What a difference three years make! In January 2020, I had just about finished my second assignment for the Bishop’s Certificate and the idea of becoming a Reader hadn’t yet crossed my mind. Now here I am with two years of training under my belt and I’ve just completed my first Christmas in licensed ministry.
Our first service of 2023 was an ‘All Together’ service on 1st January, which I had offered to lead. Planning an ‘All Together’ service at St John’s is always a bit of a lottery as we never know how many children will turn up. I’d thought we would have plenty of children on New Year’s Day – their parents would be exhausted after the previous night’s celebrations and what better way to entertain the kids than bring them to church?
The text I had to preach on was the Flight to Egypt and Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:13-23) but what I really wanted to focus on was the fact that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees. Over the past year we have been privileged at St John’s to welcome several families from Ukraine and I wondered did they know that the Holy Family, too, had been forced to flee their homeland?
We still had the crib up in church so I decided to disperse the crib figures round the building and ask the children to hunt for them. I wanted to make the point that the peaceful serenity of the crib scene had been shattered and now the Holy Family were out in the cold on their own.
So I hid the crib figures and waited for the children to arrive… but none came! The parents must all have been so exhausted from the previous night that they’d stayed in bed! Never mind. After our opening song I invited the adults to search for the nativity figures and everyone was happy to join in. It turned out to be a good opportunity for people to exchange New Year greetings (and check the pigeon-holes for Christmas cards they might have missed).
I kept my talk short, which for ‘the morning after the night before’ was probably no bad thing. I talked about God’s goodness in bringing the Holy Family safely back to Mary’s home town of Nazareth. How hard it would have been, for Mary in particular, if they’d been forced to stay in Egypt for many years. But Herod died which allowed the young family to return home. I illustrated my talk with photos of Bethlehem and Nazareth from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land last summer.
At New Year I always thinks it’s good to spend some time focussing on how God has brought us through the past year and thinking about the year ahead. So in our prayers I invited everyone to be still and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as to where we should be concentrating our efforts in prayer over the coming year. We jotted down what came to mind – on small pieces of paper so people could take them away – and then we committed it all to God.
The service went well; things veered slightly off piste but that’s OK. The nativity figures got returned to the crib and we committed our church and ourselves to the Lord for the coming year.
One of the biggest surprises for me has been seeing how God has equipped me for what He called me to do. Before I preached, I had an inkling that I might be able to do it; but I had no idea that I actually could until I sat down one morning in November 2020 and pressed ‘Record’ on my phone (St John’s was at that point still shut due to Covid so my first few sermons went out on YouTube).
It was only in the doing that I learnt what I was capable of. I would urge others to give things a go. If you don’t ever try things, you won’t ever know!
The apostle Paul made clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that we all have gifts; every single person in every single congregation is gifted in some way. We may not get to choose which gift we’re given… but what’s for sure is that everyone has something to offer.
Now January beckons. I’m helping out on a Bereavement course – Reader ministry is not just teaching and preaching – and then I need to start preparing for a four-week Bible study, looking at the letters of Paul.
One of the earliest pieces of advice I received from a Reader who had been licensed for some years, was that ‘your ministry is what you make it’. I think that’s very true. It’s all about identifying your gifts, interests, abilities and availability and matching that up with needs in your parish.
I’m sure my biggest qualification was simply that I longed to serve the Lord. God takes willing hearts and hands and uses them, and I find that truly exciting!
Find out more about Lay Ministry in The Diocese of Southwark at southwark.anglican.org/layministries.