Looking outwards

At the height of lockdown one of the things we looked forward to in this house was the weekly arrival of Torbank News in our inbox. Our daughter, Lucy, goes to Torbank Special School in Dundonald and, each week, the school produced a video news which lasted about 7-8 minutes.

Often the pupils featured in videos which were the responses to challenges from the previous week. They might be asked to send in photos or videos of cooking or gardening or taking exercise or their pets or whatever the topic for the week was.

The presenter was a young teacher called Zac, who was really good at using a means of communication, a bit like sign language called Makaton. His hands and facial expressions were so encouraging as he demonstrated these signs.

I remember, too, a few years ago, Conor attended a Tennis summer camp with a friend of his and the coach, Anthony, was deaf. He would teach the kids some sign language as well as tennis and they had a fabulous time together.

As Zac introduced Torbank news each week, he would point to his eyes then to the screen inviting everyone to look at what the pupils had been doing as we watched the photos and videos. It’s always a beautiful thing to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective. We don’t always think of the challenges faced by those who are deaf, especially when so many of us are currently wearing masks and so they can’t lip read the way they normally might. We don’t always think of what it’s like to be non-verbal and how isolated you might feel as a result and people like Anthony and Zac have helped me to see beyond the world that normally consumes me.

Dr David Varney

Last week, I had a marvellous walk with someone I got to know a little over Zoom during lockdown. David is a doctor and also the pastor of a church called Foundation Church here in Belfast. During lockdown, I responded to an advertisement I saw on Facebook inviting me to go on a course called the Alpha course to explore the meaning of life. It was run by David’s church and, over 12 weeks, we met on Zoom to look at questions like ‘Who is Jesus?’, ‘Why did He die?’, ‘How do I read the Bible?’, ‘How do I pray?’, ‘Does God heal today?’, ‘What does the Holy Spirit do?’ and ‘How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?’ We would watch a video each week, then discuss it in small breakout groups for 20 minutes. Each session would finish within an hour.

Normally, the Alpha course happens in churches or in people’s homes and there is a great emphasis on hospitality and welcome but, since the course started to go online, it has been reaching huge numbers of people.

It was a very non threatening and stimulating way to explore some of life’s big questions and I really appreciated the friendships and connections we formed over the 12 weeks.

David and I arranged to meet up at his house. He had brewed some coffee and we both brought our thermos mugs and we walked and talked for about an hour and a quarter around the streets of East Belfast. Foundation Church was planted just over a year ago and aims to connect people, who have never really had a church connection, with a living faith in Jesus. They are looking for ways to point others to Jesus and see transformation and healing in people’s lives as they encounter Him.

As we drank coffee and walked and talked, it struck me that we are about the same thing. Our respective churches may worship in different styles, but we want to reach our local community and beyond with the hope that is found in Jesus. The diversity of churches and worship styles, that people can currently experience online, helps those who are searching for faith to explore different possibilities. David and his church saw Alpha as a tool to point others to Christ and worked together using technology to make this opportunity available to people. He offered to help me to run a course online and gave some advice and guidance from their experience. He also agreed to come and speak at one of our Advent services in December. As we prayed for each other and went our separate ways, I felt inspired and challenged at the outward focus of his newly planted church community.

As we prepare to return to in church worship next Sunday we, too, will be getting used to using new technology to present our services to a wider audience who will be able to stream the services from their homes if they cannot come in person. Although we feel sad that we can’t sing at present, and we have many regulations to comply with, there are new opportunities as we look outwards. 

I was encouraged by the vision of Haggai in last Sunday’s reading as he encouraged the people in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

We trust God for the future as we return to worship in church together. While we recognise it will look different to what we are used to, we pray for the new opportunities available to us.

Would you like to be part of a team that helps to offer Alpha online this autumn? It’s a 12 week commitment, but maybe God is inviting you to be a part of introducing Him to someone who knows little of His love and grace? Maybe you’d like to explore this course for yourself and go deeper in your faith. If you’d be willing to help to lead discussion in a group or to participate and, remember, it will be from the comfort of your own home please, drop an email to jonopierce@btinternet.com. Each session should last an hour and we hope to commence in early September.

Let’s be inspired by people like Anthony, Zac, David and others who help us to look beyond ourselves and look outwards as we explore what it is to be a ‘church without walls’. 

Our parish prayer meeting will be happening on Thursday at 7pm. If you’d like to be part of it you need to download the Zoom application and send an email to zoomtostfinnian@btconnect.com.

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,