Love Story #4: When the wine gave out

“When the wine gave out…” It usually does. Human life is like that. Hardly ever does the first excitement and fulfilment of any experience last indefinitely. Sooner or later the new relationship, the new job, the new church, the new house, the new car, the new anything not only loses a little of its initial lustre but brings some fresh challenges.

Often this is the place where we are ready to meet God.

I left school with a place to read modern languages at university, which is what I had planned for myself. I looked forward to more of the same – a future where I would be in control of my destiny. Now I had ten months to do something with, and I wanted to fill the time with something worthwhile.

Eventually I found myself signed up with Christian Aid (despite at that time having very little Christian faith if any) to work as a volunteer for five months in a home for people with severe disabilities (both mental and physical) run by the Lutheran Church in Austria.

It was a shocking, eye-opening experience. There were men in their thirties, forties and fifties who were bed-ridden and incapable of speech, of feeding or caring for themselves or of any kind of independent action whatsoever. There was one man who had had part of his brain amputated by the Nazis (so we were told) as a reprisal for some act of rebellion by the local populace.

The brightest sparks among the residents were the ones with Down’s Syndrome. I particularly remember Schnecki, who had an ear for music: his party trick was to pick out on the piano the theme from the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (appropriately, Schnecki’s actual Christian name was Ludwig). There was a lot of noise, a lot of mess and sometimes physical violence.

My task as one of the volunteer carers was to wash, dress, feed, clean up after, restrain, occupy, entertain and generally care for the residents. I found myself stretched in ways I had not experienced before. After some months I found myself stretched to the point where I sat down exhausted and realized that I had nothing more to give. Because of course what the residents needed above all, beyond their physical care, was love. I had run out of whatever small store of love I possessed.

I didn’t know it at the time, but God was deconstructing my pride and self-confidence. By the time I made it to university later that year my level of self-confidence was very low. In that place I was ready to listen to a friend talking about Jesus Christ.

Meeting God in a place of need works not only for individuals but sometimes for whole communities.

My family and I lived and worked for fifteen years in a parish which had suffered major long-term economic hardship, most recently because of the collapse of the steel industry. Times were hard, but people had a sense of humour which helped to overcome the hardship. And they were ready to respond to Jesus Christ in a way I have never seen equalled.

One year we decided to stage a mission in the parish to be led by the late Canon Keith de Berry and a team from one of the London churches. Keith had been instrumental in my journey to faith at university and had been kind enough to officiate at our wedding. Despite his aristocratic heritage he had an easy rapport with people of whatever background, social class or culture.

It was not an easy week. Sunday was to be the last day of the mission and by Sunday afternoon it seemed as if there was very little fruit for our labours. The level of response appeared to be very thin and uncertain at best.

I sat down after lunch and picked up my Bible to prepare for the evening service, which was to be the final event of the mission. I turned to the psalm set for the day, which was Psalm 126. I read this:

 Those who sow with tears
     will reap with songs of joy.
 Those who go out weeping,
     carrying seed to sow,
 will return with songs of joy,
     carrying sheaves with them 
 (Psalm 126.5-6 New International Version). 

I set off for the evening service with a tentative hope in my heart for better things than we had seen so far.

After Keith had preached he invited people to let him know at the end of the service if they wanted to commit their lives to Christ. I don’t remember how many people were present in the church that night, but it can’t have been more than a hundred. I watched as twenty-five people queued up to give their names to Keith. These were not our usual church members: they were friends and family members of the congregation who had been prayed and persuaded into coming.

We arranged for them to be nurtured in their new faith during the coming weeks. Some sixteen of those twenty-five became key people in the church, worshipping and serving as committed disciples of Jesus for the long haul.

Despite Freud, faith is not wish-fulfilment, or merely a crutch for those who can’t cope with life. God meets people as much in their strength as in their weakness.

C. S. Lewis came to faith with extreme reluctance and from a place of considerable strength. He had achieved First Class honours in two degrees, won a major university prize, been elected to a Fellowship of an Oxford College and given rooms overlooking one of the most beautiful places in the whole city (the Magdalen College deer park). His financial worries were over. He had built up a circle of very congenial friends and his home life, while not exactly ideal, provided the backdrop of domesticity which was important to him. He was not in any obvious need. He had long been a committed atheist and was not looking to have his mind changed. Into that tranquil scene came a growing sense (profoundly unwelcome but finally unavoidable) of the demand of God upon his life. In the end he gave in and surrendered.

This was not meeting any felt needs; on the contrary, Lewis’s comfortable life was being seriously disrupted. From a position of secure conviction and untroubled confidence, he was taken to a place where everything was up for reconsideration and all his mental furniture was being re-arranged.

God meets us where we are – weak or strong, happy or not, in sickness and in health.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

2 thoughts on “Love Story #4: When the wine gave out

  1. I enjoyed reading this, and being reminded of my own coming to Christ back in Feb1973 – in fact the first conversation and prayer I had as a very new Christian was there in the library of Worcester College, Oxford (pictured at the bottom of the blog). Happy memories!


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