I had met Gerald (Gerald Williams - for
many years the voice of Wimbledon on BBC) a number of times
in Carmarthen, firstly during a meal when he interviewed various
sports personalities. After the meal he was introduced to my
wife and I and there was an immediate connection with my father-in-law
- when Bertie was Dean of St.Davids Cathedral, there had been
a Diocesan Men's Rally and Gerald had spoken at that. We didn't
meet again for some time, I bumped into him one frosty morning
on King Street in Carmarthen, wearing a fleece done up to my chin
and a wax jacket and he commended me on not looking a bit like
an Anglican clergyman! We chatted briefly about Carmarthen and
how there was nothing really happening spiritually there, and
he gave me his telephone number. To me, Gerald and Wimbledon
were synonymous so I was ever so slightly awed by this international
personality touring the churches of Carmarthen.
I bumped into him a couple of times in the next three years, telling him of our attempts to hold a regular service of evening praise in the parish - which were being comparatively well attended, between 30 and 50 people would come out which was unheard of for evening services. However I never phoned Gerald to meet with him, despite often coming across his number on a corner of scrap paper in my filofax.
Since January I had been feeling a little dry spiritually - I was getting nothing out of church services especially since I have been more or less knocked off the preaching rota - for my own good no doubt: I started a new job in December last year whish has taken me out of the parochial ministry and into sector ministry as a chaplain in a large FE college. A brand new innovative diocesan post - mission with a capital 'M' - but so new that it lacks form both in terms of diocesan administration (who pays the bills/ expenses, etc.) and an active job description. I only help out in the parish on Sundays, but its mostly leading or assisting, and more recently I am being farmed out to parishes without incumbents. So there is this paradox of living in the parish but not working there - being asked on the door how so and so is, and not knowing they were even ill. These were 'my' people only a few months ago, and now I feel like I'm letting them down.
Since I have taken on the chaplaincy, it has given me a chance to rethink my ministry and The Ministry in general, taking a step back from the parochial system can be refreshingly different and also give you the space to appreciate God, to actually see him at work in your life and in other peoples'. I had to speak to one of the Carmarthen Probus groups about my job and preparing for that gave me a good opportunity to put pen to paper and think out what I was doing and how what I was doing related to changes in the pattern of ministry. My basic thesis was change or die, that what we offer as a church needs to be radically rethought if it is ever to appeal to the younger generation.
So spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, this was all going on in the background and during a quiet time in my office at Graig, Llanelli, I was flicking aimlessly through my filofax when I flicked past Gerald's telephone number for the umpteenth time, recognising it and feeling a great sense of guilt at never replying to the invitation to 'phone him. I flicked back to the page with his number on and was drawn to the number. The page now after three years had become filled with the sands of time, names from baptisms and funerals, notes for eulogies numbers from sums, but the telephone number held my attention.
'I'll give him a ring', I thought - I had nothing to lose. I didn't have to be at a meeting, the office was empty, even the call would be paid for, it would ring out anyway - he's bound to be away commentating at some international tennis tournament - so I dialled and it rang, and then the answer. Not 'Hello, Gerald Williams speaking, great Sky Sports commentator or international tennis impresario' as I had imagined in my seconds of preparation as the phone rang, but 'Hello, 21----2'. I apologised for having taken so long to ring (almost three years!) and we got onto talking about the spiritual wasteland that was Carmarthen, and what we could do to change all of that.
Gerald had an appointment to phone Archbishop Rowan of Wales the following day to ask him if there was anything he could do, to give the town a lively church. We talked at length about the drain on Carmarthen of all the spiritually starved people, who were leaving for Cross Hands and Llanelli and that a new and innovative service was needed, radically different, 21st century, where God could be praised and worshipped and where there could be genuine prayer and biblical preaching. Music would be an important element, it had to be good and well led, and so we needed to pray for Christian musicians to make themselves available to help us. We wondered where this type of service could happen, and remembering reading about a Youth Church in London that had set up in a building on the edge of town and was now attracting some 300 kids every Sunday evening, I suggested a similar strategy. Gerald quite rightly thought that this could be seen as divisive, as the setting up of a 'new church' and that's the last thing Carmarthen needs. Apparently within a square mile there are 21 places of worship. The new service would have to come from a church, be a product of that church, and so I offered St. John's, Priory Street.
Gerald couldn't quite believe what had happened, the timing of my call was significant for him - he was frustrated and saddened by the churches in Carmarthen, he had not been used, and I think he said that I was the only minister from the town who had ever telephone him. He was about to shake the dust from his feet and move on, and I was led to phone him - he was about to ask the Archbishop to do something in Carmarthen and I was led to phone and scuppered both his moves!
He kept his appointment to speak to the Archbishop but informed him that something had happened and that the urgency had evaporated. Since that day, the Lord has been on our side in the most tremendous way, although it took revelation for me to see it. That was the first week (beginning 28th February).
