I’ve just come back from a brilliant week at New Wine – despite Thursday’s deluges! Although there was some great teaching in the seminars – some of it at a greater depth than I’ve heard before – there was also some lovely times of fellowship with a terrific group of people!
Throughout the week there was great worship and teaching in Venue 1, one of the two main venues on site, but there was also a large range of seminars during the day. This is one of the strengths of New Wine because it gives the opportunity for a wide range of speakers to tackle a large array of subjects, from the general to the specialist.
For me, two major highlights were Charlie Cleverley’s seminars on Monday and Tuesday. The first of these was on “The dark night of the soul and surviving the desert” – motivated in part by the sudden death in a traffic accident earlier this year of his administrator at St Aldate’s. Deep grief (of one kind or another) is a normal part of life, at some stage for most people. For some reason God allows us to go through this – and thereby to attain spiritual depths which we could not have reached otherwise. Likewise, we may also experience spiritual deserts: having once known God, we now find ourselves groping around for His presence. These are experiences that God will allow us to go through – and to discover the preciousness of leaning on God in the darkness. The ‘dark night’, which John of the Cross speaks about, is when we learn about God’s intimacy.
The following day, Charlie spoke about contemplative prayer. Some of the greatest Christian ministry has been birthed out of people experiencing visions of God, which so transform their experience of who God is that they are impelled to proclaim His love far and wide. These visions are not a product of human activity, but a gift from God himself. He emphasised the sharp contrast between eastern meditation, which is aims to empty the mind, and Christian meditation, in which we fill our minds with scripture. There are three key steps, which run counter to secular western culture, which are essential to cultivating the experience of the presence of God: it’s essential to stop, to slow down completely from the busyness of ordinary life; to look, especially to use scripture as a springboard; and to listen, tuning out from our own minds and tuning into God and what he wants to say and for us to experience. (I’m now reading his book on this subject, “Epiphanies of the Ordinary“, which is brilliant.)
Much as the teaching was good, it was the fellowship with those I was with that made this week so good. I shared a tent with Les Jevins, and Simon Jones pitched next door; we were joined for much of the week by Athena Hay and Judith Beecham. It was a delight and a joy to share the time with such a great group – we blended well! In some ways this whole week epitomised why the last year in Cheltenham was so good – I knew none of the others this time last summer.
On Wednesday, the rest day, I took the opportunity to visit the Shapwick Heath nature reserve – part of a string of reedbeds along the Somerset Levels which are acquiring national fame for rare heron species. I bumped into an RSPB volunteer who said that the problem is that the area is so vast that rare birds could spend weeks there without ever being seen: he mentioned two night herons that he’d spotted flying over last year, never to be seen again.
Earlier this year, Britain’s first ever pair of Great White Egrets bred successfully there; just as the excitment died down, a second pair was reported – and it was these that I went to see. Fortunately a couple of local volunteers had their scopes pointed at the nest, and every so often the large chicks would stand up in their nest, stretch and flap their wings. Then mum arrived, regurgitated food into each of their gullets, and flew off. A wonderful sight!