Our three churches: St. Mary’s, Standon, All Saints, Little Munden and St. Catherine’s, Sacombe are all part of the St. Alban’s Diocese within the Church of England. We are united in name and the desire to welcome every person, young and older, into our wonderful community minded church families. Our hope is to help everyone discover who Jesus is, and then to grow in understanding and faith. We have beautiful church buildings, a fantastic Benefice Choir, various styles of worship, partnerships with two excellent Church of England Schools, and a clear Bible based ministry.
In June, my daughter was married at St. Mary’s Standon - the most glorious occasion with hundreds of family and friends celebrating with us. With conviction they both said their vows, ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.’ No small thing for the groom in particular, as his future father-in-law (me) was taking the service, but you could tell they both believed and meant every word they were saying.
I wish things were always as black and white as this. In Matthew 5 v 37 Jesus tells us: ‘All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’ Being truthful, which means believing and then doing what you say, is something we understand and in most cases can choose to fulfil. At times this can be costly and often not easy. As a young man and before I committed my life to following Jesus, it seemed easier to tell lies at crucial moments. Once, having ignored a curfew whilst playing for the England Youth team in Norway, I persistently lied about what I had been doing as if lying would help me. It didn’t! Becoming a Christian marked a desire in me to change, the turning point of my life.
However, telling the truth is not where this story ends. Most of us believe we are being truthful but telling the truth and being right are not quite the same are they? As a younger man I always thought I was right, now as the years pass I wonder if I am ever right! Let me explain what I mean: my wife Jill often asks me what I think of a dress she is trying on; my reply might include asking her what she thinks, and then to reply accordingly. I have no idea really. Am I telling the truth? I am telling the truth but I have no idea what is right.
The EU question was not quite the same as commenting on a dress but equally challenging. By the time you read this newsletter we will have voted to ‘remain in’ or ‘leave’ the EU. It has been incredible watching clever people like David Cameron and Boris Johnson and many others come up with completely different answers to the same questions. Are you confident you voted the right way? It was Solomon in the Old Testament who could ask God for anything, who asked for wisdom. The wisdom to listen more deeply and get things right. I remain uncertain about my EU vote but I know that following Jesus and being inspired to live and love as He did is right! What do you think?
Alan Comfort, Rector
On 22nd May just passed, George Best would have celebrated his 70th Birthday. His was an extraordinary life of brilliance and destruction; an unforgettable football career at Manchester United strangled by an out of control drinking addiction that eventually took his life in 2005. Many people think, with good reason I might add, ‘a leopard never changes its spots’. Meaning, we can’t change what we are. For example, if we’ve supported Chelsea since we were small, like me, we can’t change. If we’re likely to let people down, we always will. If we’re weak willed, we’ll give up eventually. If we’re addicted to drink or drugs, we always will be. ‘A leopard never changes its spots’.
Do you believe this? The evidence suggests this is often true, but is it always true? Is it impossible for us to change? I am convinced the answer to this question is NO, but we need to believe change must happen for change to occur.
The actor Robert Downey Jr. grew up in a home "surrounded by drugs”. He frequently did drugs with his father, actor and filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. He recalled drinking white wine when he was just eight years old. After stints in rehab and even prison as an adult, Downey Jr. finally turned his life around in 2003 after an intervention and a successful stint in rehab. He has been clean and sober ever since.
We celebrate every victory like Downey Jr., but needing to change is not limited to life threatening addictions. Most of us have character flaws that frequently pull us down. For many of us, finding the strength to overcome can prove impossible, but God promises to help us if we ask. The Pentecost promise is that God sends His Holy Spirit to be our helper, to live in us. In the New Testament we find Saul, part of the religious elite of his time, highly trained, a brilliant man, who hated Christians and sought to have them arrested and even killed; but God met Saul on the Damascus road as recorded in Acts Chapter 9 and his life was changed. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, met Jesus in Luke Chapter 19 and his mean life that caused hardship for so many was changed. A faith in God makes change possible.
What about you and me? I’m not sure what challenges you face, but I do know this: if we want to change, God can help us and give us a reason to be changed at the same time. Isn’t that one of the keys to all this? We need a reason to be different. What’s yours?
Alan Comfort - Rector
I am writing this on a very special day; Thursday 21st April 2016, the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. I realise not everyone feels exactly the same about our Royal Family, but it’s surely difficult to find fault with the longest serving British Monarch now in the 64th year of her reign. Personally, I feel privileged and proud to say that she is our Queen as well as The Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Perhaps you will permit me a few moments to talk of her faith in God, which I believe is both unexpected and inspiring.
