Miles from Texas in Shapwick

It was halfway through Miles Pike‘s concert when I thought, “how on earth did we manage to get a singer this good here in Shapwick Church? For his first ever concert in the UK?!”

In practical terms it happened the following way. Some years ago, the pastor of Harvest Church in Street, Dylan Thomas, went to the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Nashville, Tennessee where he met Miles for the first time, discovering that he was a very gifted singer with an unusually wide vocal range. It was Dylan who invited him over here to do a tour in the UK. Nigel Steady (whose wife Rowena leads our music group Polden Praise) realised that there was an opportunity for an event in Shapwick church, and set about organising it.

Shapwick Church was full for the Miles Pike concert

Miles sang a range of songs from traditional hymns, through modern worship songs, to some that he himself had written. The one which has stiuck in my mind the most was the finale, called “The Son Of A Carpenter”, which was a powerful and moving story from the perspective of the man who became the thief on the cross, who recognise that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. This was a wonderful composition that was truly the climax of an exceptional night in Shapwick Church.

Miles singing in Shapwick Church

As well as singing, Miles also spoke about the nature of the gospel and of Christianity. He managed to combine winsomeness with directness, which is something which is done all too rarely: I felt that this sprang out of the depth of his own personal faith which meant he was authentic in what he was saying.

Miles & Martha, with Rowena and Nigel Steady, Jan Jones, Jen, and Martha’s mum Jill.

As he’d appeared at cafe church in the morning, Jen and I had the prviliege of hosting him and his wife Martha for lunch. They are a lovely couple and very easy to chat with. It was great to hear how they had first met at music school: for Miles it was love at first sight, followed by four years of enabling Martha to recognise that they were meant to be together! A couple of days later we were invited round to Dylan and Liz’s house (unfortunately Jen missed out as she was in London), where Miles cooked a great chilli con carne followed by a traditional poundcake.

Miles & Martha at Dylan & Liz’s house (with Adam Smith on guitar)

They are off to Sweden for a few days and back in the UK for some more concerts in the area from the 22nd to the 24th of September, and I’d highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go to do so. You won’t be disappointed!

Miles Pike’s website is here: https://www.milespikemusic.com/home

A great New Wine – with a tragic postscript

Jen and I spent a week at New Wine a couple of weeks back, and had a most enjoyable time. We camped with the church in Walton (the next one east of Ashcott), and we were warmly welcomed by the team there. Richard & Sharon Knight were the hosts, and we really enjoyed getting to know them, as well as Mike & Karly Robertson, Hannah, and the children and young people who were with them.

The main Bible teaching in the morning was given by RT Kendall. He’s now 82, and first made his name as a preacher at Westminster Chapel where he was the senior minister for 25 years. For me it was refreshing to have a top-quality Bible teacher doing the morning slot: in previous years, speakers have been a bit too light on the Word in their eagerness to be inspiring.

RT Kendall at New Wine

Each of his sermons were masterpieces: and, as we discovered, many had been honed by being given multiple times over the years! These were the topics he spoke on:

  • The importance of ministering in the Word and the Spirit: too often churches prefer one or the other, when we actually need both.
  • The way God answers our prayers depends upon our readiness to receive his answer: we think we’re ready for God to bless us, but often we’re not.
  • The need for total forgiveness in our relationships: this is usually a long process, as we root out the anger and resentment in ourselves.
  • A twofold talk on the importance of tithing – giving God the full 10% of our income – and the importance of being thankful to God. God often blesses the tithing so that our 90% goes further than the original 100%.
  • A look at the end-times based on a radical interpretation of the parable of the ten virgins.

Alister McGrath at New Wine

One of the strengths of New Wine is the wide variety of seminars that take place during the day. It was great to see Alister McGrath being invited to do two of them. He remains an outstanding contributor to the science & faith field, although I sometimes feels he’s a victim of his own success. His pre-eminence gives him a ready market but I’m left feeling he’s not quite reached the breakthrough that could make a lasting contribution.

