Sabbath is…

The subject of Sabbath came up somewhat tangentially in our bible study on Sunday, so I’m finally posting this list of observations about what the Bible teaches about the Sabbath. I don’t have the time to unpack all the implications–and can’t pretend that I have come anywhere close to mastering the art of Sabbathing well. But here are some initial impressions.

#1 …a day of rest.
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. (Genesis 2:2)

#2 …part of the creation order.
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day… (Exodus 20:11a)

#3 …a fractal reality.
But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. (Leviticus 25:4)

#4 … a holy day.
Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11b)

#5 …a day of Biblical teaching.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read… (Luke 4:16)

#6 …a vital ingredient of healthy family life.
Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. (Leviticus 19:3

#7 …a local celebration.
the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. (Acts 1:12)

#8 …an opportunity for hospitality.
On the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach… As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. (Mark 1:21,29)

#9 …a matter of social justice.
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15)

#10 …a form of true fasting.
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?…
“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,
From doing your pleasure on My holy day,
And call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the Lord honorable,
And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,
Nor finding your own pleasure,
Nor speaking your own words,
Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord…

(Isaiah 58:6,13-14)

#11 …a covenant privilege.
Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. (Ezekiel 20:12)

#12 …a catalyst for righteous government and national revival.
“And it shall be, if you heed Me carefully,” says the Lord, “to bring no burden through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but hallow the Sabbath day, to do no work in it, 25 then shall enter the gates of this city kings and princes sitting on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, accompanied by the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall remain forever. 26 And they shall come from the cities of Judah and from the places around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin and from the lowland, from the mountains and from the South, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings and incense, bringing sacrifices of praise to the house of the Lord.
(Jeremiah 17:24-26)

#13 …a secondary sign that points to primary priorities.
If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? (John 7:23)
“What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)

#14 …a day of deliverance.
Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:17)

#15 … a delight not a duty.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. (Romans 14:5-6)
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)

#16 …a deadly serious matter.
“They found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day… Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” (Numbers 15:33,35)

#17 …to be defended with zeal.
“Then I warned them, and said to them, “Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!” From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:15-21)

#18 …a loss to be mourned.
The LORD has caused to be forgotten
The appointed feast and sabbath in Zion…

(Lamentations 2:6)

Excellence, Brokenness, & Simple Obedience

I’ve meant to put some of these thoughts into writing for some time now–and thought I should finally put out at least a sketch of my thinking, even if I’m not able to write an eloquent essay. In fact, that this subject should be addressed in this manner is very apposite, as you shall see.

The Call To Excellence

Our topic is ‘The Call to Excellence’, a subject which some may think so blindingly obvious that to waste one’s time discussing it is needless, though I have encountered others who seem of the opinion that this is one of the more important messages that needs to be declared to today’s church. My own take on the matter is that this is an important issue to think through, not because I want to straightforwardly affirm the usual encouragement to strive to be the best you can be for the sake of the glory of God, but precisely because I want to dismantle the simplistic power of such rhetoric.

As Christians we are called to excellence—but in a way that is counterintuitive and quite contrary to the world’s pursuit of it.

We begin by acknowledging the biblical basis of this idea. There’s Paul’s call (1 Timothy 4:12) to Timothy to be exemplary in all of his conduct – and we rightly apply that same exhortation to all Christians. And Paul again tells all believers that whatever they do, they should “do it as unto the Lord” – therefore with all the excellence they can muster.

And then there’s the various biblical heroes of the faith whose lives we are called to imitate, like Daniel who distinguished himself because he had “an excellent spirit” (Dan. 6:3).

Certainly in the environment in which I grew up (specifically, Christian boarding schools), the idea that Christians are called to excellence was a very familiar one. I have been privileged to have been given an education in which I was consistently encouraged to grow in knowledge, skills and understanding, and given opportunities to develop in academic study, sport, and drama. “Study to present yourself approved unto God”, Paul tells Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15), and the same exhortation was applied to us – though whether Paul meant quite the same thing by ‘study’ as did my teachers, I’m not entirely sure.

And I excelled: nine A*s at GCSE, four As at A Level, I was captain of our school football team and we won the interschool tournament twice, I broke most of the athletic records for the track events that I ran, I was named Sportsman of the Year, Scholar of the Year, and Best Actor for my part as Hook in Peter Pan. I applied to Cambridge University, ranked the best university in the world, and I was accepted.

True Excellence is found in Christ Alone

Unfortunately the sorts of achievements that the world might consider ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ are nothing but what the Bible calls ‘confidence in the flesh’. In Philippians 3:5-6, we find Paul’s list of reasons that he might be ‘confident in the flesh’, but he concludes it thus:
“Yet indeed I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish.”

As Christians we affirm the ‘call to excellence’ – if and only if the definition of ‘excellence’ has been narrowed to include only “one thing… the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

Now, this doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from those who aren’t Christians. From the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 4:20-22), credit is given to those outside of the family of faith for the cultural and technological advances they achieved.

But what it does is radically shift one’s perspective on the significance of such achievements. What’s the point of being a pioneer in the field of music or metallurgy, if ultimately you will be destroyed by the wrath of God?

Brokenness, Not Brilliance

And particularly in Christian ministry, the implications of this need to be integrated into our practice. Paul says to the Corinthians, “when I came to you, I [deliberately!] did not come with excellence” (2:1), “lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect”.

Paul is speaking of the eloquence of his words, but surely the same applies to the proficiency of a worship band, the impressiveness of church architecture, to so many things that we think are necessary to impress the watching multitudes!

I don’t know quite how hard to press this theme—because, as I began by acknowledging, there is biblical truth in the idea that we are called to excellence. And even as I write about worship bands, I know that someone will point out Psalm 33:3 instruction to “play skilfully”; even as I talk about architecture, I’m sure someone will remind me of the “beauty and glory” of the Tabernacle of Moses.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that our primary task is to let our flaws and our brokenness be visible and unhidden – “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Simple Obedience Changes History

This becomes particularly relevant because God is not a distant, silent deity who has merely revealed principles that we must work out how to put into practice, but rather a living, active communicator, who answers us when we call to him, and speaks to us when we listen.

And as we surrender our lives – not just our religious identity, not just a tenth of our income, not just a few hours on a Sunday morning, not just our intellectual assent to some doctrinal propositions – as we surrender our lives to Jesus, He will begin to lead us by His Spirit. And the situations that the Spirit leads us into, may be precisely those situations that our strengths and skills seem least suited to.

Certainly this is not always the case. God has plans to prosper us, not to harm us. And as we delight ourselves in Him, He will give us the desires of our hearts. But the reality is that our ultimate satisfaction is found not in superficial success, but in a growing and deepening revelation of the reality of Jesus Christ.

And this is good news. Because if we are supposed to ‘achieve excellence’, then we all too easily find ourselves locked into the rat-race to be better than everyone else – which is clearly a game that not everyone can win! But when we realise that all the excellence belongs to God, then we are set free to obey whatever he calls us to do, confident in the knowledge that through the power of His excellency, our simple obedience will change the course of history.

one-heart-equation

1≤3 : A Meditation

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One is less than or equal to Three — taking theological truth from mathematical mundanity.
“Count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” (Genesis 15:5)

This post is a little exercise in hearing God’s voice — using a simple mathematical equation as a springboard for spiritual contemplation.

I realise that there may not be many others who find this as inspiring as I have — and when I recently tried to share this profoundly meaningful triad of mathematical symbols with a few friends we quickly ran aground in a cross-cultural debate about the proper way to write the less-than-or-equal-to symbol. So I share my thoughts here in an attempt to help whoever’s interested to squeeze some theological revelation out of this self-evident piece of mathematics. (Perhaps this sort of thing was the point of my having studied Mathematics and Theology at Cambridge.)

Before starting though, it is necessary to address the comment occasionally voiced that one is not ‘less-than-or-equal-to‘ three it is simply ‘less-than’ three. For this comment is merely mistaken. And while I admit that it is peculiar to actually write 1≤3, the fact is that it is a perfectly legitimate mathematical sentence, for if we were to consider the set {x≤3}, then 1 would certainly be a possible value of x. Alternatively, we could put it like this: one may not be equal to three, but since it is certainly less than three, it is consequently logically true to say that it is less-than-or-equal-to three.

Okay — trivialities completed, we press on in hope of theological profundities.

