Old dogs, Old tricks

I bought a bike. It is a bit of an old heap, rust here and there betraying its age and some neglectful ownership. I wouldn’t mind betting it belonged to a teenager who left it out in the rain. Its gears are a bit clanky too. It only has three, but sometimes it slips from one to another of its own volition which can be a bit disconcerting when going up a hill and suddenly you find you are pedalling like mad and getting nowhere!

Its main virtue is that it folds in the middle. There is a little lever which you pull up and a nut to undo, and hey presto! You can fold the bike in half and stow it in the boot of the car! At least that was my desire and plan.

A few weeks ago, I visited my son Ben who lives in Tower Hamlets with his wife and six children. From time to time they will cycle en famille along the tow path of the Regents Canal near their home, down to the Thames and along the Thames Path to Canary Wharf. A spare bike was found for me and we all trundled merrily along, ringing our bells and generally endangering the population.

Wendy by ThamesIt was glorious fun! I had forgotten how much I enjoyed riding a bike! I did draw the line at having a small child strapped on a seat at the back as it drastically altered the balance; after all, we were cycling along a narrow path next to a canal, and I haven’t ridden for at least 20 years. But it is amazing that you get into the saddle and start pedalling and it all comes back…..just like, well riding a bike!

Cycling along on a sunny afternoon through Victoria Park, then on down past Mile End, on to Limehouse Basin and eventually the wide Thames itself you see London in a whole new way. There is a river culture: people sit on their barges patiently waiting at lock gates for the level to rise; wild roses and buttercups grow along the path where cottages once stood; twos and threes enjoy drinks and a fry up on the decks of little cruisers, or lie back listening lazily to Mozart as they chug along slowly in the afternoon sun, behind blocks of flats backing on to the river. Then suddenly you can see the iconic silhouettes of the Shard and the Gherkin and you are on the bank of the Thames itself, wide, majestic, with police launches and barges full of freight and pleasure boats carrying tourists down to Greenwich.

We arrived at a small park on the Isle of Dogs, and unpacked the picnic that had been carried in various panniers. While sausages were cooked on one of those disposable barbecues the kids ran around playing football or played on the slides and swings nearby. It was fabulous!

As we cycled back in the evening, I thought to myself, “I could do this! I could get a bike and cycle along the river.” I live on the other side of London in Kingston, further up river. The Thames path goes for miles! The trouble is, I live in Surbiton which necessitates travelling up a very long hill. The only thing to do is get a bike which I can fold and put in my car. Then I can park at the river, get it out and cycle along the flat path!

I looked in a few shops. They cost a fortune new. Eventually, Paul from Thailand who runs a second hand bike shop found this rather ancient beaten up old thing. However I don’t want anything fancy: just as long as it works. He wanted £45. I offered forty. “And a pump.”  “Done” he said after a proper show of reluctance, which I now strongly suspect hid unholy glee.

I rode it around the quiet streets a few times to get accustomed to it. Then yesterday, Saturday, was the day to try it out by the river! I managed to stuff it in the car eventually. It was harder getting it out; it is heavy as well as ungainly. I unfolded it and tightened the nut, and mounted my steed…oh no! The chain had fallen off! Forlornly I up-ended the bike and poked around getting oil all over my hands. This was the side I had forgotten from my youth: the perpetual problems of tyres, chains and brakes. I had no tools, no memory of how to get the chain back on!

Suddenly a welcome and cheerful voice said, “Everything OK?” A kind man and a lady cycling by came to my rescue and in seconds he had replaced the chain and the lady had given me a tissue to wipe my hands. At last I was on my way!

ThamesIt was everything I had hoped, and I felt very happy as I cycled along the tow path. The river looked beautiful, glinting in the sun. There were boats and locks, and pretty pubs, and neat gardens, and families wandering along, and rowing teams flashing by or pulling their boats out of the water to go and have a pint after an exhausting practice. There were swans and ducks, willow trees and clumps of wild yellow iris, shady banks and wide open spaces, and I felt exhilarated by the sights, the sun, and the speed, and the sound of the tyres swishing along.

So what is the point?  I am an elderly lady riding an elderly bike: nothing new. I am not an old dog learning new tricks, I am an old dog re-learning old tricks! Interesting that at nearly 70 I am enjoying doing what I did at the age of 10! I reflected as I rode back to the car, that its never too late to pick up things once enjoyed, often forgotten or crowded out.

