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!

From observing sandpipers to revolutionising church

Bird-watching doesn’t get much better than this! I was with a group of observers out on the Dumbles, the grassland next to the Severn Estuary at Slimbridge. We’d been led there by one of the wardens – otherwise we’d have had to be content with views from the Holden Tower – in order to see a buff-breasted sandpiper. This is a small wader which normally breeds in the Canadian Arctic, which had been blown over in the recent storms. It was a very obliging bird, preferring the edge of the grassland to the saltmarsh or mudflats which were further out, so we were able to get excellent views of it. Then it took off, flew straight overhead and landed on the other side of us – but as I looked where it landed, I thought “that’s not a sandpiper”. A moment later, the warden said, “Hang on, that’s a dotterel! The sandpiper has landed right next to a dotterel!”

The buff-breasted sandpiper and the dotterel at Slimbridge. Photos: Allan Chard

It’s only the second time this species has been seen at Slimbridge, and was one that I personally was very keen to see. They breed up in the Scottish Highlands, and when they’re on passage they may occasionally drop down somewhere like Cleeve Hill. Suffice it to say that the 30 or so birders there suddenly became more excited by the dotterel than they were by the sandpiper which they had originally travelled to see!

Over the weekend I went on a couple of trips with friends. One was to a men’s event with the “Revolutionary Lions” in Wantage, generously hosted by Laurie Bath, and led by Roy Maguire. Since becoming a follower of Christ nearly 20 years ago I have enjoyed, and hugely benefitted from, being part of various men’s groups. Men enjoy the fellowship of other men – so that as they leave the church, more will follow through the exit. Thus it is exciting to be part of vibrant men’s groups like the RevLions, and to be with other blokes who desire to live radically for Christ.

One of the sub-themes of this and other groups is a general disillusionment, a feeling that ‘box-shaped church’ (to borrow a phrase from Joanathan Cavan) doesn’t work. As a wannabe vicar, I have a conflicting set of feelings towards this so that I end up wanting to ask: are we expecting Christ in the 21st century to do something other than church, or for church itself to become radically different? If it is the latter, do we change it from the outside or the inside?

Justin and Rachel Abraham

On Sunday I went down to Cardiff with Matt, Jo, Phil and Shane, in order to hear Justin Abraham speaking. Justin is an exciting and inspirational speaker who was talking about the mystical realms. Some of what he spoke about was mind-stretching – but that’s partly why I went, in order to be challenged in my understanding about the realities of the spiritual world. If church is to be filled with radical followers of Christ rather than well-meaning social workers, we cannot afford to underestimate the supernatural dimension of our faith.

Reality – mystical and earthly

I’ve just had a packed weekend – firstly going down to hear Ian Clayton in Cardiff on Friday and Saturday, and then on Sunday to an event near Bristol to hear Joe Corry.

Ian Clayton at the COBH event in Cardiff

Ian Clayton is described as “part of a new breed of prophetic voices that are teaching a generation to walk in the mystic realm of God” – and is highly regarded by a number of friends in the Kingdom Renegades group. I was therefore very keen to go and hear him speak when he came to Cardiff this weekend, and about a dozen of us from in and around Cheltenham went down.

As someone who moves in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, I’m always keen to hear from those who have developed proficiency in the spiritual gifts, including those who have mystical experiences. I’m all for it: we can hardly be surprised if a supernatural God gives his children supernatural experiences.

However, I do get concerned when there is some confusion between the earthly and heavenly. For example, if someone says “I did not understand science, but then I went up to heaven and Jesus gave me a scroll and said ‘eat this’, and I did, and now I understand science”, and then proceeds to spout baloney which would not pass muster even among creation scientists, then some doubt is cast on the credibility of what this person is saying. Prophetic insights are often allegorical in form (see for example Jer 13, 18 & 24; Amos 7 & 8 ) so it is really important to discern whether the understanding being given is meant to be technically correct, or an allegorical insight.

My general advice to prophets and preachers on speaking about science would be, unless you really understand the subject, don’t. If you really feel that you need to, then check what you are saying with someone who does. In my experience, even those preachers who have taken this amount of care rarely say anything that requires the use of a scientific example, and would be better served with something more everyday. I sometimes suspect that the preacher wants to show off his intelligence, and this is in danger of seriously backfiring. If you are an expert on the supernatural, or on the charismatic gifts, or on the mystical realities of heaven – stick to what you know, because that’s what people come to hear.

