Friday, September 22, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 16) Being in the right place

Our Harvest Open Day had some memorable moments. I particularly remember one.  A short beautifully coiffured lady swept in accompanied by a man who looked like a bodyguard, and turned out to be one.  She asked me if I was the pastor and when I admitted I was her composure crumbled. She asked me if I could spare a few moments and in the side vestry we shared in one of those experiences which surprise on the main street.

She was a famous country-and-western singer on tour in Britain who was performing that night in Cambridge. But on this particular Saturday she felt at such a low ebb physically and spiritually she said that she needed to talk to someone.  As a Christian she felt utterly dry and exhausted. 'Would you mind praying for me, pastor?' she asked. You can imagine my joy at being able to pray that this needy lady receive some gentle assurance of Christ's love and peace coupled with his promise of strength in the Holy Spirit. Apparently, in the exhausting itinerary of travel, rehearsals and concerts she had longed for somewhere to be quiet. 'We only had a few minutes spare today,' she said, 'thank you for being there'.

Obviously, I have held back her name for confidential reasons.  Later I purchased one of her records and met her eyes on the record sleeve with a jolt of happy remembrance.  Returning to the US she sent me a letter including the line 'It was so refreshing to have some Christian fellowship.' Being willing to open the church proved to be the right place at the right time for her and others.  What a thrill to be useful for the Lord.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Privileges of age

I must interrupt my Cambridge story by mentioning my return to Oxford last night. My college, Regent's Park College, was celebrating a Gala Dinner.  In rain-soaked marquee and grounds a large crowd gathered at which it soon became apparent I was one of the oldest by some distance. This brought certain privileges.

First, the conversations. I sat with Dr. Rex Mason, a venerable academic whom I have known since the 70's (who was the oldest person present) and Dr. Paul Fiddes (the former Principal and also a very venerable academic) whom I have known since we were in college together in 1970.  To be able to spend an evening with such friends whose interesting lives overlapped with mine in countless ways enabled extreme conversation.  We talk of extreme sport......well, extreme conversation is 50 years of action-packed reminiscing and pontificating.  And it was wonderful.

Second, the organizers had displayed old black and white photographs in plastic sleeves all over a table in one of the rooms.  If we could identify anyone we were asked to write names and any relevant dates and stick them on the sleeves  I recognized many of course.  But what thrilled me was a photo from 1952 (or thereabouts) showing faculty and students in formal pose in front of the main hall.  In the middle next to the imposing figure of Robert Child (who was Principal and a predecessor of mine at the Cambridge church) was my youthful looking father (who was Bursar).  It really made me smile and as I scribbled down his name I identified Ernest Payne and Neville Clark too (two important Baptist figures I also grew to know).

Yes, to be older has privileges of having shared in history and being able to reflect on it with others who shared in it too.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 15) Harvest with a difference

The prayer diary records all this discussion and also how earlier initiatives, like the formation of gift groups, were gathering speed.  In particular the Evangelism Group under the leadership of Jim Adam, a very gifted retired Area Superintendent, was moving in exciting ways on two projects.

One was a visitation mission in Caxton, a village some eight miles outside Cambridge. Its Baptist church neared extinction, but the evangelism group (after training sessions) visited villagers and invited them to come to the almost defunct chapel for a Harvest Festival. A crowded chapel thrilled us with possibilities for new life ahead.Caxton was embedded in our prayers.

The other project focused on our own Harvest Festival weekend. Traditionally the church was decorated with some of the brightness and beauty of God's world. Members with gardens brought in greenery, vegetables, fruit, and armfuls of brilliant blooms. Though a large space, members filled up all the window-sills alongside a magnificent display at the front.  The first time I witnessed the end-result, and smelt its fullness, I marvelled at the transformation of the whole sanctuary.  It really was a celebration of God's creation.

The Evangelism Group challenged us at a Church Meeting (yes, the 'government meeting'!) about making the Saturday before the Sunday services an OPEN DAY with the front doors flung wide open to passers-by.  Harvest hymns (the old favourites) would sound out onto the street with invitations to enter for free tea and coffee. There was understandable nervousness.  How many people would actually come in? How easy would it be to share in conversations?  Among the first visitors was an elderly couple who had lived in Cambridge all their lives and said they didn't even realize there was a church on the main street.  No, they didn't normally go to church but they would try to get back for the next day!  To our joy tens of people began entering, looking at the display, drinking and talking with us.

How many eventually came in?  Somewhere between 250-300 were served coffee and members of the evangelism group (and others) reported some good conversations.  Wonderfully, it seemed to give a green light to developing a role on the main street.  Prayers were being answered and we were thankful.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 14) Reality check

Perhaps a word on the role of Church Meetings! Baptist polity involves members of a local gathered church being responsible for meeting together in order to discern the mind of Christ for their congregational life. Such 'government' meetings are the heart of all vital decisions. It is a high claim. Our pattern was to hold monthly meetings at which all matters of church life - big and small - were discussed.  Though these occasions (like committees) can garner a bad reputation, they became for me the second most exciting parts of the God adventure (behind the prayer diary).  Even when they didn't turn out as I had hoped (especially when they didn't) I discovered in church meeting how much we grew in our spiritual life together through the years.

However....taking part in a radio phone-in panel on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire late one Sunday evening, the last caller gave his name and asked to speak to the Baptist on the panel. 'I want to ask you how your Baptist church meetings work.  Is your democracy based upon humanistic enlightenment principles of the eighteenth century.  You know, everyone has a vote and you act on the majority'?  Yes, he really asked this.