One is less than Three — obvious truths point to ultimate Truth.
What can be known about God is plain to them, for God has shown it to them. (Romans 1:19)
“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

The first nugget of theological gold that we can mine from this equation (and indeed, from any equation) is that for equations to function at all depends on the existence of Truth. Obvious truths like this point us towards the existence of ultimate Truth. And in a world beset by relativism and all manner of postmodern pandering to insufferable nonsense, it is encouraging to step back from the fray and take solace in the fact that mathematics at least can provide us with sound, reliable, unquestionable Truth.

And a mathematical mind could even easily construct a little proof to refute the pernicious doctrine of absolute relativism: ‘Suppose there are no absolute truths; then it would follow that There are no absolute truths would be an absolute truth. Contradiction! QED.’

But we can go further than arguing the mere existence of mathematical truth — we can follow this trail of revelation by noting that mathematical truths consistently and inexplicably describe with impeccable precision the behaviour of the universe in which we live. As the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman once commented, “The fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all, but it leads to the possibility of prediction”.

I have elsewhere referred to this inexplicability as ‘The Orderliness Argument’ for the existence of a consistent God who enables and sustains the natural laws of the universe. And in a similar vein, one could use the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments to argue for (but not ‘prove’ — note my epistemological caution!) the existence of a spiritual and eternal Creator and Designer; the Moral Argument then shows that even evil points towards the existence of absolute moral Goodness; finally, the Historical Argument confirms our faith in the God of the Bible and leads us to identify the biblical God with these other philosophical accounts of Deity.

One is equal to Three — the mystery of the Trinity, and the dignity of ‘The Person’.
…he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)

Thus far we have simply contented ourselves with the trivial observation that if one is less than three, then it is necessarily also true that one is less-than-or-equal-to three. But now that we have mentioned the God of the Bible, whom we believe to be One Holy Undivided Trinity, the One and the Three now grow in significance, causing our philosophical courage to rise and our analytical boldness to grow.

For the biblical God reveals himself through the Scriptural narrative as uniquely One — the God who alone is worthy of worship, and also as Three — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now to be one God and yet three Persons implies no necessary contradiction: Trinitarian dogma does not state that God is one God and three Gods, or one Person and three Persons, but rather merely one God and three Persons.

But the fact that each of these Persons is fully God means that it seems somewhat meaningful to suggest that ‘1=3’ in the context of the Trinity. Properly, what we mean is perhaps something more like V(1P)=V(3P), where V(x) is the function assessing the Value of x, and xP is the number of divine Persons. And since the infinite value of the divine Persons follows from their divine nature, it is independent of their number.

Yet although our argument thus far has minimised the significance of the personal, one cannot meditate on the very fact of the existence of these divine Trinitarian persons, without also coming to a weighty sense of the dignity of ‘the Person’ in general, even and perhaps especially as that applies to non-divine Persons. Persons like you and me, ordinary everyday human persons, with idiosynchratic mannerisms and annoying habits. You do now have to have read Emmanuel Mounier to appreciate the potential significance of this. And the fact that the second Trinitarian person actually became an incarnate, embodied human person only strengthens and confirms our intuited sens of the awesome value of each and every individual person.

One is less than the Triune God — wonder, consolation, and other theological implications.
…what is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4)
…for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart… (1 John 3:20)

But to say such things without qualification is dangerous in a world so full of commercialized self-help coaches and glib feel-good gurus. So no sooner have we asserted the worth of the human person, than we must immediately proclaim again the matchless glory of the invisible God and lift our eyes away from our poor and broken selves, up towards the heavens.

As we begin to do so, we realize that even our entire planet is but a mote of dust suspended in a sun beam. But rather than overwhelming us with existential dread in the face of our apparent insignificance, the immensity of the universe should rather fill us with an unspeakable wonder that releases a wordless joy. It is perhaps the joy of being reminded that we are not God, while simultaneously knowing prior to all analysis that the heavens demonstrate that nevertheless Someone is! And that Someone is glorious.

And in this revelation there is supreme consolation, for it means that for all the dignity and responsibility that comes with being a person made in God’s image, still we can be justified in (and by!) confessing that our sins are manifold and our problems are beyond our abilities to solve.

One Heart — no Love without the Trinity.
God is love. (1 John 4:8)
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

This is a good point for me to freely admit that we are now springing rather creatively from our simple equation into the realms of revelation. For I now want to draw your attention to the fact that the ‘<3' looks remarkably like a heart (indeed, it is a standard emoticon).

So we note next that God does not call us just to reverently tremble before him. Rather, He invites us to love Him with all our hearts, minds, souls, strength. And, as all the pop songs on all the radio stations in all the world testify, it is Love that the human heart longs for. This is what we were made for!

And here we make the controversial claim that unless the Trinity is acknowledged to be actual reality, then in fact Love is deprived of its ontological foundation and necessary rationale, and becomes nothing “but a second-hand emotion”. For only if we can affirm the existence of a plurality of eternal Persons can we conceive of and invoke the reality of eternal necessarily-interpersonal Love. Without God, love might be a fleeting feeling or a chemical contingency, but love cannot be the capital-L Love that the inspires the poets, commissions the prophets, and promises to heal the world’s wounds and solve the planet’s problems.

The Heart on its side — Love laid down is the greatest Love.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (1 John 3:16)
Greater love has no one than this, that to lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

That established, we look again at our mathematical muse, and note that in our equation’s emoticon the heart lies fallen on its side. What, we ask, might this signify?

And in answering we remember that it is a truth universally acknowledged that there can be no greater demonstration of love than to lay one’s life down for one’s beloved. Thus a lover irreversibly gives up his everything for the sake of her whom he loves; thus the story of Romeo & Juliet captivates our imaginations with its two lovers each confirming their supreme love for the other by willingly embracing Death.

Without being distracted by the tragedies of Shakespearean romance, we press on to identify the true and final fulfilment of this ‘love laid down’ — and, in Jesus Christ crucified, we find it. As the apostle John sums it up in his First Epistle: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”.

‘One’ opens his mouth — Love will not be silent.
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died….We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:14,20)

And so the contemplation
of this simple equation
has led us to the revelation
that Jesus died for our salvation.

But permit me one final observation before we conclude: that the less-than symbol’s triangle somewhat resembles a mouth, or perhaps the stem of a speech-bubble. Which leads us to conclude with the comment that Love cannot be silent, but necessarily must result in vocalized praise and declarative adoration, in joyful summons and unrelenting invitation.

And on that I will end, with a summons for you to consider the claims of Christ, and what it might look like for the shape of your life to be conformed to the cruciform love of Jesus. And if you’re ever around in Cambridge on a Sunday afternoon, then there’s always an invitation for you to join us for lunch amidst a community of people imperfectly attempting to work out the implications of a Love that surpasses understanding.

The Politics of Cheese

cheese-board(Photo of cheese-board from Aldi)

At our recent DTS Graduation Meal, my good friend Ryan began to sully the innocent activity of cheese connoiseurship with political controversy by suggesting that various cheeses have an inherent bias towards certain parties. He has his own opinions on what these biases might be, but I thought I would set out my own views on the subject by considering a classic supermarket cheeseboard selection.

Red Leicester
Red Leicester seems an easy one to start with — its colour clearly demonstrates its socialist sympathies, and further investigation reveals that its geographical namesake also reliably elects Labour MPs to its three seats. In terms of the cheese’s flavour it is creamy, mellow, inoffensive.

Verdict: Labour

Blue Stilton
Again, its distinctive colour makes the affiliation of this cheese easily identifiable on the British political spectrum–blue is, for some reason, the Conservative colour.

What’s more, in the incredibly conservative world of cheese-naming legalities (in which EU regulations permit only cheeses made within a particular clearly-defined geographical area to use certain prestigious titles), it turns out that Stilton exemplifies this spirit of preservationist politicking in a peculiar way. For Stilton the Cambridgeshire village is in the midst of a passionate campaign to demonstrate that although Stilton the cheese has been produced in the Midlands for the last two hundred years, actually historical evidence shows that it was the eponymous village who were the cheese’s original manufacturers. (This essay on the historical evidence for such a claim is an informative and amusing read.)

Verdict: Conservative

Wensleydale
A distinctively British cheese (apparently in the opinion of George Orwell it was second only to Stilton in the cheese championships), often combined with cranberries or apricots. Some — I’m again looking again in the direction of the esteemed Mister Ryan Macmahon — consider this fruitiness ‘controversial’, but on the whole Wensleydale is surprisingly popular.

Translating this into the political sphere, I think the most natural affiliation would be with a party which is proudly British, which has also courted controversy with its ‘fruitiness’, and which appeals to the sort of small business owner who finds EU legislation a tiring and troublesome obstacle.

