Our Travel blog
“…God didn’t build himself that throne,
God doesn’t live in Israel or Rome”*
I am writing this while tired. I have had a busy week filled with hard work and some emotional moments. I want to capture my feelings whilst recognising that at present they are raw and may change with time. Apart from the usual corrections to spelling, punctuation and grammar where it is important for clarity, I don’t intend to revise it. I may though consider an addendum or companion piece if my views change with the benefit of further experience or hindsight. These are my views and mine alone. If you choose to be offended by them then I’m fine with that. I’m sure that it will resonate with people in different ways. If we had the pleasure of working with you at New Wine then please understand this is a strictly personal account and no criticism is intended. I hope these words help to explain how I found the spiritual aspect of New Wine and as such may be of benefit.
I’ve never really got the whole faith business. I’ve been to church, sang the hymns, dozed during the sermons and can recite The Lord’s Prayer. Beyond that nothing’s really touched me. I’ve never felt any stirring of my soul, whatever that is. In short I have never really believed that God exists.
But when I met Alison I started to question that. Her faith shone, radiant and immovable in the face of my cynicism. Even my youngest son, a man schooled in the fine arts of the cynic from an early age, a boy who was rapidly acquiring grand master sceptic level by the time he left primary school, confided that he found her faith charismatic and that ‘she lived it.’ When conversation flagged I’d fire arguments and questions at her. You know the type of questions, those oh so clever ones atheists reserve for people of faith that are supposed to catch them out. And she took it all in good spirit. Every time I thought I’d served an ace she returned with a compassionate lob or loving volley. I came to realise that I wasn’t trying to change her mind but to have mine changed.
Most of my adult exposure to faith was as a sneering outsider. I’d pick up on the contradictions, on the schisms, on the tanned TV evangelists living in mansions, on the ridiculous God Hates Fags memes on social media and the neo-fascist Britain First, hiding their hate fuelled agenda under the cloak of Christianity. But living with Alison was a revelation. She lives compassion, tolerance (she does live with me after all) and love, and not only on Sunday mornings so that she can feel righteous for the rest of the week; she doesn’t seek confession to cleanse herself to make way for new and exciting ways to sin next time (which is a shame as I have an interesting and stimulating list for her to try). She just lives as a normal human being; a selfless, charming and flawed human being. Yes, flawed, as we all are. We all make mistakes, and we all wish we’d made different decisions sometimes.
And so, on my quest to establish my atheist credentials, to further cement them as a part of my identity I started questioning my views. Maybe there was something in faith. Maybe, just maybe I was wrong. I agreed, with practically no objection, to getting married in church with the whole Christian marriage service. The two ministers who led the service and preached understood my values and feelings, and my doubts too. In a sunlit church on a September afternoon I felt as close to God as I ever had; an inexplicable feeling of warmth, of stillness, of peace and of oneness.
Since then I’ve been to a few services, although in the spirit of a full and frank confession one of those was mostly to gain free entry into Canterbury Cathedral. As it happened it wasn’t free. The price was further doubts, further discussions with Alison’s wise counsel, and further exploration.
And so, on our 6 month sabbatical I readily agreed to accompany Alison to New Wine. New Wine is an international umbrella organisation for what I think of as charismatic ‘happy clappy’ churches. The festival is spread over two weeks, with most delegates attending one week or the other. There were around 10,800 delegates in the week we attended plus around 1,200 crew and volunteers. We attended as volunteer stewards.
In the course of our time at New Wine I witnessed some interesting things that have helped my journey, although not necessarily in the way that they were intended to. It’s hard to reduce the complexity of faith into handy bite size paragraphs, so for simplicity’s sake I have picked up on four topics that piqued my curiosity during the week. These are: worship, healing, prayer and testimony (personal stories of God in action or sometimes, in what I thought of as the faintly ridiculous idiom of some, ‘God-incidence’, not ‘co-incidence’). I’ll consider each one in a little detail below.
Worship: In the spirit of polite enquiry I attended the full-on communal worship on Friday evening. I struggled with some of it. Every song was about how wonderful God is, every talk about his magnificent love, his grace, his mercy. So I asked myself, what sort of insecure deity requires constant affirmation? How low is His self-esteem? I got the feeling that God is seen as some loving but insecure father figure, a bit like a dysfunctional family patriarch who will fly into a rage with the slightest provocation and has to be appeased with constant approval and attention. Where were the songs about injustice in the world? Where were the pleas to God, or to the fellow congregation to stand up and fight for peace and justice?