Unexpected because many blessed people who have everything they could ever want in this life often live as if they don’t need anything else, but our Queen has throughout her long life honoured and depended upon God. On the occasion of her 21st birthday in 1947 she openly declared her need for; ‘God to help me to make good my vow.’ We have also grown used to her inspirational Christmas Day speeches when she speaks openly of her trust in God and the Lord Jesus. In 2015, she said this: ‘For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life; a role-model of reconciliation and forgiveness.’
As we give thanks for her reign amongst us, our churches will be holding a special Choral Evensong on Sunday 5th June 6.30pm at St. Mary’s Standon to celebrate her life and faith. Please come and join us.
That word ‘anchor’ is very important and central to what a faith in God can bring. To anchor something is to hold it secure and steady when the storms come. We know a ship not anchored during a storm, will be swept far away at best and more likely destroyed on the rocks at worst. The tests and storms of this life are no less threatening and powerful as the sad deaths of Victoria Wood and the singer Prince confirmed in this past week. A faith in God not only offers an answer to these storms, as I believe it does, but is a tangible strength holding firm during such storms. As we invite God to ‘help’ us in our lives and to ‘forgive’ our failures through Jesus, God instils a strength in you and me that anchors to everything that is good and of God. The bible calls this the Holy Spirit that comes to live on the inside of our lives. It comes upon our invitation but is of God’s creation. Why not ask God to give you this strength? If you want to find out more, why not ask?
Alan Comfort - Rector
Earlier this week I nearly had a breakdown. I was driving back from Saffron Walden to Standon when the steering of my car dramatically changed. It felt like a puncture but my tyres were fine. Anxiously, I drove on towards Standon praying about the car and fretting over the School Governors’ meeting I was late for. What should I do? Go to someone who could help, I thought. So I drove to a family, new to our churches, who live in Standon and he is a mechanic. Their kindness was overwhelming. A lift to the Governors’ meeting was followed by the loan of a car, and then the assurance my car would be fixed the following day. I was so grateful to God for such special people in our community.
I was particularly grateful because I knew my car would be fixed. This got me thinking; imagine if the kind man who took my car returned it with exactly the same fault the next day? Such a thought is ridiculous of course, but let me explain; I was thinking of the experience that many of us have when we go to church. We sing a couple of hymns, listen to a talk and some prayers, meet some pleasant people, but often go home exactly the same as when we arrived. We don’t expect or desire to be changed, but meeting with God should change and help us. That’s what faith in God is all about, or it could be. Not leaving us the same but helping us to be different. Let me give you a couple examples from the Bible: Jesus said in Matthew chapter11 verse 28, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ These are not simply words, they describe something we can experience when we ask Jesus to help us. As we come close to God, He draws near to us and through the gift of His Holy Spirit gives us a ‘rest’ that nothing else can give. Do you need that kind of ‘rest’? Jeremiah chapter 31 verse 34 says: ‘for I (God) will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more’. No matter how frustrated you are with yourself and the things you have done, or how messed up your life feels, God says He will forgive you and remember your sin no more. This is the Good Friday miracle, our sin wiped away because of Jesus’ death on the cross, so we can live new lives. Why not ask God to help you today? Why not join one of our church activities and expect to be changed and helped?
Alan Comfort - Rector
Our soon to be married daughter returned home for a few days this week. Edinburgh is a long way away, and thankfully she seems so very happy, but forgive my rather grumpy ‘I’m losing a daughter’ moment; her life seems less connected to ours than ever before. Of course this is to be expected, but letting go and trusting another is more difficult than I imagined. Change is never easy is it? Our news is rightly full of another possible and huge change with the upcoming EU referendum question. David Cameron has been earnestly negotiating a better deal for the UK, striving to convince us that staying in the EU will be better than leaving. Has he convinced you? I’m sure you have your opinion in this but crunch time is coming when deciding ‘in’ or ‘out’ seems so final, as our Scottish friends know well from recent experience. Not fifty shades of grey, but black or white, in or out?
