Friday, 23 March 2018
AS a relative newcomer, having arrived here from Chester on midsummer’s day last year, I am glad to have the opportunity to thank all the people in the Henley area — not least our own Hambleden Valley — for the very warm welcome you have given us to this beautiful part of the world. Thank you, it’s very good to be here.
My wife and I lived in Surrey, where I grew up, back in the Eighties so, for me, being close to the Thames makes this something of a homecoming to the places where I walked, swam, played and cycled.
We have already explored quite a few places of interest in this upstream area north of the river and one of the most fascinating, of course, is Oxford.
So it was an exciting opportunity recently to attend a three-day conference at Christ Church College and Cathedral, billed as a “festival of preaching”.
I may just have turned most readers right off, so here’s the recovery: it was a million miles from being a succession of gnarled old grumps, breathing fire and brimstone or thumping big, black Bibles.
Instead, we heard from more than a dozen speakers, from all over the British Isles and the US, mostly Church of England, but also from the Roman Catholic and other churches, preaching witty, compelling and fascinating sermons on a wide variety of subjects — some brief, some not — and giving lectures on what motivates, challenges and helps them as well as sharing examples of what makes them run for the door.
Truthfulness, imagination and care for others were the things that stand out in my mind.
Of course, they all spoke of faith but not easy, forced or unbending belief. They spoke of their struggles and frustrations, their hopes and disappointments as well as the moments and glimpses that keep them in pursuit of God. And in much of what they had to say, they spoke beautifully.
It was an exhausting but inspiring time.
However, for all their brilliance, they were all knocked for six, in my book, by a
14-year-old girl at the Greenbelt Festival that we went to as a family over the August bank holiday weekend.
The theme was “the common good”, ensuring that everyone in our communities is included and welcomed, loved and provided-for.
After two days of music, comedy and nationally known, topical speakers, more than 10,000 of us sat in bright sunlight for an open-air communion.
There, I saw many a manly-looking bloke wipe away a tear as we heard Becky Tyler speak by computer from her wheelchair with no hint of resentment for her crippling cerebral palsy but only delight that her mother had shown her a description in the Bible (Daniel 7.90) of God seated on a wheeled throne: “God has a wheelchair!”
Everyone who heard Becky was humbled and all 500 of us from the preaching conference are now wondering whether our preaching can ever be good enough.
I don’t think that’s really the point. However well we craft our words, it will be our honesty and generosity that remain.
May God bless you over the autumn and the winter.
06 November 2017
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