The previous evening I had stewarded a gig by Andy Flannagan. Andy is an acoustic singer songwriter who happens to be a Christian and he sings songs about injustice and of hope. I connected with him immediately. Here perhaps was the gentler meditative approach I feel comfortable with, delivering real lessons and inspiration, a direct line to my conscience. What a shame that only a handful heard his message while the main arena was standing room only the following night to tell God how great He is.
The worship was certainly done well. After some testimonies of miraculous interventions we listened to a short speech from a senior figure then launched into five songs from an upbeat rock band. They were good. Very good actually but as they delivered songs of praise, with words on the big screens so we could all sing along I saw a performance. A slick, well presented, well delivered performance. By chance I sat next to another introverted person who was a committed Christian. We shared our stories and watched as most of the room were whipped up into fervour. The devout here sometimes receive the holy spirit in extreme (to our eyes anyway) ways. There are people whose whole body will shake, some fall dramatically backwards, others are head nodders and some spoke in tongues. I know at least five sensible, down to earth people who have experienced inexplicable feelings, shaking and similar. I’ve heard and discussed their personal stories about it. I cannot explain any of this. The atmosphere was charged and mass hysteria may be an explanation. God may be another.
The final speaker was a polished entertainer and great communicator; charismatic, witty and engaging. In the end the message was affirming for the converted and in that I recognise that it serves a purpose. He did challenge the audience in an interesting way by politely pointing out that all the shaking, head nodding and speaking in tongues happens in church and it’s funny how it’s never when you are sitting at your desk at work; an interesting thought.
What I would say here though is that the whole New Wine worship and seminar experience gives practicing Christians a chance to reflect and ‘recharge’ amongst likeminded people. To do so is clearly important and to see people actually enjoying their faith was inspiring. Plenty of the seminars and speakers are a challenge to the faithful. You can preach to the converted and still make them think.
Healing: There’s plenty of this going on, with prayer for recovery or relief. A lot of people gave witness to God’s intervention and for God healing their bad back or whatever. I suspect they have found relief and that’s great. It may be placebo effect; it could be divine intervention, although I wonder why it always seems to be successful for things you cannot really evidence in a scrupulous scientific way. To my knowledge God’s never rearranged someone’s chromosomes or healed cerebral palsy. He hasn’t done anything that would meet a standard of proof that would withstand challenge.
There is video footage of a lady at a previous New Wine meeting who was born with one leg shorter than the other receiving healing, and her leg grew by one and half inches. Miraculously so does the leg of her jeans. Maybe it’s genuine healing, if so where is the supporting evidence? Where is the follow up testimony, medical evidence of the before and after? A miracle occurred that might convert hundreds, thousands, millions maybe and it’s not on national TV? My father used to do a ‘trick’ where he’d appear to have one arm shorter than the other and then it wasn’t. (It was a laugh a minute growing up with him let me tell you). I think the video shows an illusion – albeit done sincerely and without intention. Pardon my doubts but I’m not convinced. The video is here.
Prayer: I can find this quite revealing, sometimes in positive ways. What I didn’t connect with was the type of prayer requesting that everyone follow correct procedure. It’s not so much a prayer as a reminder of the steward’s guide. During one medical emergency I assisted at, a couple actually interrupted the medical team to ask if anyone had prayed for the lady involved. To be fair though most people were concerned but understood she was in good hands and moved on.
I can understand prayer as a form of meditation. We all require ‘me’ space; time to be alone with our thoughts. I use music, some walk the dog, some pray. What I’ve discovered at New Wine is that people pray openly and ‘actively’. Towards the end of the week I consented to being prayed for twice. In the past I’d have politely declined. Actually probably not that politely. Here I thought, meh, what’s to lose. On one occasion it was with Alison in the crew room where our fellow team stewards gathered around and prayed for us. I don’t know if God was involved but the feeling of warmth, of love and concern from fellow humans with whom we’ve no more than a passing acquaintance was wonderful and genuinely moving.