Direct questions that demand definite answers are more awkward now than I remember. The ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is more commonly replaced by the ‘I believe’ answer, meaning there is no right answer, just opinions, and mine is as good as anyone else’s. Yet, ‘I believe’ answers too often fail to answer the important questions. Take Easter as the perfect example; the question Easter poses is not whether God loves us, the question is whether we love God, ‘yes’ or ‘no’? The Easter message sees God offer everything for us. He doesn’t place the weight of expectation on us, He has taken that fully upon Himself. He allowed His Son Jesus, an innocent man, to be wrongfully arrested, then beaten, convicted, despised, rejected, crucified, to die an horrific death, to wash away the worst of you and me and the world around us. Such sacrifice and forgiveness are often too difficult to comprehend, but through this sacrifice God offers us all the possibility of a new beginning, a second chance, new hope. The question is not whether God loves us, He has already answered; the question is whether our response to His love is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, whether we will trust in what Jesus did for us on that first Easter or not. Matthew 7 v 13 says; ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.’ I prefer the ‘I believe’ answers, when my opinion is as valid as any other, but some questions only allow ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. What will it be?
Alan Comfort - Rector
I’m sure it is very apparent that I love my role as Rector of our Benefice. Sharing in the good but also the sad moments of people’s lives is a great privilege. Recently I made one of my regular visits to our church schools, a high point of any week. What great schools they are. Yes, I am a Governor, an enthusiastically welcomed visitor and biased, but they are very special places none the less. I believe it is vitally important to celebrate the successes around us that make this a unique place to live. The children are delightful, hungry to learn and talented, as the various Christmas productions recently showed and they are taught by a wonderful team under inspired leadership. Thank you.
With the mood of celebration spilling over and the certain knowledge that Michael Baker would not wish me to write this, I still must. The achievement of one of ours is ours to celebrate. Michael and Sarah Baker have lived in Standon for many years, bringing up their family here. A consistent and integral part of St. Mary’s Church, Standon and great supporters of the churches in our Benefice. News broke in the New Year’s honours list that Michael Baker QC had been awarded a CBE for his services to the administration of justice and charity work. Yes, our own Mike Baker. We are so very proud of your achievement.
Well, let me finish with a great flourish. On Sunday 21st February at our 10.45am service at St. Mary’s, we look forward to welcoming the Bishop of St. Alban’s the Rt. Revd. Dr. Alan Smith, to lead our Confirmation Service. This will be a great celebration, not simply because the Bishop is coming, but because several candidates from within our local area will stand before the Bishop and publicly acknowledge that they believe in God and wish to follow Jesus Christ in their day to day lives. Finding our way in this life is not getting any easier as we endeavour to cope with personal sadness or challenging circumstances. Secular answers are getting louder and often dismissive of a deep and thoughtful trust in God; but deep within our souls, lasting peace and security is often found by those who discover a relationship with God. For me, this moment came some thirty years ago. My struggles back then do not compare with much of what I’ve seen as a Vicar since, with my biggest concern being what new car to buy as a young professional footballer. Yet, even then I knew something was missing in my life that I needed to find. Whether we’ve experienced sadness no one could really understand, or simply know that life should be more than it is, it seems to me that the same desire to find that which is missing continues to exist. Why not come and support those who are finding their way? Why not come and discover this for yourself?
Alan Comfort, Rector
The ‘unexpecteds’ in life can be hilarious sometimes. I remember my 18th birthday and receiving a whole tool kit wrapped individually by my lovely family. Hilarious because I hate DIY. Or Jill’s face when I gave her a Dyson hoover one Christmas, having been married for just a few years. The horror written on her face haunts me to this day. Yet, such ‘unexpected’ moments are not of the same order of the news from Paris a couple of Saturdays ago. 129 people horrifically killed through an evil terrorist attack, with many others critically injured. The threat of terrorism is currently rampaging throughout the world, causing havoc and destruction wherever it aims. I’m sure we’ve all said prayers for those grieving in the face of these tragedies. Then, just a couple of hours later, a friend phoned from Walthamstow where we led a church until last year. Aly, the new Vicar’s wife, aged just 37, and the mother of two little boys aged three and five, had suddenly and unbelievably died of a massive heart attack at 8.45am that morning. Despite my strong faith and very real belief that Jesus has prepared a place for those who love Him beyond this life, (John Chapter 14) I am still in shock at the loss of Kieran and his boys. The ‘unexpected’ can sometimes be quite devastating!
