It’s that time of year again when we take a look at last year and share some of our hopes for this year.
The highlight for us in 2021 was the mission in Water Eaton in June. We had Covid restrictions, which meant that we couldn't invite people onto the boats, and we couldn't have indoor events or sing in pubs. However, the Lord gave us some wonderful weather, with glorious sunshine most of the time. We were able to sing, as we were outside, and for many it was the first time for several months that we were able to worship together. As we sang our praises under the poplar trees in the park, we heard birds joining in with their beautiful songs in the branches above our heads. It was a special time.
On the first Saturday evening, we met in the park and we led four songs, and Sue Smith spoke powerfully about heaven and what happens when we die. At least three couples had lost sons or daughters, and at least three people had lost husbands or wives. We closed with a song called Endless Hallelujah, by Matt Redman. It was a precious moment, and everyone was quiet for a while afterwards.
No more tears, no more shame.
No more sin and sorrow ever known again.
No more fears, no more pain.
We will see You face to face.
See You face to face.
And we will worship, worship.
Forever in Your presence we will sing.
We will worship, worship You.
An endless hallelujah to the King.
Phil and Anne, our church leaders from Broughton Church, Aylesbury, came to see what was happening at the Mission. The church had lent Beacon, their trip boat, to Canal Ministries for the week. Phil had done a lot of the fitting out of the boat, and was keen to see how it was being used by the Canal Ministries team. They went on one of the boat trips, and shared the boat with some needy people, who had received the invitation through the food bank run by a local church.
People in poverty have little opportunity for leisure activities, and chatting to these people, Phil and Anne came to realise that this trip was a real blessing to this family. A highlight in otherwise difficult circumstances. Since that experience, the focus for Beacon has widened to offer skippered trips to people who need a blessing, rather than just encouraging church members to use it and take friends out.
Despite the Covid limitations, we spoke to many people on the towpath and in the park, and good conversations were had over cups of tea or coffee. There are plans to hold another mission in the same place this year, hopefully with less restrictions. After the week of mission, we headed south down the Grand Union. We met up with a friend from church by the reservoirs in Marsworth, and were sitting out on the towpath enjoying some sunshine. A group of walkers came past and spotted the Christian symbols on our boat. As a result of the ensuing conversation, James has been asked to speak at a men's dinner in February. The subject will be “Life on the canals”, which will include some personal testimony, a few stories, and an introduction to the work of Canal Ministries.
A few days later, a guy on a bike spotted our Christian symbols, and started singing a Hare Krishna song as he cycled past. We find all varieties of faiths on the canals. We often see a Buddha on the top of a boat, and we are tempted to ask why it is there. Are they Buddhists? Perhaps they feel it gives them a sense of peace? Or is it just an ornament easily available from a garden centre? There may be other reasons. One day we’ll go along a line of boats and do a little survey.
One good thing to come out of the pandemic is the discovery of the technology that enables us to connect to others online. We have been able to watch our own church's live stream on a Sunday, and we have been able to take part in a life group via Zoom. In previous years, we have been away from our church for months at a time. Usually, we visit a different church each week, but churches were mostly closed last year.
We often ask for divine appointments, wanting to be in the right place at the right time. On one such occasion we had spent the night on some moorings on the Thames in Shepperton. We had planned to make a leisurely start, but James suddenly had the urge to leave straight away, even before Hazel had finished her breakfast. There are two branches of the Thames at this point, either side of Desborough Island, and we headed upstream past the end of the island, crossing the other channel, and found a space on the visitor mooring at Weybridge. We secured the boat, and James had just started chatting to another boater, when a boat came down through Shepperton Lock. It was our friends Simon and Pat on Daedalus. How good it was to see them! They turned and came alongside us, and we went on board for a cup of tea. If James hadn’t suddenly been prompted to depart early this morning, we would have missed them, as they were going to go down Desborough Cut to Walton, instead of round the back of the island to Shepperton, where we had been.
We took a side trip from the Thames, up the Wey Navigation to Guildford and Godalming and back. As we used to moor on the Wey, we took the opportunity to meet up with friends we hadn't seen for a while, as well as paying a visit to our old church in Weybridge.
We often chat to people at locks, and we give out “Bertie the Boat” leaflets to children, and “How do locks work?” for adults. Other literature might follow, such as “Why Jesus?” or a New Testament. Sometimes we make new friends, and we met a couple in Guildford, to whom we related very well. We were invited aboard their boat, and we discovered that we had several friends in common. Both boats were going up the Thames and then up the Oxford Canal, but we were travelling at different speeds, so we never properly connected again. However, while moored in Oxford, a few weeks later, we had a knock on the boat, and it was our friends! They had come by car for a meal at a nearby pub, and spotted our boat. We are now in touch and hope to meet up again in the future.
We went up stream on the Thames to the head of navigation at Lechlade, before returning to Oxford and heading up the Oxford Canal. We returned via Braunston and the Grand Union to Aylesbury. Since arriving back, we have been able to be hosts on a skippered trip on Beacon for people from our local food bank. Jesus said it is better to give to to receive. It is certainly lovely to be able to give our time in this way.
We are involved in our church in Aylesbury, where we are part of the worship team, and we belong to a life group. We also stay in touch with the boaters in the canal basin, where we get together most Friday evenings. Three of them have visited our church, which meets in the Canal Society function room.
Looking forward to 2022, our boating plans are uncertain. We will take part in the mission at Water Eaton, Milton Keynes, and then we will head north up the Grand Union. We are not sure yet which way we will turn when we reach Norton Junction, but wherever we find ourselves, we will be praying for divine appointments, and opportunities to share our stories and our faith.
In His Name
James and Hazel Bell
Canal Ministries - sharing God's Love on the Inland Waterways.