The best part of the two days was being able to spend quality time with friends. An unexpected delight when I arrived was to bump into three friends from Stockton, Rachel, Julie and Jenny. It was really good to be able to connect with them and to catch up on life up there. On the Saturday evening I joined Julie, Jenny and Pat  in the Mad Hatters Cafe, a relaxing and spacious venue just below where the conference was meeting. As I looked at the menu I realised that, with my name, there was one item I had to order: it was called “Tweedledee, Tweedledum, it’s a burger in a bun”! (It was delicious!)

On Sunday afternoon I went with Dave Slight and a few others down to a meeting south of Bristol, in the home of Tim Bruce, to hear the genial Irish pastor, Joe Corry. After a short sermon, he proceeded to speak prophetically, one by one, into the lives of those there. He did so with great simplicity, and yet with accuracy and power.

Joe Corry in Tim Bruce's front room in Sandford

A mystical union?

Anglicans often like to think that they hold an important key to church unity. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, there are strong links, both of style and theology, between the Anglo-Catholic wing and the Roman church, and secondly, the Church of England succeeds (if that is the right word) in just about holding together despite a wide range of beliefs across the denomination, many of which are mutually incompatible. Thus, it is Anglicans who will lead the worldwide church in breaking down barriers to church unity, and back into union with Roman Catholics.

I began to wonder about the correctness of this when Matt, a friend of mine whose faith is strongly Pentecostal in flavour and very non-Anglican, started enthusing about some of the great Catholic saints of the Church, such as the Desert Fathers. He and I both have a strong contemplative streak, so when he recommended that I read John Crowder’s “The New Mystics”, I knew that I was going to gain some spiritual food!

Crowder gives mini-biographies of a number of the ancient saints. For example, he describes St. Anthony(around 300AD) as someone who withdrew to the desert to live a life of strict self-discipline, eating only once every few days, and whose spiritual battles gave him great authority and discernment. “Many were converted, and he was known for many miracles. He also had open visions, heard the audible voice of God, [and] cast out devils.”

Crowder’s basic thesis is that, in order to spread the Gospel, we need to operate in miraculous signs and wonders, but that to do this we should focus not on the signs, but on Christ himself. He sees many of the ancient Catholic saints as providing vital insights from whom we need to learn.

Crowder’s heart is to reach people today for Christ.  As he writes,

The only thing that is ever going to work is the basic approach of Jesus, a demonstration of raw power. We must realise that this is how the gospel has made every significant advance to date. The biblical outline was never linear and programmatic. It was always experiential and supernatural.

Such radicalism might offend some, but it is not hard to think of examples that have impacted Britain – such as the Methodist revival of John Wesley in the mid-eighteenth century, and the ripples that flowed out from the Azusa Street revival, which launched Pentecostalism at the start of the twentieth century. He writes stirringly:

Today’s postmodern generation is calling out for intimacy, reality, and relevance. They are not seeking a religion of distant theological theory. They want hands-on interaction with a tangible, emotive God.

As those in Pentecostal churches seek their experiences of God while learning from the ancient Catholic mystics, it is possible that union in the worldwide church might come from a very different direction than many Anglicans might be expecting.

I spent last Saturday at a men’s day in Greet, a few miles north of Cheltenham. As I sat there with about twenty other blokes I thought, this is where I am meant to be at this particular time. The entire weekend was one of great blessing, through this group, the Kingdom Renegades, and through the ministry at Trinity Church.

Renegades for the Kingdom

Being back in Cheltenham may not have been Plan A for the summer, but there are some definite advantages. One of these is being able to be a part of  the “Kingdom Renegades” prayer group on Thursday nights. The meeting this week seemed like a significant occasion: the group grew from a prayer triplet involving Dave Slight, Wes Wright and myself, but for various reasons this was the first time in over three years that the three of us have been in the meeting together. God is good!

The Shakka Bongie boys: Shane, Jonathan, Matt, Wes and Dave; Rob, me and Phil

We have an expectation that God moves in supernatural ways – that is, after all, His nature. There are a variety of significant sources of inspiration for us, which include the New Wine network, Bethel Church in Redding, California of which Bill Johnson is the pastor, and Justin Abraham’s Company of Burning Hearts.

Dave and Camilla

On Friday night Dave Shill and Wes held a joint birthday meal at a local Indian restaurant, which was a great chance for a good get-together. As teenagers they were both in the same swimming team and have remained friends since. Dave now battles with MS – and does so with courage and cheerfulness.