Yet the Christmas story speaks of an ‘unexpected’ that brings hope for those who are willing to receive it. Remember those familiar words in Luke Chapter 2 when an angel appears to the shepherds out in the fields: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” As the angel left them, the shepherds, still in shock, must have wondered what they should do. Would they grasp the moment or simply carry on with life as it always had been, back to the sheep? We read, “They left for Bethlehem immediately, to see this thing that has happened.” As we read this piece, as we get ready for Christmas, what will we do? If Jesus can fill us with a deep peace that nothing else can bring, or give us a hope that nothing else can offer, or cause a real change in us that nothing else can achieve, or grow in us a love for others that nothing else can, what will we do? Will we leave immediately, to see this thing that has happened? Come to church and find the ‘unexpected’. His name is Jesus.
Alan Comfort, Rector
We all know that certain sadnesses in life are inevitable. Having been a Vicar for over twenty years I’ve spent considerable amounts of time listening to and being as helpful as possible when faced with other people’s bereavement. I imagined this would prepare me for my own loss when the time came, but quite surprisingly I felt very unprepared when my father passed away at the end of September. Although ill over several years, his death has literally shaken the foundations of my life. Thank you for your kind wishes, cards and the many prayers said for my family over the past weeks.
Remembering is a vital part of moving forward even if you’re not sure whether you have moved forward. Of course, not all loss is personal but sometimes shared. Remembrance Sunday is a vital moment in our national and local life. It reminds us of our brave past, of the many young and older men and women who faced what we can hardly imagine, to protect what is normal life for us now. Given the rapidly changing world we live in and the declining sense of community in many ‘local’ places, coming together as a community to remember and stand alongside one another is more vital than ever. Please come if you can to one of our Remembrance Services on Sunday 8th November, to join with the many who will be remembering.This is not a test of whether you believe in God or not, but rather whether we believe in the power of our community at this time.
Of course, facing that question of believing in God is shaped by all sorts of personal experience and thoughts. I am grateful that God is able to manage the complexity of our many lives and speak to each of us in very different ways. To the rich man, Jesus challenged him to let go of his wealth because it stood in the way; to the tax collector named Zacchaeus, Jesus went to his house despite the disapproval of everyone around him, and his life was changed. What about you? Have you experienced such a moment? My Dad never went to church in his lifetime. He never really engaged with the fact that I was a Vicar so you can imagine my surprise when he told me he believed in God four weeks before he died. “I believe”, he said, “but I haven’t been a follower”. “Will you pray for me?” he asked. My Dad was a strong and sometimes stubborn man, who wouldn’t put his trust in God unless he believed in what he was doing. It was time for my dad to trust in God through Jesus. Perhaps it’s time for you also?
Alan Comfort, Rector
This morning I managed to phone someone I hadn’t intended to ring. Having whizzed through the addresses in my phone, I dialled a different person to the one I expected. You can imagine the surprise when I heard a very different voice answer my call. I bluffed my way through the early part of the call giving the impression I had phoned to see how they were when the truth was anything but. They thanked me for remembering them. I hadn’t, but I was so glad to have made that mistaken call. Being remembered is very important isn’t it?
Churches are very special places for many reasons and remembering and being remembered is certainly one of them. I know many of you inside and outside the church care and support one another by visiting and keeping in touch. This is an often unrecognised ministry, but I want to encourage you to keep on remembering and caring. However, it is possible for some people to be missed when the remembering is most needed. With this in mind, St. Mary’s are setting up a ‘Visiting Team’. This small team will be tasked with the ‘remembering’ of our church family and wider community, that no one need feel uncared for or forgotten. The team will be co-led by trusted people in the church; Gwen Duckitt a Reader in the Benefice, and Jacqui Plummer the wife of one of our Churchwardens. The one distinctive of these visits will be a short prayer at the end to invite God to be with those being visited. I do hope you will be encouraged as you read this, and if you know of anyone who would benefit from a visit, or you yourself would value someone coming to see you, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 01920 318864. This small team will be commissioned at St. Mary’s on Sunday 25th October at our 10.45am Service.
Perhaps I can continue with the theme of remembering for a moment longer. Losing a loved one is a devastating life event that changes us forever. We as a church realise we have an important part to play in helping those who grieve and one of the ways we do this is by holding an annual Service of Memories taking place this year at St. Mary’s on Sunday 1st November at 3pm. May I invite anyone who has lost a loved one to come, and confirm we will remember your loved one by name during this special service. Beyond this service, we have also invited Stephne Whittles on behalf of the church, to offer bereavement support to those who have recently lost loved ones. Stephne has had many years experience in this work with Isabel Hospice and will also be commissioned for this role on 25th October.
Alan Comfort, Rector