Thursday, 7 May 2020

Shepherd, Pastor or Minister?

American preacher Scott Hoezee wrote:

“Perhaps the imagery of the Good Shepherd seems outdated, but has humanity in the modern world really outgrown its need for someone to love us fiercely and forever, the way only a truly good shepherd can? In our quiet and secret moments, we yearn for someone stronger and wiser to take care of us. Those of us who were raised in solid and good homes carry around with us the memory of how delicious it was to be tucked into our cosy beds at night without worries that would threaten our rest. Kids go to bed without fretting about whether the forecasted heavy weather will turn violent, or whether the bills can be paid. No, as children we wriggled drowsily in our beds awash in the knowledge that someone else was in charge and so we happily allowed ourselves to slip over the edge of slumber the way only a child can, with literally no cares to make our minds too busy to sleep.

We adults carry that memory in our sub-conscious and we yearn for something like it again. Indeed, we pine for it even more acutely because now we know what it is like to live without that security. Now we know what it's like to wait for results from the pathology lab. Now we know what it's like to watch a deadly storm roar ever closer on the TV. Now maybe we've gone through the pain of having to bid first grandparents and then parents and finally even friends a final goodbye.”

So, is the imagery of the Good Shepherd outdated?

During the time I spent on exchange ministry in America, I had to get used to being called “Pastor”. Pastor is a term frequently used there as a synonym, an alternative, for “minister”. So, I got used to being introduced as “This is David Gray our exchange pastor from England”.

Pastor is not a term much used in British Methodism. (Though other denominations in this country such as the Baptists and Pentecostals, use the word more frequently.) The word comes from the Latin word for shepherd and Chambers’ Dictionary tells us that a “Pastor is a person who has care of a flock or of a congregation; a shepherd; a member of the clergy;”

With the reading from John’s Gospel today, it’s easy to see where the term “Pastor” came from and how it came to be used for a minister. From time to time I describe people in the congregations I serve as “my flock”. And in Methodist terms I am the minister in “pastoral charge”.

So why don’t we use the term “pastor”? I think it’s because seems to limit what a minister does to one thing – care of the flock – though that’s important. And, because it suggests that a pastor is trying to be a Good Shepherd like Jesus. Or at least what Jesus says in John 10. But then we read what Jesus says:

11 I am the good shepherd, and the good shepherd gives up his life for his sheep. 12 Hired workers are not like the shepherd. They don’t own the sheep, and when they see a wolf coming, they run off and leave the sheep. Then the wolf attacks and scatters the flock. 13 Hired workers run away because they don’t care about the sheep.

Is that a model we can follow? How many ministers / pastors give up their lives for the sheep, the congregations they serve? How many run away?
The we are told by Jesus

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep, and they know me.

How many ministers truly know their flocks? And I don’t mean in a judgmental sense. I mean knowing about their worries and concerns? Their hopes and dreams? Their joys and sadness?

No minister / pastor can truly aspire to be a shepherd to the flock in the way Jesus is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good model to aspire to and that ministers shouldn’t try to be Good Shepherds as afar as is humanly possible.

One of the challenges for me during the lockdown is in trying to find ways in which I can be the pastor. And I’ve been grateful to hear from many of you to say that you appreciate the services, the odd phone call, card or letter from me. As well as praying for you, that’s pretty much all I can do at present.

But what I’m also hearing back at present is how many of you are keeping in touch with one another and how (in our larger churches particularly) the “pastoral leaders” are very good at keeping in touch with their pastoral groups. (In the smaller churches, we tend not to have pastoral groups as such, everyone just mucks in as it were – though we still have a duty under the Methodist system to think in this way.)

The pastoral leaders are filling a role that has long been recognised in the Methodist Church. I’m reading a book at present by Gary Best called “The cradle of Methodism”. It is a history of John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol. And in the early days of Methodism Wesley recognised the importance of pastoral groups to ensure he ongoing welfare of members of the groups.

Over the years the terminology has changed – the groups were originally “bands”, they’ve been called “classes” and as I say in more recent times “pastoral groups”. But whatever the title, broadly speaking, they serve the same function. Caring for one another.

I can’t claim to be a Good Shepherd like Jesus, I don’t claim to model myself on John Wesley either! But the care of the flock, whether through friendships, pastoral visitors or ministers, is such an important part of our love for one another. No more so than at present. We are all pastors.