Meanwhile, an obstreporous grey-haired individual is cross with me for not including him in my final post from Durham, so I am obliged to end this one with him…

Experiencing the Presence

Three paintings from Ali Thistlethwaite’s exhibition, “In the presence”. These are: “The Winter is past”, “Determined” and “Safe in the Father’s arms”. (Click to enlarge)

Three years ago, Ali Thistlethwaite started on a large art project. For most of this time she pursued her vision in her studio near Cirencester, almost unknown to the wider art world, either Christian or secular.  She received little encouragement, apart from occasional prophetic words along the lines “this could be big”. Her motivation was a desire to communicate the experience of the presence of God, in a style that she hoped would be widely accessible to people with or without any form of faith.

Yesterday was the launch event of her first exhibition of these paintings – in the nave of York Minster! For the next month thousands of people will be able to walk past and admire her artwork. This is a wonderful fulfillment of her calling – and a testimony to God’s faithfulness. (Go to her website.)

After the event, David & Ali invited me to dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant and, as tends to happen when we chat, we ranged widely over many topics of life and faith. Ali’s own journey towards faith took place in the mid-1970s – and involved meeting a bloke in Cambridge called Nicky Gumble – more than a dozen years before his involvement with Alpha began!

Vicky Harrison (Collections Manager at York Minster), Ali Thistlethwaite, Clare Whitely (Exhibitions Co-ordinator) and David Thistlethwaite

Enjoying God’s presence: Kath, Jon and Duncan

I don’t know much about what it takes to plant a new church community – particularly in a challenging situation – but I do know that one ingredient is essential: prayer. We can only do what we do because we depend on the presence of God in us and shaping all that we do. There is much that I am learning by being part of the community church in Stockton, but it’s the dependance on God for everything that is the most striking part of it. Every Thursday the leaders meet at 3pm for three hours of prayer, worship and seeking God’s presence, prior to the meeting starting at 7pm.

This last Thursday I arrived part way through, having had a long meeting with the vicar, Alan. We were conscious that the prayer meeting going on at the same time was particularly lively! Not long after arrving there, and having a camera to hand, I realised this was an event worth recording.

Strange things have been happening on the B wing in Cranmer of late. I’m not sure what’s got into Woody – whether the ordination training has been bugging him, or whether his recently becoming a father is bringing about the transformation that nothing else could – but there he was, in the corridor, ironing!

Woody ironing. Tom and the Grantmeister are astonished.

Of heroes and friends

I have a new hero. Writing one of my essays has brought me into contact with the work of the early church theologian, Tertullian (who wrote between about 195 and 212). He had an acute mind and a sharp pen, but besides a passionate commitment to scripture he was also attuned to the present-day revelations of the Holy Spirit. It is this that brought him into conflict with what was becoming the established church.

Let me give a brief flavour of his writing. One of his opponents was Praxeas, a trendy thinker who had gained the favour of Rome. As well as being opposed to prophecy, Praxeas believed that God, instead of being the three persons of the Trinity, was only one person, so that it was God the Father who was crucified on the cross. Tertullian was incensed that such a heretic should have the ear of the pope, and his own summary of his response is still pungent:

Praxeas attended to two matters of the devil at Rome: he expelled prophecy and introduced heresy; he put the Paraclete to flight and crucified the Father. Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 1.5

In other ways, Tertullian was a figure of his own time. His strictures on the veils that women should wear seem strange, and to 21st century eyes is one of his less appealing arguments.

The older I get, the more I appreciate genuine friendship. Let me pick out a couple of events.

Jon and Rachel. At least Rachel knows where the camera is.

Coming back from a wedding last Saturday, I asked Jon whether he and Rachel would mind if I landed on their doorstep two hours later. I met Jon through an Alpha course about five years ago. He was working at a sports shop, and had a deep-seated desire to become a tennis coach, which led him onto an LTA course. I was struggling to write book on science and faith, and my call to ordained ministry hadn’t yet returned. We’d often meet and chat – and with his chipper personality he was always encouraging, and could generally put an optimistic spin on events where others would see only doom and gloom. He’s now the head tennis coach at the Longleat CenterParcs, and moved near there a year ago. Having shared in some dark days in the past, it was awesome to be able to enjoy each other’s recent good times.

Dom and Mya

Since leaving Nelson Thornes, I’ve enjoyed having former colleagues become friends. Dominique had the dubious pleasure of being my boss for about a year, and I soon began to appreciate her sparky personality and wise counsel. She left NT and the quagmire of Documentum (don’t ask, it was an ordeal for all of us), and became a mother five months ago. She may have met her match in Mya, though! I’m convinced, given her parents, that Mya is destined to become a singer-songwriter.

Today I went up Cleeve Hill, a lovely area. Here’s a view from the top.

Trees at the top of Cleeve Hill