Friday, 4 March 2016

'The winter is over'

Entering the hall
Every two years the Harrogate Conference Centre is the meeting place for church leaders connected through the New Wine movement. This week I was up there with colleagues from St John's, others from our local New Wine leaders' network and about 1700 others. There is the same sense of anticipation that we are going to meet with God in a significant way as I imagine the pilgrims that went up to the Temple in Jerusalem must have had. The design of the Centre is both imaginative and functional as staircases have been replaced with a helix-like walkway - imagine a carpeted helter-skelter. As you circle round getting higher and higher there is a sense of progressing to some greater degree of glory.

The speakers brought us encouragement and challenge. Encouragement by hearing what God can do and is doing round the world; challenge particularly in the area of the inner and hidden life of the leader. 'Consecration' was a word used several times in relation to the leader's life: make sure, as leaders, that our personal lives are in the right place with God so that our public lives are lived with integrity. It was a message of particular poignancy following the news that the Chair of the New Wine Trustees, Mark Bailey, has had to stand down due to a clergy disciplinary matter being considered by the Bishop of Gloucester. John Coles spoke eloquently and with grace about what happens when a 'bomb' like that drops on the church.

We were encouraged by Nicky Gumbel with the story of Abraham who is described in the bible being 'as good as dead', yet trusted God for the promise of a son - Isaac. Many say today that the church is 'as good as dead' but Nicky encouraged us to believe like Abraham that it's never too late to dream dreams, and that the church will not die.

Justin Welby: 'The winter is over'.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, encouraged us with the words: "The winter is over; spring is coming." From his extensive travels in the UK and round the world he is optimistic about the troubled and uncertain times in which we live. It's a time of 'rough seas with windy weather', but, as a keen sailor, Archbishop Justin felt that this is the ideal context for the church to proclaim the only real certainty of Jesus Christ. As God's people we are forgiven and loved, we are called to be faithful, we are called to be holy (consecrated).

Brother Edward, his church in Damascus
We were profoundly moved by Brother Edward who leads a church in Damascus. The ambassadors are leaving Syria, he told us, but 'God's ambassadors' (i.e. the church) are remaining. We were moved by Br Edward's steadfastness in the face of so much evil, hatred and darkness that has swept through Syria. He spoke about the number of his church members who had been killed by bombs or abducted by terrorists almost as we might complain about something as routine as getting stuck in a traffic jam. It's impossible to comprehend the terrible situation that he and others minister in, but with the help of Open Doors he continues to minister to hurting and traumatised people who have lost members of their family to terrorist violence, children who have lost limbs because of bombs, families whose house have been ransacked or blown up by ISIS. Most poignant of all were pictures drawn by children expressing how they felt about the situation, but also expressing the hope that those who are now enemies might one day play football together. In a moment that just felt right - no pressure or manipulation - we had an opportunity not just to pray but to give financially, and from 1700 people the amazingly generous amount of £107,000 was collected to go to Open Doors. For £70 one family can be fed and housed for month. That is what I spent on petrol travelling to and from Harrogate.

A child's expression of the evil in Syria: his father abducted, houses bombed, yet hope that enemies will one day play football together
Mark Batterson from National Community Church in Washington DC also spoke about the need to consecrate ourselves as leaders, as did Kate Coleman who gave Moses as as an example of the inner life of the leader. Charlotte Gambill used the example of Elijah - tired and worn out, asleep under a tree ready to give up. God told him simply to eat something. "Where are we feeding?" was the question; how are we feeding our inner life as leaders so we can lead others, and how are we looking to 'cast our mantle' over the next generation of leaders? I am now asking the Lord to give me the names of the those in the church who might be potential new leaders in his church.

The times of worship at New Wine events are intense - even physically tiring! Personally I find the songs are pitched awkwardly to sing, but through music and song the intention is to build a meeting place - a temple - where God can meet with his people through his Spirit.

I enjoy these New Wine events as an opportunity to catch up with people who I've trained with, worked with and grown up with over the years. John Hughes, who as the curate of St Stephen's East Twickenham, is one of those 'saints' to whom I owe such a debt of gratitude in my journey of faith. Now he's retired, but still active. It was lovely to remind each other of what God has done over the last 40 years.

As if to illustrate the Archbishop's words the ground was covered in snow on Wednesday morning, but by the time we left on Thursday there was a warmer wind blowing. I came away with a renewed love for God and for his church.

The motto of New Wine is 'Local Churches Changing Nations'. I pray that we will make a difference in Old Coulsdon - that we will help God's kingdom to come in the lives of the people who live and work here, and in the time that I've got left I will be part of that work.

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