Gavin Calver at New Wine

One speaker I’ve not heard before, but rather wished that I had, was Gavin Calver: a very gifted communicator who’s also highly intelligent. He was speaking about the need to be confident in the Gospel despite our living in an age of great uncertainty. For example, the word of the year for 2017, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘post-truth‘: the idea that personal feelings are more important than absolute facts. (The definition in the OED is a little subtler in saying that the idea relates specifically to the shaping of public opinion). But, as Calver was pointing out, as Christians we believe in absolute truth and it’s over-riding importance (eg that Jesus really is the risen son of God).

In his second seminar, Calver gave ten tips about how we share the story of Jesus more. Here are three of them:

  • We must not change the substance of the gospel or water it down because we think doing so will make it more palatable.
  • We need to pursue holiness – to stand out from the culture: how we behave differently as Christians speaks volumes to others.
  • We’re all witnesses. Telling the story of Jesus should not be left to a few specialists but should be done by each one of us.

It was a most enjoyable week: inspiring and refreshing, and made even more so by the community of Walton church with whom we camped. The tragic postscript is the sudden and unexpected death of Mike Robertson, whose cheerful and friendly personality helped to make us feel so welcome. He leaves behind his wife Karly and two primary school-aged children. We pray that they will experience the depth of God’s love in this most difficult of times.

Freshly expressed rural ministry

I recently went to an outstanding conference run by the rural team within the Fresh Expressions movement. It was exciting to be among a group of church leaders who are in similar contexts to the Polden Wheel, and who are thinking of new ways of doing church to engage with wider groups of people.

The first day focussed on several stories of rural Fresh Expressions. One of the most inspiring ones came from a remote part of the Scottish borders. Back in 2007 the parish acquired a new vicar, Bill Landale, who challenged the congregation to think about church in new ways. When they did a community survey, they found that, although people were interested in spiritual things, they didn’t think that traditional church would help them, so the idea of doing a Fresh Expression was born. Meanwhile, Bill identified the person he wanted to lead the new project – a guy called Alistair Birkett, a local farmer who at that time was part of another church. After a year and a half they launched Gateways Gathering, aimed at children with young families: it’s similar to Messy Church. They eventually grew to a point when they recognised there was a need for something more for the adults – so, two years ago, they launched Gateways Fellowship, which adopts a cafe church approach. The video below tells their story.

One of the prayer stations used in Outdoor Church

The highlight of the second day of the conference for me was being introduced to Outdoor Worship by Sam and Sara Hargreaves. There are a number of variations of this overall idea, each aimed at different potential audiences. For example, Forest Church seems designed to engage with New Age and pagan spiritualities, whereas Outdoor Worship may connect in a more straightforward way to families with young children (exemplified by Park Church in Luton). One of the key values is that outdoor worship is not merely doing indoor worship outdoors, but is doing something different that relates to the outdoor environment.

As the conference had an overall theme of ‘Dying to live’, one of the activities for us was to look at the invertebrates living on dead wood. As we looked at all the creepy-crawlies I re-connected with my inner child… I was still tearing bark off rotting wood while everyone else had moved onto the next bit, and couldn’t stop myself interrupting Sara in full flow with “hey, there’s a millipede here!”. That was probably the moment when I realised that Outdoor Worship was something I should explore further!

Outdoor church lends itself to some thoughtful prayer stations.

The theme of the conference was ‘Dying to Live’. The basic idea was that we may need to let some things die in order for new stuff to take root: part of Alistair and Bill’s story encapsulated that, and the dead wood – living creatures connection in Outdoor Worship also worked well. Having said that, the theme didn’t really capture the essence of the conference. The mood was more one of optimism and enthusiasm as we were able to explore different ideas: ‘dying’ didn’t really feel like a major part of it!

I also really enjoyed connecting with other church leaders. Early on, I sat next to Scott from Somerset, so I started with ‘Hi, I’m Rich, which part of Somerset are you from?’. Scott replied ‘I’m from a village called Curry Rivel’. At this point I recognised an important connection, and said ‘ah, your wife had coffee with my wife last week’! The networking aspect of the conference was invaluable: it was great to be able to meet and chat with others who are in rural ministry, and to be able to learn from other people’s experiences. I particularly valued a chat over lunch with Matt Timms from the New Wave church in Perranporth, which connects with the surfing community there: he reminded me of the value of prayer walking, and of not being afraid to try some experiments, some of which might fail.

