Thinning it at Ffald-y-Brenin

I was sitting in the chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin, when I began to wonder how the rocks in it – which are such a striking and unusual feature – arrived there in the first place. The door and windows were far too small, and I couldn’t see any cut marks on the stone. Perhaps the boulders were dragged into place and then built around? But as the chapel has an ancient feel to it, I was particularly puzzled, and was intrigued to find out more.

The chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin

The chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin

The chapel was actually built fairly recently, around 1987. When the ground was being levelled and cleared, it was discovered that the large rocks were not boulders that could be shifted, but part of the bedrock of the hill itself. They considered blasting it with dynamite, but then decided to make the rocks a feature instead. In this they were completely successful! While in the chapel it is not hard to think of scriptures like Psalm 62:

Truly my soul finds rest in God;
    my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
    he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

In Celtic spirituality, there is a concept of ‘thin places’, where the veil between Earth and Heaven appears to be very thin. Frankly, I was sceptical about this and wasn’t sure that such places existed. However, the chapel at Ffald-y-Brenin is one: it’s a place where it feels easy to rest in God’s presence while there.

But there is a place close by where the veil is even thinner: this is the High Cross. I went with some scepticism but was unexpectedly amazed by the experience there – even though it was a damp, grey day! It’s quite hard to explain what it felt it like there: I’ve been on enough hilltops and seen enough views to know that this was not a case of ‘Wow, what a view’, but really felt that the Celtic concept of a thin place was highly applicable.

The warden at Ffald-y-Brenin, Roy Godwin, describes the placement of the cross in his book, ‘The Grace Outpouring’. While praying one day in 2004 he had a vision from God of a cross that was to placed at a particular spot. He asked the groundsman, who strongly objected that the location was solid rock, and set out to prove the point. Instead the ground gave way at the exact point Roy had specified, and the groundsman extracted a cone of rock that left a ready-made hole in which to insert the cross.

The High Cross also seems to reinforce the ‘rock’ theme of Ffald-y-Brenin: the solid bedrock in the chapel and at the outcrop graphically symbolises the steadfastness and trustworthiness of God – but the God of the cross is sovereign even over seemingly impenetrable geology.

The High Cross at Ffald-y-Brenin

The High Cross at Ffald-y-Brenin

Had the weather not been so grim I would have lingered longer – but I am hoping to return there with Jen in the new year!

A reflective interlude

A friend, Matt Breckon, is hesitant to describe himself as a poet; but his reflection on the communion at Noak Farm leads one to think his modesty may be misplaced…

The Priesting

On a hill above Martley in the warm embrace of sun and Son
We sat to modern country feast
of offered loaves and fishes in Galilean vale

The newly priested curate rose and at the hay bale altar tore bread
              and poured a cup of haemic wine.

Broken. Poured out for you.
Remembering
rural healing
An urban death.

Then interrupting introspection Holy Spirit like a duck, emerging
              from the farmhouse pond o’er the communion table sped,
a pointed arrow
an outstretched neck
Fade gleaming city temples for here God’s resplendence is.

Matt Breckon, 2013

One afternoon above Martley (photo by Nick Eden)

Above Martley (photo by Nick Eden; click to enlarge)

Revival in Cwmbran

There’s a converted warehouse at the back of B&Q in Cwmbran which is attracting hordes of people almost every evening of the week. This is the location of Victory Church, and since early April they have been proclaiming a dramatic outpouring from the Holy Spirit.

It all started at one of their normal prayer meetings. They prayed for a guy who’d been wheelchair bound for ten years – he was healed, and ran around the church holding the wheelchair above his head. (Read more) Since then, people have turned up for meetings in their hundreds, often traveling for miles.

Victory Church in Cwmbran

Victory Church in Cwmbran

I went there for the second time yesterday, and managed to persuade Craig (my lodger) to go as well. We arrived early and sat at the same table as a guy from Hereford, who had been homeless for large parts of his life. There was however a joy about him now – he told us that he was here to praise God, and it wouldn’t matter to him whether he was in the main auditorium or the overspill room, the most important thing was to worship God.

Shortly after, I bumped into Rick Thomas, a chest specialist at the hospital in Worcester who is on the leadership team at City Church – and he, like me, wanted to find out what was happening in Cwmbran.

