St John's The United Reformed Church in Northwood

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A recent debate in the House of Lord’s reminds us of the witness of small, often vulnerable Christian Communities, but also of the big picture: Faith in our creator, a gift to all, but a gift we need to cherish, not squander or tarnish.

Reflections Upon The Journey...one year on

BAKER STREET STATION BUFFET

Early Electric! With what radiant hope
Men formed this many-branched electrolier,
Twisted the flex around the iron rope
And let the dazzling vacuum globes hang clear,
And then with hearts the rich contrivance fill'd
Of copper, beaten by the Bromsgrove Guild.

Early Electric! Sit you down and see,
'Mid this fine woodwork and a smell of dinner,
A stained-glass windmill and a pot of tea,
And sepia views of leafy lanes in Pinner -
Then visualize, far down the shining lines,
Your parents' homestead set in murmuring pines.

Smoothly from Harrow, passing Preston Road,
They saw the last green fields and misty sky,
At Neasden watched a workmen's train unload,
And, with the morning villas sliding by,
They felt so sure on their electric trip
That Youth and Progress were in partnership.

And all that day in murky London Wall
The thought of Ruislip kept him warm inside;
At Farringdon that lunch hour at a stall
He bought a dozen plants of London Pride;
While she, in arc-lit Oxford Street adrift,
Soared through the sales by safe hydraulic lift.

Early Electric! Maybe even here
They met that evening at six-fifteen
Beneath the hearts of this electrolier
And caught the first non-stop to Willesden Green,
Then out and on, through rural Rayner's Lane
To autumn-scented Middlesex again.

Cancer has killed him. Heart is killing her.
The trees are down. An Odeon flashes fire
Where stood their villa by the murmuring fir
When " they would for their children's good conspire."
Of their loves and hopes on hurrying feet
Thou art the worn memorial, Baker Street.

John Betjeman


Dear friends

Within a year of my ministry in Northwood, the Metropolitan Line has become a familiar if slightly unpredictable friend. There is a bridge not far from the manse and from it you can gaze upon those silver, shining lines, ferrying people to and from Baker Street. It provides a powerful link between places, but also between times and eras, things imagined.

And so too, perhaps, we may think of the church; a powerful link between places, heaven and earth, but also between times and eras…and things imagined.

I travelled out from Baker Street the other night on one of the new trains. They still inch their way to the suburbs as slowly as ever. I sat opposite a couple that didn’t seem quite to fit. I was conscious at one point of staring, a misdemeanour that the London Tube forgives with practiced ease.
“I need to ask….” My heart sank and my defences kicked into life. “I need to ask what’s in your bag…what are you reading?” It was a powerful opening gambit and led to a more animated discussion than ordinarily I would entertain with strangers, aware or unawares.

As I talked about the poetry in the bag, my fellow passenger scrambled for some paper: “I’m always looking out for new names...I can’t read novels, they’re too long….I need thoughts to be short…” We settled upon a view that poetry suits us both well…you can go back to the words years later and they will always reveal new insights. “So when will you read the poems?” Ah! I explained I had demolished a few of them in the book shop and that the rest would have to take their chances with the other poetry that accumulates on my desk…but which in the absence of reading, confers nonetheless a curious sense of peace and connectedness. For poetry too provides a powerful link between places, heaven and earth, times and eras…and things imagined.

As the train clattered along, I wondered about that curious urban illness that more often than not leaves us as strangers in trains that are full. I began to trust the gift, unsolicited, and pondered that we can be taken beyond and out of ourselves by other people…each fellow traveller uniquely embodying aspects of the divine. What prompted me to assume in the first instance he was odd; and anyway, where does all this judgement stuff come from? Slow tube journeys are good times for gathering thoughts, clearing our minds of the detritus that accumulates, blocking our view of friend or stranger. I have probably breathed more prayers on the tube than in church over the years.

The glimmering steel of the tube lines and the rhythmic clatter of the carriage can anaesthetise us to our surroundings but, i-phones and the FT notwithstanding, it is still possible to find one’s own humanity earthed by encounters that guarantee only their own transience and fleeting opportunities to wonder. I will never set eyes upon him again. He may or not ever read those poems…and that hardly matters.

I have a confession to make…as I got up out of my seat at Northwood (we had already agreed that the green suburbs camouflage a great deal of what it means to be human) I said quietly “May God bless you” And, typically, I have asked since…so what was that all about!

What is it all about?…the more I travel “down the shining lines” or otherwise, the less persuaded I am that being knowledgeable is as much a gift as being bemused or intrigued…or just plain nosey! What makes us tick, why do we behave the way we do. What fuels our random defensiveness? How is it that a stranger can unlock things with such ease? What of those past experiences (the sins of our forebears) that either inspire us to open up to others or to dismiss them as eccentric and not quite all there, or worse...a threat.

Only the journey is real…more and more I have recourse to the words of Robert Louis Stevenson…

"to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour..."

Church used to be a secure place…we knew what we believed, or more often what we were told to believe…not quite the same! Our labours guaranteed a safe passage through life. By our works shall we be known. I recall as a youngster inheriting a very clear world view that poor people (they were usually black) lived in other countries and we bought them tractors in God’s name...and we saved stamps and buttons for them too. Blue Peter and redemption seemed to go hand in hand; our cast offs were another person’s bread; we can do good, while remaining unquestioning about the origins of our wealth. So, shop, shop, shop, it won’t be you who drops! And largely that formula for living has worked…until now.