The question I asked myself was: “Are there other things I used to do that have got crowded out for no very good reason?” In Revelation chapter 2, John the apostle reminds the church at Philadelphia that they have forgotten their first love. He doesn’t suggest they do anything new, find a new bandwagon to jump on, a new fad, a new method. He simply says, “Do the things you did at first.” I wonder what things he was referring to? Basic things such as praying, praising, prophesying? Speaking in tongues? Talking to people about Jesus? Keeping a journal? Taking time to give your wife a cuddle? Buying some flowers for your mother? Sending a card to someone to say you haven’t forgotten them? Making a pie for someone who needs cheering up?

These are things any old dog can do, and young ones too! Like riding a bike really.

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Return to Stoneleigh

Catalyst Festival picture

I wandered around in the damp early morning. Clumps of people were scattered around in their campsites, some wending their way in their dressing gowns to the shower blocks, tooth brushes and towels in hand. On the outer edges the trees were beautiful in their tender spring leaves, and the grass was lush and long.

I walked on, reminiscing. Ah yes! That was the building which the South Africans took over one year. It was actually hot that summer, there were lots of water fights. This is the parade ring where church teams played football matches, and here is the grassy area where we pitched some of the children’s tents for their morning activities.

It was all coming back. Great memories. Songs, laughter, kids running all over the place, the sound of teaching booming out from microphoned seminar tents and buildings, little groups under trees eating sandwiches and strumming guitars, huge queues eagerly waiting to rush into the evening meeting and save seats for their friends.

I walk by one of the large concreted areas designated as carparks, and hear again Nigel Ring’s voice, so courteously imploring naughty campers who haven’t yet complied with the regulations to “please take your cars off site to the car park.”

Such a strange nostalgic feeling to be back at what was once known as Stoneleigh Agricultural Showground now called simply Stoneleigh Park. Some of the most important and formative summers in our Newfrontiers History took place here, in the decade of 1991 to 2001. Many people heard God calling them into salvation, into fulltime service, into a deeper walk with him, into sacrificial giving, into relocating to church plant. Some left behind years of rebellion, some repented and returned from backsliding, many were healed, many were set free from various types of bondage.

I mused upon all this as I ambled around. I passed the immense long building which had originally been a cattle shed. This was where we held the main meetings until the last couple of years. We were able to get some 6,000 under one roof! But the main and abiding memory was of the strong smell of ammonia and dung which assailed the senses from the first moment of any Bible week! Somehow we tolerated it, and indeed, its pungency seemed to moderate as the week went by. Now I stood at the back and gazed down its length, remembering how thousands of chairs had to be shipped in, television monitors installed, a platform built and a PA system rigged up. Now it is just a dreary concrete and corrugated iron shell, and used for this weekend as an immense carpark. One plus though: the strong aroma of cow is no more!

I walked purposefully on now as I recognised the spot where Terry and I and our 5 children slept in the early years. A rabbit hopped through the weeds as I approached. Circling around, I chuckled to myself as I saw the familiar sign on the building: “Rare Breeds Survival Unit”.

I think that describes us pretty well really. I hope we don’t appear so tatty and run down though.

Enough nostalgia! I turned toward the big new complex of buildings which Catalyst was using for the third time. It was nearly time for the first meeting of the day. This was the festival weekend of the apostolic group Catalyst, led by David Devenish. Over 5,000 were camping or staying nearby from churches located all over the UK but also from Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Pakistan, and many European nations. Last night I had spoken with dear friends who have been experiencing harrowing circumstances in countries hostile to Christianity and also the hazards of military operations which have endangered lives. I was deeply impressed by their faith, zeal and cheerfulness.

“How did you live?” I asked of one whose family had been forced to flee with two little children and a four week old baby.

“We had a large family car, so we put as many of our possessions in it as we could and lived in it for a while.”

Not only did this family survive, they sought to encourage their church members who had also been forced out of their homes, and took initiatives to help and bless others with the result that people were saved and a church begun.
Terry interview

We were also privileged during the weekend to hear Andy who is leading a church planting team in a major Middle Eastern city. We listened in awe as he spoke of the cost involved in taking a young family on such a venture, and yet with red-hot passion unabated. Andrew Wilson, another speaker, was also as usual provocative and stimulating, colourful and relevant.

It was a joy to see people such as Jules Burt who led worship so ably and passionately, and Philip and Carol Wilthew, who had been mere nippers in those far off days of Stoneleigh Bible weeks! How wonderful to see so many who had been teenagers or kids in those days now mature Christian believers ably leading churches, or serving on church planting teams, or teaching, or taking responsibility in various capacities. Newfrontiers may have devolved into different apostolic spheres, but the same Spirit prevails and the same principles are being worked out; and although there were greater numbers at Stoneleigh when it was the only one of our Bible weeks, now with the proliferation of spheres and Newday there are now nearly as many people attending overall.