The actual meeting began with praise and worship of God – there was a freedom and straightforwardness to this time that was very refreshing. After a while, there was a call for those who had come to the meeting for healing, and several dozen went forward. I wasn’t close enough to the front to know whether any actual miraculous healing took place, but there are regular testimonies that they do.

The teaching was given by the dynamic Robbie Howells from Newport City Church, who gave a powerful message based on the story in Mark’s gospel, of the woman who pressed through the crowd to receive Christ’s healing. (I’ve yet to hear the church’s leader, Richard Taylor, a former drug addict and prisoner before a dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit: but his video message about the revival is well worth seeing).

Whenever there are claims of a revival, it is good to discern the authenticity of the events. As a regular participant at New Wine, what is happening at Cwmbran is recognisable – but it feels fresher and more passionate. Also there is a wonderfully diverse mix of people which really does cross the boundaries, socially and racially, as one would expect of a genuine Holy Spirit-inspired event.

One indication of authenticity, for me, is the attitude towards money. I have been there twice and there was no mention of money: there are buckets for donations as one leaves, but that is all. There are none of the manipulative tricks I have seen and heard at other meetings – indeed it is a key value of the events not to take the focus off God and onto finances.

So, is it revival? I don’t know – but the signs are good!

Update July 2013: Report of 100 days of the Welsh outpouring

The banning of Todd Bentley

Todd Bentley’s first book

“Revivalist preacher Todd Bentley refused entry to UK” -thus states the Guardian headline.  I am no fan of Todd Bentley, but having seen him live, and having friends who are supporters of his, I am more than normally interested in what’s happening here. The story raises a number of important issues.

A few years ago I went with some friends to a meeting in Dudley to hear him preach: he had the reputation of having a radical style but with dramatic healings taking place in his meetings. He was one of a number of celebrity Christian preachers, often with links to God TV, who would tend to draw large crowds whenever they appeared in this country.

I went with a sense of expectancy, but was disappointed to find that he had a highly manipulative style which, before anything else happened, resulted in many of the audience dropping cash at his feet. It was never explained what this money would be used for. Nevertheless, I spoke with a few who’d been at the front, who said they had seen dramatic events which they took to be of supernatural origin.

Shortly afterwards the Florida Outpouring took place(see here for a helpful review). This was taken to be a dramatic example of God’s supernatural action in a particular locality, and it probably received more media coverage than any event since the Toronto Blessing. A number of friends from my church in Cheltenham went out there and came back there deeply impressed by what was happening. I was under-enthused, having seen him in operation in Dudley, but slightly perplexed that I might have missed something important. In the end, after several months, the event came to an untimely close because of Bentley’s marital difficulties which led to his subsequent divorce and rapid second marriage.

In recent times people have spoken of Bentley’s restoration and there has for a while been talk of his returning to the UK. In the end the legal system has intervened. However there are some important issues that must be addressed. One of these is exemplified by a story which tended to follow Todd Bentley, and is reported in the Guardian:

In one typical claim, he is filmed telling an audience: “And the Holy Spirit spoke to me, the gift of faith came on me. He said, ‘kick her in the face with your biker boot’. I inched closer and I went like this – bam! And just as my boot made contact with her nose, she fell under the power of God.”

The story carries with it an important sub-text: I am so in tune with God that even when he tells me to do something bizarre, I know it’s his voice, so I am obedient and amazing things happen in consequence. However, unless such claims can be backed up independently, there is the suspicion that they are no more than self-generated myth. If he has invented the story himself, I suspect many will be glad to have it exposed.

However, Bentley’s claim to be able heal people of cancer (and other major illnesses) is not unusual in charismatic Christian circles. I am a part of these circles and engage in this ministry (see here; albeit not yet with headline results), so I am actively interested when these claims provoke controversy. Whenever serious claims are being made for healing from major illnesses,  it is incredibly important that medical evidence is presented so that these claims can be authenticated. A healing from cancer should be possible to document properly. While it is unlikely that medical doctors would want to positively affirm a supernatural miracle, they should be able to confirm the presence and extent of the cancer before the event, its absence afterwards, and that the rapidity of the change is substantially beyond what could be explained by normal biomedicine. (For a well documented example of healing from a serious illness, see here. See also the story of my friend Jono Smithies.)

