Transformations at New Wine

I’ve just come back from another wonderful week at New Wine. One of the exciting things about times like this is seeing how God is transforming the lives of others: it is an event where people are expectant for God to do things, because many have experienced this themselves in the recent past.

Throughout the week I flitted between three groups – I camped with All Saints (Worcester), had supper with friends from Trinity (Cheltenham), and went to the worship with a group from Consuming Fire Ministries (Dine’s Green, Worcester).

Dave, a former biker from Dine’s Green, had been very unsure what to expect at New Wine, but at the end he compared what he experienced with previous festivals: ‘there’s as much fun and friendship at New Wine as at the other festivals, but there’s no drink and no drugs. It shows you don’t need the drink and drugs, you just need God’.

Meeting Philippa Hanna at New Wine - with Les Jevins on hand to record the moment!

Meeting Philippa Hanna at New Wine – with Les Jevins on hand to record the moment!

Les (from Trinity) had been speaking admiringly of the singer Philippa Hanna, so a group of us went to her gig on the Monday evening. I was so impressed that I bought a couple of albums, and then thought, ‘I might as well get them signed’. To my surprise, Les was on hand to photograph the event. (I’m going to have to return the favour!)

The most visually dramatic example of the way God transforms lives was with the ‘cardboard testimonies’ in the Urban Impact venue on Friday night. About a hundred took part in this: below are five of them.

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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.

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.

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“.

The mystique of bitterns

On Monday morning about a dozen people were crowded into the corner of the Zeiss Hide at Slimbridge, staring at a reedbed. Staring and waiting. I arrived at 9.45 but one guy had arrived at 8.00, and was still waiting and staring.

Bitterns do this to birders.

On the previous Friday morning I’d arrived, buoyantly optimistic, because two bitterns had been seen regularly for several consecutive days from the Zeiss Hide, and had been ‘showing well’. Unfortunately this was the day they’d decided to fly off down the channel ‘towards the dead tree near the Kingfisher Hide’. So I went there and started what was, on this occasion, largely a solitary vigil.

An hour later I happened to glance back down the channel as a bittern flew from one reedbed to another. So I moved down the path to a closer spot. A few minutes later I glanced around elsewhere, then looked back at the reedbed, just as the bittern had turned back into the reedbed. Doh! Never mind, I thought, it’ll re-emerge. Two hours of waiting later, it hadn’t.

Looking at the Gloster Birder website over the weekend I discovered that they’d flown back towards the Zeiss Hide, so as I had the time I went down again. There’s something re-assuring about doing a reedbed vigil with a dozen others bitten by the bittern bug [thanks for that one, Dufty!]… there’s a common bond between those of us who think this is a constructive way to spend time.

At 11:30 one of the group – the guy who’d waited since 8am – suddenly said “it’s just over there” and pointed to a small island of reeds a little further away. We crowded round the two nearest windows, as a bittern emerged, stepping purposefully, almost delicately, out from the reeds and surveyed the scene. Camera shutters clicked. A few seconds later it lifted off, flew to the nearer reeds and landed. For a short while it was just visible in its characteristic ‘bitterning’ pose – neck and beak pointing skywards to merge in with the surrounding reeds, and then it disappeared.

I was tempted to leave, satisfied, but decided to stay on, waiting, hoping for a longer sighting. Forty minutes later someone else spotted a bittern standing in a clearing in the reeds. For about twenty minutes it waited, surveying the reeds for prey – evidently without success – but there was plenty of time for many photographs to be taken – and even I got some halfway decent shots!

Bittern from the Zeiss Hide at Slimbridge – showing why its plumage is ideal for disappearing into reedbeds

I returned after this, well pleased with what I’d seen. Apparently the next day it showed even better, as this outstanding image by Mick Colquhoun shows.

The return of the bittern as a breeding species to Britain, after it had become extinct in these islands, is one of the major triumphs of bird conservation here, along with the avocet. It’s one of a number of large, heron-like birds that are making a comeback, like the egrets, the spoonbills and regular visitors like the glossy ibis. However, the others are quite showy birds, and have none of the determined elusiveness of the bittern. I was surprised to find that, despite its rarity in the UK (possibly about 200 wintering, and a small handful breeding) it is globally not endangered – there are about 200,000 adult birds. But I suspect that few, if any, outside Britain have the drawing capacity that these two at Slimbridge now have.

In between the bittern trips, I went with a group from Trinity for a hike in the Brecon Beacons. It was a most enjoyable day of tough walking and great conversation. Some of the guys had been part of the Three Peaks challenge in June (very envious of their doing this!), so there’s a desire to keep up the walking.

The hikers from Trinity doing the Brecon Beacons: Cribyn and Pen-y-fan in the background