Like you no doubt, I sometimes think it would be easier being a child again with no cares. I do worry. I do wonder when the lockdown will end and wonder how and when we can get back to normality. But for now, the sense of Jesus Christ our Risen Saviour, Jesus the Good Shepherd, guarding us, guiding us and keeping us, during these uncertain times, gives me comfort. I hope it does too.

Friday, 24 April 2020

God's PPE?

Most Wednesdays I meet with three other ministers in the town for prayer. It’s something we’ve been doing for 5 years now. We meet, chat about what is going on in our community, our churches and our own lives and then pray. It’s a good thing to do. I’m not very disciplined at praying on my own but praying with my three friends spurs me on.

In the last few weeks, we’ve been meeting together using Zoom. Not quite the same as being together in person but it works well enough.

Inevitably our conversations have started off with talking about Covid19 and most recently we were talking and praying for Personal Protective Equipment to be supplied to health workers and carers.

As the prayers progressed, I was prompted to read out a Bible passage to my friends Ephesians 6: 10 – 17 in which the writer of the letter uses the analogy of putting on spiritual armour as a way of encouraging Christians to stand firm against the challenges of the world. “Against the devil’s schemes …. Against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world”.

It’s powerful imagery: put on the full armour of God, …. with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, …. with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace…. take up the shield of faith …. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God - selected verses NIV

The Message paraphrase version of the Bible puts the whole passage like this:

13-18 Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

I think it is an encouragement to Christians even if it smacks of the “muscular Christianity” that seemed so popular with certain 18th and 19th century hymn writers. Think of “Onward Christian soldiers”. Or Charles Wesley’s “Soldiers of Christ arise”

Soldiers of Christ, arise,
And put your armour on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies
Through His eternal Son.
Strong in the Lord of hosts,
And in His mighty power,
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
Is more than conqueror.

The writer to the Ephesians was trying to encourage an early group of Christians not to waver on their faith. (We think the letter might have been written around 85 – 90 CE when Christians were being persecuted widely across the Roman empire.) The writer is using picture language in encouraging these early Christians to cope with, to face up to, the trials they are facing.

Coming back to my prayer session, one of my friends mentioned that he’d preached on this passage the previous Sunday and had used a modern-day analogy of “putting on God’s PPE” (Personal Protective Equipment.)

Later that day, I saw some images on the TV news from the USA of people protesting against the Covid19 lockdown and saying they wanted it lifted. And amongst those commenting was a woman who said that she didn’t need the lockdown as God would protect her.

To that lady, and any other Christians who feel that their faith, their armour of God, makes them invincible, read this post from a “Tennessee Pastor” I saw on Facebook about a month ago. (I’ve no idea who the pastor is. For all I know he might not exist, but I certainly subscribe to his views)

Having faith, having the armour of God doesn’t isolate believers from the world. It doesn’t, as I’ve said, make us invincible. It doesn’t prevent us from becoming ill. (I know, as I’ve been there, and I’ve written about that before.)

I passionately believe that God has given us intellect. Unfortunately, that intellect is sometimes misused. But most often intellect is used for good – in terms of developments of medicine, the arts, technology. (How would we be managing without Zoom, Skype etc at present for example?) That intellect is being used as we speak to help develop a vaccine against Covid19. Just as in the past people used their intellect to develop vaccines against diseases such as smallpox and the measles.

And God has given us wisdom to make the right decisions. Though again some people seem similarly lacking in that department!

What I’m saying folks is, please put on the armour of God to cope with the trials and tribulations of this world. Please use it to help you cope with Covid19. Please pray. But God’s PPE is no substitute for man made PPE, and sensible wisdom such as social distancing / shielding, in preventing us catching or sharing the disease.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Breathing new life into us

Reflection written for Second Sunday Easter 19th April 2020

The suggested Gospel reading for this Sunday (the second Sunday after Easter) is John 20: 19 – 29. It is John’s account of the disciples meeting with Jesus on Easter evening. Remember, up to now not all of them had encountered the risen Jesus.

The fearful disciples were gathered together behind locked doors when “Jesus came and stood among them”.

It is tempting when reading the whole passage to focus on the second part, the story of Jesus and Thomas. (I wonder how many sermons would be preached on doubt and doubting Thomas today if our churches were open?)

