaccinated? I am old enough to remember being vaccinated against polio – via a sugar lump as I recall – and also standing in line to be immunised against Small Pox.  I remember too taking our children for their MMR vaccinations in spite of the small but highly vocal campaign against their being given. More poignantly, I remember the appalling consequences suffered by so many following the use of Thalidomide. Which, even though not a vaccine, was a drug that turned out to have not been properly tested before use… …Once again, ‘anti-vaxxers’ as they are known are making themselves heard. But what intrigues me is that ‘anti-vaxxers’ appear to be the same people who are ‘anti-mask wearing’, ‘anti’ anything that denies them the absolute freedom to decide for themselves what they will and will not do. And that would be ok but for the fact that they do not live in isolation, and as such are abusing their personal freedom by compromising the prospects of others…Again, please choose wisely. …I can’t tell you what to do, but remember, ‘You can lead a horse to water…’

  • - Everyone needs a ‘go to’ place

    Dear Friends, Living where I do, I am very fortunate. I am surrounded by green spaces. There is plenty of fresh air. Being locked down can have consequences that we never imagined. If truth be known, hitherto I had not been one for the ‘great out doors’, ‘staying in’ was always preferable to ‘going out’. But when told I had to stay in, I found myself desperate to get out. It was ok in lockdown (1). The weather was ideal for wandering aimlessly about, just for the sake of it. Lockdown (2) was not so easy. The weather was not so kind – why should it be in November/December? – and so to go out demanded more of an effort. But the urge was as strong as it had been before. During this 2nd period of lockdown, I have discovered what has become for me my ‘go to’ place. Those of you who know this part of London will be familiar with Golders Hill Park. A brisk walk up the hill rewarded with a piping hot coffee and a blueberry muffin from the kiosk, and then if the weather wasn’t too cold, sitting on a bench, reading a chapter or two of my ‘chosen book’ – presently a biography of Thomas Cromwell – before a leisurely stroll back down the hill to home. I imagine that all of us have had to (re)discover our ‘go to places’: not necessarily an actual location to be visited and revisited, though for some of us that may be exactly what it was and is. It might be an activity. A hobby we used to enjoy but for which recently we have had little time; or (re)learning a new skill, pursuing a new area of study, decorating the house, cleaning out the shed, re arranging the furniture, getting a dog. Those with access to the internet are spoiled for choice. If I’m not outside, trudging up the hill, I might be doing an online Sudoku puzzle or a Crossword – The Guardian makes their puzzles available, with no paywall – and in so doing I immerse myself in a world far away from the real world. We may have a ‘go to’ book that we reread, time and time again, or a piece of music we keep replaying. The eccentric in all of us has been brought out during these strange times. Eccentricity has its own attractiveness. We should not deny ourselves the opportunity to let it manifest itself. But we have to be careful. I refer to all of this as ‘go to’ because it is not where we are at, usually. It is a bolt-hole, not an escape tunnel. The awful reality that is the world of today is the ‘here and now’ for all of us. Its just good to know that there is somewhere we can ‘go to’ from time to time. We just can’t stay there. Church has often been described as a ‘sanctuary’, a ‘safe place’, a ‘go to’ place if you like. What someone has described as ‘coming apart to rest awhile’. Over the coming Christmas period, as a church we will be there – actually and online – offering a place to ‘come to’; an opportunity to spend time away from the outside world; in order that we might be better able to ‘go back into’ that same world. Anyway, have to stop now, the sun is trying to break through, its time to set off up that hill, once again…