For now though, are we not all struck that in our world there is an increasing impatience and irritation; a pervading sense of unfairness and profound injustice? Recent very public scandals serve only to confirm the view that those at the top of the pile have often operated with a completely different set of rules for engagement. Some MPs even claim they require first class rail travel so they can work, uninterrupted by Big Society. I’d quite like to have a conversation, on the train, or anywhere else for that matter with those who promote big society even as the funding streams, or trickles, that are vital to social cohesion and a sense of communal well-being are dammed up. The scandal isn’t just that phones were hacked, but that the powerful were all so wrapped up in their own journeys that they neglected to keep on an eye the company they were keeping. And as they wined and dined and commiserated about that golden age for the City that never quite was, the unfolding crisis in the Horn of Africa was all but ignored. No one seemed to think that was worth a story…or even a bit of judicious hacking. But hey…it’s only developing countries that harbour corruption…hardly our responsibility then.

The Bible, like poetry or railway lines makes a powerful link between places, heaven and earth, times and eras, things imagined. The Bible is also quite clear about the manner of our journeying…belief in God is an indulgence of the highest order if it does not link to faith in humanity. Pilgrims engage, they talk and blether and catch each other’s eye.

The wonderful story of Ruth turns on a wealthy man called Boaz catching the eye of a stranger who comes to town, and seeks refuge on his land. She is travelling in the company of her mother in law, Naomi. Both are destitute. Theirs and Boaz’s story is a timely reminder that wealth is not in and of itself a bad thing; but it is disastrous if it leaves nothing for those who live their lives on the edge:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And neither shall you strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard: you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner" - Leviticus 19:9-10

The story of Ruth is a story about travelling through bad times, grim times. It is not unlike, indeed it deeply relates to the story of Mary and Joseph…trying to make ends meet when the dice are loaded against you. Isn’t it perplexing that the Church manages to often to hide the scandal of these stories, to dress them up such that only those who delve or hack deeply get the drift, smell the offence?

I attended a service in a church recently. In just under an hour and ten minutes the words, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, love, were not used…not once. It beggars belief. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t get much of a look in either. But of course, if you introduce him to your conversation, then things can come off the rails…people begin to wonder if you are safe company or not.

Betjeman’s poem is set in the safe, deco environs of the Station Buffet at Baker Street. He plays along with the advertising guys…selling their vision of verdant pastures upon which soon enough thousands of identical, serried, three bedroom semis would be built, destroying the very landscape they promised to give access to. It’s a poem that explores the forbidden themes of urban monotony and alienation… the disenchantments and dissolution that more recently finds expression in Desperate Housewives…scathing but oddly non-judgemental and humane, a wonderful series! There is much in Betjeman’s poem of a similar character. There is beauty, but beyond the rhythmic clatter of the words and the carriages there are tensions and fears. There is the lingering whiff of disappointment as the terminus approaches. Don’t forget to take all your stuff with you as you disembark. The final verse is not for the faint-hearted….or maybe it is!

The world Betjeman invites us to explore (it extends to our own inner worlds too) is the world God calls us to serve. It is down the shining lines that God calls us to be the Church. And it is the people who crowd the station platform at rush hour who are our neighbours…the same people Christ beckons us cross the street to talk with. It is the young couple, or noisy group coming back from a concert at Wembley, the older person travelling alone with her or his thoughts, the young parent with a push chair and child, the person who catches your eye then looks away…till the next time, the smart city person who’s worried sick about the mortgage and the school fees, and the family back home in lands where smoke rises and famine grips.

Those who believe in the love of Jesus the Christ have so much to offer to this part of the kingdom, the more so if we accept the privilege of rising to such a challenge with other people who believe just as passionately in our community. The community canvas that has just been completed tells a powerful story of how faith and insight can come together, raising the banner of hope, not cynicism; love not fear. It speaks of a world less mono-chromatic than that which featured in the rather contrived London Underground posters of the 30s and 40’s…but a world that is real and beautiful.

You can find images of the canvas in our Gallery.

The community canvas has been a wonderful experience and I’m proud it has unfolded in a church that more and more people tell me “feels a safe place to be” What a fantastic achievement, banishing fear, creating a place of true sanctuary in our community. And most surely God has been with us on this journey. It was a pleasure to welcome our lady Mayor, Cllr Mary O’Connor to see the work as it completed. She observed that this is how things must be:

"I keep saying to people…we are not many communities…we are one community…we must talk to each other…we must keep talking"

On the canvas, there is a rainbow…a powerful link between places, heaven and earth, times and eras, and things imagined.

I hope and pray that the love that has inspired this particular project is the same love that will continue to bless the people of St John’s and the community we serve in Christ’s name.

James

(If you are reading this and wonder whether ours might be a congregation you wish to be involved with…please, come along. We are an open, easy-going, non-judgemental, kind group of people who know that the best journeys are shared. Over many years and many journeys, the love of Christ has seeped into our being…we don’t drop his name into every sentence, but we trust in his ways)