However, reading through the passage I was drawn to the first part (verses 19 – 23).

First off, I was struck by the following verses

21 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. John 20: 21 – 22 NIV

Jesus breathing on the disciples. No Covid 19, 2 metre distancing then! But more seriously it was Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples.

We think of the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. That is how it is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (written by Luke.) And no doubt I’ll be writing about that in 7 weeks times.

It’s often said that the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost was the start of the Church. Pentecost is often referred to as the Birthday of the Church. (And of course, when I say “Church” I mean it in the sense of the body of Christ, Christ’s followers.)

In many respects we tend to think of Easter and Pentecost as two separate things. And that owes much to the way Luke has written his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

However, John’s understanding is different. For John, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Resurrection are interlinked. And both signpost the disciples to their purpose following the Resurrection – to fulfil the mission Jesus has given them. Jesus says

As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. John 20:21

In John’s view there are two sides of the same coin. When the Church celebrates Easter, it also celebrates the beginnings of its mission. When the Church celebrates the beginning of its mission and being given power through the Holy Spirit, it also celebrates Easter. For John, the church’s ongoing life as a community of faith, as the people who continue Jesus’ work in the world, all come from Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ Easter promises and gifts.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the Easter / Pentecost story is fathoming out precisely what Jesus commissions the faith community, the Church, to do. As I’ve said, in the passage we are thinking about, Jesus says “’As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’”

But sending us to do what? The passage goes on to talk about the forgiveness of sins. That then is clearly part of what the Church is to do. Something that would have been very challenging for the first disciples. (Don’t forget, it was the fact that Jesus said he forgave sins, that in part caused the Jewish authorities to have him arrested and executed.)

However, a few days earlier, during the Last Supper (as recounted by John) Jesus told the disciples something else:

34 ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ John 13: 34 – 35 NIV

By loving one another as Jesus loves, we as Jesus disciples, reveal God to the world. And by revealing God to the world, the Church makes it possible for the world to enter into relationship with God. Through that relationship with God sins may be forgiven and salvation attained. Our mission then is not to be the judges of right or wrong, but to bear unceasing witness to love of God in Jesus.

You may feel that it is difficult to fulfil that mission, as we are “behind locked doors”, like the earliest disciples. Yet it is possible. Over these last few weeks, I’ve been on the receiving end of that love. The emails of thanks, the phone calls of thanks, the cards and letters of thanks, for what I am doing are all evidence of you fulfilling God’s mission. And I know you will be doing that to one another (so important at present) and to the wider world too.

Gail O’Day in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary says of the passage we’ve been thinking of

“To celebrate the resurrection is also to celebrate the beginnings of the church’s mission in the world. Jesus lives, not because he can walk through locked doors and show his wounds to frightened disciples, but because he breathes new life into those disciples through the gift of the Spirit and commissions them to continue his work.
” New Interpreters Bible Commentary John © Abingdon Press 1995

Sunday, 12 April 2020

It was Sunday

It was Sunday the woman realised. With the authorities saying people had to remain indoors – for their own safety you understand – all the days seemed to blur in to one. With many people – if they were fortunate – being able to work from home, the woman, like many she knew, often had to think whether it was a weekday or a weekend.

It was Sunday though that’s for sure. The woman liked Sundays. She’d always be first up on a Sunday to have some time to herself for her mindfulness. And this Sunday was no different. So, she left her husband snoring in bed got dressed and went downstairs.

It looked like a beautiful day and she decided she’d take her daily one-hour exercise now. Not that many people would be outside, and if they were, they’d be on their own, keeping the regulation 2 metres apart from anyone else.

The woman set off from her home. She was careful to keep moving – the authorities didn’t like it if you stopped during your allowed hour, and woe betide you if you sat down. Yesterday she’d seen an old man being told off by the authorities for taking a breather on a park bench. He could have been fined.

The streets were empty. The authorities liked to see the streets empty. They liked to see the public spaces empty. The authorities would have preferred it if everyone stayed indoors all the time – for their own safety you understand. But that wasn’t practical. People needed to shop, to exercise, to go to see their doctor.

Although the woman enjoyed some quiet time on her own, she also missed the usual buzz of the town and seeing people she knew.

