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01 July 2009

A far bigger circle

General Director Steve Clifford finds that his personal story is tied in with a noble task...

By the time you read this, I will have been in post at the Alliance for nearly three months. I have received a wonderfully encouraging welcome and I feel profoundly thankful to God. It is a privilege to be asked to bring leadership to an organisation with such a history of significant influence both across our nation and the world.

As I am sure you will appreciate, once the announcement of my appointment was made, I was inundated with emails, letters, texts, phone calls and cards, many of which included invitations to speak. One particular invitation jumped out at me: an invitation to speak at Bradford Cathedral for an across-church celebration on Easter Sunday.

A personal connection

God has been wheeling and dealing in the affairs of humanity

I was born and brought up in Bradford. My father, Albert, grew up just a few hundred yards from the cathedral. As a young lad he attended services there, came to faith and met my mother there. She recalls her first encounter with my father when he was taking up the collection, singing heartily, and she thought, "I could marry that man." I'm not sure whether it was the singing or the money that attracted her, but in due time they were married at the cathedral.

My father was sent from the cathedral to train in theology at Oakhill College, returned and was ordained. He took up his first parish as a vicar less than a mile away, and within a short period my younger brother and I were born. However, when I was 5 my father was tragically killed by a drunken lorry driver. How quickly life can change.

We were living in a house that belonged to the church and didn't know if we would be able to keep our home. My mother had to go out to work, my brother to nursery, I started school. Life became very different from the one we thought had been mapped out for us.

So when the invitation to preach at Bradford Cathedral arrived, I felt compelled to accept. It would be my first public engagement and, as I thought it through, I realised that it would be 50 years almost to the month from the date of my father's death. What do you make of events such as these?

I arrived at Bradford Cathedral on Easter Sunday evening alongside my mother, brother, wife, son and daughter-in-law, with a wonderful sense of God's endorsement. I felt it was a sign of the amazing truth that He is with us and in a strange way is able to draw a far bigger circle around the tragic events that surrounded the death of a husband and a father.

Our Father in heaven, who has proven Himself faithful over 50 years, was whispering that there will be a day when there is a new heaven and a new earth and He will make all things good.

The greater context

Of course my story is just a small part of a far bigger story: the story of God.
The Bible provides us with a record of a God who didn't abandon the cosmos but has been wheeling and dealing in the affairs of humanity to cause His purposes to be fulfilled. Our little stories begin to make sense only in the context of this big story. And when we gather together as communities of faith, we read the story, we sing the story and we even act out the story.

When I was 17, I had a summer job in a Christian conference centre called Capernwray Hall. One evening I listened to the preacher - I can't remember his name - who simply told the Easter story. Even though I had heard it before, this time it made sense to me. I knew at the core of my being that it was true.

The apostle Paul writes to the Romans, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1.16). That night the Gospel, through the simple telling of the story, had power to change my life. On the day of Pentecost, Peter's great sermon was a re-counting of the same story, which provoked the crowd to ask the most important question: "What shall we do to be saved?"

Throughout 2008 I had the privilege of travelling the country and seeing the Church at work as part of Hope08. I saw the Church demonstrating the Gospel as well as proclaiming it. We were being as well as preaching the good news through city-wide events and small-scale community projects - schools missions as well as digging neighbours' gardens, clearing rubbish and cleaning graffiti. It was so encouraging to see the Church with fresh confidence, doing the business of Church, positioning itself at the heart of communities.

Part of the Alliance's role is to tell these stories. So often the attitude to Christians and the Church in the press and even in government is negative, but these stories paint a very different picture. I am absolutely convinced that Christians uniting together in their faith is good news for the health and wellbeing of our nation - physically, emotionally and spiritually. Christ has called us to be the hope of our nation, so with prayer and godly confidence let's give ourselves to this noble task.

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