We're just back from our annual visit to New Wine. That's not, as a friend once thought, a festival of tasting the latest Bordeaux vintage. It's in fact an association of churches and church-leaders who believe that the divine person of the Holy Spirit was neglected in the life of the Church - much to its detriment. Every year they hold annual conferences near Shepton Mallet and Newark in England, attended by about 30,000 people, plus more in other countries. A week ago on Sunday we had tea with one of my oldest school friends, Alan, and his wife, Jo. It's many years since I've seen them and Jane had never met them. Jo, as it turned out, had visited New Wine for one day the week before. In an email later she wrote:
"...Would love to know how you found it.
I'll follow what you write on your blog…"
With that challenge etched on my mind, this posting is dedicated to you, Jo! However, I'm going to try and explain how I found it for those of you who may be sceptical or "iffy" about the whole faith thing, and especially of what's been conveniently and quite inaccurately caricatured as "happy-clappy religion". So here goes.
First I have to say this is not the assessment of a brief in-out journalistic foray. I reckon we've been going for the last seven or eight years. For some years we went with members of our church and since retiring we've "freelanced". So I suppose you could say we've had some in-depth exposure. Secondly, although I try to see the best in people, I'm not an utter sucker. My critical faculties haven't retired. So I have seen some imperfections in some vintages - but this year, in my opinion, was an impressive one. Not that it started that way for either Jane or me. Maybe we were tired, but, if we were, we were more tired when we left. For me the visibility was poor and the music was too loud in the main venue. Fortunately there was an escape route in the form of the Olympics marquee which was streaming various channels most of the time - not that Great Britain got off to a good start either. In the mornings we opted for the second main venue where the music didn't seem so loud and cheerful Scottish pastor from Northern Ireland, called Scott, was talking about the book Ephesians, which might not sound that interesting, but proved to be extremely so. Alan Scott's theme, which echoed that of the book, was that the Church's rôle was to love the world as God does and in fact to take that love out to communities and society. There was no quarter for a cosy clique mentality. It was a call for social engagement at every level, starting with individuals. Although I concurred with the sentiments, I can't say I was stirred.
By the Wednesday when we drove to Sidmouth to celebrate her father's 90th, both Jane and I were, as it transpired, separately feeling this would be our New Wine swan song. We stay in a delightful self-catering cottage within easy reach of the showground, but it's an early start and a late finish. On the site - it's where the Bath and West Agricultural Show takes place - Jane pushes me in my wheelchair over rough tracks, up awkward ramps, across grass and it's hard work. The previous week had enjoyed glorious sunshine; our week had quite a lot of rain - and so sometimes Jane was splashing through streams in her flip-flops. (It was fine for me, of course, six inches in the air!) We were, I think, both feeling our ages and not inspired enough to make the effort again. It would have taken either one of us to suggest staying in for the night to keep us from going in for the evening that day.... But, as Mr Scott memorably invited us to tell the person sitting next to us (only Jane, in my case - what a relief!), "Your but is too small."
What happened that evening? Well, there were two of my favourite worship songs, "Amazing Grace (My chains are gone)" and "Bless the Lord, O my soul (10,000 Reasons)", and certainly a challenging talk given by Charlotte Gambill from Bradford's Abundant Life Church. But Jane had a personal spiritual experience and I was prayed for, and from then on things were different. There had been a seismic "But". I think it's reasonable to believe it was a "But God" - and that's for two reasons: first, that we'd not gone with any expectations or even hopes. We'd not turned up wishing for some special revelation; in fact, I'd say it was rather the opposite, a bit disgruntled and a bit sceptical. I even stuck ear-plugs in to damp down the invasive music! And Jane had commented that she didn't want to be challenged that evening. We weren't exactly suggestible. Secondly, neither of us invited what we experienced. It came "out of the blue". I should explain that New Wine has a tradition of "ministry", that is inviting people to come forward to be prayed for, usually at the end of a meeting. I'm not averse to the practice. But neither of us felt inclined to that evening. God, it appears, simply and unexpectedly responded to Jane's personal prayer before it was completed where she was standing, and afterwards sent some stranger to embrace her sadnesses. I was heading to leave, unprayed for, when a friend of Jane's and two others asked if they might pray with me. I don't remember their prayers, but I do recall the sense of God caring about me, that he'd not consigned me to the scrapheap - which that night was important in view of Jane's being "surprised by joy".
That's not the end of the story by any means. However it did mark a sea-change for me - which, as it turned out, was a good thing.
My sleep was not the best that night, in that I woke quite a bit. But next morning I seemed none the worse, and we headed up the road again for another day of chance encounters and planned sessions. This time Alan Scott’s teaching stirred me more, and he showed this uncanny knack, or sensitivity to God’s voice, of knowing what was wrong with people. No doubt cynics would say that simply on the law of averages in a group of more than a thousand you’re bound to have a number of people who’ve had reconstructive surgery and have metal causing them problems. But it was more specific than that. It did occur to me in this connection that second-hand accounts aren’t sufficient. Even seeing miracles with your eyes still leaves room for disbelief. I could tell you of individuals I saw doing things they couldn’t previously, people out of pain for the first time, scar-tissue restored, but I don’t suppose it would convince you - but then I don’t believe that was the point at all. If miracles have a point, it is, I think, to show the individual that the God who loves the cosmos also cares about them. And that is something which is very hard to credit.
