I'm just back from On Fire...and have discovered that this was my 7th year at a conference that I only discovered by a miracle of grace, and attended with fear and trepidation back in 2012 - but which is now one of the places that I feel most fully myself, the community where I have the deepest, widest conversations, and where, without fail, I am touched deeply by God.
By a happy God-incidence, my current boss, the Dean of Coventry, was the person who first mentioned On Fire to me. I love that a relatively casual remark of his, in a long ago ministry review, set something in motion that enables me to be whatever it is that I am in the life of his Cathedral 7 years on...
but then, On Fire is full of happy God-incidences, too many to record really.
So instead I want to share a picture that seemed to be a parable for much of my life. This year I was privileged to be conference Chaplain (one of those vocational times when my "deep gladness" did indeed meet the deep need that some brought to conference, so that I was able to listen and pray and discover that this was very much part of who I am in ministry) and this gave me so much joy that I spent much of the time wearing a silly grin and singing Rend Collective before breakfast. Madness!
It also meant that, as friends shard their stories, I did quite a number of circuits of the beautiful grounds of High Leigh, which is where I encountered this visual parable.
I went over, initially, because the gate itself looked very beautiful.
As I drew close, I realised that I would never need to open the beautiful gate, - which was fortunate, as it was chained shut....but beside it on the left was a "kissing gate", perfect for walkers...
No need to struggle with chains, or climb over the top. There was a perfectly negotiable route there. The decorative but difficult route was not one I had to engage with.
Then I noticed something else. On the other side of the gate, there is actually no fence at all.
You can walk straight from one part of the garden into the other with no barrier.
The gate is an almost imaginary construct....very handsome, to be sure, but utterly unnecessary.
And I thought about how that might be an image of the way I have related to God...first through a rather beautiful challenging approach (the demands of a singer on the Greater London Choral Circuit make it quite hard to lift your eyes from the music to engage with the living God who is the reason we sing at all)....
then through a simpler but still constricted approach, as I worked madly at being a good Christian, a faithful disciple, an effective minister...
But latterly I have realised that there is no barrier at all....that we "make God's love too narrow by false limits of our own"...
That I can simply respond to God's invitation "Come to me..." and that there is nothing whatever to prevent me.
Being at On Fire reminds me that I need to walk in that meadow, to take off my shoes (this is holy ground) and my socks, and feel the grass between my toes and dance barefoot with God under the spring skies.
And because God is all kindness, in those precious four days in Hertfordshire, I get to experience what that is like.
How, then, can I keep from singing?