My suspicion – and it is no more than that – is that while Bentley may be a highly manipulative individual, genuine supernatural events were occurring at his meetings. There is a tendency to think that miracles authenticate the spiritual power and integrity of the preacher – but this is not a Biblical view (see here). My feeling is that at his meetings, there was a high level of faith in God that there would be healings – and because of that, God acted, in response to the faith present as opposed to the preacher. Bentley may have abused this for his own ends. It would be interesting to know whether Bentley is another example of a depressingly well-known phenomenon – of a genuinely Spirit-empowered preacher who started well but was waylaid by his own corruption.

This leaves an awkward question: why would God use such a man in any way? There may be a painful answer. This is that those of us in more conventional church positions are not prepared for the radicalism that God desires, so that we are unable to be used. Perhaps in God’s economy corrupt vessels are better than unusable vessels.

From the high life to The Garage

Laura Oakes is savouring a cappuccino at Soho Coffee. It’s become a treat for her – an unusual luxury item to be enjoyed. It was not always so: eighteen months ago, a normal day would require consuming two or three.

Laura had been a high-flying, fast-living Londoner. She had founded and run her own sports agency, and among her clients were several well-known professional clubs. She worked very hard, and success came easily. Thus she could buy a house in Twickenham, have a fast car, and take several holidays abroad in the year; she was often travelling, and always business class. As her own boss, she could even make reckless decisions if she wanted to – like a fortnight’s trip to LA on a momentary whim.

But there were costs. She partied hard, drank more than was healthy, and had significant debt. Always looking for the next thing, she was unable to enjoy the moment.

She recognised something was wrong and sought help at The Priory. Her therapist set her homework for the first week: to list what she was doing, why, and what she felt about it. The next week Laura returned with an Excel spreadsheet detailing all that she did and why – but as to what she felt about it, she hadn’t a clue.

At the same time she started going on an Alpha course. As she’d been brought up in a Christian family, this was less surprising than it might have been – but the trigger for her was seeing the life of one of her colleagues at Harlequins Rugby Club being transformed by doing Alpha and coming to faith.

She found intellectual assent easy – she agreed with the evidence – but had trouble with saying “God, I’m yours, I want you in my life”. Laura knew that she was in fear of God because she struggled with wanting to be in control of her life. What unlocked this impasse was her Alpha leader describing it like a marriage; a relationship with God. Not a controlling, slave-like bond but a loving relationship. Laura gave God access to her life that night in a small, baby step of faith – “I wasn’t ready to marry him, but I wanted to start dating!”

Her therapist was so amazed by the subsequent transformation in Laura that she curtailed the planned programme immediately.

Laura’s baptism at Trinity at Easter, with Gareth Dickinson and Tim Grew.

The sports agency was merged with one that focussed on arts, media and entertainment, and her next job in the sports industry took her from London. This was ultimately abortive, as was the next one – which nevertheless brought her to Gloucestershire and to Trinity Church.

Although job contracts are intermittent, she’s discovered that economics in God’s Kingdom seems to work differently. Unexpected refunds appear; and someone recently presented her with a large cheque: “I can’t accept this!”, Laura protested, but was told “You’ll have to, the money isn’t mine!”

Laura at The Garage, Trinity’s drop-in centre for the homeless

One of the highlights of the week now is her regular evening volunteering at The Garage, Trinity’s drop-in centre for the homeless. She’s found she has a deep love for those there, which is evident even in small ways: she finds remembering their names easy, whereas she’d always found this difficult in her business life. She talks admiringly of a lady who’d been on the streets and thought she’d die a drug addict, but now has a house to live in, is off drugs and is doing Alpha. Laura explained, “they need people who love them and make them feel significant”. Similarly, she’s been totally inspired by Compassion UK’s child sponsorship programme.

Laura’s turnaround epitomises what may happen to someone who begins to experience Jesus Christ in their life. It is not a formula for maintaining the status quo: as she says, “the life I thought I was going to have is now completely different”. She’s learning to live unafraid of the love of God.

Colin Phelps

This afternoon, along with 500 others, I was in Trinity celebrating the life of Colin Phelps – and like everyone else, I was still shocked and saddened that we were there at all. Sudden death with no previous history is hard to handle anyway – but at 34, with a wife and three young children aged 5 and under, it’s particularly difficult to comprehend. It was, however, a privilege to be there.