Through social media, the woman had heard that on Friday “a man had been detained for questioning” by the authorities. She had met the Man on a few occasions. He was a teacher. He was a good man, a quiet man, a man of peace. She couldn’t understand why he’d been detained.

But the worst part was his closest friends were saying he’d not returned on Friday evening. The woman knew what that meant.

She found herself walking towards a suburb of the town you were wise to avoid. A part of town where there was a patch of waste ground where apparently the authorities took people for questioning. A patch of waste ground from which people never returned.

The woman found herself passing the waste ground. A member of the authorities was stood on guard. “Keep moving along please madam” the soldier said.

But the woman stopped and found herself speaking to the soldier – though she kept the regulation 2 metres away. “Someone I knew was brought here on Friday” she said boldly. “What would have happened to him? Where would they have taken him after, you know”

The soldier looked around nervously. “You didn’t hear it from me. But most likely he would have been taken away to be disposed of, know what I mean? No one returns from here. Now move on sister.”

The woman left and she found herself crying. Why kill the Man? And if they could do it to him who next? It made no sense. But there on the waste ground, early on a Friday morning, the authorities had set about their work. Their work of finding out answers. Their work of teaching a man, the Man, a lesson. Their work of punishment.

And there on the waste ground, the waste ground in the suburb you avoided, the Man who had helped the authorities with their enquiries, had died. And then been disposed of.

The woman turned toward her home, conscious that she’d had 40 minutes exercise and in theory anyway, she should be home in 20 minutes. “Stuff that” the woman said. And she carried on walking.

A man who seemed vaguely familiar was just ahead of her on the other side of the road. Over 2 metres away. “It’s a beautiful morning isn’t it?” he said “Is it?” she replied bitterly. And then for some reason she started pouring out the story of the teacher who had been arrested, the Man had ‘been disposed of’

The man listened and nodded and asked one or two question. Why was she talking like this? To a stranger. And yet she seemed to think she knew him. But she couldn’t place him. He reminded her of someone.

They came to one of the unofficial coffee stalls that sometimes sprung up. “Fancy a coffee and a croissant?” the man said. Why not? The man bought her a drink and a croissant, placed it in a bag and left it in the middle of the road for her to collect. She rubbed her hands with sanitiser and picked the bag up.

The man smiled and raised his coffee cup and broke the croissant. “Bless you sister” he said and started to walked off.

“Wait!” the woman said “I know who you are, you’re the Man! The teacher! But how can it be so? You were dead and the soldier told me you were disposed of!”

But the Man had disappeared from her sight.

The woman ran home eager to tell others what she'd seen, what she'd experienced. To tell others "It's true! The Man isn't dead. He is alive! I recognised him as we shared coffee together"

Friday, 10 April 2020

It was a Friday

It was a Friday. The authorities said that people had to remain indoors – for their own safety you understand – unless they needed food or medicines. Or the permitted amount of exercise. Most people obeyed the authorities, but some didn’t.

On that Friday some had ventured out early. They knew that was the best chance of finding food and avoiding contact with other people. The authorities forbade contact with other people unless it was essential. Though no one really understood what that meant.

The authorities permitted people to take exercise. And early that Friday some people took the opportunity to exercise. But an hour at most. And you had to exercise on your own or with a family member. But you had to keep moving. You couldn’t stop and sit on a park bench and soak up the spring sunshine. That wasn’t permitted by the authorities. Walk, run, cycle, but don’t stop. Keep moving. Don’t linger. Keep going. Keep moving.

The authorities liked to see the streets empty. They liked to see the public spaces empty. The authorities would have preferred it if everyone stayed indoors all the time – for their own safety you understand. But that wasn’t practical. Hence the grudging allowance of shopping and exercise or urgent medical appointments.

As it was, early on that Friday morning, very few people were on the streets when the authorities took a man through the streets of the city to a piece of waste ground in a suburb you were wise to avoid. That’s what the authorities did nowadays. “Don’t take them to a police station. It’s safer outside. Away from prying eyes”

Had anyone been around to see the man being taken away by the authorities, they’d have been surprised that he didn’t resist. He went peacefully. He didn’t shout. He didn’t spit in the soldiers’ faces. He didn’t curse. He went peacefully. “Led like a lamb to the slaughter” as the old saying had it.

The man being led by the authorities must have known what fate awaited him on the waste ground. Everyone knew that if the authorities took you to the waste ground you didn’t come back alive, if you came back at all. The authorities had ways of making trouble and troublemakers disappear.

