Lent started on Ash Wednesday 17th February and will continue throughout the month of March. But for Christians, observing Lent is very different in lockdown.
Before lockdown, Lent might be about choosing which of our many freedoms to choose to limit. During lockdown, our choices are much more limited anyway. Since our freedom is severely curtailed by our cooperation with the authorities in seeking to limit the spread of the virus, there is much less scope for choosing to give things up.
So instead let’s focus on another much needed purpose for Lent. The seven weeks of Lent are most useful for establishing good self-disciplines. Set good patterns of holy behaviour for seven weeks and the behaviour should last into the rest of the year. Alter your attitudes for seven weeks and you are likely to feel the benefit of new attitudes for much longer. The lack of regular patterns in our life in lockdown has meant many of us have lost good disciplines. Self-discipline is less necessary when the daily demands on many of us have lessened dramatically.
Working on self-discipline is what the Apostle Paul writes about in his second letter to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 2:3,4 Paul says “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No-one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer.”
There are a variety of hardships associated with our present Covid times. And we are helped to endure them by being more like soldiers. Soldiers are excellent with discipline. They focus on the things which matter, to the exclusion of other things which might pull them away from their allocated priorities. Discipline is drilled into them.
In lockdown we can be too easily distracted. How can we stay on task? By agreeing with others around us to be more rigorous in our self-discipline, like soldiers. This Lent, let’s drill some more discipline into our daily life. Jesus is our commanding officer so let’s enshrine his priorities into our 24/7 lifestyle. Do it in conjunction with one or two others in the church family, to keep us on track. And this will help us endure our present hardship.
If you are not taken by the military metaphor, how about the sporting one which follows it. In 2 Timothy 2:5 Paul says “Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” The rules of sports might be a problem to get around for some competitors. But most sportstars see the rules as helpful limitations which are part of the challenge.
Competing to win means hours of focussed training and consistent self-discipline. Christians need that mentality, says Paul. And I reckon the season of Lent is the best time to work on it.
Praying, reading the Holy Scriptures, fasting, reading good books/ following good apps or social media providers, serving, giving, self-denial to combat self-indulgence: these sorts of things are spiritual self-disciplines which will enable us to endure hardship and grow as Christ’s disciples. And isn’t now the time?
I have been reading the excellent newly-published History of St Luke’s, and one paragraph in particular has made me ponder. It is a reference to the year 1349 when the Black Death arrived in Cheshire. Normally I might have seen it as a rather incidental episode in the progress of God’s people in Holmes Chapel but, in our present circumstances, it made me think.
In 1349 our church would have been a satellite chapel of St Mary’s in the parish of Sandbach. It was St Mary’s that had an astonishing turnover of vicars at that terrible time of plague. The incumbency of our parish changed four times between mid-1348 and late 1349.
The two incumbencies which followed this upheaval lasted 22 and 30 years respectively, but in 1348-49 there were 4 incumbents in 18 months. William de Mere finished in 1348 after just four years. Thomas Chaumpain lasted fourteen months until September 1349, William de Upton lasted one month until October 1349, before normal service was resumed with John de Tydrynton at the end of the year.
What happened? Did they put themselves at great personal risk through their pastoral work, catch the plague and die? Or did they see its ill effects, resign and run away? Or a mixture of both or neither? I don’t know, but it reminds us that our country has seen very disruptive pandemics before. The plague made several appearances in the late Middle Ages. A century ago, the ‘Spanish Flu’ in two years killed many more people than World War One had in five years.
The present pandemic is a profoundly disruptive time for our generation. Many lives have been lost and plans destroyed. We have been reminded not to take anything for granted. And the uncertainty of these times spurs me to look more keenly to the gracious hand of God, who alone is able to give and take away.
Many of us are still reeling, wondering how soon we shall return to normal; wondering if there will be a new normal! Ecclesiastes says ‘There is a season for everything’, as he reflects that life under the sun is always changing, never standing still. In all of this upheaval, we are helped by relevant history.
Our church history helps me to have a more mature context to understand our times. And a history of medicine makes me thankful for our times, while praying that there will not be a flurry of new vicars of Holmes Chapel in 2021. I’ve only recently started in this parish and I pray the Lord will deliver me and grant me many years yet. I had thought until now that vicars had an above-average life expectancy!
Without face to face contact and larger services, I am not having the same sort of conversations I remember before lockdown. It’s frustrating. You may be experiencing something similar. Communication is not the same. More than that, the limitations seem to hamper our progress in friendship and as a church fellowship.
As we launch the Organ & Lighting Project, I have imagined two conversations which might have happened over in the church hall after a harvest service, in normal circumstances. These may be helpful in answering your questions, or the sort of questions which come from interested friends or neighbours.
