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!

Inspiration at church

I’ve been reflecting recently on what it has meant to me to be a part of Trinity Cheltenham over the last dozen years or so, and the one word to sum it up would be ‘inspirational’.

Worship at Trinity Cheltenham

While at theological college in Durham, I was shocked how fashionable it was to knock big churches, and was surprised to find myself consistently being the lone voice providing the other side of the argument. Frankly, I don’t care how large or small a church is, as long as it is a place where people can experience the presence of God and encounter Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, a church like Trinity can be a beacon for an entire region, breaking worn-out stereotypes of what church is, and showing by example what it means to bring the gospel to all sections of society. Big church can be inspirational church.

Take, for example the Easter Baptisms at Trinity… there had been so many wanting to be baptised in March that another service had to be laid on, and as with each of them, the church was packed. It is so exciting to hear individual stories of how encounters with Christ have led to transformed lives. One person may have struggled with depression, another with addictions; one person may have had everything they’d wanted but felt completely empty inside, another may have come only to stop the wife badgering them; some have had dramatic encounters with Christ, others have had an ongoing journey for years; but each unique story is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ.

Easter baptisms at Trinity

Large churches can also host big events. One of the most amazing took place last Friday evening, when former world super-middleweight champion Nigel Benn came with his wife Carolyne, to give their life story. I think most of us there were expecting to hear boxing tales – but instead we heard about how their lives had been turned around completely.

Nigel Benn was someone who appeared to have everything, having literally fought his way to the very top, along the way earning the sobriquet “The Dark Destroyer”. Yet he fell into drug addictions and had many affairs. One of these hit the papers, and led Caroline almost to despair. One morning, after dropping the kids off at school, she found herself going into an empty church where, for several hours, she wept. She left feeling that she had encountered Christ and announced as much to Nigel – who thought she was cuckoo.

Nevertheless he went along for the ride – but somehow an older Baptist pastor and his wife were able to reach into him. The turning point was when he realised that he needed to confess to his wife all the times that he had betrayed her – and he knew that he needed to do this to be free from the bondage he’d found himself in. But it wasn’t just one or two affairs – it was many. Carolyne was so angry that she threw everything at him that she could lay her hands on. For six months or so they were separated while Nigel lived with the pastor and his wife. But we could see before us the reality of the transformation in their lives since then. That, ultimately, is why Nigel Benn was far more eager to share his passion for Christ than he was to talk about boxing.

A packed audience for Nigel Benn at Trinity


Nigel Benn (with Carolyne) responding to a question from Mark Bailey, the vicar.

A red admiral in January

I was doing some work in my bedroom when I glanced out of the window and noticed a butterfly fluttering outside. Nothing unusual in that, you might think – but it’s still January and butterflies don’t do winter, do they? So I emailed the charity Butterfly Conservation  and had an unusually interesting response. It’s all down to global warming, apparently, and this insect is a clear indicator:

Many thanks for your message and your sighting. We’ve received quite a few Red Admiral sightings during January from across southern Britain. It is normal to see Red Admirals in the winter nowadays, but your surprise is justified because 10 or 20 years ago it would have been extraordinarily astonishing to see one.

Red Admiral butterly by Jim Asher of Butterfly Conservation

The status of the Red Admiral butterfly in the UK has changed over that time from being just a summer visitor and breeding species, which arrived from southern Europe in the spring and departed in the autumn, to being a year-round resident. Some still migrate of course, but there is now a substantial permanent population that stays here during the winter. It is now our most commonly seen winter butterfly, by far. What’s more, Red Admirals continue to breed here during the winter, so there are also Red Admiral caterpillars around right now.

Unlike our other butterflies, which are tucked away in hibernation during the winter, Red Admirals do not go into a proper hibernation. They simply roost on days of bad weather and then wake and fly around when the conditions are better.

Best wishes

Richard Fox

Butterfly Conservation

The other astonishing thing about this is the realisation that these flimsy wings could migrate hundreds of miles…

Goosanders remain amongst my favourite birds, so when I read that there were half a dozen at Woorgreens Lake in the Forest of Dean a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go to see them. Goosanders are like mallards in being ducks in the way that Beethoven is like Kylie in being musicians: none of this tame quacking on the lake shore, goosanders are majestic birds that generally don’t like humans and for food prefer to dive for fish. I arrived at Woorgreens and to my surprise saw a whole flock of them on the far side of the lake – 23 in all, and 19 in the picture below.

Goosanders at Woorgreens Lake in the Forest of Dean (click to enlarge)

It’ll be demanding image rights next…

Now I admit my limitations as a wildlife photographer, but just once in a while some creature poses to have its picture taken. What better place than Slimbridge, you might think, with lots of unusual bird species. A pity that the animal in question is a mammal which lacks any rarity value at all…

I don’t often get too excited by video clips on the Internet, but the Russian crow tobogganing down a roof on a jamjar lid is a major exception. Crows are known for clever examples of tool use… but this is a crow using a tool just to have fun. This blows away any notion that birds are concerned only about the grim realities of survival. It’s possible that, when a bird sings, it’s not just trying to attract a mate, or just defending a territory – but actually enjoying itself at the same time…

Snow bunting on Leckhampton Hill

One of the reasons that birdwatching is addictive is that the lows and highs can follow in rapid succession. Yesterday I persuaded Dave Doughty and John Linney to join me on a trip to Lydney to see a cattle egret that has been hanging around the area for the last couple of weeks. We thought we were in luck when we arrived at the most accessible of the potential sites, and found a spry pensioner whose pager told him that the bird had been seen there that morning. Although he saw it fleetingly, it remained hidden from view – so we decided to look for a way to get to the other side of the lake for a better look.