There on the waste ground, early on a Friday morning, the authorities set about their work. Their work of finding out answers. Their work of teaching a lesson. Their work of punishment.

And there on the waste ground, the waste ground in the suburb you avoid, the man who had helped the authorities with their enquiries, died.

The authorities arranged for his body to be buried, without honours, in an unmarked grave.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

I learned something today

A couple of weeks back we had a conversation with some of our American friends via Zoom. When I say Zoom I'm not talking about the 80s Hit by Fat Larry's Band. (Nice topical reference there.) I'm talking about a video messaging / conferencing service.

(Shareholders in Zoom must be happy people at present as more and more people seem to be using Zoom to communicate. Zoom is the in thing for communication. In fact, already I’m hearing the phrase “Let’s Zoom” meaning “let’s have a conversation using Zoom.”. When a brand name becomes a verb to describe an activity you know you’ve made it. Like, to hoover – meaning to use a vacuum cleaner or to Google - meaning to search the internet.)

Anyway, as I was saying, we were talking to our friends using Zoom. And our friend Lucy said to us “So what have you guys learned lately?” It was (as the Americans would say) a very left field question; an unexpected question. But a good question.

I don’t remember what I said, though my wife mentioned something she’d started doing and found helpful – keeping a journal.

However, if I spoke to Lucy today, I’d be able to tell her that I’ve learned this morning how to Mail Merge and print off address labels. This is a big step forward for me. Let me tell you why.

Up to now during the Covid 19 shut down, each week I’ve been sending to Church members an Order of Service for Sunday and a Reflection (a mini sermon if you like) based on one of the Bible passages. Where possible this has gone via email. But I’ve realised that a large proportion of my congregations don’t have access to email. Or at least even if they can access the internet it might be from a phone or tablet and they can’t print.

Therefore, each week I’ve been sending out around 50 letters containing the Order of Service and Reflection. Initially I was printing these at home on an ordinary inkjet printer. A slow process and one that used a lot of ink. Now one of my colleagues has said if I email the documents to him, he will go into his church (which has a photocopier) copy the documents and let me have them back for posting.

That’s a big help. But then there’s all the envelopes. Until today I’d handwritten them all. Not a problem other than having rubbish handwriting and it takes time. But now here’s where my learning comes in.

I’ve learned the technique of Mail Merge.

And how did I learn what to do? I looked up a tutorial on You Tube. The person who had made the tutorial did a great job as I got the Mail Merge to work straight away. (I must admit to having a tiny bit of knowledge from years ago, but it was very rusty.)

This may not seem the most interesting topic for blog I admit. But it got me thinking about how I managed to do what I’ve done.
I remember being sent on a course by work (I think over two days) to learn how to use Microsoft Word. This would have been around 1992. There were about about 10 of us in the class all seated in front of a great big monitor and we followed along as the tutor took us through Word. I have used Word pretty confidently ever since – though obviously until today not Mail Merge.

And a few years later I went on another course with work to learn about Excel. I don’t use Excel very much. But when I do need to use it for something I’m not sure of, I reach for a YouTube tutorial.

YouTube is a wonderful resource to find out how to do something. Especially if, like me, you like to see how to do something, not just read about it. (Another friend of mine tells me she’s looked up a tutorial on how to cut her husband’s hair!)

So, Lucy. What have I learned today? I learned Mail Merge. But I’ve also learned a valuable lesson.

I’ve learned that modern technology is amazing. The fact that we could Zoom recently was terrific. The fact that the four of us could sit and talk for an hour and see one another was wonderful. Similarly, we talked to our friends in Germany on the weekend (though via Skype.) We’ve talked to friends in Swindon and had a Saturday evening drink together via Houseparty.

But I’ve also learned that for some people, older people in particular, who don’t have access to Zoom, YouTube and so on, a phone call means so much. I’ve used the phone more in the last two weeks than I would normally. And I know a call from a friendly voice means the world of difference to someone on their own.

Also, a card or a letter means so much too. I sent out a Palm Cross and an Easter Card to everyone in my 4 churches. In fact I’ve just had a call from one person who was so pleased to receive these. I’ve had several similar calls over the last couple of days.

