Stories of Grace

cross

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

mount snowdon

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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New Spheres

wendy

Once a year my three sisters and I try to get together for a few days. Scattered as we are across the UK it provides a great opportunity for fun, fellowship, recalling our childhood days and sharing news  of our children and grandchildren.

And so a starry night in August found us lying on the grass at Angela’s house in Yeovil gazing up at the twinkling lights, hoping to see shooting stars or ignited bits of space debris. The conversation went something like this:

“There’s a satellite!”

“It’s not, it’s a plane”

“Look, a shooting star!”

“Missed it again, I never see them!”

“Speaking of celestial spheres, which one has your church joined?”

“Don’t you mean “apostolic”? Hope we are still firmly on the ground!”

“So which one are you in then?”

“Well, it used to be up north, but it’s more central now. Grand Central I think.”

“Isn’t that in New York?”

“No you can get to it from Euston.”

“Oh. Like the one we’ve joined, the Underground….or is it Groundswell? Ground something…(sings) “Underground, Overground, wombling free…” Something to do with being near Wimbledon Common perhaps.”

“Groundsheet? Ground beef?”

“No, that’s MacDonalds.”

“They’ve gone all ecological haven’t they? MacDonalds I mean.”

“Oh I thought you meant that sphere that’s gone West: Confusion.”

“It’s more political than that; Coalition, that’s it.”

“Sounds like an accident, two spheres colliding. Do the leaders have to wear yellow ties?”

“No, they never wear ties, but I’ve seen them wear yellow wellies, at that camp in the west.”

“Oh, that was at Emission! Told you it was ecological.”

“You’re getting muddled with the Midlands lot, you know, Analyst. They have all the brainy scientific churches there.”

“Analyst sounds a bit introverted; not very outgoing. Not like Radical Mission”

“You mean Relational.”

“Aren’t we all though? “Relational Values”, that’s what it is. No, hold on, “Friends and Relations.”

“Must’ve got that wrong! That’s from Winnie the Pooh! Rabbit’s Friends and Relations!”

“Winnie the Pooh? We used to get everything from the Bible!”

“Remember when Mum used to read to us? Winnie the Pooh, and the Bible; all sorts of stuff.”

 

We were all Morgans then – Wendy Morgan, Angela Morgan, Josephine Morgan and Susan Morgan. Now we are Wendy Virgo, Angela Alsop, Josephine Garbutt and Susan Hall; still sisters though, still family. Still love being together, sharing what we hold dear, our history and hopes for the future.

 

It’s great being family, whatever we call ourselves.

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Reflections On Newday

newday

I snuck in to Newday! The lovely Phil Gray organised a badge for me which was waiting at the gate. Sad to say, I whimped out of actually camping. My friend Carol Bailey had kindly offered her pop up tent, and it was either that or a room at the Premier Inn over the road. I thought about it long and hard….all of 20 seconds, and well, you know, a bed, a shower, an electric kettle…not much of a contest really.

I delivered the box of food which had got left behind at Kingston to the church site, glad that our kids would not miss out on the green Thai curry specially cooked for them….and helped them eat it. They were all happily organised in their tents and although I am about a century older than them they made me feel very welcome and involved.

As evening approached, I found it moving to see thousands of young people streaming toward the Big Top, excited and eager to begin praising God together. They poured in, 7,000 of them, and as Simon Brading began to lead them into worship, the sound swelled rapturously as they clapped, danced and stamped. Lights blazed and drums boomed as guitars  and keyboards played the melodies of Simon’s new songs.

I also appreciated that older songs were in the mix, and there were some very poignant moments, especially after Stef Liston preached a profound and wonderful sermon on Simon Peter on the second night. (Get it on podcast, simply entitled ‘Fish’). We were led into “I love you Lord, and I lift my voice..”, and a hushed stillness prevailed over the huge tent as some knelt or lay on the floor or stood with arms raised in worship. That night, no one was in a hurry to go back to nightcaps of hot chocolate and cake; the presence of God took over.

newday2

Highlights for me were Joel’s series on Jonah with the older teens in the mornings; meeting up with loads of old friends who had come simply to serve the youngsters; watching my grandchildren absorbed in worship; chatting with our Kingston church group over lunch.

I kept bumping into people whom I have known as babies and children but who are now all grown up! And yes, many were the blunders I made, simply because they now look so different. I mean, when you last saw a kid of 13 who is now a giant with a bushy black beard, is it so surprising that you wonder who he is? Or a stunning blonde young lady who simply called herself Vicky….I remember her and her twin when they were 5years old, waking me up at 5.30am to play snap. Please forgive me, all those whose names I didn’t remember; my grey cells are not as agile as they once were, but also, I am bad at making the connections when I think of (some of) you in the context of another country!