  • Dear Friends, December has arrived. Today we emerge out of lockdown. From now on, in London at least, restrictions on our movement, our activities and our meeting together have been eased. As a Congregation, from this Sunday onwards we will be able once again to worship together in the Church building – suitably socially distanced and wearing face coverings – but nevertheless able to be together. This year, in practical terms, Christmas will be unlike any other for so many of us. But it will still be Christmas. As I walk around the Suburb and the surrounding area, I am struck by the effort being made by so many to decorate their houses, maybe even making more of an effort this year than they might otherwise have done. Almost as if it is an act of defiance thrown in the face of the ravages of the pandemic. It serves as yet another illustration, albeit unwittingly, of what is my favourite Christmas text, ‘The light shines in the darkness…and the darkness has not overcome it.’ We know that the Govt. has had many difficult decisions in respect of balancing the health and well-being of all us over against preserving the economic health and well-being of the country as a whole. Considerable pressure has been brought to bear from all sides of the argument. Trying to satisfy the wants and needs of all concerned is an impossible balancing act,  for whoever would be in power. Particular attention has been focussed on making possible, a ‘family Christmas’, with the result that for five days – 23rd to the 27th December – restrictions will be eased to allow extended families to be together. This is entirely laudable, but it brings with it a great risk. I don’t know how you imagine you will be affected, and it is not for me to tell you what to do, but I do want to urge all of us to be cautious. The very last thing anyone of us would want to do would be to put family members in danger. Neither would anyone of us want to see the progress made in bringing down rates of infection sacrificed just for the sake of having a fun-filled ‘family’ Christmas. Nor would we want to see the NHS unnecessarily overburdened at what it traditionally its busiest time of the year, just because we weren’t as vigilant as we should have been. Knowing my ‘readership’ as I do, I sense I might well be ‘preaching to the converted’ in this regard, but just in case anyone of you/us was thinking of flouting the rules please, please think again. I am disappointed that this will be the first ever Christmas for me when I have not been able to sing Christmas Carols in Church; however creative we might be concerning worship services during the Christmas period, it just won’t be the same without singing ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’, ’O Come all ye Faithful’ and all the other seasonal favourites. But it has to be, for all our sakes. So, as you plan your Christmas, please be sensible…

  • - Looking Forward

    Dear all, Firstly, thank you everyone wo replied to last weeks letter. My ‘post-bag’ was bulging. Thanks’ to those who were concerned for me personally. Be assured I am ok. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that all of us will have been affected mentally and/or spiritually just by living through the Pandemic with all its necessary restrictions ……Anyway, good news. Whatever ‘Tier’ we will be placed in after December 2nd, we will all be allowed to attend Sunday worship in Church once again. We will restart on December 6th, @11am, with a Celebration of Advent Communion. Still no singing, and face-coverings still have to be worn. But whatever ‘Tier’ we are in will affect other activities being organised in and around Christmas So, when we get the news we will be able to ‘firm up’ on the arrangements, (or not!)…This coming Sunday is Advent Sunday, the beginning of a time of anticipation and preparation. We are look forward to celebrating the Birth of Jesus. But Advent Invites us to set the birth of Jesus within a wider context; daring us to believe that the baby born in the stable is the One who was ‘in the beginning with God’…the One ‘though whom all things were made’…’The Word becoming flesh’. But more than that, this Jesus is the One whose death we proclaim every time we celebrate Communion, ‘until He comes’. The One whose ‘second’ coming will usher in a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. All things will be made new…To affirm this is to demand that we widen our horizon, going beyond the reality of the ‘hear and now’. That is why, much of what is written about Advent is elevated above and beyond the mundane prose we use to describe our present reality. It dares us to embrace the poetry that can take us to an altogether different place…I give you, one such example… ‘…O King of our desire whom we despise, King of the nations never on the throne, Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone, Rejected joiner, making many one, You have no form or beauty for our eyes, A King who comes to give away his crown, A King within our rags of flesh and bone. We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise, For we ourselves are found in you alone. Come to us now and find in us your throne, O King within the child within the clay, O hidden King who shapes us in the play Of all creation. Shape us for the day Your coming Kingdom comes into its own…’  