On the very last day I popped into the ‘Just Looking’ seminar. This runs every day for people like me who are curious but not convinced. I’d been once before and one woman managed the unusual feat of being more cynical than me. She was challenging and direct in her questions. At the end of Friday’s session the ministers leading the discussions offered to pray for us in turn on a subject of our choosing. She agreed, but with the caveat that he listen to God and provide the subject or message He wanted. He did. I won’t invade her privacy on here but it reduced her to tears. I don’t believe it was ‘cold reading’ or a trick. I don’t think she was a ‘plant’. It could have been luck but it was certainly uncanny. I witnessed something I cannot explain.
Testimonies: We’ve heard testimonies of finding lost keys, operations at exactly the right time, bad shoulders improving and suchlike. I’m not in any position to claim that they weren’t the work of God. I did though find myself thinking that a lot were uniquely first world problems. At approximately the same time that I was listening to the story of a car being miraculously refilled with oil an elderly priest was being murdered by two knife wielding assailants in the French city of Rouen in the name of religion. I think he was much more deserving of divine intervention than a minor automobile inconvenience, but who am I to judge?
I came to New Wine as a non-believer with an open mind. I met people from all walks of life, including a tattooed and pierced sound engineer, policemen, angry teenagers looking for a cause to rebel against, gentle pensioners, a lad who has Down Syndrome and couples in matching Hunter wellies and Waitrose shopping bags; I encountered many lovely people; the delegates were almost without fail charming, gracious and friendly. These are not traits unique to people of faith. I could say the same about most festival crowds. I found tribalism hidden under a veil of religion. The New Wine tribe is of course one of many spin offs from the greater Christian tribe, which in turn is one of three Abrahamic tribes. Like tribes everywhere, like the biker club we camped with at the Sonic Rock festival for example, they have badges (the crucifix and the fish) they have mottos, (not ashamed, WWJD etc), they have initiation ceremonies (baptism) and they indoctrinate their young. And like all humans there is a tendency to be selfish, flawed and self-absorbed. Praying to find your lost keys is all very well but people are being slaughtered around the world, people are starving, living in poverty, sick, struggling with mental health and suffering in countless ways and you’re praying to the almighty, miraculous all seeing God full of love, grace and mercy for your fucking keys?
I feel angry and frustrated by this. Supposing the 10,800 people on site this week, plus the 12,000 expected next week, started something momentous? Imagine if the great work being done in the name of faith for refugees, for Syria, for people in Africa, for the homeless were coordinated and harnessed, freed from bureaucracy and ego. During my week at New Wine I was reminded of sheep standing around in flocks being minded by the sheep dogs. Suppose a shepherd came amongst them and led them? What a wonderful, powerful army that would be, how simple it would it be to overthrow the wolves. Jesus didn’t ask the money changers in the temple if they’d maybe consider moving along please, if it’s okay by them, when they get a chance, no rush. He was angry at corruption and injustice and He showed it.
Change can come with directed righteous anger; without the politics, without the endless bloody church meetings to decide what colour bunting to buy this year, without the administration and hierarchies, without egos and tribes, without schisms, without the bullshit and without the evangelism, uniting people of faith and of no faith. People who are already trying, working hard, selflessly giving of themselves to bring change, who are saving lives as I sit in comfort sipping coffee whilst typing this. As Alison wisely pointed out, thousands are already striving for political and social justice under the banner of faith, attempting to build a better world from the rubble of our fractured, selfish, tribal planet. So just visualise a world where all the people of faith are a blazing comet sweeping millions along in its tail. Genuine change would drive people to follow. No need to evangelise because the power, the true spirit of human kindness, the genuine love people have for their fellow humans would do that for them.
Supposing our prayer is in the action we take, that genuine worldwide equality is our worship, that we deliver the means to help people heal and then maybe, just maybe, everyone will proclaim that as testimony.
Am I closer to finding God?
Yes. I’ve witnessed things I don’t understand, I’ve felt ‘different’, and I have a much more open mind – but I cannot shake the over-riding feeling that the path to God would be a whole lot simpler if he didn’t put human beings in the way.
“…God will remind us what we already know,
That the human race is about to reap what it’s sown,
It’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds…”*
*Lyrics quoted from Armageddon Days by The The.
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