It was great to be able to worship without having to be responsible for it in some way!

When I arrived I had high expectations of this conference, but was a bit worried I was being unrealistic: but actually the conference far exceeded those expectations! I’ll probably be booking in for the next one rather early.

Refreshment or burnout?

Jen and I have just been to an excellent Pastoral Refreshment Conference, an annual event at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. It’s run by Living Leadership, an organisation which aims not only to train pastors, but to enable them to be able to sustain ministry over many years.

It’s an issue I’m passionate about because I’m all too aware of how often ministers burn out or fall into serious sin. For example, at a well-known Anglican church over the last twenty years, two associate ministers had to leave because of depression, two others through having affairs, and then the senior pastor had to leave, also because of an affair. I am convinced that ministers need to be living healthy, balanced lives – and failure to do so impairs our witess to the good news of the gospel, which is at the heart of what we do.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference. (source)

The speaker for the conference was Mark Meynell, who was an associate pastor at All Souls, Langham Place. Jen had heard him speak regularly and had found his preaching to be particularly helpful. Then after some years Mark admitted that he had been suffering from depression throughout his time there, and some time after that resigned from his job.

Jen and I missed the first talk on the Wednesday evening (we were late!), but heard the evening session when Mark talked in detail about his depression. He described what it was that had triggered it, and how he coped (or didn’t) with the aftermath. It was a powerful session because he didn’t give easy answers, and shared honestly about the bleakness and blackness of the hardest times. (His blog describes some of this experience here).

At one point the next day, as Mark was describing the reality of being in depression, I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to pull the series through: after all, the conference was about ‘refreshment’ rather than ‘depression’! I need not have feared because his talk on the final morning was both refreshing and very challenging. He didn’t join all the dots, but he’s writing a book that probably fills a few of the gaps.

Inferring somewhat, at some point Mark took a step of faith to believe that the gospel is true, even though he didn’t have the right feelings. A key verse for him is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “we live by faith, not by sight” (here) – in other words, if it’s true, it doesn’t matter what we feel. What the New Testament doesn’t offer Christians is an easy, struggle-free life – and Paul certainly doesn’t, either. When he talks about “light and momentary troubles” (here), he’s downplaying the ordeals that he describes in detail elsewhere (such as imprisonment, floggings and shipwrecks: here).

Towards the end, Mark played us a song by Steven Curtis Chapman which expressed his own battle after heart-rending tragedy.

After returning from the conference I came across a very moving interview with Chapman himself, a year and a half after his own tragedy. It’s a very powerful testimony (so much so that one of the interviewers struggles with his own emotions).

One of the most refreshing aspects of the conference was the willingness to tackle a difficult subject. The more healthily pastors can talk about issues like depression, the more easily we’ll be able to assist those going through similar experiences – but also, the more we’ll be enabled to take preventive steps for ourselves.

What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?

As we approach the Easter season, I am reminded of a question that I was asked some years ago, by John, an interviewer while I was in the application process for ordination. Without intending to, I completely bamboozled him with my answer.

The question was outwardly straightforward: “What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?”. I’ve since discovered that this is a fairly standard question for ordination candidates to be asked, and there are a number of basic answers, depending upon your theological preferences – none of which I gave.

For example, I could have focussed on the events around Christmas (in theological language, the incarnation, when God became man in Jesus). Without this, the other extraordinary events of Jesus’ life could not have happened. 

Or I could have looked at the events of Good Friday: through Jesus’ one, perfect sacrifice of himself on the cross, for our sake, Jesus opened the way for each one of us to have a living and active relationship with God. Everything else is a bonus.

