A multinational weekend – and a swing-seat

It was a privilege for us to be able to host some of Jen’s students and colleagues last weekend. We had Maryam (one of Jen’s PhD students) and her husband Mansur, both from Nigeria; Karla from Mexico and her boyfriend Nick (from Yorkshire!); Carmen, lecturer from Spain with her husband Enrique and teenage children Carmen and Tomas, and Mariia from Ukraine (a PhD student in Italy). We also had our good friends Debra and Geraint, who have just completed a ten-year stint as pastors of a church on Dine’s Green in Worcester, and are now looking for fresh fields in south Wales.

The Somerset Levels are a bit of a contrast to London, so instead of museums and art galleries we offered the wildlife of Shapwick Heath (with its replica of the neolithic Sweet Track) and Ham Wall. On Sunday, Jen was leading the café church in Shapwick, where Debra & Geraint gave the main talk. We had the reading in four languages: Russian (by Mariia), Spanish (by Carmen jr), Welsh (by Geraint) and English (Nick).

Testing the carrying capacity of the Sweet Track – the re-constructed Neolithic trackway: Debra, Geraint, Jen, Maryam, Karla, Mariia, Carmen, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan, Mansur, Nick


Sunday lunch at the Piper’s Inn in Ashcott… In front: Mansur, Nick, Jen, Debra, Carmen; behind: Maryam, Karla, Geraint, Mariia, Tomas, Carmen, Stefan

A couple of days later, Andrew and Rachael arrived with Sophie and George – and Andrew installed a swing-seat that he’d made for us! It’s now a rather magnificent feature in the garden.

Sophie enjoying the swing of the new seat with designer and dad Andrew.

Gill and Ian’s wedding

A couple of weeks ago, Rich and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of my good friend Gillian Overend to Ian Jones. I met Gill as a fellow leader on Basecamp in 2009, which is a Christian summer camp whose aim is to encourage young christians in godliness and leadership skills. It takes place every year in a National Trust centre at High Wray in the Lake District just to the west of Lake Windermere, and there are around ten leaders and 16 young people aged 16-20. On alternate days we work for the National Trust on things like building footpaths through bogs, or chopping down and burning rhododendron trees . On the intermediate days we do activities like walking and kayaking. There are small Bible study groups and a big meeting every evening with a Bible talk. I went back to Basecamp in 2011 and 2013, in which years Gill acted as an excellent overall leader of the camp!

Gill looking useful

Gill looking useful at Basecamp in 2011 – path building at the Kirkstone Pass. Photo by unknown Basecamp member

Ian and Gill

Walking out of the church! Photo by Rich

Ian and Gill got married in the church where Gill’s father is vicar, although another vicar took the service so that Gill’s dad could focus on his father-of-the-bride job. The church is in Billinge, which is in historic Lancashire, but is now part of modern day Merseyside. Although we set off really early (for us), there had been a major accident on the M6 causing long delays, and we ended up trailing in behind the bride!

The service itself was really joyful, and Rich and I appreciated the sense of God’s presence within it. We were impressed by the address on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, which was given by the comedian Ian Macdonald, as it was thoughtful and highlighted some of the priorities that are relevant to marriages in the 21st century.

Rich and Jen

Rich and Jen at the reception. Photo by John Southcombe

The day also provided a chance to catch up with some other old friends: Nicola Morris, much revered cook at Basecamp, John and Dawn Southcombe and Hilary Gardner who were all a lot of fun to be around and have inspirational stories of their own faith journeys.

Gill’s attention to detail meant that at the reception we were put on the same table as a family who live in Kenilworth, which is where I grew up. Tim is the churchwarden of St John’s Church in Kenilworth, and it was exciting to hear about the major building project they are currently undertaking. Tim and Fiona’s twin daughters Rhian and Sian were also there celebrating – one day after their own 21st birthdays! I also particularly enjoyed the beautiful piano music at the service and reception, which was played by two of Ian’s friends.

Our table at the reception

Our table at the reception: Ian, Rhian, Sian, Fiona, Hilary, Dawn, John, Nicola, Jen. Photo by Rich

We left before the dancing, much to Rich’s relief, and headed back down to Somerset. Lots of people had reassured us that, at that hour of the evening, the journey back would be much easier than our long journey up. Four-and-a-half hours later and several sets of roadworks later we weren’t so convinced about that, but as we finally got to bed at 1.30am, we agreed that it had been a most excellent day and we were so pleased to have been invited.

Craig and Vangeya’s wedding

Craig waiting for his bride... and looking relaxed!

Craig waiting for his bride… and looking relaxed!

On Monday Jen and I returned to Wichenford to see Craig and Vangeya get married.

Craig was my lodger for a couple of years – until just before Jen and I got married ourselves last July. He was also (and still is) the chef for the cafe churches in Martley and Wichenford – and I remain hugely grateful to him for the unflappable way he handled church catering challenges!

The wedding itself was joyous, and although the Anglican formalities were completed in the usual way the ancient stones of the church reverberated to a Zambian beat that they wouldn’t have known before!

I was thrilled to see them get married and for Craig to be welcomed so warmly into Vangeya’s family.

Craig & Vangeya making their vows to each other.

Craig & Vangeya making their vows to each other.

Craig & Vangeya Murphy - just married and processing out of church

Craig & Vangeya Murphy – just married and processing out of church

Craig and Vangeya at the reception venue (St Andrew's Hotel) in Droitwich

Craig and Vangeya at the reception venue (St Andrew’s Hotel) in Droitwich

Craig's speech

Craig’s speech

Damsons, a black redstart, and Noah

Damsons at Wichenford Oak

Damsons at Wichenford Oak

There are some parts of life here that I expected – like preaching sermons and going to PCC meetings. Other parts I would never have anticipated: like appearing in a pantomime last January, and now making damson jam. They never told me about that at theological college!

There’s a tree in the garden which didn’t do much last year, but this year is almost dripping with damsons. After I’d given about a dozen bags away, I looked at the tree and realised that there were almost as many still there.

This required thinking the unthinkable: how to make jam! So that’s what I did last week – about 5kg of it.

The master-stroke (in my mind, anyway) was buying a chef’s thermometer, and I was mighty glad of it. Recipes talk about how to tell whether the jam is able to set, by putting a bit on a saucer and seeing whether it wrinkles – but how much wrinkling is sufficient??? Much more reliable is to see whether it gets hotter than 104.5C, which is the setting point. There are times when the geeky approach is definitely the right one!

Black redstart on Leckhampton Hill

Black redstart on Leckhampton Hill

Much as I enjoy traveling to seeing rare birds in distant places, it’s also fun seeing them close by. For about four weeks, a black redstart was seen on Leckhampton Hill, about a mile from my mother’s house in Cheltenham. I finally caught up with it last weekend – which was fortunate, because it disappeared within a day or so.

Despite being easily seen around some disused barns, it was always flighty, rarely being in one place for long. Still, I was able to get a couple of shots that show why it gets its name – a black bird with a red tail. Well – as the male is black, this is probably a female with its grey colouring.

YesterdayI had the honour of being made a godfather to Dave & Carolyn Kania’s son Noah. It was great to be back at Trinity Cheltenham for the dedication in the morning – followed by a lovely afternoon with the Kania family in Longlevens. Noah is already quite a character – as the photos below show!

Left: Carolyn, Noah and Dave Kania; right: getting a head start

Left: Carolyn, Noah and Dave Kania; right: getting a head start

kanias_rt_2crmed

Carolyn, me, Dave and Noah

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)

A contemplative New Wine?

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!

New Wine buddies tending a barbecue: Simon, Athena, Les, Judith

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!

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.