  • Dear Friends, Well, it’s actually arrived. The day I dreaded has finally dawned. I’m sat in front of the computer, about to start writing my latest Wednesday letter, and I cannot think of anything to say. I’m not someone who is usually lost for words. But this evening, that is how it is. I guess I’m just feeling a bit flat. I’m not quite sure what the future has in store; the immediate future, or looking further ahead. Hoping for the best, while fearing for the worst is an oft repeated mantra precisely because it sums up the mood of many of us right now… …Anyway, enough of me. What about you? We all have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that to a greater or lesser degree, as the pandemic continues to radically disrupt our lives, whether we like it or not, all of us have been affected mentally. Is it too much to suggest that for all of us, our mental health has taken a hit?  Perhaps not to the extent of needing professional medical intervention, or of needing to take particular prescribed medication, or of requiring any other form of treatment, but we know just how much we have been affected, or do we? We are heartened by the news that a vaccine may well become available sooner rather than later. But it will not automatically cure all our ills. As we wake from this Covid-19 induced nightmare, none of is likely to emerge totally unscathed. All of us need to take seriously the likely lasting impact this whole experience will have had on our mental health… …And the same will be true for our spiritual well-being. What we are presently experiencing is bound to have caused us to ask questions of ourselves concerning our faith in God; our understanding of how God works in the world; wondering why God allows all of this to happen; how can God stand idly by while so many people suffer illness and death; where has God been while all of this has been going on; why is so much more difficult to pray; why, when I do pray, don’t I get the answer I wish for. If as a person of faith, you have not found yourself wondering about any or all of this, then of what value is faith. For faith to flourish, it has to be confronted by doubt… …There will be some for whom this whole experience has been so overwhelming, that they have ‘lost’ their faith; their ability to ‘believe’ in God has been tested beyond breaking point. We all ought to sympathise with those who are presently feeling this way. You, as you read this, may be one such person. All I would say is this; even if you have lost faith in God, God has promised not to lose faith in us. Even if we can no longer say that we believe in God, God promises never to stop believing in us. It may not mean much to you now, but maybe, sometime, it will come to mean an awful lot……There, I found something to say. It may just be that I’ve been talking to myself as much as to the rest of you…

  • - The Presidential Election

    Dear Friends, As we entered lock down just a week ago, it was with something approaching light relief that we were able to follow the fall-out from the Presidential Election in the United States. To everyone except the outgoing President and his political entourage it is accepted that Joe Biden has been elected to serve as their 46th President – (although I hope nothing happens to overturn the result and make us all look foolish. But it is America we are talking about, so anything is possible, just). More seriously, as time passes, the expectation as to what a Biden presidency might achieve continues to be ratcheted up. It will be very tempting for him to be forced into a situation in which he finds himself ‘over promising’ only to be criticised for ‘under delivering’……Whenever an election is held, we do well to be reminded of the words of the Psalmist, ‘…Put no trust in Princes or in any mortal, for they have no power to save. When they breathe their last breath, they return to the dust, and on that day their plans come to nothing…’ (Psalm 146, verses 3 – 4). The pressure cooker environment that is the world of politics conspires to drain the energy – physical, intellectual, emotional – of even the seemingly most prepared, most suited candidate for High Office. We have to remember that they are made of the same stuff that we are made of…Hence Paul’s injunction to Timothy, ‘…I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour…’ (1 Timothy 2, verses 1 – 3). It doesn’t matter whether we voted for them or not, it would be unchristian of us to want them to fail. Why? Because as Paul says when writing to the Romans, ‘…Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God, and the existing authorities are instituted by Him…’ (Romans 13, 1). There will be the exception that proves that rule, but however grudging we might be about it, in the end we get the politicians we deserve… …The days are getting shorter; the darkness is deepening. But this week, a light has begun to shine; the prospect of a vaccine that can be used to combat Covid-19 becoming available sooner than we might have thought. But for now, we still have to remain vigilant, keeping to the rules – obeying the Government – and it isn’t that easy for everyone. But we do so now, with a sense of real and hope-filled anticipation that the end is in sight. So, we have to be patient for a while longer yet, but maybe, just maybe for not too long… …All being well, you will be reading this on Wednesday 11th November. Armistice Day. Last Sunday we held a service of Remembrance, but today, wherever you are at 11am, that would be a good time to pause, to be quiet, to say thank you…