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which may be the site where Jesus’ body was taken, and from which Jesus rose from the dead. (Photo © Philip Benshmuel; original here)

Alternatively, I could have chosen Easter, which celebrates the resurrection: the fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead: the crowning triumph of Jesus life on earth, when he showed that he had defeated both sin and death.

Instead I said, without hesitation, “the fact that it’s true, that’s what’s most important about the gospel”.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” spluttered John, “the fact that it’s true, is that all you can say?”

My point was that the gospel is based on historical fact – most particularly as recorded  in the four reasonably-independent biographies known to us as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – rather than upon myth or legend, or some esoteric knowledge that only the chosen few have access to. I’d be tempted to answer the same way today.

However, if I’d answered the question the way John wanted me to answer, I’d choose Easter and the Resurrection. This is the defining event of Christianity: it’s the miracle that trumps all the others, where even death itself was defeated. All four gospels climax with it and provide evidence for it. The incarnation may have paved the way for it, and Jesus needed to go through the one perfect sacrifice on the cross for it to happen, but it’s the resurrection that is the greatest triumph of all.

Cuthbert and the otters

There’s a story about the Celtic hermit-monk, St Cuthbert, and a pair of otters, which is very endearing – but whose truth, until recently, I doubted. It’s told by Bede, his biographer and near-contemporary.

An icon of Cuthbert praying - with otters in attendance

An icon of Cuthbert praying – with otters in attendance (from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons)

Cuthbert lived as a monk on Lindisfarne in the 7th century, and soon acquired a reputation of great holiness. While visiting another monastic community he was known to slip outside in the middle of the night and return in the morning. A fellow monk wanted to find out what he did, so one night he followed him from a distance. He discovered that Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck. When morning came he returned, knelt on the beach, and prayed. While he did so, “two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him with their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home”.

It’s hardly surprising that Cuthbert had a reputation for closeness to nature! But when I frist read the story my thoughts were, “I wish this were true, but really, it’s too far-fetched; it must be pious legend.”

I thought the same about another story of Cuthbert – his association with crows – but that changed because of evidence from an unexpected source.

Cuthbert had sought greater solitude in later life and ended up on Inner Farne, a small, bleak island in the North Sea off the Northumbrian coast. Some ravens that shared the island decided that straw on the visitors’ house would make great nesting material. Cuthbert rebuked them – but they ignored him. So Cuthbert resorted to more drastic words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, depart forthwith!”. At this, the ravens departed.

Bede records what happened next: “Three days later, one of a pair of them returned, and finding Cuthbert digging, stood before him, with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in a sign of grief. Using whatever signs it could to express contrition it very humbly asked pardon. When Cuthbert realised what it meant, he gave permission for them all to return. Back they came with a fitting gift – a lump of pig’s lard. Cuthbert would often show this to his visitors, inviting them to grease their shoes with it”.

Again a lovely story – but again one that my sceptical mind doubted severely.

Until I read a couple of articles on the BBC News website about crows bringing gifts. The one that really struck me was about a crow called Sheryl (geddit?!): “Sheryl brings me gifts. My first was presented to me with her wings splayed open and head bowed. I was very ceremoniously handed a yellow foam dart from a toy gun! She refused to take the dart back as she does when we play games. I felt truly honoured.”

What really struck me about the story is not just the fact that it brought the gift, but the gesture while doing so which evoked Bede’s description of Cuthbert’s raven. I suddenly realised that story had a ring of truth to it: he was accurately describing the bird’s behaviour. Whether the ravens were “repentant” in the way that Bede described is a little less clear- but perhaps the event itself is described accurately.

I wonder whether the same might be said of Cuthbert and the otters? Perhaps they did indeed play around his feet as described – but perhaps with less intention to warm him with their breath and dry him with their fur as the monk described? I’m realising that I may have underestimated the veracity of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’, which the story of the ravens unexpectedly reveals.

An otter sighting

I may have otters on the brain at the moment. I went for a birding trip last week to the new hide at Catcott Lows which overlooks a small, reed-lined lake. There was hardly a bird in sight, apart from a little egret on the far side and three little grebes in the middle. Then I became aware that there was a form in the water to my left – “What have we here?” I thought, as I saw the unmistakable shape of an otter swimming through. It cruised along, diving gracefully, emerging to swim further on and dive again. I watched it doing this for about five minutes before it disappeared. It was a stunning sighting!