We arranged to meet on the 7th March and we had a long chat in the kitchen of Clergy House with an excellent Welsh tea and familiarised ourselves and told our histories. We agreed that we needed to explain what was being discussed with Randolph Thomas (Vicar of St. Peter's), to fill him in and get his opinion so we arranged to meet on Monday 13th March.
Randolph agreed to holding a service in St. John's at 6/ 6.30 pm every Sunday night, and that it would be radically different to what was generally on offer in the town at that time of night. The time sorted, Randolph would advertise the service within the Parish, and clear it with the St. John's members and also with the PCC. It now couldn't be anything other than a St. John's service. Gerald was desperate to see the church, having passed it many times on his way to Penuel Chapel, and so we agreed to meet and have a look around on the 21st March.
Gwynfor Adams, one of the wardens had dropped the keys off for me earlier, and so when Gerald arrived we walked straight up. It was a glorious day, one of the hottest spring days for a number of years they said, and St. John's was beautiful in that light: immediately welcoming, warm, intimate, light and unobtrusive. Gerald flung his arms wide and said, 'Please Lord let it be here', his voice resounding around the empty building like it had gone to heaven and back.
We looked at what might go where, some future improvements, but for now the building was perfect, although only 50 metres from Penuel. We locked up, and went into town for coffee, and spent a while just talking things through, more history another cup of coffee and then we walked back to the Parade, to deliver the keys for St. John's back to Gwynfor. We bumped into Darryl, the new Curate at St. Peter's and had a chat, and then crossed to decide which route to go, there being two, one longer but en route. We chose the en route and when we arrived, knocked the door and chatted to Gwynfor's wife Jean. Just as we were about to leave, a young woman in her late 30s came up to us and said, 'Excuse me, you're Christians aren't you.' Gerald looked at me, surprised and yet knowing and replied, 'Yes we are, but tell me how could you tell.' I wasn't wearing a clerical collar, so there was nothing physical to draw her to us. 'But you are though, aren't you' - not questioning but telling.
Gerald introduced himself and me as one of the 'pastors at St. Peter's'. She immediately assumed that St. Peter's was a lively church, 'Its dead,' said Gerald, 'Just like the rest of Carmarthen, the town is a spiritual wasteland - but we're going to change that, God's got a job on and this is his man in Carmarthen' - I felt slightly self conscious at this - since meeting Gerald I had felt that I wasn't good enough to meet these great expectations, that I hadn't had any confirmation of my Christian status, I was a little out of my depth.
The girl on the street, now established as Stephanie, told us that she was a Christian songwriter from Croydon and worshipped in some of the Homecounty Vineyard churches. She had come to Carmarthen on a mission to find God there and meet some of the Christians, but all the churches and chapels were locked, and the Lord led her to us, on a quiet backwater - a dead end street, the sort you don't go to unless you need to.
She sang some of he songs for us on the street, and was being slain in the spirit, doubling up as if through severe pain but thanking the Spirit for his presence. We held each other and prayed thanking God for this remarkable meeting, and praising the spirit for his initiative in leading us together. During the prayer the spirit came down on us like a paradox of sheer electricity straight to the heart and like a torrent of warm water, cleansing every part of my being. We parted, Stephanie left in tears as quickly as she had arrived, and Gerald and I walked the 100 metres to my house. 'What just happened?' I asked Gerald, 'that was confirmation that this is of God, that we are walking with him'.
I walked with a new stride and the song 'I am a new creation, no more in condemnation' went through my head continuously and especially the line 'a lightness in my spirit' - I was walking on clouds, the weight of sin taken from me having been blown away by the spirit. A few days later I was driving from Ammanford to Llanelli when I had a sudden realisation that I was no longer in control (not of the car!) of my life, that I had handed all control to someone else and He had established his reign in my life. I had a real desire to read about what had happened to us, to see if other people had had experiences like that and I was led to Colin Urqhart's classic, When the Spirit Comes and David Pawson's classic The Normal Christian Birth.
Christa (my wife) recognised what had happened, and it just so happened that for the next two Sundays, I had the entire day free after officiating at the 8 am in St. Peter's. We decided that we would go up to Aberystwyth, and worship at St. Mike's - previously at St. Mikes I had always felt out of my depth - spending the entire service seething with jealousy at the joy and worship the people around me felt. I wanted what they had, really, but hid that in criticism. But now I just knew that we had to worship there, I had a desire to worship in a certain way, a way which reflected the excitement I felt - and it was so apt, so right to be there that first Sunday after being baptised in the Spirit.
The address was about the Spirit, and there were testimonies from people who had been baptised in the Spirit that week - it was as if the Lord had said, 'I want you to be amongst Christians today, so that you can feel encouraged.' It was perfect worship, expressing all the emotions I had felt throughout the previous week; love, wonderment, mystery, confirmation, excitement.
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