I hesitate to tell you about my own minor miracle which happened the next morning. Although I describe it as “minor”, I have to say its impact on me has been major. There’s a phrase in the prophecy which Jesus applied to his mission: “to bestow on them... a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”. You’ll understand that deep in diseases like MND lurks “a spirit of despair”. For me it’s symbolised in the longing to dance. My friend, Louise, who has Muscular Dystrophy, introduced me to the song by Lee Ann Womack “I hope you dance”:
“Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance I hope you dance.”
I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but when someone crossed the aisle and asked me to dance, to be honest, my mind freaked out. “You’re joking me, aren’t you?” I thought to myself. “Have you any idea what’s wrong with me? You’re not very tall, are you? Do you know I had a fall this morning and it took three people to get me back on my feet? You must be joking.” I’ve no doubt my fear was obvious in my eyes, as I desperately looked at Jane to rescue from this madness. However, Heather didn’t seem phased in the least. “I think I’ve heard God telling me, ‘Go and ask that man over there to dance with you.’” She didn’t look mad, I must say; just kind and calm. As she and Jane helped me to my feet on rigid legs, she said with a smile, “I am a physio. I won’t let you fall. Don’t worry.” Easier said than done! Yet it wasn’t too many minutes before I did stop worrying, and actually relaxed! She held me in a waltz hold. I admit my leg muscles were obdurate, but I can find no better expression than that my spirit danced - which is something I have not for a long time, if ever, experienced - a simple sense of being in time and in tune with praise. I discovered that it’s possible to stand and enjoy worship, even with a body like mine. And I trust that if and when the time comes that my body cannot stand at all my spirit will still dance. I’m told I was standing there doing the soft shoe shuffle for more than ten minutes. Sadly Heather was leaving before the last day, and so that was my one and only dancing lesson, but not my only trusting lesson, of New Wine.
My reflections for my sceptical self (who has admittedly shrunk) include these: what on earth possesses someone to think of dancing with a stranger she’s only seen from behind in a tilt-in-space wheelchair (i.e. which shows his muscles are feeble)? What gives her the courage to go and ask him? And to risk being rebuffed? Now the obvious thing would be to pray for healing. But where did this very specific insight come from? I wasn’t sitting there at that moment wishing I was dancing. No one else was jigging about. It wasn’t a case of mind-reading - from behind! It was almost as if someone knew better than myself what I most needed. After all, physical healing, great though it would be, would at best be temporary - and, I hasten to say, I’m up for a cure whether through scientists or intercessors anytime - but to dance in worship would last somewhat longer. So, sceptical me, what’s the answer? (Sotto voce) I guess it must be God - and a woman who trusted. And what confirms that answer is the change from the shadow of hopelessness to hope, which you may recall is one of the three great gifts of the Holy Spirit which Paul writes about, “Now faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.” Hope says, You have a future, and it’s a good one.
However, as Alan Scott enjoyed saying, “And if that was all, it would have been good....” But it wasn’t. I lost count of the signs of God’s concern after that, like the chiropractor who prayed with us in the car park. Two final incidents are enough. On the last morning our great friends, Anne and David, were up as day visitors. They’ve been friends many years and been great encouragers to say the least. Before we came home in the mid-afternoon, we were in the worship venue and I wanted to stand to sing, with Jane on my left. Suddenly David came on my right and supported me. I could think of few better scenarios, in worship between good friend and best of wives!
|The man in the wheelchair wearing a green top|
The last scene to report happened a few hours earlier. We were on the way out of Venue 2 when one steward asked us if we wanted prayer. Jane said no; I said yes, as there’d been mention of backs needing realignment. As people know I’ve developed a right-hand list, caused by weak muscles. I’d noticed it when I “danced” the day before. So, duly closing my eyes, I was prayed for by a couple of helpers and felt heat down my back. I’m not making a claim about the result, but what happened when I opened my eyes was this. I was faced by serried ranks of children. They were a group from the Rock Solid children’s club, who’d been looking for a man in a wheelchair wearing a green top to pray for. Why? Because in their group they’d been looking for “treasure”, i.e. asking God what he wanted them to go out and do. And that was what they “heard” him saying. And there they’d found their treasure. Would I mind them praying for me? Of course not. So Jane explained what was wrong, and some of them prayed for me. Again the sceptical could find ways to explain away the specifics of the “word” they had. I was simply moved, and stood in appreciation.
I have to say that, even in the euphoria of Great Britain’s medal success in the Olympics, I find the impact of the kingdom of God (as theologians call it), as I experienced it last week, as even better. What the week was trying to say and model was that God whose creation is the universe wants to communicate with and cares for every individual, whoever they are and whatever their needs. That’s exceedingly exciting. Furthermore it showed that human distinctions, such as gender and colour, class and education, are irrelevant in the "kingdom". What matters is the One who is at the centre. It's a very liberated and liberating world, which is worth finding. And I have to say that it's clear to me that an outbreak, or perhaps I mean "inbreak", of that kingdom would, and I trust will, be even better than a permanent Olympic summer.