The stories about Cuthbert are from “The Age of Bede”, Penguin (2004), p54 and p71

Searching for the desert in the Scillies

There's a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet... two of the present residents swimming offshore

There’s a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet… two of the present residents swimming offshore

The Scilly Isles has a large number of deserted islands and rocky outcrops, each of which have their own history… Nornour, in the Eastern isles, was only recently discovered to have housed an important Roman shrine on the way from Gaul to Ireland; Samson was populated until the middle of the nineteenth century; and islands such as Annet now house important seabird colonies.But there were a number of others, which lay close to St Martin’s, that particularly fascinated Jen and myself.

One of these, White Island, lay tantalisingly opposite our lunch spot on our final full day. Seals bobbed around in the sheltered channel, entertainingly curious. I was sure that the map showed that a bar across to the island would appear at low tide but while we were there the sea remained a barrier.

White Island from St. Martin's

White Island from St. Martin’s

We left after lunch, but the lure of exploring a deserted island proved too strong and I persuaded Jen that we should try to cross. By this time another young couple (sorry, a couple who were themselves young) arrived, peered at the sea, and then trod across carefully, trying not to slip from the rocks into any unseen gullies.

So we followed, removing boots and socks, and gingerly waded in… not, in my case, very elegantly… but having learned from the other two we picked our way across without getting too deep. Ten minutes later we looked back and saw that the shingle bar was almost clear of the water… had we waited we’d have crossed with little drama.

White Island at low tide

White Island at low tide: no longer an island

Yet there was still the excitement of being on an uninhabited island, knowing that if we stayed on more than about three hours, we’d be stranded until the next low tide. We were experiencing the allure of the desert… more than a millenium ago, this drew Christian hermits to these islands – and specifically to two that lay a short distance further west.

St Helen's - the home of St Elidius around the 7th century, as seen from White Island

The island at top left is St Helen’s, the home of St Elidius around the 7th century – as seen from White Island

Fifteen hundred years agothese two (St Helen’s and Teän) would have been tidal islands – much as White Island is now. The name St Helen’s is a corruption of St Elidius, the name of a 7th or 8th century hermit about whom little is known, except that he was reputed to be the son of a British king and a bishop. His cell is still visible on the island, as are the mediaeval buildings connected with the monastery on Tresco. In 1461 Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to “the faithful who go in great numbers to the Chapel of St Elidius” [ref] which, whatever the pre-Reformation tone, indicates the great significance of the site locally.

Neighbouring St Helen’s is Teän, a name more obviously derived from ‘Theona’, a female hermit from the same era, about whom even less is known than Elidius. Her influence also seems to have inspired a monastic community that survived for centuries. In the 1950s, an archaeological investigation discovered sixteen Christian graves. One belonged to an elderly lady, who may (because of the location of her grave under the altar of the mediaeval chapel on the island) have been Theona herself.

Teän and St. Helen's - homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius - with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance

Teän and St. Helen’s – homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius – with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance; viewed from St Martin’s

Like St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne (and later, even more remotely, on Inner Farne), these Celtic saints were heading for the British equivalent of the desert. They were following in the footsteps of Antony the Great towards the end of the fourth century, and the thousands who followed him, in subsequent centuries, into the Egyptian desert. Their purpose was to become holy by battling demons, and to intercede for others in spiritual warfare.

This view of what it is to live a holy life seems alien to us in the 21st century, used as we are to comfortable western lifestyles. But perhaps the island mystics had a better insight into Biblical spirituality than we do today: after all, John the Baptist spent his life in the desert eating locusts and wild honey (Matt 3), and Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights specifically to be tested by the devil (Matt 4).

I’m fascinated by St Elidius and St Theona – about whom so little is known except what has been found archaeologically, but who represent a deep strand of Celtic spirituality about which we ourselves have very little understanding.