There’s already talk of what the world will be like after the Covid 19 shut down ends (whenever that may be.) I hope that when this is over all of us can think back about what we’ve learned. Not just how to do Mail Merge but learn that we’ve appreciated conversation with friends. To learn that it’s been good to say “hello” to someone 2m away and see them smile. To learn that we need to appreciate health workers and stand up for them. To learn that we need to appreciate “the key workers”, shop workers, delivery drivers, postmen and women, refuse collectors, police officers etc etc etc, all those people who keep society ticking over.

I’ve learned loads today. What about you?

Monday, 6 April 2020

Palm Sunday 2020 - without the crowds

It’s Palm Sunday.

Reading the suggested Bible passage for this Sunday – Matthew 21: 1 – 11 – I was struck by two words - “the crowds”. Those two words, or variations on them, crop up several times in the passage.

In verse 8 Matthew tells us that “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road” as Jesus and his followers walked towards Jerusalem.

Then in verse 9 Matthew says

“9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
‘Hosanna[b] to the Son of David!’
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’[c]
‘Hosanna[d] in the highest heaven!

Matthew goes on to say, “the whole city was stirred” or as the New Revised Standard Version puts it “The whole city was in turmoil”. In other words, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem didn’t just excite his followers. Everyone in the city became aware of this arrival. And those who weren’t followers of Jesus or didn’t know anything about him said “Who is this?”


11 The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Of course, Matthew doesn’t give us any idea of how big the crowd was. Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? We don’t know. But clearly it was more than just the 12 disciples.

Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week. And I’m struck that if we read the passages of scripture in all the Gospels, that give us details of the time period between Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and his crucifixion and death on Good Friday, we see several references to crowds. And we also see plenty of references to Jesus spending time with his followers – not just the 12 disciples but other people too.

Reading these passages has made me realise that this Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter will be like no other I’ve experienced. And I’m sure is the same for you too.

Usually we’ll have gathered for worship on Palm Sunday. Heard the Bible passage on Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and perhaps left service carrying a cross made from a palm leaf. And we’ll have left the service with thoughts on Holy Week. (As a preacher I don’t leave a congregation cheering with the crowds on Palm Sunday. I point us firmly into Holy Week and all that means.)

We may then gather for a communion service on Maundy Thursday. The day we remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples and how he demonstrated to them the need for humility as he knelt and washed their feet.

Then on Good Friday, we will have gathered again to worship. In Chippenham, Christians from many of the churches gather for a united service at my own church, Central Methodist. Perhaps 400 or 500 people all crammed together.

Then we leave and walk through the crowds of shoppers before ending with an open-air service.

These experiences will be common to Christians everywhere. But not this year. This Palm Sunday, this Holy Week, this Good Friday, the only crowds we will encounter will be those we read of in the Bible. We are all in “social distancing” of “self-isolation”. (Or we should be!)

I know I will miss joining together with other people at this most special time in the Church calendar. But we all know the importance of remaining in our homes, to void the risk of infection and spreading the virus.

Last week I took a phone call from a member of one of my congregations. We had a chat and she told me that she’d recently come across a hymn that she liked the words of. It comes from the “new” Methodist hymn book Singing the Faith.

The hymn is StF 610 “Best of all is God is with us”. It is based upon John Wesley’s final words “The best thing of all, God is with us”.

After the phone call from my friend, I looked up the words of the hymn and they really speak to us. It is not a Palm Sunday or Holy Week or Good Friday hymn. But it is a reminder that as we journey with Jesus this week, we are not alone – even if we live alone. For “best of all God is with us.” I hope you take comfort from these words:

Best of all is God is with us,
God will hold and never fail.
Keep that truth when storms are raging,
God remains though faith is frail.

Best of all is God is with us,
life goes on and needs are met,
God is strongest in our weakness.
Love renews, will not forget.

Best of all is God is with us,
hearts are challenged, strangely warmed,
faith is deepened, courage strengthened,
grace received and hope reformed.

Best of all is God is with us,
in our joy and through our pain,
till that final acclamation:
'life is Christ, and death is gain'.

Best of all is God is with us
as we scale eternal heights,
love grows stronger, undiminished;
earth grows dim by heaven's lights.

Words by Andrew Pratt © 2008 Reproduced by permission of Stainer & Bell Ltd
(If you wish to sing the hymn, you can sing it to the tune for “All for Jesus, all for Jesus”)