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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

Volunteering to bless

Doing my 9k run yesterday morning I came across the first litter picker on Swanpool Lane at precisely 1k. Then just 300 metres later, at the far end of Victoria Avenue, another two, showing equal determination and diligence. I hadn’t realised it at the time but now that I have gone online I discover these three litter pickers were part of a larger community event organised by a local councillor. And as volunteers clearing up their own neighbourhood they were going beyond what could be expected of a regular council worker, delving deep into thick laurel bushes (even onto private land). I totally agree with Bill Bryson when he says “As I see litter as part of a long continuum of anti-social behaviour.” I’ll be volunteering next time. Increasingly this is the name of the game for many of our community services, no longer being offered by our local council. The seafront gardens in Waterloo, which were maintained to a very high standard in my childhood, fell into disrepair as Sefton Council tried to balance its books. Now they are maintained by volunteers enabled by Facebook. Similarly Crosby beach, famous today for Antony Gormley’s iron men, is regularly cleaned by volunteers – to a much higher standard than I can recall. Libraries and community centres too are now being staffed not by Council employees but by local residents freely offering their time. And not just the gap left by cash-strapped local government. My childhood cinema in Crosby is run by volunteers. And today the Plaza offers a service which surpasses anything when it was merely a commercial exercise. Sadly people may have been made redundant in jobs which no longer exist but the rise of the volunteer has to be of huge benefit both to the wider community and to the volunteers themselves. “Volunteers do not necessarily have the time,” observes writer Elizabeth Andrew, “they just have the heart.” All this means that we need to encourage volunteers, people who are motivated by more than money. You can pay for someone to provide caring services but you can’t pay for someone to care, to care from the heart. Always a dilemma in government social policy. And here Christians have much to give, volunteering appreciably more than non-religious people as detailed in a recent Community Life Survey published by the nattily named Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Moreover, Pew Research’s 2017 report, Being Christian in Western Europe, showed that stronger religious affiliation, as measured by attendance at religious services, correlates with a greater civic engagement. You would expect nothing less for followers of Jesus who calls us to be salt and light in our communities. But it is not just that Christians as individuals care more, there is another dynamic at work, what the American political scientist, Robert Putnam, refers to as ‘bonding social capital’ and what the New Testament calls the church. “God planned for us to do good things and to live as he has always wanted us to live” writes the apostle Paul. “That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are.” (Ephesians 2:10 CEV) For belonging to a church allows a higher degree of commitment. As Simeon Burke points out in a Theos report, “The long–term presence of many churches in a local area means that they form an essential link between the voluntary sector and those individuals which charities seek to serve and help.” In other words, if you want to set up a food bank, there is already a network of relationships in place in the church. You are not a lone ranger. Moreover, churches he argues show resilience over time, given the financial and political pressures reshaping our nation. The chances are that the local church has been there for generations, even for 700 years in the case of my son-in-law’s church in Cheshire. To say the obvious church is important and how we belong is significant. We turn up, regularly and without fuss. Each Sunday. At the moment I am preparing to take the Lent course at Christ Church, Bedford, where my daughter is a member. In fact, I did the promotional video only this Monday. I don’t really want to show you the result but here it is anyway: (With a bit of luck, hopefully the link will not work) The aim of the course is to develop rhythms and routines in our everyday lives to give God the space he needs so that we become mature in Christ. For week two we will be looking at the discipline of belonging, essentially the importance of regular attendance at church services. We all realise that Sunday services can be a challenge, certainly in this individualistic age. In fact, it was Robert Putnam, whom I mentioned earlier, who coined the phrase ‘bowling alone” as he observed the decline in ten-pin bowling as a team sport. However, there is simply no substitute for regular participation in church worship if we are to grow as Christians. As a spiritual discipline it is, I believe, an essential, if we are to be Christ for this lonely litter-strewn world. As pastor Joel Osteen points out; “You can be committed to Church but not committed to Christ, but you cannot be committed to Christ and not committed to church.”

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