Our vicar, Mark Bailey, described him as being at the heartbeat of life at Trinity – and that was hardly an exaggeration for someone who was so wholeheartedly involved in so many areas of ministry there, since arriving as a student. Will Hayes, one of those who had been in the youth group Colin ran, wrote on Facebook,

Colin – You were one of the most gentle, wisest, best youth leaders I have ever had or will have. A shining light in so many ways. You’ve been called home.  You will be missed massively.

I did not know Colin well, and had had only the occasional chat with him. The last time I saw him was at the Element away day, when Colin gave an outstanding introduction to prophetic prayer – something he was deeply passionate about.

Actually, Colin was a passionate guy – as those who gave tributes to him attested. He had a deep love of God which he had a burning desire to share with everyone around him: indeed, he was inspirational in his faith and ministry and in his unquenchable belief in the power of prayer. He gave the impression (as Mark put it) of having one foot in heaven – but let this not misrepresent someone who was also very gregarious, with a huge sense of fun, and not much time for the more formal churchy stuff!

Colin’s profile pic on Facebook, with Caroline and his children.

Next to Jesus himself, Colin’s greatest passion was for Caroline and his three kids. He was utterly devoted to them – and it would not take long for this to become apparent, whether speaking in front at church or in conversation.

Caroline herself gave one of the tributes – and if most of us there felt she was courageous even to attempt that, what she said was truly inspiring. She started by saying what an honour it was for her to stand there as Colin’s wife, and that for all the pain that she was now undergoing, she would not swap this for anything. She paid tribute to his total devotion to her and their children – a powerful legacy for him to leave.

She’d also had a powerful sense of Jesus’ presence with her, especially the night after Colin had died, when it felt as if Jesus was actually with her at the end of the bed, assuring her that “My grace is sufficient for you”. Her standing at the front speaking as she did was a powerful testimony both to Colin and the strength of her own faith in Christ.

This was not a time for either trite explanations or deep theology: there was instead a desire to express honest grief – and to do as Colin himself would have wanted us to do: to praise the God and Father of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. It was a privilege to be there.

Amazing healing testimony

Most people at Trinity Church know Jono Smithies. He’s a student at the University here on a photography course, and has been a committed regular at church since he arrived. But that’s not the reason people know him: instead, it’s because he had an acute case of Tourette’s syndrome, which led him to manfiest loud tics, sometimes as often as once a minute.

Jono

I first met Jono about two years, as he became a lodger with Dave Slight. I got to know him better when for a while he came along to the Kingdom Renegades group. Jono has a passionate character and a deep faith, both forged in adversity… and he wasn’t just eager for healing, he was desperate for it.

By the end of January this year it became clear that something dramatic had happened to Jono, and he came along to the group to share his testimony of God’s healing.

He started by telling us what it was like to have Tourette’s, which he’d had for as long as he could remember. He described it as a tough journey, ‘very tough, very painful’: ‘I can only describe it as torturing myself a lot of the time’. (This is not too strong a description: it looked like it, as well.)

He became a Christian when he was 7. He said, ‘Throughout my life, God’s character, his nature and his ways have been affirmed. God has always been faithful and true.’ Jono clearly lived in this knowledge: even when he was, equally clearly, not being healed. He and his family prayed for his healing for two decades: and the lack of an answer ‘never took anything away from who I believe God to be.’

Back in 2010 he felt that God was telling him that he would be healed, and this fuelled his desire to experience this healing. For a few days in August last year he experienced several days, tic-free. The tics came back – but even for that short period of time he had experienced a taste of God’s healing power.

Although this was puzzling, Jono continued to eagerly desire full and complete healing. He learned lessons that have power coming from someone who has been through what he has been through: he learned to praise God in the pain. ‘Worship attracts the presence of God… when you praise, you get miracles.’

What happened in January was not planned. He went round to watch a DVD with a friend, but instead they ended up praying for healing from Tourette’s. He has not had a tic since.

Jono is still a noisy character – but now because his extrovert personality is no longer restrained by the tight cage of Tourette’s. In September he will go to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, an extraordinary place which has both the expectation and experience of God’s supernatural power, that has inspired many across the globe. He was accepted on the course before he was healed: but he can now go with his own amazing testimony of God’s healing power.

Click here to see Jono’s own video testimony on YouTube, “The pursuit of a miracle“.