Verdict: UKIP

Brie
Soft and creamy, yet with that hard white mouldy rind that no-one is quite sure what to do with, this is a cheese that defies simplistic left/right classification. A vital part of a British cheeseboard, and yet with undisguised internationalist sympathies. Not quite as popular as maybe it should be.

Verdict: Liberal Democrat

Cheddar
Cheddar is everyman’s cheese, the choice of the person who is perhaps only dimly aware that there are other cheeses. Come Christmas and the celebratory cheeseboard that makes its obligatory annual appearance, this person might step out of the boat and try a taste of the Blue Stilton or the Red Leicester, but for most of the year cheese is something to be grated onto spaghetti or sliced into a sandwich, not self-consciously smudged onto a post-dinner cracker — and ‘cheese’ can reliably be taken to mean ‘Cheddar’.

Thus cheddar must represent the largely disengaged apolitical majority of the British electorate–occasionally there may come an election, or a referendum, and they may be persuaded to enter the political fray and remember to trudge to the polling booth and cast their lot in with the left or the right or the alternative protest party, but on a day-in/day-out basis they find politics distant and disinteresting.

Verdict: The Apolitical Majority

+++++++++++++++

So it’s over to you now to discuss and debate my political opinions. And there’s plenty more analysis that the world of political cheese could still use: would Parmesan, a hard Italian cheese, be hard-line Fascist? would Feta inevitably crumble like the Greek economy? what cheese best represents the Scottish Nationalist Party? I look forward to hearing your comments.

DSC_0983

Nine Ways To Revive Your Soul

What do you do to recreate yourself?

This was a question that Andy Henman used to ask me reliably, every single time that I saw him, until I reached the point of exasperation–and still he asked it of me. It’s a good question, highlighting that the point of rest and ‘recreation’ should be to restore your soul, not just to allow your physical body a little inactivity (though that too may be necessary). It’s a question that is more difficult when you are married, and you have covenanted to spend your life — for better, or for worse — with someone who wouldn’t necessarily choose to do the same things as you to recreate themself. And it’s a question that is potentially even more difficult when you have a baby, who changes the dynamics of what you can do in ways that you hadn’t completely foreseen.

Anyway, here’s a little list of seven things we did on our recent ten-day retreat to Devon as we attempted together to spend our time in ways that would be reviving, refreshing and recreating.

1. Ignore everybody
It was an unavoidable blessing to be in a little cottage with no broadband, no wi-fi, and not even a phone signal. I tried a couple of times to check my email (just in case there was something urgent) — and failed. We were unable to say anything to the all-too-often far-too-present rest-of-the-world — and that, I think, may just have been the mercy of God.

2. Slow down and try to hear God’s voice
This should really be the #1 thing on the list, at least in terms of its priority — but it is certainly helped by the first! Even before we’d got to Devon, God was speaking to me, nudging me to not take the whole over-sized pile of books from our shelf that I thought I might perhaps read while away, but to whittle it down to only the few necessary. I did so, and I was left with A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, the Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Solitude of Thomas Cave — all books about journeys. And, indeed, God did seem to be speaking about the journey, and the need to not lose hope but to keep perseveringly pressing on.

3. Watch films — but do it discriminatingly
We watched the Hobbit together — all three episodes — and that continues the theme of ‘the journey’. As Gandalf once said: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

I love how vividly and powerfully a scene from a film can capture the essence of something almost indescribably specific — and Peter Jackson is great at these. In the Hobbit we have several: that opening meditation on the multiplicity of meanings of a mere phrase like Good Morning; the sense of revelation and exalted perspective that comes as Bilbo sticks his head above the treetop canopy of Mirkwood and consequently sees with ease the right direction (that provoked Taryn to whisper to me, ‘That’s what a Quiet Time is like!’).

Films have their drawbacks though. For one thing, its such an immersive medium — an overwhelming spectacle of story, sight and sound — that the director has a worrying power to manipulate your emotions and thoughts. And I frequently find that I can’t tolerate what the film is trying to do to me. For another thing, it requires an almost total degree of passive attentivity — and again, I can only take so much of forced inaction.

4. Read: out-loud together, and alone
I prefer books. And reading aloud is something I love to do. Although it can be quite tiring — and admittedly, for the listener it is as passive as watching a film. Often Taryn and I have read books together while on holiday. P.G. Wodehouse, Jack Kerouac, Francine Rivers — all have at different times entertained and delighted us. And of course the Scriptures — this time we read Hebrews, and the stories in Genesis of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

On my own I dipped into the books I had brought — but also found myself irresistibly drawn to reading the books that were already in the cottage from before we got there, including a good selection of travel literature. I found myself enjoying one about A Year In Provence, and realizing that I do like that sort of writing.

5. Go to places
I have grown up in a family that makes it our mission to do as much in any place that we travel as would a self-respecting writer for the Lonely Planet — climbing every mountain peak, walking to the end of every road, surveying all the possible eating options before choosing where to get some lunch, and going to all the notable places of historic or cultural interest.

So, needless to say, I do like to go to places. We joined the National Trust, and visited at least four stately homes.

6. Walk through the beauty of creation
But you don’t even necessarily have to go anywhere in particular — you can just find a circuitous route that will eventually take you back to the point at which you started. And actually a walk through the great outdoors is often more impressive, refreshing your soul with a greater quality of grandeur, than even the most extravagantly architected antique building.

Conveniently, it also turns out that strapping a baby to your chest and walking steadily onward is one of the best ways of keeping that baby content, as the gentle rocking of the ambulatory action helps the child fall asleep.

But it is important to keep in mind that one person’s short walk can be another’s unbearably long trek. Discernment required, especially when you’ve never gone a certain route and there’s a certain amount of guesswork involved in estimating how long it will take.

7. Cook and eat well
I enjoy the creative challenge of cooking — particularly because it is the one household chore that immediately rewards you with a delicious opportunity to celebrate your contribution to domestic life. I volunteered to make our meals in Devon — and I think we ate rather well. And we took Paul’s advice to Timothy as well.

8. Play board-games
I love games, but when there are just two of you it can be hard to sustain both enthusiasm for competitive play and friendliness of spirit amidst afore-mentioned competition, particularly if the two of you are not precisely matched in your likelihood of coming out victorious in a certain game.

For myself and Taryn, we have found that Carcassonne (which we had borrowed from Mike & Jane) works quite well for the two of us. Go, on the other hand, not so much.

9. Make new friends
Certainly the highlight of our retreat was the way that the Holy Spirit set us up to meet Jim & Mary, the leaders of the North Devon House of Prayer. If you had asked me before whether I was interested in connecting with other Christians in the area, I would have probably said an unapologetic ‘No’ — we had just come from spending a great deal of our time in close community with other Christians, and were feeling somewhat ‘peopled-out’.

But through no desire of our own, God led us on our very first day to stumble into the North Devon House of Prayer, just as they were finishing their morning ‘Pray and Play’ kids session, and just before their afternoon worship set — by the end of which we were being anointed with oil, prayed for, prophesied over, and given a very generous financial gift. We were able to join NDHoP’s midweek prayer night, and then on our final evening to meet Jim and Mary for dinner at their home, during which it turned out that the journey God has led them on is astonishingly parallel to ours — even down to the differences in worship style between husband and wife, and the unreasonably agonizing experience of first-time childbirth.

Well, now it’s your turn — what do you do to recreate yourself?

The Five Loaves: Experiencing Supernatural Provision

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supernaturalprovisionRecently, I’ve been chewing on the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. And in particular I’ve been struck by the different responses of the various characters in the story–and of what it would mean to put those responses into practice in my own situation. Here are my reflections on seven responses to the invitation to partner with God in the joy of experiencing supernatural provision.

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The Initiative: God invites us to join him in the game of living by faith
Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.
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Before we look at the responses, let’s begin with God’s initiative–for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things! To Him be glory forever! Amen.

To feed five thousand people without preparation and find provision for their needs without advance planning is transparently a foolish idea. But as the prophet said, God’s thoughts and ways are incomparably different from normal human so-called common-sense. And here in John’s Gospel — all of which is an extended meditation on the divinity of Jesus, the Word become flesh — we have pointed out to us that Jesus’ question to Philip is more than a foolish human question, it is a divine invitation to experience the supernatural provision of Jehovah Jireh.

John calls it a ‘test’. But it’s not an exam they must pass for fear of losing anything–in spite of their various faltering responses of faith, they will all equally get to enjoy being utterly satisfied by God’s abundant miracle-working power. Rather, Jesus is giving the disciples an opportunity to show how well they understand the power and personality of God, to put into action the faith they have in His nature and character.