What stuck out to me was that amongst all the fun, hilarity, and youthful exuberance there was a seriousness, an intentionality, a desire to seek God, find his will, walk in his ways. It helps kids, in small churches especially, to be in a massive event which shows them that Christians are not some poky archaic little group, but a force to be reckoned with; where there is freedom to express worship in a genre appropriate to their age range, where there are opportunities to ask questions, to talk to leaders, to find friends old and new; and especially to be in a context where they are confronted with God’s mission to the world, and encouraged to find their part in it.

I was also struck with the maturity of the teaching: a strong foundation of theology (which I hope is being laid in all Newfrontiers churches) is being reinforced by such noted teachers as Andrew Wilson and Joel Virgo,  and to my delight, younger teachers whom I had not met before, who are now carrying the baton in this next generation.

All the time God was encountering these teens: some were being saved, some returning from wandering away, some were healed, and many were finding direction for their lives. I was only there four days, but I feel profoundly blessed and deeply convinced that this event must continue for many more years.

Torrential rain nearly destroyed Newday at its birth a few years ago. The local authorities said we should abandon the ground, but God had given us an amazing promise that this conference had national significance: a promise we never even received for the massive Stoneleigh Bible Week!

We refused their advice to abandon ship and experienced an amazing week. Every year has surpassed the previous years. Thousands of teenagers’ lives have been radically changed. Who knows what the future holds for this coming generation and what a vital role Newday will play in the shaping of a new generation for the glory of God?  Few conferences have genuine national, if not international, significance. Few conferences are preparing a new generation. Long may it continue. Long may Jesus be glorified because of Newday.

I make a plea, rooted in a prophetic statement: we can do more together than we can apart! Newday must go on!

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Battles for Hastings

battle of Hastings

It was that rare thing, a glorious sunny Sunday morning. Being Sunday the traffic was light as we drove south through the lush Kent and Sussex country, revelling in the fresh spring foliage, thick clumps of cow parsley in the long grass bordering the roads and fields of buttercups, warm and golden. Cows looked sleek and lambs were large and fat. England at its exuberant, June best! We were on our way to King’s church high on the Ridge at the back of Hastings. We smiled as we passed the sign, “You are entering 1066 country.”

1066 is the date that everyone knows, immortalised by the battle of Hastings fought between the invading Normans led by  King William, and the Anglo-Saxons led  by King Harold. It was a day that shaped the rest of English history, a seminal day, a hinge, a page turner; for William won and became known as William the Conqueror, and the Norman French poured into England bringing new words, ways, ideas, furniture, food and fashion, expanding, enriching, changing the culture. A picturesque village now stands near the battle site, appropriately named Battle.

A few miles away, other battles have been fought and won over the last 35 years. Terry and I lived in Seaford, a small town to the west. One day a man called Don Smith contacted us. He worked in Hastings hospital, and originated from South London. He had recently been baptised in the Spirit and was gathering a dozen or so people to pray and worship in his basement flat. He hooked up with us and joined our exploration into radical church restoration and planting.

Over time, the little nucleus grew and began to meet publicly in schools and halls. As they outgrew each one they were always looking for another! They were truly a church on the move! Eventually they bought a massive building on the hill above the town which had started life as a sports centre for indoor cricket and tennis. Bravely, the little crowd entered the vast intimidating space. It was ludicrously huge, but they kept dreaming, planning, praying and growing in numbers and faith.

The church went through various phases of leadership change. Don Smith moved on to Eastbourne to plant another large and excellent church. John Groves led for several years eventually moving on to Winchester. Currently his son in law Paul Mann leads the eldership team. The church became a sending base and  learnt to give generously in terms of money but also people to other church plants.

The building also went through various metamorphoses as the vast space was sensibly used and managed. Its present stage is now nearing completion. Being strategically placed opposite a large hospital, it is highly visible and can offer facilities for hospital visitors such as low priced parking and a lovely coffee shop with views over the beautiful countryside. There are lots of side rooms where activities such as Alpha courses, youth events and debt counselling are proving fruitful. New offices are under way, and the large well appointed main auditorium can comfortably seat 700+ worshippers.

This Sunday morning, as the worship team took the stage and led us into 40 minutes of glorious worship, my heart was full of thankfulness for the battles fought and won on this bit of turf. It is difficult to imagine how bare and inhospitable this building appeared when it was first acquired; still more difficult to visualise the original small group meeting in Don Smith’s basement! That was the mustard seed from which this beautiful tree has emerged. Doubtless there are more battles ahead; but the church is vibrant, flourishing, growing, alive!

King William 1st came and conquered and changed history. Our King has established a kingdom that will never pass away. I am praying for just as radical an impact for this Kingdom to make on our culture in our day; that will make inroads into government, education, business, economy, justice, family life…..everywhere. There are more battles ahead, but also more victories. Keep praying, keep believing!

 

Photograph by snake3yes

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