Interested questioner: What’s wrong with the present organ? It sounds lovely to me!
Vicar, on back foot: The organ is much loved I think, but it’s not really fit for purpose going forward. The Diocesan Organ Adviser is clear that it has problems, and is not worth servicing or maintaining. So the PCC agreed that replacement was our favoured option.
Questioner: But I’ve never heard anyone complain about it. It’s part of our history and we shouldn’t just discard it.
Vicar: We’ve been grateful for it over the years but it’s in a bad way. The adviser said, ‘The note switching system is now time expired, the detached console requires major overhaul, and tonally the organ is really poor. It is quite inadequate and unable to support the singing of a large congregation.’ I guess we just got used to it, and didn’t realise the deterioration.
Persistent questioner: How have you come up with £55,000? Why so much?
Vicar, doing his best, on definitely not his specialist subject: It sounds a lot but actually it’s much cheaper than the other options, like a brand new pipe organ. It’s more long-lasting and in keeping with a historic building than a digital organ. It’s an organ with a lively sound to suit our dull acoustic. The cost is mainly the moving and refurbishment, and we accepted by far the most favourable reasonable quote.
Question: Do we really need new lights?
Vicar: I think so.
Question: Just get better bulbs.
Vicar: There are a few important issues.
Question: More important than helping the poor?
Vicar: Let me tell you a story about my previous parish. Everyone agreed the pews were very uncomfortable, the heating system needed post-Victorian pipework, and it all needed a lick of paint. But there was resistance to spending £60,000 of the £400,000 project budget allocated to a new lighting system. However, afterwards, people were delighted. And the thing which delighted them most? The thing most worth the money? The lighting! With a warmer brighter space, and including coloured LEDs on the pillars and ceiling, the building felt new. It transformed the place and made so many services and events that extra bit special.
Questioner needed another cup of tea.
Do ask your questions, as this Organ and Lighting Appeal has been well-discussed and carefully considered, and is now enthusiastically brought to you.
We reach the start of a new school year and many of us realise that we must get on with it. Despite the difficulties of Covid-19 measures and the dangers of a new outbreak, some things need to carry on anyway. Childrens’ education and social development is too important to delay any longer, and so teachers and support staff are going the extra mile to help young people forward.
When the authorities gave the green light for resuming small church services in July, we decided to make the most of the window of opportunity. Communion services at 9am on Sundays and 10.30am on Wednesdays have been running smoothly for several weeks now. We recognised the number of our regulars who were not engaging with Zoom services, and these limited church services have been a helpful way forward for them, while others continue on Zoom.
There is another window of opportunity which we do not wish to miss. For some time now, we have been looking towards upgrading our church lighting and replacing our church organ. The organists have been aware that our present organ is declining. The PCC have found a good replacement at a good price. The church of the Good Shepherd, Heswall, are demolishing their 1960’s church building and are glad for us to have their pipe organ, if we take it before the demolition in the new year.
We have been told by several organ builders that it is a good instrument and more than suitable for our needs. So we have chosen the best offer and would like to start the careful skilful work of moving and refurbishing the pipes and mechanisms of the organ as soon as possible. The likely cost of removal, storage, refurbishment and replacement,in the position of the present organ and console, is about £56,000. Together with a long-planned lighting upgrade, the organ appeal is something urgent and we just need to get on with it.
So at Harvest Festival we will launch an Appeal for £80,000.
Some may not be in a good position to give generously because of employment setbacks and the costly effect of the virus outbreak. But many of us still have our incomes and have saved the cost of holidays and other treats, which have proved impossible in the present climate. The Lord has been gracious in seeing through. So we are hoping many will be able to pledge a large gift to the St Luke’s Organ and Lighting Appeal.
We hope that at least half of the £80,000 will be promised by members of the church in a Harvest Thanksgiving pledge. The gifts may be one-off or perhaps promised to be paid regularly over a two-year period. A large generous response in October will enable the organ replacement to go ahead, and the good opportunity to be taken.
When Nehemiah’s critics plotted to delay the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after The Exile, God’s people prayed, posted a guard and continued the work one-handed rather than lose the momentum of the project. The PCC is keen that we pray and give faithfully during this time of crisis. While the church building is used less, we have a chance to improve it, ready for a new and better day.
It is hard to take decisions in these strange times, but the PCC has gathered good information from a questionnaire and has made new plans for August.
From early July the government authorities have permitted church services of limited numbers and under strict distancing arrangements. The church authorities then turned this permission into clearer guidelines, requiring churches to do rigorous risk assessments and saying we should have a regular service from September at the latest.
