Back in 2011, I think in February, I was in Oxford for a day to hear Kofi Annan speak at the Sheldonian as part of my college’s 700th anniversary celebrations. We had an uncomfortable bench seat and were glad to be there for such an occasion. Kofi Annan, I discovered, thought in well-planned paragraphs, commas and subordinate clauses already thought out in that formidable brain.
However, hearing him speak was not, for me, the highlight of the day, though I had expected it to be. That had happened 3 hours earlier at the 10.30 service at St Aldates’ Church. For some weeks previously, I had been facing my impending move to Milton Keynes with great trepidation, with night terrors and all sorts of fears that we melancholics put up with. Into that, the Holy Spirit had been speaking to me over and again from the story of Gideon on the threshing floor: go in the strength you have – have I not commanded you?
This internal conflict between fear and faith is exactly where God wants us at times, because it is where He can speak most clearly, and where we might hear more willingly. But me, I hated being there.
The preacher that day was Anita Cleverly, part of the leadership team and wife of Charlie, the rector. She was speaking about the way God met with people at threshing floors. As soon as I heard that, I realised I was in the right place. Anita, going through the catalogue of folk in the Bible who had met God at threshing floors, then said: I’m not going to talk about Gideon today, but somebody here needs me to mention him, so I am. Let’s move on.
Immediately I received the encouragement and peace from the Holy Spirit that I needed. Afterwards, wanting to thank Anita, I sought her out. Instead, I found Charlie, and told him the story. In turn, he told me a story about their call to Belleville in Paris 20 years previously. Having preached once and seen somebody become a Christian, he started to experience night terrors in the space between call and fulfilment. Just the fact he mentioned that rested in my heart as another confirmation I was making the right move. I forget now what meaning he attributed to this, but it didn’t matter. I was on the right course and the terrors were simply to be overcome.
This was my first encounter with Charlie and Anita. St Aldates was my mothership, where I had found faith and where my life was nurtured as a young Christian 30 years’ previously. Since 2016 we have visited regularly, and since lockdown in March it has been our home for worship and teaching each Sunday online. We have come to love the Cleverleys’ role as parents to the church and ambassadors in establishing St Aldates as a “house of prayer for all nations.” Charlie’s ability to allow the Holy Spirit to be present through him into the congregation has been a significant factor in where St Aldates is now, as has Anita’s exploration of being a mother-pastor and grandmother to the fellowship. Their retirement will leave an enormous hole. Even online, on Sunday, we felt the impact of that.
The farewell took me back to an evening in January last year. I was in a degree of devastation at the outcome of the Christ the Sower Ofsted inspection report, just then released. Fortunately we were attending the St Aldates’ church weekend at Horwood House. At the end of the first evening’s talk (the content has completely gone from my mind!), the shame, coming from the things in the Ofsted report that pointed to my inadequacy as a leader, began to creep over me. I had never really understood until then this phrase “covered in shame”, that Nehemiah and Daniel and others use in the Old Testament, but I was helpless under it. Physically and emotionally I was, literally, petrified. I went forward for prayer eventually, unable to stop blubbing. I was on my knees, longing for acceptance. Not a pretty sight. Charlie prayed for me, inviting the Holy Spirit to be present, then took off his voluminous cardigan and just covered me completely with it. God has covered your shame, completely. He prayed for my protection and left me there, under his prophetically-placed cardigan, allowing God to do what he wanted. Later he retrieved it – “I’m getting cold” he told me, and I laughed, able once again to rise into the acceptance of God the Father.
In a recent post, Jon Kuhrt has reviewed a Grove book by Rebecca Winfrey – The Cross and Shame: speaking of atonement to a shame-filled society. I have not yet read the book, but I was gripped by Jon’s review and the quotes.
Rebecca Winfrey’s central thesis is that the way we preach the gospel has to take into account the prevalence of shame in our culture – not just the shame of what we have done, but of our whole core, who we are: the sense of worthlessness that pervades our being. Preaching a standard sin gospel will not shift this, she argues. It cannot be shifted except by speaking of God’s whole-hearted acceptance of us as we are, and dealing with us on that basis. God is not in the courtroom, judging or convicting. And even if we cannot lose that metaphor completely, before that he is with us in the gutter, in the humiliation and brokenness, in the agonies of rejection and suffering with us the waves of worthlessness our culture pours over us.
I am reading and studying David Bosch’s Transforming Mission at the moment, as a prelude to thinking about the missiological aspects of church schools in England today. In it, Bosch quotes the South African theologian Welile Mazamisa‘s discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan:
Luke’s concern is with the social issues he writes about: with the demons and evil forces in first century society which deprived women, men and children of dignity and selfhood, of sight and voice and bread, and sought to control their lives for private gain; with the people’s own selfishness and servility; and with the promises and possibilities of the poor and the outcasts.
(Mazamisa, L.W., 1987. Beatific Companionship: an exegetical-hermeneutical study on Luke 10:25-37, Kampen, Kok, Netherlands, p.99. [in: Bosch, D., 1991. Transforming Mission, Orbis Books, p.98])
The idea that the demonic in our culture, the principalities and powers, can exercise and exacerbate the unjust structures that lead to poverty, hopelessness and shame, is not new, but it is not often heard in evangelical churches, for whom the demonic, if mentioned at all, has a personal rather than a societal application.
But this chimes perfectly with Winfrey’s observations. In Jon Kuhrt’s words,
She believes that the best explanation of atonement is the oldest: that Jesus’ death and resurrection achieved a decisive victory over evil. This victory came about through participation in the shame of the world: illegitimate birth, being a refugee, abuse, betrayal, torture and death. In doing so he stands in solidarity with us in our shame – and overcomes it.
In defeating evil, in establishing through the cross and resurrection the possibility of deliverance from evil, Jesus has become for us and for the world, a deliverer from shame. Some years ago, I heard a talk by Stuart Williams (I think), in which he identified people’s fear rather than their sin as the natural entry point for the gospel. Today, as Rebecca Winfrey points out, it is our shame, our sense of not mattering to anyone, which the gospel has to address. Covid, of course, has accentuated and deepened that for many people, but it was there anyway. She writes:
‘We need to speak of God’s unconditional acceptance before we talk to people of their sin. We need to talk of a new identity that God gives in exchange for our old, shame-filled identity before we talk about the challenge to our behaviour.’
This post started by way of thanking Charlie and Anita, and it is, I am aware, quite personal. Brother Kofi has just been a bit part!
But more, it is about this extraordinary God, who through his servants can shine light on our path, calm our deepest fears, deliver us from evil and the principalities and powers, those purveyors of evil, and wipe away both shame and tears, out of the depth of his great love for us.