In each of the apostolic spheres around the world church planting is vigorously taking place, and in an increasing number of countries, so that Newfrontiers is represented in some 70+ nations. The mood at Catalyst was definitely one of joyful anticipation of more growth and manifestation of the Kingdom of God breaking out.

It’s good to look back sometimes, as long as it is with thankfulness and not through rose-coloured spectacles. The old days were great, but they were not the best: the best is yet to come!

“We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come!”

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of the band striking up; I must hurry to find my place. It seems somehow fitting that the speaker this morning is Terry Virgo. Yes!

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Autumn Mist

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I should be in Dubai. Instead I am shuffling through damp leaves in Richmond Park early on a misty autumn morning. The trees are russet and gold; the bracken, which was thick and green a few weeks ago, is limp, bruised and brown. The sky is cloud laden and mist hangs over Pen Ponds. Three stags, majestically antlered, strut across the grassy plain and disappear among the trees. All is still, save for a couple of walkers and their dogs. It is beautiful and peaceful, difficult to believe that this haven of calm is so near the frantic seething roar of London.

Mist. It distorts distance, blurs objects, obscures the sun, brings a slightly sombre ambience to the landscape. But it also adds a touch of mystery and magic. Trees reflected in the lake double their beauty, and the water merges with the sky.

I was supposed to be in Dubai where it is hot, hot , hot. No mist. Blue skies, sharp clearcut high rise towers thrusting up through the shimmering air. Sleek cars; the stream lined tube of the new metro train on its high rail; modern malls, all glass, gloss and glitter. Sand; camels; sea. It would have been fun and I am disappointed not to be there with all my friends from around the world at the Hub conference. But the sudden illness of a close relative changed my plans.

The misty fog of regret dulls my thinking and my mood. But as I walk in the quiet Autumn morning, I begin to appreciate the beauty around me. I notice things: colours of leaves, the rustling of them underfoot; the damp leafy smell; the swoop of geese landing on the lake; the clattering cry of a magpie. ” Live in the present,” I tell myself. “Don’t settle in regret, it robs you of joy.” It’s a choice.

Mist can make things beautiful as well as blurred and uncertain; for a while. It is not permanent. For now, we see through a glass darkly. But the mist will melt away, brightness will come. Then face to face; and we shall know things that right now are obscure. We don’t need to know all the answers , just trust that the One who knows all things is with us in the mist and he can see clearly.

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Stories of Grace

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Another airport; another check –in; another long security line. Once again we remove our shoes, belts, and jackets and place them in the plastic tray with our laptop and carry-on bags. We shuffle along, and get patted all over and X-rayed. We retrieve our possessions and get dressed again. Travel these days robs everyone of their dignity. We trail our bags down the hall, we drink bitter coffee from a cardboard cup. We get on another plane. An hour and a half later we disembark. We find the carousel and  pull our cases off.

We are met by a welcoming face  from the church we have come to serve this weekend, our last in this long trip in USA. In spite of the constant travel, moving from place to place, living out of our suit cases, and the many different beds we have slept in (twelve in 5 weeks!), we are so thankful for the loving and gracious people who have met us, shared their homes, driven us about, taken us out to eat and let us use their washing machines!

Now we are sitting in the pastor’s home, drinking coffee and eating wonderful home made pumpkin cookies. The leadership team is meeting, and we go round the circle each recounting the story of how they met Christ. We  don’t know these people yet, but our hearts are knit as we hear their unique and moving stories.

The first is an attractive lady in her sixties who tells us that she first encountered Jesus as a young mother whose marriage was in jeopardy., Her husband was in the navy and was living a dissolute life. She does not go into details but we are led to understand that things got pretty desperate. Then, amazingly, her husband got saved and changed completely! This led her to seriously seek God for herself. She was not only saved but the marriage was re-newed, and together they began to live for God. They have been married for 44 years now, and were able to raise their four children with Christian values.

The husband now tells the story from his side. As he simply states how far he was from God in those early days of marriage, his eyes fill with tears at the wonder of how God met him and changed him. I am impressed that he is so tender hearted that, forty years on, he is still moved by the memory.