I answered: 'No, it's not democracy.  What happens when issues come before the people of God is that first the elected leaders think and pray them through as they seek to discern God's will so that when the full church meeting occurs prayer is already at work. When it is a major issue we really stress the need for prayer. And when we vote it's not based on what we like or dislike but what seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.  We dare to believe that we might together know something of the mind of Christ and that people will vote for God's will.'   The presenter asked if this answered the question. 'Yes', he said and with thanks to our listeners some music faded us out.

Afterwards, the Anglican on the panel said 'You know I never understood that Baptist meeting thing until you explained it.  That really is amazing....that it can work like that.  Amazing!'  And I confessed to him: But is it true? That's the principle but, frankly, church meetings need spiritual maturity and  fallen people (in fallen churches) can easily demand their own likes. Yet, from my experience, when a people really want to learn and do God's will together there is no better way than to share in Church Meeting.'  I know it is not always so but to be able to confront conflict, disagreements, personality clashes in the context of prayerful togetherness meant developing genuine fellowship and growth. My Cambridge experience of church meeting was a glorious treasure over fourteen years. Really!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 13) Exhilarating slow down

I had imagined that the best outcome of the Church Meeting would be a resounding 'Yes' to the Coffee Shop plan.  But in the days following I witnessed something far more significant. People were genuinely sharing and listening to each other.  God had slowed us down in order to speed us up in the quality of fellowship, prayer and discernment.  Not for the first time we were learning about God's pace-making and our need to keep in step with him.

Responses to the new committee came from almost everyone (it seemed).  Actually, few ideas were about a new coffee shop.  Far more people focused on the main halls block which is set back from the main road and reached down a path beside the disused graveyard.  Someone suggested that we make one of the rooms in these old halls an attractive coffee bar - weren't there possibilities here to offer Christian friendship with light refreshments?  Others shared grandiose ideas such as completely rebuilding the whole halls block.  The extremes of minimal expense and hundreds of thousands of pounds were on display.

Whatever else many were concerned about 'doing something, anything, about our church kitchen' which existed as a cramped narrow broom cupboard. Equivalent to four adjacent telephone boxes it had enabled every act of hospitality since the opening of the church.....somehow catering for major events.  Someone commented that you could always tell how alive a church community was by the size of its kitchen.  By that criterion we were dead in the water! If we were serious about welcoming friends and strangers then we had to change basic resources in our premises.

The committee convener rightly kept asking us who were the people we were wanting to reach and if God wanted us to offer something to people who passed by the church did we have enough people and commitment to make an immediate start.  How could we best focus our evangelism and service? These key questions dominated our thinking and praying.  We were a much stronger church for the slowing down.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 12) God said 'Not Yet'

There was no doubting the passion among some of us present - we could see the Coffee Shop in action. To ensure good preparation the leaders had set up a small group to review practical and financial issues.  And as the meeting developed a number of other ideas emerged. Some suggested extending the small church kitchen with a redesign of the lower halls to provide convenient places to serve coffee, food and share friendship.  What other changes could be useful to mission? If the shop was right could it perhaps operate part-time?  Oh, so many possibilities.

An outcome was eventually agreed.  Guess what? That a committee be convened to assess the feasibility of the many ideas that had arisen.  Its convenor, David, promised that a full report would be brought to the October Church Meeting.  He wrote to us all:
If you have an idea or comment, however sweeping or trivial it may seem, please make sure that I know about it so that we can consider everything before we start spending money.  Often I find myself saying, 'What a pity that no one suggested that earlier...now it's too late'.  Please make sure that doesn't happen to your idea this time.

This should have been a crushing conclusion after all the prayer and excitement.  Delay by appointing a committee.  Oh, no! Committees have been described as narrow country lanes into which good ideas are lured and strangled to death.  How could such a bold project have been sabotaged in such a predictable way?  Yet, just when you would expect annoyance and even anger something curious happened to us all.  To my immense surprise there was no sense of frustration or disappointment.  I didn't feel any at all.  True, I had felt certain that I could picture God's next step but it was as though he was breathing his peace and purpose into a certain 'Not Yet' to us all.  The urgency at the beginning of the meeting had been displaced by a deeper need to think and pray some more.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 11) Would God say yes or no?

Excitement built for developing this small shop!  With some of the deacons I walked into it for the first time.  It smelt musty and really was small - just 36 feet by 17 feet with one toilet. Could this be the stuff of our vision to serve the city?  Our prayers about discerning how best to use the premises were rather grand and short of detail. Yet, maybe this was exactly the kind of rapid breakthrough that God can give.

Through conversations, meetings and prayer the positives seemed to outweigh the negatives. The dynamic of persistent prayer built up expectations.  As leaders we believed it was right to present a solid proposal of a Coffee Shop in this run-down space.  No time was to be lost.  So, with enthusiasm we brought the idea to the July Church Members' Meeting ( a monthly meeting to discern God's will together).  The more I prepared and thought about the meeting and shared in daily prayer the more exhilarated I became.  Legally there were no problems about taking back immediate possession of the shop. Such imaginative possibilities lay before us.  Yes, on a small scale....but we were still few in numbers.

I challenged people to attend: On Tuesday July 15th. the Church Meeting will be sharing the possibility of a 'Coffee Shop' on the main street as part of our outreach. Please pray about and consider this idea which other churches have developed in other places, but which would be totally new to most of us.

The meeting proved to be the first of a long series of extraordinary occasions. Opening worship was no formality - we really wanted to be open to God's will.  I prayed that we might be gifted with something of 'the mind of Christ 'and that whatever the outcome we would experience that spiritual confidence that 'seemed good to the Holy Spirit to to us.'  Undeniably there were financial implications but wasn't this a case of the Lord providing a wonderful opportunity?  Would God say yes or no?