And God being an unchanging God, He still gives us these same sorts of opportunities today! The question then is, when faced with these ‘tests’, how do we respond?

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Response #1: Philip assesses the need
Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
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The first response in this story is that of Philip. Now, one could criticise Philip’s visible lack of faith. Elsewhere, Jesus was not slow to rebuke an inadequate response of trust in the power of God.

But here Jesus doesn’t offer any correction. Perhaps he’s waiting to see how the other disciples will respond. But perhaps also it’s that there is at least something right about Philip’s realistic assessment of the situation. In Luke 14:28, Jesus tells a parable pointing out the necessity of counting the cost of a task before beginning it. And so Philip’s response does in fact have something for us to imitate in our situation.

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Response #2: Andrew finds others to contribute to the cause
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
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Second to speak up is Andrew. He doesn’t seem overly filled with faith either. But again Jesus doesn’t criticise, and again there is something for us to learn from Andrew, for although the text doesn’t explicitly mention it, we know that in general you do not have unless you ask. So to have received this little boy’s five loaves and two fish, Andrew must have sought help from others in the crowd, and asked them to contribute to the cause.

And now seems as good a time as any to point out the fun little fact that you can treat ASK as an acronym for ‘Ask, Seek, Knock’ — something that Jesus encourages all of us his disciples to do.

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Response #3: The Young Boy unquestioningly offers all that he has
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish”
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He’s practically glossed over with Andrew’s unhopeful statement in less than half a verse, but the young boy with the loaves and the fish is in a real sense the hero of the story. He is apparently the only one in the crowd who had had the sense to bring and keep enough food to last him until the end of Jesus’ wilderness gathering, but when he hears that there is a need, he doesn’t get precious with his picnic. We’ve heard of the rich young man who went away sad when challenged by Jesus to give away what he had to the poor–well here’s the simple young boy, who unquestioningly gives all that he has so the poor can be fed.

The challenge for us then is whether we are willing to give what little we have to Jesus, even when it seems to small and insignificant to make much difference to the problems of the world around us.

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Response #4: Jesus thanks God for whatever has been provided, trusting it will be enough
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves.
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It’s interesting to consider Jesus’ response here as a paradigm of the faith-filled Spirit-anointed leader charged with the task of ministering to the poor and the hungry.

When God gives us a vision and people to minister to, but the resources at our command are all to obviously not up to the size of the task in question, what is our response? Do we grumble to ourselves and then give up? Do we scale down the scope of the original vision? Or do we stay obedient to the heavenly vision, refuse to despise the day of small things, and rather than giving way to anxiety instead give thanks in everything.

For when Jesus gives thanks, then somehow the loaves multiply. And when we do the same with our apparently insufficient resources, I believe that the same will happen.

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Response #5: Everyone eats as much as they want.
He distributed the loaves to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish–as much as they wanted.
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Here we just pause for a moment to take in the full glory of what is happening. Five thousand men. Plus women and children. Being fed with five loaves and a few fish. This is amazing. Even if you try and explain it away with the anti-supernatural idea that the boy’s willingness to share simply triggered an amazing release of generosity (I won’t even start on why I don’t think this theory is realistic), it’s still amazing. And what particularly strikes me is that they didn’t just get ‘as much as they needed‘, but ‘as much as they wanted‘.

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. This is a promise! He will give you the very desires of your heart. Maybe he’ll first have to reveal to you what your heart’s desires really are. Maybe he’ll first have to change what those desires are. But he will give you the desires of your heart if you delight in Him. Hallelujah!

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Response #6: The Twelve are encouraged to be good stewards
And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.
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I find it so fascinating that immediately after Jesus has taken a five little rolls and multiplied them so that five thousand can be satisfied, the disciples are charged with the task of making sure that none of the left-overs are wasted. If there is supernatural power available to multiply our supplies whenever necessary, then what does it matter how we steward the natural resources that we currently have?

And at once level, I think it is definitely true that Jesus doesn’t want us to over-emphasise material stewardship: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. This comes out really clearly when Jesus talks about the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ — the disciples are beating themselves up over not having remembered to bring bread, and so completely miss the meaning of the word that Jesus is giving them. And he chastises them for having forgotten what happened when he fed the multitudes.

Nevertheless, Romans 14:12 says, ‘Each of us will give an account of ourselves before God’. Likewise, 2 Corinthians 5:10 talks about how we must all come before the judgement seat of Christ to receive what is due for what we have done in this life. And so stewardship needs to be taken seriously! Particularly regarding the weightier matters of justice, mercy, faith and God’s word to us, but still including our money and resources.

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Response #7: Peter realises however difficult it gets, Jesus is worth it!
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…”
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Unlike the Synoptics, The Gospel of John doesn’t end the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand with the filling of their stomachs, but connects it with Jesus’ subsequent proclamation that he himself is the true Bread of Life. But Jesus’ message meets with dispute, dissatisfaction and the departure of a number of disciples.

As I myself wrestle with the pressure of, on the one hand a need for multiplication of provision, and as it happens, also a departure of a dissatisfied trainee (!), it’s vital to keep hold of Peter’s revelation that whatever happens, there is nothing that can compare to the privilege of following Jesus.

Only He has the words of eternal life. Jesus is the pearl of great price. He is worth giving up everything for. Whether or not he gives the financial provision that I think I need, Jesus is enough! He is my portion, and my exceedingly great reward.

And we remain committed to stepping out in faith even if it is not immediately obvious where the supply will come from, trusting that God will never let us down.

Reflection: On a DTS Trainee Deciding to Quit

On Monday we had to wave goodbye to one of our DTS trainees, who informed me on Saturday night that due to what they felt were irresolvable issues with YWAM Cambridge, they had decided to leave the DTS. goodbye
I want to respect the person involved–but I’m going to post a few reflections on the issue here, for three reasons. Firstly, I have committed myself to a high degree of transparency in explaining and communicating the various things involved with the strange job I do. Secondly, and specifically, I’m accountable to those who receive our prayer-letter, who I try to keep informed about what’s happening with our DTS–both positive and negative! Third, I need to get this stuff of my chest because if it stays in my head it will drive me crazy.

#1 Do I need to clarify my theology of the Holy Spirit?
The ‘irresolvable issues’, as far as I understand, were to do with the manifestations of the Holy Spirit–specifically, speaking in tongues and hearing God’s voice. And feeling an unhealthy pressure and condemnation to do those things. Which leads us to the overwhelming question of what made her feel like this!

For while I definitely believe in the continued operation, usefulness, and even necessity (not–please understand!–necessary for personal salvation, but for the accomplishment of the kingdom assignments God gives us to fulfil) of the charismatic Holy Spirit gifts, and I also believe that to be baptised in the Holy Spirit is an overwhelming reality distinct from that of being born again, I reject the idea that the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit must be speaking in tongues.

Let me repeat, I have no desire to make anyone feel condemned for not speaking in tongues. And if I have done anything to allow any such impression, then maybe I need to explain myself more clearly.

Which I may try and do on this blog at some point in the near future have now done here. And I did try and do when the person involved eventually announced that they were leaving (thus, for the first time, inviting a proper discussion of the matter). But by then it was obviously too late to affect anything. Which brings me to my next thought.

#2 Please share your struggles with your leaders!
If only there had been an open willingness to bring struggles and concerns to the DTS leadership then I think we could have worked through this issue and resolved the matter.

But I think actually that this point can be put more forcefully. I think there’s a biblical imperative to speak up to try and bring change when we think something needs to be changed. Note that I’m saying when you think something needs to be changed, rather than just when you’d prefer something to change–I’m not calling for a generation of chronic mumblers and grumblers. But when we think something is actually wrong (rather than simply not our preference, and here we need discernment!) then we need to speak up!

It might be that we actually have the power to do something about it, in which case we should take the necessary initiative. Or it might be that all the power to bring change rests in the hands of a group of leaders of which we are not part. Nevertheless, in that situation we must still — like Ezekiel — speak out, or risk having the guilt of the sin we perceived rest upon our silent passive selves.

#3 There’s more to life than DTS
Anyway, it’s happened now–so I don’t want to dwell on the negative. I am filled with hope for all involved, and filled with faith that God’s hand is in all this. There is much more to life than DTS, and the DTS certainly has no monopoly on the possibility of encountering God’s presence. Furthermore, I refuse to accept that leaving a DTS before it finishes is necessarily a failure. In fact I am fully convinced that in some situations a person may rightly feel God leading them to do a DTS, come, receive the thing God for which God brought them to DTS, and then rightly feel led to move on before the DTS programme has been completed.