While failing to find a route through a nearby industrial estate, we chatted with the elderly gentleman – and soon found ourselves listening to a remarkably intrepid character. It turns out that Edwin Shackleton holds the world record for flying in the most number of different types of aircraft as a passenger (241). This included a day trip to Cairo via Concorde (the cheapest way to fly on it): door-to-door from Filton, it took him 25 hours, with a trip to the Pyramids in the middle.

Dave and I eventually found a route to the far side of the lake – starting at the harbour, along a rather convoluted set of paths. A couple of locals directed us along the way; “follow the track to the buildings, take the path to the right, go across the marsh and you’ll get to the end of the lake”. We found the marsh – and it absolutely stank! But when we got to the lake, there was no sign of the egret. As we waited, a couple of men from the Wales & West Utilities company arrived, looking for a gas leak – so we directed them to the marsh.

Today I saw on the Gloster Birder forum that a couple of snow buntings had been seen on Leckhampton Hill this morning. As this was just a 40-minute walk away, I realised that I had to go – especially as the weather was good. I reached Hill Farm, and began to scan the area – seeing very little. I went round the outside of the farm buildings, hearing the occasional chirp and nothing else. A few skylarks flew up and trilled, and I told myself to be grateful to see their display.

Snow bunting on Leckhampton Hill

As I walked towards the car park, I was bemoaning my lack of luck in birdwatching over  the past ten days. I glanced down at the path and there, a few feet in front of me, was a snow bunting! It flitted off briefly when some dog walkers went past, but then for twenty minutes I watched it grazing along the side of the path. It was  untroubled by my lurking with a camera and allowed me to get some decent pictures. After the failed egret trip, this was a spectacularly good viewing of a lovely bird.

Snow bunting on Leckhampton Hill (2)

Tripping over snails, and gazing at godwits

I did not think that it was possible to get excited about snails. Nevertheless, I managed it twice in the last couple of weeks. I’d known that Leckhampton Hill is a good habitat for the rare Roman snails, but despite going there many times over the years, I had never seen one. Then one evening a fortnight ago I stumbled across one – almost literally! – and a week later saw a second.

Roman snails on Leckhampton Hill

As snails go, these are huge! – much bigger than the small garden snails we’re all familiar with. They are a protected species throughout the EU, largely because there are some who regard them as a gastronomic delicacy.

Spoonbill on the South Lake at Slimbridge

I went to Slimbridge last week and saw the spoonbill which has been hanging around for about three weeks. Yet what continued to impress me even more was the large flock of about two hundred black-tailed godwits, which were looking particularly spectacular in bright sun-light with their brick-red plumage. They are large waders (though not as big as the spoonbill) with long, straight bills for probing the soft mud of lake and river margins. I’ve seen them elsewhere before but in far smaller numbers, and generally not in breeding plumage.  This time I found a hide from which I could get much better photos of them.

Black-tailed godwits at Slimbridge

What puzzled me was that so many have been residing, in the breeding season, without any young being around. I’ve since learned that non-breeding adults tend to gather in large flocks – hence the hundred or so earlier in the month – and that these are then joined by other adults once their young have fledged, prior to their autumn migration. They’ll winter in places like the floodplains of Lake Chad, where they flock in huge numbers. Nevertheless, their status as a species is ‘near threatened’ because of a decline in global population of about a quarter in twenty years, mainly because of threats to their wetland habitats.

July 20: It appears I’ve oversimplified things here… if you’re interested, check out this page.


Oxeye daisies on Leckhampton Hill

One of the delights of nature is its constant capacity to surprise – even with the apparently ordinary. I was walking on the top of Leckhampton Hill earlier this week when I saw a field covered in white flowers. I thought it must be something similar to oilseed rape, until I got closer and discovered that the flower was the oxeye daisy. I’ve never seen it in such profusion.

A couple of days later I went down to Slimbridge to see a red-necked phalarope, a rare wader that in the UK breeds only in the Shetlands. A female had dropped in – and it’s a spectacular bird to see. Nevertheless, at least as impressive were the massed ranks of over a hundred black-tailed godwits elsewhere on the reserve. Seeing them arrayed as they were, you could imagine you were somewhere tropical… (I’d encourage you to click to enlarge as the image below doesn’t really do them justice)

Black-tailed godwits at Slimbridge (click to enlarge)

Later in the week I had an abortive wild-duck chase down to Chew Valley Lake, and ended up sheltering in a bird hide while it poured with rain for the best part of two hours. Nevertheless on the way back I came across two roe deer and a hare – each of them magnificent sights in their own right.

Roe deer at Chew Valley

Hare at Chew Valley

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…