Preparing to encounter God at New Wine
This year it’s going to be different. Tomorrow Jacqui and I travel the 200 miles or so to Shepton Mallet in Somerset, to the Royal Bath and Wells showground for seven days of New Wine. To quote from their website: “In each of our unique venues, the largest seating up to 7,000, we offer a full programme of passionate worship, top-quality Bible teaching, prayer ministry, and the opportunity to get spiritually recharged.” We’ve been going to New Wine, I think without a break, for some 24 years. And before that, over eight years or so, we attended similar weeks with the Good News Crusade and then Kingdom Faith. Investing a week each year in these Christian summer conferences has been a central, almost indispensable, part of our lives and those of our children. It’s where we are resourced, it’s where we prepare for the year ahead. Crucial. As it was for Jesus. So Luke explains that every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And on the threshold of manhood, “when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.” (Luke 2:42). The three annual festivals, the Passover in particular, were an indispensable part of the Jewish faith. It meant a huge investment of time and energy. For Jesus and his fellow Galileans it also meant a seventy mile walk, the final 15 miles being an uphill grind. Clearly for our spiritual health we need to come together, at least on an annual basis, to invest time in God. It can be difficult, even expensive, but such a commitment deserves our highest priority. However, this year it’s going to be different. Upto now attending New Wine or the like has been an opportunity to learn, to attend seminars or presentations on HOW TO. How to organise worship, how to manage staff, how to run a basics course – and the like. Upto now this has been an opportunity to learn from practitioners, to share ideas with others engaged in the same kind of ministry. An essential time of discovery and fresh ideas. But this year, now that I have retired from parish ministry, it’s going to be different. I could, of course, still attend a how-to seminar – but there is no obvious way I could apply what I would learn. So this year our aim is simple, straightforward. To encounter God. Not that we can make this happen. God is God – and not at our beck and call. It’s not that we can stroll into God’s presence and say “I’m ready now!” As Moses discovered at the burning bush, there is both trepidation as well as intimacy when we meet with God. And such an encounter with the living God can be disorientating, as Mother Angelica explains. “ Sometimes that encounter is preceded by a kind of soul-searching agony that tries desperately not to hear, runs in the opposite direction, and frantically tries to reason itself out of answering the invitation.” Certainly Moses found himself going in the opposite direction to the one he planned and accepting a challenge which he did his best to avoid. And of course, God reserves the right to turn up at any time, especially when it is totally inconvenient. Today I can point to specific places where God has clearly spoken to me. As I write this I now realise that these are often – for some totally strange reason – at roundabouts, like the one at Slattocks or on West Derby Road. But having said all that, we can do things to make it easier for God to meet with us. Usually it takes time and some planning. It just doesn’t happen. This is where Sunday worship at church can so easily fall short. We get up, rush around getting things ready (maybe we are having guests for dinner). We leave too late and find parking difficult. Probably we shouted at the children. Hassle. So as we walk in, not only has the service already started but we are flustered and distracted. We look around and see who’s here. We exhale. It takes 10 minutes to settle. Even then we worry about whether we closed the car windows or left the oven on too high. Sadly – and not surprisingly – God doesn’t seem to be around. In short, that’s life. And God knows this, he understands the day-to-day stresses which keep us focusing from on him. Hence the annual pilgrimage. So we need to plan time with him, to ensure that we are in the right environment with the right attitude so that should he turn up, we are ready. We slow down and wait. So as we drive through the Pink Gate tomorrow, we enter so-to-speak holy ground. And from experience it will take me a few days to slow down. It will be interesting this year to find out if for the first few days I find myself falling asleep in the seminars, even during the main talk. Not because I am bored, simply I need to rest, to relax in the Lord. But hopefully, I’m ready. As God speaks to his disorientated people through Jeremiah: “When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. “Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” (Jeremiah 27:12f).