While I was staffing with YWAM Harpenden, there was a guy doing a DTS (this wasn’t a DTS I was working with) who had just come clean after some serious drug addictions. I met him a couple of weeks into the course and he seemed to be thriving–hungry for God and eagerly engaging with the teaching. I was then involved with some other things for a few weeks, before again being able to connect with the group of DTS trainees. But he was nowhere to be seen. I asked around and was told that he’d quit–at which I was surprised, because he had seemed to be doing so well! But further questioning revealed that he hadn’t left out for any negative reason, but rather he had had so much breakthrough so quickly that he felt that he was ready to go home and get straight into the ministry there that he felt God calling him into. The DTS leaders were unsurprisingly disappointed and a little perplexed at the decision, but from my outsider’s point of view it seemed he’d made a good decision.

#4 YWAM Cambridge isn’t for everyone
‘So, do you feel like it’s YWAM in general that you have issues with, or YWAM Cambridge in particular?’ I asked this question, and the response was one of awkward silence, before the soft-spoken response finally came: ‘YWAM Cambridge’. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not offended by this comment, and in some ways it even makes me glad. Again, a story might help you to understand my thinking.

The summer before we started the Revival & Reformation DTS, we were at Momentum, manning the YWAM stand and trying to give the people there a vision for serving God in mission, specifically through perhaps doing the DTS. I got talking to a girl who had just finished university, and was undecided as to what her next step should be. So I started explaining to her how the DTS might be a good next step for her–and was in particular enthusing about the merits of the 9-month DTS, which of course we were about to start in Cambridge. She listened with interest and took a flyer, but I heard nothing more from her.

Then a few months later, at the Evangelism Gathering of all the UK DTSes, I spotted a face that was somehow familiar–but I wasn’t sure from where. Finally I had the chance to ask, and she explained that she was the one I’d spoken to at Momentum. And she’d been inspired by what I was saying about the DTS, and particularly about the longer version of the DTS. But her conversation had also left her feeling that she’d rather not be on my YWAM Cambridge DTS!

And again I need to say that I’m not offended by this. YWAM Cambridge has a specific flavour, and it is a particularly strong flavour. We share the Foundational Values with every YWAM ministry, but the way we express those is more intense than most — and that’s okay. And I am encouraged by the knowledge that it was through us in YWAM Cambridge doing our thing with passionate intensity that this girl found her place in YWAM with someone else. We are just a catalyst–we are not the complete picture.

#5 Divine acceleration
To return to the original issue of the person who’s just quit our DTS–I had known that this person and also another have both been struggling with some aspects of the teaching and emphasis of our DTS. But what’s interesting is that their responses have been precisely opposite. Just the day before I heard that this person had decided to leave, the other had arranged to talk with me. And she explained that she wants to commit to join the YWAM Cambridge team for the next couple of years, but wanted to make sure the struggles she’s had wouldn’t be a barrier! This sort of strange symmetry seems to me to be that sort of neat little turn of events that must involve God.

And I recall that when we were first praying for the individual concerned, I had the word ‘acceleration’–and prayed that God would begin to work more quickly in her than she even expected! Obviously I wasn’t expecting her to ‘finish’ the DTS six months early, but God’s ways are not our ways!

And if it’s God’s will that’s being done, then may it happen more and more quickly!

A Priestly Vocation

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priestlyvocationA rather roundabout account of how it is that I have come to consider myself a candidate for Anglican ordination.

The Blossoming of my Anglican Heritage
My grandparents on both sides are Anglicans, respectable citizens of the (once?) Great isle of Britain, pillars of their communities, and loving parents of the missionaries my mother and father have become. All Saints, Lindfield is the church in which my mother grew up, and remains my parents’ main supporting church. My father was christened as a child, but then converted through Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh, re-baptised, and eventually ordained by them as a reverend minister as my parents were sent out into the nations to help reach East Asia’s billions with the gospel message of Jesus.

I was born in the Philippines, as were my brother and sister, but it wasn’t until being sent to Chefoo School, Malaysia, as a primary school boarder that my Anglican formation begun. Each Sunday morning we would walk down the long and winding school drive, past the flourishing ferns of the surrounding rainforest, to an old nissen hut that went by the deceptively grand title of All Souls’ Church. which each week was the stage for a full rendition of the Holy Communion service from the Book of Common Prayer. I remember the tedium of the liturgy being outdone only by the rambling sermons of the unpronouncably (at least to my English eight-year old mind) named Reverend Ng. I remember being convicted when a missionary speaker gave an altar call–but not quite summoning up the courage to make my way to the front to surrender my life to Jesus. I remember spending each Sunday leafing through Annie Valloton’s illustrations in the church’s Good News Bibles. I remember sitting next to Phil and snickering at the discovery of the Song of Songs. I remember the privilege of being asked to do the lectionary’s Bible reading.

Meanwhile in Singapore, where I went ‘home’ for the Christmas and Summer holidays, our family went each Sunday to the nationalistically named (Singapore was, of course, originally a British colony) St George’s. At least we went there until after church one Sunday I said to my parents–‘You know that thing the preacher said… doesn’t it say the opposite in the Bible..?’ Which catalysed my first conversion to Presbyterianism, as we thereafter attended Adam Road Presbyterian Church. Nonetheless, faithful nominal Anglican that I am, we would return each Christmas eve for Midnight Mass, and–even in the tropical heat of equatorial Singapore–I would enthusiastically join in with In The Bleak Midwinter, and all the rest of England’s favourite carols.

At secondary school in India, I churched mostly at Union Church (once home of the apostolic cricketer CT Studd), and it was there that I was baptised. I joined the Anglican communion only on those Sunday mornings when I rolled out of bed slightly too late for Union’s 10.30 service, and so had to make my way further up the hill to St Stephen’s 11am Eucharist.

But at university, I again found my home in an Anglican church–this time it was St Barnabas on Mill Road. Having encountered God powerfully in my final year of school but still not quite (!) got my life together–nor discovered the humility to confess to another my need– ‘Barney’s‘ evening service gave me a place where I could anonymously come and experience the healing presence of the Holy Spirit. I also discovered a thoroughly radically group of students, who drew me into a lifestyle of expectant and exhilirating prayer that has become the driving force of all that I do.

But when you are running after God with all of the zeal you can muster, it is hard to be content with the steady and slothful pace of a parish congregation. I converted again to Presbyterianism, and I remember my confirmation as a member being misinterpreted as a conversion to Christian faith: ‘This is the greatest day of your life!’ a sweet old lady told me, after the service. After graduating with a mixed degree in Mathematics and Theology, I was employed as Church Evangelist, but in retrospect being a convinced Charismatic I was perhaps never going to have any long-term future in a denomination which forbids the (public) speaking of tongues.

Taryn and I joined YWAM in Harpenden, where we were initially part of Christ Church Harpenden, an independent evangelical church recommended by some friends at CPC, and then at New Covenant Fellowship, Luton a newly beginning Pentecostal church-plant that invited myself and Taryn to be involved with worship, preaching and leadership.

My Doctrinal Convictions
Meanwhile, my doctrinal convictions were settling into place.

I believe that for mortal homonids such as ourselves, the universe is an impossibly complex thing to come to terms with, and that to do so in any meaningful sense requires that we extrapolate from the limited evidence at hand and put our faith in that which mere rational analysis cannot ever satisfactorily prove. Which is to say that everyone has faith in something, and our actions show what that faith is in.

I believe that time and space and matter and forces that act thereon came into existence at a particular point–and that this points to the existence of a Being who transcends time and space. I believe that the existence of life on our astonishingly green and fertile planet, in a universe which is astonishingly hostile to the earliest inklings of anything which might grow and reproduce, leads to the conviction that this transcendent Being is a deliberate designer. I believe that the instincts of human conscience, and the recognition of the ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in diverse cultures and countries, cannot be convincingly grounded without postulating that the transcendent Being (of whose existence we have already been convinced) is also a consistently and perfectly moral Being. Indeed, because morality is nothing but the code which governs interpersonal relationships, He (with the requisite mutterings about such a being not being gendered in any recognisable way) must be a personal Being, and in fact an interpersonal Being.

