I hope you had a very good summer.
Mine was full of good things. My youngest daughter Sarah became engaged. Her fiancée, Simon, proposed at sunset in Florence. I was able to spend two weeks with my grandson (mainly playing with trains and reading the Very Hungry Caterpillar). I was inspired by the British Olympic team. We said our fond goodbyes to Sheffield. I started to build a pattern of prayer for the Diocese of Oxford. I was able to read and think and plan in the midst of sorting out and preparing for the move. I took up running for the first time and learned how to make pies.
It wasn’t all sunshine and light, of course. I was deeply grieved by the suffering of close friends. I was moved to tears by some of the things I heard during the General Synod shared conversations in York. It was hard, as it always is, to take in the suffering in Aleppo, in central Italy and in other parts of the world. There were the normal frustrations and things which went wrong and the hard work of transition.
The very best moment of the summer (apart from Sarah’s engagement) came as I stood near the front of a very big tent in Somerset. Our younger son, Andy, and our daughter in law Beth work for Soul Survivor, a large Christian youth ministry. Soul Survivor runs festivals for young people and students every year. This summer we were on site for two of the festivals looking after Josiah, our grandson.
Beth had a night off and so we shared in the first evening meeting of Week B. Simply to be in a large tent with over 8,000 teenagers sharing in worship is inspiring. They were all there as part of small youth groups and church parties, camping all across the Bath and Wells showground. After the worship and the talk and lots of laughter, Mike Pilavachi gave an invitation on this first night of the festival for people to come forward to pray and be prayed for if they wanted to become Christians. This kind of invitation to make a Christian commitment or to receive prayer ministry happens regularly during each of the festivals.
Scores of young people came forward (I think around 140 that night). As is the tradition at Soul Survivor, the rest of the tent cheered and clapped and celebrated this very public act of commitment and dedication of their lives to Christ. As I always do, I found the moment profoundly moving: holy ground. There we were, in a very big tent in Somerset, and young people’s lives were being reshaped by God’s grace.
The same thing will have been happening in many different places over the summer in different Church traditions and in many different ways: at Walsingham and Keswick and Taize and New Wine, on ventures and in holiday clubs and pilgrimages, or simply in quiet retreat and holiday: God meets us as we step aside and draws us more deeply into love and joy and hope. As the Church proclaims the good news of love and forgiveness and new beginnings, so men and women, children and young people, respond in faith.
Perhaps if you had been there (or even as you read this) you are wondering what these acts of commitment meant to these young people. I was wondering too. But my wondering is shaped by the fact that in recent years I have regularly baptized and confirmed young people who responded in this way at Soul Survivor or at other festivals. As I have talked with them it has been very clear: those moments of grace have been a key part of their journey to mature Christian discipleship and in the offering of their whole lives to God. Such a moment was part of my own journey when I was 15 years old.
26,000 young people came to Soul Survivor festivals this summer. Over 1,500 became Christians.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about the importance of that which is lost: a shepherd loses a sheep, a woman loses a coin, a father loses both of his sons (in different ways). In each story, what is lost is found. The common element in each story is joy.
“Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep which is lost”, says the shepherd.
“Rejoice with me for I have found the coin which I had lost” says the woman.
“But we had to celebrate and rejoice”, says the father, “Because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”.
I hope that in your life, and in your summer, and in your church, there has been this kind of joy this summer.