We’re recently back from Spring Harvest in Skegness, where I worked with Norman Ivison of Fresh Expressions each morning, and had my usual mixed set of lectures and seminars in the afternoons – this year discussing ecclesiology (SH’s theme this year), women and men in leadership, using social media, and dealing with divorce. I was also, for the first time, on the Event Leadership Team – a role which involved ‘early morning’ (7.45, but in SH terms…) prayer meetings, which turned out to be really good times, as wonderful stories were shared of what had happened around the site the previous day.
The event was excellent; Ness Wilson, pastor of Open Heaven Church in Loughborough, gave the morning Bible readings and was, by universal consent, quite stunningly good; someone pointed out to me that the main platform speakers were about 50% female, and about 50% under 35/40 (the latter statistic depending on some guesses that, in view of the former, might be considered ungallant…).
This was my sixth SH on team; for the first time, my big memory of the event is not the talks I gave. Two in particular were difficult in advance: divorce, because I know little about the subject; and women and men in leadership, because I care deeply about what people think. I did some work and coped, I think, with the former; the latter was rendered easy by the context. I spoke after Ness had given a Bible reading that morning, and after Bev Murill had preached powerfully the previous evening; my notes had a list of great female preachers and leaders from history, with the question – can you really believe God did not gift and call? To say to folk, given what we’ve heard and experienced over the last 24 hours, can you really believe… was easy – Ness and Bev were both wonderful – and powerful. (I think I said that almost any preacher must be jealous of the gifts God has given to the pair of them – certainly my feeling…) Working with Norman was great – an easy relationship from the word go, and we instinctively shared a vision of what the church is called to be, without having to work at it.
My lasting memory, though, was not any of this, good though it was. Two snapshots, perhaps. First, Pete Greig, of 24/7 Prayer, preaching one night. It was an extremely powerful message, but in the course of it he recalled with much humour his first dabblings with friends into what an earlier generation would have called ‘experimental Christianity.’ These experiments in prayer and discipleship all took place in Pete’s mother’s shed, where they would meet together and see what God would do. Second, one of our daughters, arriving home at lunchtime, shyly telling me that she prayed for a friend to be healed, and that as she prayed, her friend was healed. She and friend (daughter of others on the team, so I could follow up the story) were astonished…
Both snapshots capture a sense of God running ahead of us in ministry, doing more than we ask or imagine. And there was a sense for me, and for others on the speaking team who I talked to, that we were being taken places in ministry we’d not been before. No doubt other colleagues were well within a comfort zone, but I found myself repeatedly in a place where there was a temptation to look around the room/tent and say something like – ‘the guy there? with the beard? Pete Greig – he does this stuff; why don’t you go talk to him?’ A boldness that comes from grace, however, kept me going. The night I walked past the ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ session, was grabbed by a despairing steward who needed backup because too many people wanted to come in, and ended up forgetting the party I was headed to and diving in to minister to all comers for ninety minutes – this is not my normal experience (altar calls at the end of lectures are frowned upon where I work…). There were other examples.
It wasn’t just me, either. No names, of course, but one colleague told a lovely tale of seeing someone fall over in response to offered prayer ministry; a concerned friend asked ‘Does that mean God is doing something special?’ to which my colleague replied in the heat of the moment, ‘I don’t know – it’s never happened to me before…’ For much of the event, my overarching experience was the sense – familiar to many of us, I guess, from youth group/student days – that God was at work and that we were running to catch up.
As an academic theologian, I know at this point I am supposed to make a catalogue of happenings and analyse them. I’ve said before on this blog that I am not a very good theologian, and I have to acknowledge today that I’d much rather spend my days running breathlessly behind what God is doing than carefully dissecting it after the fact. For me, Spring Harvest this year was great.