I believe that this Being is not some silent static supposition, but a living and active participant in the great drama of Time. I believe that He hides himself in the numerous nooks and crannies of creation, like Easter eggs hidden in a childhood garden, to reward those who can be bothered with the effort of seeking him. I believe that He reveals himself to those who seek him–and sometimes to those who do not!–and that he’s done so to people from all tribes and tongues throughout history. I believe that the Hebrews–Abraham and his Mesopotamian clay tablets, Moses and his Egyptian papyrus scrolls, Paul and his parchment epistles–have been particularly frank and honest about the way in which He revealed himself to them; I do not believe that such true and authentic honesty could be possible without the inspiration of the very Spirit of this self-revealing transcendent Being.

I believe that communication by the power of the written word is all very well, but that it can never compare with face-to-face encounter. I believe that Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth has made such encounter with God possible.

I believe that this Jesus was a real, historical, human being. I believe that there is ample manuscript evidence not only for the belief that such a man lived, but also that he died unjustly and painfully on a Roman cross, that he was buried in a high-security tomb, and that he was then seen by multiple witnesses three days later, having been raised to a new yet true sort of life. I believe that those witnesses are to be trusted, and that the proof of this is the corroboration of their distinct testimonies, and their willingness to suffer even unto death for the sake of these testimonies.

I believe that Jesus’ death was not some political accident, but the most profound and significant event in human history. I believe that for the sake of humanity, such a death was vitally necessary; I believe that though it was motivated by obedience to the will of God, such a death was entirely voluntary. I believe that the fact of the cross proves paradoxically both the seriousness and the irrelevance of our sin.

I believe that this story of Jesus dying for our sins and rising again, this demonstration of the power of the love of God over the curse of death–this is good news! This is singular, unique and unprecedented. If it is true, then the problem of evil is solvable, then the tragedy of any person’s life is redeemable.

I believe that just hearing this message can transform hearts and minds and reconcile people to God. I believe that we therefore have a missionary mandate to communicate this astonishing announcement to whoever we can, however we can. But particularly by living lives which resonate with the power of this death-defying lavishly-loving abundant life.

I believe we cannot do this of our own free will. But I believe in the Holy Spirit, who shortly after the resurrection of Jesus began to fall in power upon those who believed in the death-defying life of Jesus. I believe that that same Spirit is still at work today, fanning into flame the flickerings of faith in our feeble and faltering hearts, convicting us of our self-satisfied hypocrisies and self-indulgent wickednesses, teaching us how to pray prayers that go beyond our mere human vocabularies, propelling us out in awkwardly overambitious mission to a bruised and broken world.

I believe that this is what we were made for, we human beings. Not to survive with the fittest, but to lay our lives down in sacrificial love, daring to do what has never been done before–not for the sake of vainglorious pride, but for the greater good of our communities, and for those outside the dotted lines which mark the boundaries of those whom we consider ‘our neighbour’. I believe that since a transcendent God has made us for this empowering experience of relationship with him and through him with others, it is no surprise that when we reject him and live as if self-sufficient, we instead find ourselves–at best!–tired, bored, and angry.

I believe that we need community. I believe that the communities that we most need are communities of faith in this invisible, transcendent, powerful, morally flawless, personally loving God; communities that would take the life of Jesus as their model, the death of Jesus as their message, the resurrection of Jesus as their motivator; communities that would dwell in the presence and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit; communities that would read and hear and think through and grapple with and live and breathe the story of the Scriptures.

I believe that to have a church like this is impossible–but I believe more strongly that nothing is impossible with God. And I believe that God can and will and is raising up churches like this, and bringing them together, preparing them for the day when the same Jesus–who was born of the virginal Mary, who was sentenced by Pontius Pilate to immediate execution, who died and rose again–when this same Jesus will return in glory to the same Mount of Olives just east of the walls of Jerusalem where he was last seen.

Presbyterian Polemic leads to Anglican Doctrine
These convictions have been mine for some time now. But it is only more recently that I have been persuaded of the truth of some of the more minor claims of Anglican doctrine–and interestingly it has not been Anglicans that have persuaded me of these things.

The first of these relatively minor points was the baptising of infants–‘christening’. Growing up in close proximity to more than a handful of Baptist missionaries, I must have frequently heard the argument that such a thing was absurd. Baptism is a symbol of faith in Christ–and how can an infant too young to understand the gospel message have saving faith? I had seen Anglican christenings, had even vowed with the congregation to uphold *name* in their new life in Christ, but never had I heard a vicar explain the biblical rationale for such a thing, though I had seen several Anglicans who seemed uncertain there was one. It was only upon attending Cambridge Presbyterian Church that I heard the case for infant baptism. The point that persuaded me was the view of the Apostle Paul that circumcision was a sign of faith–and yet circumcision was clearly permitted for infants. That, combined with having grown up in a missionary family, understanding the gospel for as long as I can remember, but frequently being plagued with doubts as to whether I was old and wise enough to make an informed commitment–when in retrospect I wish that I had sooner dived in foolish childlike faith into the rich and true love of God.

A second issue was the whole issue of political power and the church’s engagement with such–‘Christendom’. That history has too many incidents of wicked men claiming the name of Christ in defense of their evil deeds is a point that I readily concede. But it seemed every story I had heard explaining church history was one which skipped from the deaths of the apostles past the conclusion of the canon of the Scriptures through what was unquestioningly considered the irredeemable corruption of Constantinianism, the dark ages of which were only concluded by the light of the Protestant Reformation. It was only upon coming across the fascinatingly intelligent high-church Presbyterian Peter Leithart that I found someone who argued persuasively that a politically influential Christianity might not per se be a hypocritical denial of all that Jesus stands for.

The other advantages of such a mould of Christianity slowly began to dawn on me. The instinctive commitment to hard-fought visible unity, rather than quick and easy doctrinal schism–that’s one thing I like. Then there’s the actual fact of genuine local churches (thousands of them, in parishes across the country), rather than the incongruity of evangelical rhetoric about ‘the importance of the local church’ coupled with congregations drawn to their favourite attendable church from the various farflung corners of the city.

But there was one point of Anglican doctrine for which I had never heard any biblical defense, nor did I think it particularly likely that I would: in a word, bishops.

The insight of Ruskin‘s Gothic imagination
The first spark of revelation on this matter came from a rather unusual source.

Rewind to the year after I graduated, when the incomparable Phil had invited a group of friends to join him in a cottage in the Lake District. We were part of that privileged party, and in between striding up hilly peaks we managed to squeeze in a visit to the one-time abode of the great nineteenth-century Anglican architectural critic John Ruskin. I couldn’t resist buying a copy of Ruskin’s ‘Selected Writings’, and while in the Lake District read his celebrated essay on The Nature of Gothic. In this essay he suggests that

the systems of architectural ornament, properly so called, might be divided into three:
— 1. Servile ornament, in which the execution or power of the inferior workman is entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher ;
— 2. Constitutional ornament, in which the executive inferior power is, to a certain point, emancipated and independent, having a will of its own, yet confessing its inferiority, and rendering obedience to higher powers ;
— and 3. Revolutionary ornament, in which no executive inferiority is admitted at all.

He goes on to explain how the first division consists of Classical architecture, which “could not endure the appearance of imperfection in anything”; the third, Renaissance architecture, in which “the inferior detail becomes principal… and the whole building becomes an exhibition of well-educated imbecility”; the second, mediaeval Christian Gothic architecture, which recognises both the value and imperfection of every soul, “bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgement of unworthiness”.

Now, my interests are more ecclesiological than architectural, and so the thing that immediately interested me was the analysis of architectural styles applied as an analogy of different denominational leadership structures, with ‘servile ornament’ corresponding to authoritarian Papism, ‘revolutionary ornament’ to an anti-episcopal Prebyterianism, and ‘constitutional ornament’ to a unifying and yet releasing Anglican Episcopalianism.

Not that you should take my word for this–read Ruskin’s essay and mull over it; then tell me what you make of the idea. And at this point I had yet to see any hint that there might be some biblical basis for the existence of bishops. That had to wait until the following year…

How a Southern Baptist missionary made me an Episcopalian
We had just finished doing Youth With A Mission’s Discipleship Training School, during which a clear prophetic word had called us to commit immediately to full-time missionary service with YWAM. But ‘immediately’ is rarely (if ever!) quite as immediate as it sounds, and before returning to Harpenden as full-time staff, we had to return to Cambridge, inform our church of our plans, and begin inviting people to partner with us. Having nowhere to live, we went to stay with my parents, who that year were back at All Nations Christian College. I mentioned to my father that when we returned to Harpenden we were also planning to be involved with New Covenant Fellowship, a Pentecostal church-plant in Luton. As he was teaching a course on church-planting at the time, he was rather pleased by this, and had soon given me several books on the subject that he thought might be interesting. I cannot remember any of the books but one–T4T:Training for Trainers, by Steve Smith. But that one gripped my imagination and filled me with fiery excitement. It is both the story of the most successful church-planting movement in recent times, and a detailed defense of the biblical basis of the principles underlying it. It persuaded me that the revival for which we have been praying is–or must be!–nothing less than a church-planting movement. And it persuaded me that one of the vital keys for such a thing to occur is the rediscovery of the simplicity of the nature of ‘church’: ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name…‘.