As we go round the circle, I am struck by how few of these people had the benefit of what I would call a normal upbringing. In fact, out of the twelve or so  people I think I may be the only one who came from a stable home where both parents were Christians. One young woman sweetly told of her single mum hearing the gospel through a friend and going to church and after becoming a Christian, meeting a man who married her and adopted her daughter, who herself became a Christian at college. Her husband, who now tells his story, was the product of a marriage which ended in Germany when he was a child. The depleted family returned to America, his mother remarried and she and her new husband became Christians and took their family to church, where the boy responded to the Gospel.

Several were raised in Catholic homes and one spoke of his terror of dying and going to hell. He began to hate church and eventually refused to have anything to do with it. His life became a round of drugs and drinking. He went into the navy, and it was a fellow seaman who persistently (and insensitively at times!) shared the Gospel with him, leading him to Christ in Japan. His wife now tells how she responded to the Gospel at a camp, literally around the campfire. She seems apologetic that this is a bit of a cliché, but it was nonetheless real! She and her husband met in  Okinawa.

Another lady shares how she had no interest in the Lord or church. She appeared to be a party girl, successful and bright but in reality was lonely and depressed. A girl at work who it appeared was not a very good representative of the Lord in most respects, insisted on sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with her, which though it had no immediate effect, stuck in her mind. Then one day when she was at a very low ebb, even contemplating ending it all, she turned on the TV and  found she was watching Pat Robertson on TBN. As he simply expounded the Gospel she was utterly transfixed and sobbed her way into the kingdom.

What stuck out to me was how Jesus met all these people in various stages of brokenness, rebellion, and need. He came down unorthodox channels, through imperfect people who did not witness very efficiently. Nearly all said they did not understand much of the Gospel at first, but sort of stumbled into the Kingdom, knowing something momentous was happening to them, but only later adding understanding and theology to their experience. They are now in the church leadership team, passionate for the church to grow and for many to come to Christ; to build God honouring families, even adopting babies into already large families.

 

No wonder  they have named their church “Redeemer”, for they have been redeemed, cleansed and sanctified through the blood of the Lamb. It is the vulnerable  and broken who humble themselves, acknowledging their need of a Saviour and receiving God’s restoring grace  who know what redemption is all about. Everywhere we go we hear similar stories, and it is a precious thing to hear how other believers have come to faith. It makes all the travelling more than worthwhile!

 

Photograph by Art4thrglryofgod

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Travellers Joy

There is a shrub found in the hedgerows of Britain which goes by various names, one of which is Traveller’s Joy. In the autumn it adorns the bushes with thick curly grey fluffy flowers. I don’t know how or why it acquired its name of traveller’s joy.

Travelling has its joys, but often they are obscure: not really pretty, fluffy grey, but sometimes they hold an unexpected delight.

So: we are in California in a church in south Los Angeles. We have had some great times and meetings, Terry preaching powerfully. Two meetings on Sunday morning, and we know we have to leave promptly after the second to drive to the airport for the next leg of our trip. The preacher gets a bit carried away and so we leave 15 mins late. Travellers occupational hazard.

A handsome young man who is the living spit of Denzil Washington drives us as fast as the heavy traffic will allow. On the freeway he has to brake sharply and the car behind hits us. As soon as possible, Denzil pulls over and assesses the damage. Miraculously, apart from a minor scratch, there is none. Traveller’s relief! We proceed to LAX.

Our tickets indicate we are to fly with Alaskan Airline. Denzil locates it in terminal 6 and we say goodbye. We stand in line to check in….only to be told that we are in the wrong terminal. OK. We trundle our heavy suitcases out on to the sidewalk and walk a considerable distance to terminal 4. Traveller’s irritation.

The nice lady at the desk informs us that oh dear! It is now too late to get on that flight, but she will check our bags and puts us on stand by for the next one.

Traveller’s disappointment.

This is slightly worrying as Terry is scheduled to preach at an evening meeting in a town called Visalia. We get on a shuttle to go to the gate, which strangely, is located  back in terminal 6 where we originally went. The next flight is full, and there is no guarantee that the 7.30 pm flight will have gaps. Sigh. Traveller’s frustration.

What to do? Have a sandwich. While we are eating it, Terry  gets a call from John Lanferman on the phone who is also visiting Visalia for the church conference. He has an idea. If we can get to Burbank airport, we can get a ride in a small private plane! Wow! Traveller’s hope!

outside plane

The taxi costs over $100 and it takes an hour for the Latvian taxi driver to locate the place  in Burbank, but eventually we find it and are met by a cheerful young pilot and a pastor. Eagerly we look for our private plane and are pointed in the direction of a dear little toy plane about the size of a fruit basket on wheels. Surely not. Yikes. Traveller’s terror.