The PCC and myself agreed to re-open the church for small shorter services in August. Here are the details of our decision, which I hope will help you to make a decision on when you might join us.
The St Luke’s Questionnaire received over a hundred responses and these were a good mixture of email and telephone answers. That is an impressive result for any voluntary questionnaire. And it gave some clear informationand the PCC has acted on it.
Some of the results can be examined further in Steve’s statistical analysis in this publication, but here are my highlights:
ONE We recognise that our Sunday Zoom service is an important ‘congregation’ for us.
56 out of 104 respondents had come to Sunday Morning Zoom ‘most weeks’ out of 63 who were able to. 5 more requested help to join in. This is encouraging as all of these people just could not fit into one service in church. Sunday Zoom will need to continue into the Autumn, albeit at a new time of 10.25 for 10.30am (caused by the proximity of the new church service at 9am).
TWO We asked ‘If we were to start Sunday communion at 9am, would you come?’ and 31 out of 104 said ‘most weeks’, 40 said ‘occasionally’ and 6 were uncertain. Those projected numbers encouraged us to start as soon as possible (Sunday 2nd August at 9am) and see what happens. The time is 9am to help previous 10 o’clockers as well as previous 8.30ers.
THREE We asked ‘Would you come to a restricted form of Wednesday communion at 10.30am?’ and 15 said ‘most weeks’, 26 said occasionally, 8 were uncertain. This, plus a handful of those who didn’t enter a questionnaire, would make a very worthwhile number for our midweek service. So we shall start up on the first Wednesday of August, after a rehearsal of the new social distancing arrangements the week before.
Please tell everyone who would like to know. We are aware it has been very hard to keep in touch with everyone, and we dearly hope that we can resume regular fellowship with many Christian brothers and sisters in Holmes Chapel and a bit beyond.
We do not wish to make things difficult for anybody. If you wish to continue shielding at home, please do that, and make the most of our Zoom services, Church website/Facebook and phone calls. To safeguard everyone, we will expect churchgoers to wear a facemask (as we have to in shops), and social distancing will be required.
Please refer to the Link guidance sheet which will be available in church. It has a list of the ways in which we are helping one another keep safe, while at the same time finding renewed encouragement and fellowship in church.
It won’t be church quite like we would love it to be, but it will be church. We thank Jesus.
And thank you for your commitment to the Lord and his people,
It is a step forward to be able to go into the church building again for private prayer, but let’s remember that’s not church. This whole challenging season of closure and disruption has not just knocked us out of our routine, and made us wary of taking anything for granted. It has caused us to consider deeply why we need church.
From Monday 22nd June, an aspect of the normal use of St Luke’s church building has been restored. The doors are open for half the week and everybody is welcome to pray and ponder privately within, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. There is clear guidance to be followed to minimise health risks and enable thorough targeted cleaning. It’s not much, but it is a step in the right direction.
I say it’s not much because the essence of church is not private prayer. The Greek word translated ‘church’ in the New Testament means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’. The essence of church is a crowd of God’s people.
Private prayer is a spiritual discipline which Jesus expects his followers to fulfil day by day, but when he talks about it, he assumes it will be done in Christians’ homes: ‘when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father..’ (Matthew 6:6). Church is called church because it is about the large gathering.
We welcome to St Luke’s church building anybody who finds it an inspiring space to pray and ponder. Those who find it hard to pray at home are only too welcome to seek the Lord in the place where locals have come to worship the living Lord God for 6 centuries. The even better place to seek the Lord is among the gathering of His covenant people.
We pray that may be soon, and safely.
Because Christians are told in the Bible not to neglect coming together to hear God’s word, to pray for needs of the world, and to participate in holy communion, or the Lord’s Supper, to be strengthened in our inner life. As Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has written, “We are grateful that technology has enabled most of us not to lose contact with one another, and to gather ‘virtually’ for worship and learning. We are however three-dimensional beings and cannot forever be satisfied with the somewhat two-dimensional world of the electronic media. We crave coming together to renew friendship and fellowship, to seek for and offer assistance, to celebrate and grieve together.
So none of us is satisfied with merely individual and private prayer and we all look to the day (hopefully not too far away) when we can meet together for corporate worship both in buildings dedicated for the purpose and, if necessary, out of doors, at least during the summer! Until then we are grateful that churches and other places of worship will be open and that people will be able to access them for meditation, reflection and prayer. Studies have shown that prayer helps in healing and recuperation.
It helps in giving us a sense of direction and of the support of others. Let us take this opportunity to pray not just for ourselves but for our fellow citizens, the ill and the bereaved and, yes, for control of this pandemic so that people can gather as families, friends and colleagues and so that believers can come together to express their faith in worship, prayer and teaching.”