But how did a house-church movement connect with the conviction that had taken root in my heart that night-and-day worship was not just valid, but vital? And how could the incredible accounts of missional multiplication in Asia be reproduced in the post-Christendom context of the UK?

And the key revelation came in a little chapter towards the end of the book, where the author is addressing the question of whether Paul’s command to Timothy that a ‘novice’ not be ordained means that for all of the missional effectiveness of releasing young leaders to start and lead new churches, in fact it is clearly unbiblical to do so. But in fact, argues the author, we need to recognise the distinction between the potential Ephesian episkopos in Paul’s letter to Timothy, and the potential Cretan presbuteros in Paul’s letter to Titus. Only the former must not be a novice; the latter is required merely to be ‘devout’. Anyway, by the time the author had sketched the differences in context between the two superficially similar sets of criteria for Christian leadership, he had convinced me that there was indeed a possible biblical argument for a certain sort of hierarchy in church leadership.

And having had those Presbyterian preachers function as Anglican apologists, the idea that a multi-tiered Episcopalianism might be more missionally effective and more exegetically sound than a flat Presbyterianism was the last straw–! And so in my mind I was now a convinced Anglican. (Though it is worth reiterating that I am very grateful for my Presbyterian experience, and was mightily encouraged to have my Presbyterian former minister give his blessing to my potential Anglican vocation.)

The Unanticipated Effect of Pentecostal Unction
It should be remembered that at the time I was still happily committed to our Pentecostal church in Luton, in absolutely no hurry to up and leave for the Anglican church. My conviction is that if the Spirit leads you to move from one church to another, you should follow that leading without any hesitation–but if the Spirit does not thus move you, then you should remain part of the congregation of which you are a part, even if there are aspects of doctrinal emphasis or understanding with which you may begin to differ.

I may be called to the Anglican church, or I may not be. But I am certainly called to be a missionary and an evangelist–as we all are! (Matt. 28:19, 2 Tim. 4:5, etc.)–and God in this season had called us to help plant this church! And to catch people’s attention with the simple gospel message of Jesus in whatever way I could.

It was not long after we returned to YWAM Harpenden, and to church with NCF in Luton, that our church hosted the Brazilian pastor whose church network we were linked with. We had a weekend conference, and Pastor Raimondo (as was his name) preached on The Power of The Cross. Then on the Sunday morning as his sermon drew to a close, he invited forward those who were called to Christian leadership. I was specifically called to the front. He laid hands on me and blessed me, praying a prayer of impartation, asking that I would receive the fullness of the unction that God had given him, to do the work of ministry and pastor God’s flock.

A few days later I woke up with the crazy idea that I should run for Archbishop. ‘Running for Archbishop’ was a number of things, none of them perfectly realised. It was an attempt to do some street evangelism in a way that tied in with an internet strategy. It was a joke. It was a serious attempt to try and demonstrate what my newly-arrived-at missional Anglicanism would look like when put into practice.

Because that’s the thing, that it’s not a hum-drum ‘we are gathered here today’ sort of Anglicanism that I’ve been converted to, but a propulsively Pentecostal, almost manically missional GO in peace to love and serve…’ Anglicanism. The episcopal thing is not a relinquishing of the missionary mandate to hierarchical authoritarianism. Rather it is a recognition that the missionary mandate (which each believer possesses with full apostolic authority by virtue of the Great Commission) is best served by an upside-down multi-tiered servant-hearted ruggedly-Gothic (in a Ruskinian sense) hierarchy that is absolutely releasing and empowering but also discerning and patient. The virtue of patient discernment being that it makes it possible for a multitude of disparate individuals to speak in harmony.

Rather than requiring that “all that occurs…should always be under the control of the eldership” (Presbyterian Book of Church Order 8.4.1), affirming a multi-tiered hierarchy of leadership allows leaders to release control, allowing people to make mistakes, knowing that a lay-person is not a deacon, who is not a priest, who is not a bishop. The job of leaders in the church is most certainly not to be in control of all that occurs! Rather, it is to discern and confirm those whose leadership is under the control of the Spirit of God (which of course means those that are releasing others to be led by the Spirit of God, rather than by the authoritarian control of man).

‘Running for Archbishop’ was about the fact that as an English layperson I had God’s full permission and authority to declare the gospel with all the might I could muster–while still affirming my recognition of the established ecclesial authorities of the land.

The Moment I’d Been Waiting For
So we did the ‘Running For Archbishop’ thing, much to the confusion of all the people who get our news updates. We did street evangelism in seven different cities around the country–we didn’t see anyone come to the Lord. A few weeks later we were involved with the Circuit Riders, and suddenly discovered how to do street evangelism in a way that worked. Or maybe we just suddenly stepped into that breakthrough evangelistic anointing–it’s hard to say.

We spent the rest of the year happily at New Covenant Fellowship, me never quite working out how to put the T4T multiplying vision into practise in a church that already had a strong and specific way of going about cell-group discipleship and Sunday morning meetings.

We returned to Cambridge, and rather than return to CPC, decided that as well as being involved with the Anglican Fresh Expression that is the Cambridge House of Prayer (with which YWAM Cambridge is partnering), we would take the opportunity of a new beginning to try and put this vision of multiplying house church discipleship into practice. I put together a Simple Christianity discipleship course, and we announced our new course to the world. We were delighted when John and Inge said they would like to be part of this vision for house church–we had no idea that these would be Inge’s last few months.

Soon after arriving back in Cambridge I was in a pub talking to Andrew Taylor, the ordained Pioneer Curate who leads the Cambridge House of Prayer. What exactly is a house of prayer? was the question we were discussing. Specifically– is it a parachurch-like less-than-church sort of anomaly? Or could it be a church? A different-church? A more-than-church?

After a somewhat heated discussion, Andrew paused and said to me– ‘Have you ever considered Anglican ordination? You know, I could recommend you…’

Meeting with my Vocations Advisor
Over the last six months I’ve been meeting with Father Robert, the vicar of the Little St Mary’s, and the man appointed as my Vocations Advisor. He’s been asking all sorts of probing questions, and listening patiently as I attempt to describe my call to the ordained Anglican priesthood.

After our final meeting, his conclusion is that he ‘discerns a priestly vocation’, but that nevertheless he recommends that we put things on pause for a year, for if I were at this moment to proceed up the next rung of the ladder towards ordination, I would be turned down by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands on account of appearing at least on paper insufficiently Anglican.

This, upon consideration, is actually exactly what I want. For at the moment I am more than busy enough trying to get this Revival & Reformation DTS established and sustainable. And I want to continue doing that without too much distraction for at least the next two years, without worrying about jumping through any Anglican training hoops.

The Communion of Saints
It’s an odd position to be in, to not be an active part of any actual Anglican church, but to have suddenly been anointed with an energetic conviction that not only has God has not finished with the Church of England, but that it will a key instrument in the Holy Spirit’s purpose of bringing a revival to this land greater than any previously seen.

It’s a tension that I resolved in my mind by some combination of three ideas. The first thought was that just as the priest-in-charge of a particular local congregation wouldn’t be a regular weekly member of another, so I–as a vocational missionary, called by God to help start new churches–shouldn’t be expected to be (indeed, what with trying to start house church gatherings at the same time as pioneering a particularly long and intense version of the world’s most intensive discipleship programme, we were terrifically busy). The second was that the Church of England is not a narrow membership-based church, but a broad accepting open-armed servant of the community that quite explicitly states from time to time how it exists not just for church-goers, but for the whole nation. And third, that my theological convictions were now quite passionately Anglican–indeed (I would argue), more recognisably historically Anglican than many Anglicans (even ordained Anglicans) that I knew.

But when Inge’s death brought our Sunday house church gathering to a premature end, we started joining Sunday fellowship at our local parish church, the Church of the Good Shepherd. And so–finally!–I am visibly a part of the Anglican communion.

I suppose that visible communion is one of the main things that this is about. My sense of missionary vocation was forged in an exhilarating few weeks of prayer in the second term of my second year, for which the initial catalyst had been a frustration with Christian disunity and the consequent prayerlessness and missional ineffectiveness it caused. So while I am absolutely convinced that the Great Commission gives any Christian believer all the authority they need to make disciples — and therefore to gather together as ‘A Church’, and baptise new believers and break bread in celebration of the Lord’s Supper — yet I believe that it is worth the effort of trying to be visibly unified in our communion.