We crawl in. The door is shut, and we taxi down the runway and take off travelling North. Far over to the west the Pacific shimmers in the evening sun. We float along high above forests, lakes, mountain ranges and desert. It is wonderful! Travellers totally unexpected delight!

in plane

An hour later  we land smoothly at Visalia just as the sun drops  behind the horizon the rays flaming over the evening clouds. We unfold ourselves and climb out, to be greeted by our dear friends John and Linda. We hurry to the waiting church. We have never met them before, but their loving welcome and the peace of God’s presence  in the  beautiful worship envelops us .

Traveller’s Joy.

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Mountains

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I have been to the top of a few mountains in my time. Some I have actually climbed or walked up, such as Snowden in Wales and Table Mountain in South Africa. Others  I have reached by cable car: Untersberg in Austria, Table Mountain again; and some have been accessible by car, such as Mount Rainier in Washington State USA, and Pikes peak, Colorado.

We have gazed with fascination at the devastated landscape around Mt. St Helens, relished vistas of snow covered Alps, and hung on with whitened knuckles on the nail-biting ride up the Road to the Sun  in the Glacier National Park in Montana, USA

I envy my sister Jo who regularly walks the Pennines and has climbed all the Munroes in Scotland. She is one of the ilk who would say, “If it’s there, climb it!”

But you don’t have to be a seasoned climber to enjoy the exhilaration of standing on a peak looking out over a panorama spread before you receding into misty blue ridges, lakes and forests. Even those who find heights make them nervous love to see a great view!

Terry and I have been spending a few days in Wales, and have marvelled at the wild rugged grandeur of Snowdonia: awesome precipices, soaring pinnacles, jagged silhouettes, ridges, folds and plunging waterfalls. Aren’t you glad the world ain’t flat?

Moses went up a mountain to meet God. A cloud settled over the mountain, lightning flashed and the Voice of God thundered. No wonder the Israelites were terrified! From Mount Sinai the Ten Commandments issued forth.

Mount Carmel was the scene of the mighty contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. A couple of years ago, Terry and I stood on that mountain and understood how strategic that location was. The mountain is surrounded by a vast plain and anything happening on top of it would be visible for miles. Fire falling from Heaven onto the altar on its summit must have been dramatic indeed.

Some centuries later, Moses and Elijah appeared together on top of a mountain: maybe Carmel again, maybe Mt Tabor. Peter, James and John  had gone up there with Jesus. It was an extraordinary coming together of Moses who represented the Law, the Old Covenant; Elijah who represented the Prophets, the voice of God speaking to his people; and Jesus, the Messiah they had both dimly foreseen who embodied a New covenant, and who was the Word of God.

Awestruck, the disciples saw these mighty figures radiant with light conversing together.  Later Peter would write that they were eye witnesses of “his glory on the sacred mountain.”

But one place often poetically described as a mountain was only a little heap. Artistic impressions, stained glass windows, pictures and films have traditionally depicted it dramatically elevated and illuminated against a menacing dark sky surmounted by three crosses. In reality it is barely a hill and is now the site of a bus station outside the walls of Jerusalem: Calvary. Just a pathetic mound, a rock formation that looks a bit like a skull when the light strikes it and casts shadows.

Disappointing? Sort of. The arena of the most significant event in history should at least, you feel, have a setting suitably grand. Eyes should be drawn upwards in awe, there should be a sacred hush in a place imbued with solemnity. Instead, battered buses come chugging in throwing out fumes, the bustle of traffic surges past uncomprehending, unaware. This is where the Son of God was crucified.

And yet. How eloquent. The Servant King came down to our level. He did not demand that we climb despairingly, trying to reach some unattainable peak. The Law, given on Mount Sinai, had already shown the impossibility of being good enough to reach God by our own strenuous efforts.

“There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.

He only could unlock the gate of Heaven, and let us in.”

The Word made flesh came from the highest heights and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. He walks with us in our highs and lows; he lifts us from our quagmires of sin and sorrow to reign with him in Heavenly places.

 

Photograph by Thomas Webster

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One on One with a church planter’s wife

A few months ago, Terry and I were in the beautiful city of Masstricht in the Netherlands. Our church in Maastricht is lead by Bert de Hoop. Whilst Terry interviewed Bert, I spent some time chatting with his wife, Mariam (in front of a camera too!)

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