I believe in ‘one, holy, catholic, apostolic church’. If a church is to be ‘apostolic’, then it has to release the missionary potential (and destiny!) of every one of its members, empowering them to be pioneering apostles, proclaiming the gospel wherever they go, and initiating new gatherings of those who believe. And as the church thus multiplies, in unpredictable Spirit-led fashion, it is meant to remain ‘one’. This was Jesus’ prayer, and he suggests that continued Christian unity is as important a factor in ‘the world believing’ as evangelism itself (Jn. 17:21).

The Priestly Vocation
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you faithfully minister the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, so that the people committed to your charge may be defended against error and flourish in the faith?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you, knowing yourself to be reconciled to God in Christ, strive to be an instrument of God’s peace in the Church and in the world?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you work with your fellow servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it?
By the help of God, I will.
Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known among all whom you serve?
By the help of God, I will.

I will, I will, I will! But–at least so far as ministering the sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them–not quite yet.

Taking Stock Of My Blog

We’ve just sent out another prayer letter, and it’s time to take stock.

Taryn and I have just had our first-born child, and she remains on crutches for the forthcoming weeks; our pioneering Revival & Reformation DTS has come to a conclusion, and our seven YWAM trainees are now fully-qualified youthful missionaries; England have been knocked out of the World Cup, after playing only two of their three group games.

It’s time to step back, sit down, and silently consider what is what and who is who. And since writing is one of the main ways that I organise the cluttered collection of convictions in my mind into some semblance of sense, I have been trying to take stock of the various bits and pieces that I have published online over the last few years.

This Peter.Prescott.ws blog is my third attempt at an internet presence for my collected writings. (I’ve not counted the incredibly short-lived collection of angsty poetry I started and quickly stopped at the beginning of 2005.)

My first was begun in celebration of New Year 2008, as I emailed everyone I thought might be interested in my reflections on the question of What Being A Christian Meant, and wanted somewhere to put the testimony of encountering God at the November ’05 YF Camp that I referred to in that email. It was hosted on Blogspot, and titled They Don’t Make Modern Art Like They Used To. Through university I sporadically posted an assortment of things that I wanted to say publicly (or at least have Phil perhaps read). It was my little soapbox in cyberspace.

I started a second blog just as our DTS was finishing in Harpenden, primarily out of a specific sense of divine prompting: “I feel that same silent voice encouraging me to continue my occasionally unusual attempts to communicate the gospel. And in particular, to begin blogging with intentionality and consistency.” I deleted the previous blog (though I’ve now restored its online presence here), purchased the domain name MereHuman.org and started another Blogspot blog (which I’ve also imported here). My declared intention was to post weekly, but I didn’t really consider the challenge that the intensely seasonal nature of YWAM work would present to this ambition. Having said that, I was given total encouragement by YWAM leaders, and invited to contribute to be an official YWAM blogger for various summer events (this, that, and the other). Anyway, my attempt to blog about the DTS we were staffing was somewhat short-lived, and when I resumed briefly after we returned from outreach, my first post was a (nuanced) declaration that I was not a YWAM spokesperson.

It was in the holiday (at a friend’s family holiday home in Wales) following that DTS, that I purchased a new domain, PeterandTaryn.com. This was not out of any desire to become a sort of celebrity apostolic pair for the twenty-first century (though I can imagine PaulandBarnabas.com!), but rather from wanting there to be a clear unity to mine and Taryn’s online (and offline) ministry. We were emailing out fairly frequent prayer-letters (now online here) for our YWAM ministry; I was blogging on whatever took my fancy (at times intentionally controversial, in the hope of provoking engaged response; at other times whatever came to mind, in the hope of actually writing something every couple of weeks); Taryn had her music online (now here). But the link between it all wasn’t particular clear to us–let alone an outsider.

Getting our personal online presence sorted out was a secondary priority to that of putting together a sufficiently functional website for YWAM Cambridge for us to attract some students for our pioneering Revival & Reformation DTS. I managed to put something together, and we had some students apply–but PeterandTaryn.com remained in what Phil, when he admitted to prematurely discovering it online, called ‘a state of undress’.

The DTS began, and life became too busy even to keep up much in the way of emailing out our prayer-letters. I had however begun the slow and somewhat tedious job of uploading all of our old prayer-letters to a new public blog for our collected prayer-letters. This meant that when our trainees went on outreach we were able to launch this new website–not, in the end, as PeterandTaryn.com (although for the moment at least we still own that domain, so it works), but as an interlinked collection of Prescott.ws sites, allowing for multiple blogs. Not only can me and Taryn now blog side-by-side, but I’ve been able to get rid of my Tumblr and replace it with my new Footnotes tumblelog. And it allows us to have very professionally personalised domain names: Peter.Prescott.ws and Taryn.Prescott.ws.

As an aside (and before you ask), the .ws suffix stands in theory for ‘web-site’, at least according to the entrepreneurs who persuaded the West Samoan government to let them sell .ws domains to the wider world.

I’ve spent today trying to get a handle on all the different things that I’ve posted online over these last few years. It’s pretty thorough–including my formative encounters with God at school and university; the first, second, and third reports from my three grant-funded summer trips to India, as well as my pre-university weeks volunteering in Malaysia; there’s a fairly complete if sometimes irregular account of what we’ve done with YWAM; there’s a full spectrum of Christian writing from the vulnerably personal to the joyfully dogmatic to the shamelessly controversial to the eccentrically apologetic; there’s essays, poems, reviews.

I’m not quite sure where this journey will take me; I’m not quite sure how the next chapter should read. But I’m grateful to all those that have encouraged and accompanied me along the way thus far.

I’ve certainly enjoyed it.

Five Things I Love About CPC

We returned to visit CPC last Sunday. Though we are no longer members of this church, I was reminded of some of the reasons why I love Cambridge Presbyterian Church.

#1 Biblical Depth

This is what first drew me to the church, when I was a student completing my first year of university Theology and needing a spiritual home that would give me some biblical ballast to keep me from being swept to and fro by the variety of different theological opinions that my academic reading was bringing me into contact with. Moving to CPC meant my weekly sermon intake instantly quintupled: from one twenty-minute homily to two forty-minute expositions (Sunday morning and evening), and a ‘brief’ twenty-minute meditation at the start of the Thursday night prayer meeting.

#2 Historical Rootedness

We all read the Bible from a particular point of view, being conditioned by our culture, our upbringing, and all manner of other factors of which we are usually utterly unaware. Theological study trains you to be acutely aware of this fact and can sometimes lead to an unhealthy cynical relativism–‘if we’re all interpreting the Bible from finite and fallen perspectives, then what hope do we have of hearing the living Word of God?’

I love the fact that CPC is well aware of and nourished by its Reformed history, and yet able to give robust priority to the Scriptures. I still remember my first evening service, and the way that a comment of Luther’s on an obscure verse in Genesis was gently dismissed and then used as a springboard for an earnest gospel appeal.

#3 Theological Clarity

Predestination was the specific subject that had come onto my radar in the months before I first walked in the doors of CPC. The combination of the CICCU’s termly bible studies focussing on the book of Malachi, and my discovery of the ‘seven-point Calvinist‘ John Piper, led to several discussions on this controversial topic. And I deeply appreciated the confident simplicity with which CPC confessed its convictions.

This isn’t to say that I always agreed with all of those convictions–the most obvious example being the question of charismatic gifts. But whether I agreed or not with what was preached, the very clarity of it forced me to come to terms with the hard facts of what I myself actually believed. And for that I am very grateful.

#4 Merely Christian Big-Heartedness

Confidently Presbyterian CPC certainly is, but I love that for all of the church’s shameless willingness to tie their theological colours to the mast, the fact remains that the church is a big-hearted Christian church before it is a Presbyterian church.

We are saved by believing in Jesus, not in unconditional election.

#5 Diligent Gospel Confidence

It wasn’t long before joining CPC that the Holy Spirit had begun to ekballo me onto the streets to proclaim the Word of God, in fear and trembling taking my first steps into the exhilarating world of street evangelism. And it was a delight to discover upon arriving at CPC that God had brought me to one of the few (at least as far as I could see at the time) churches in Cambridge that continued to believe in straight-forward street preaching.

Not only that, but they were later willing to employ me as church evangelist! An opportunity for which I will be forever grateful.