Sunday, August 30, 2015

Unlocking memories

Carol and I were sitting in our front room when Carol noticed a man and his young daughter staring up at our house.  He was pointing, walking to one side, pointing again, crossing the road opposite and pointing again, all the time talking animatedly.   Could a bird of prey have landed on our roof?   One of our solar panels become detached?   Or a small fire have started upstairs?


Carol threw open the front door and asked the man if she could help: 'We noticed you outside and wonder what it going on?'   To our surprise his face lit up with obvious joy. ' Oh,' he said excitedly, 'I am just showing my daughter where I used to live when I was seven years old.  I have so many memories - of me sitting on a toy truck outside the front here,  of my brother and me playing here.'  When Carol invited him and his daughter (around 10 years old) inside he was in ecstasy. 'Can we really come in.  Oh, gosh!  This is just wonderful  How sweet of you!'


Then began a whirlwind tour down memory lane.  At every point, upstairs and downstairs, he had memories which tumbled out as a torrent.  He described where his Mum and Dad slept and spent a time marveling where he and his brother had beds side by side.  On the landing there used to be a cupboard with the hot water tank. 'It's gone' he said. 'That's where we used to put our towels to warm them up and sometimes our pajamas when it was really cold.'  At every window he paused with memories about how he had once looked through the same space. 'Oh, to think that you have let me in so that I could share all this with my daughter' he said (several times!)  He now lives abroad and was flying home the next day but he told us being let into No. 14 Brierley Walk was the highlight of his visit.

Reflecting on his enthusiasm Carol remarked how happy all his memories seemed to be and how good it is to live in a house where previous families had good times.   Remembering good times is a very good exercise indeed.  Scripture is packed full with commands to remember the stories of our past.  It's good to be enthusiastic about good memories, isn't it?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A crafted surprise

Carol and I have just returned from holidaying in Somerset where we spent a week staying in the same block of flats as our London family.   Our separate flat gave us some breathing space from our three grandchildren (let readers perceive between the lines!) Times spent together proved energetic and eventful.  Hopefully they will remember happily sharing in a Civil War re-enactment with cannons and rifles, finding ammonites on a fossil beach, as well as slurping ice creams and cream teas.  Yes, some days it rained but it didn't stop them from swimming in the (cold, cold) sea!   For us, as grandparents it proved another wonderful occasion for getting to know the next generation.


When they arrived in the car-park outside the apartments we helped them unload multiple bags of clothes and provisions.  Then Anton (aged 10, soon to be 11!) announced that he had something for me.  Something he had thought up and created himself.  He then presented me with a black paper cross on which he had very neatly pasted a sequence of brightly colored patches of tissue.  The result was striking.  He had remembered going into my prayer shed some time ago and seeing on the wall above my kneeler in my prayer corner an icon, a crown of thorns and one or two crosses (including a delicate wooden one from Jerusalem).  He had asked about them and I said that they helped remind me of Jesus' love for me when I knelt to pray.  He had stored this in his mind and determined to surprise me with his personal gift.  I really treasure his thoughtfulness for several reasons....and I think you can probably guess why!  What an addition in my prayer corner!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Threescore years and ten (4)

Just one more thing before I forget.  When Carol sprung the surprise birthday eve party and friends spoke to me 'before I am dead' I learned several things.  People were being kind (in view of my age) so they said positive things! Modesty prevents me from sharing much as friends spoke of my ministry in Cambridge and at Spurgeon's.  But it was mightily interesting and encouraging to hear things from their view-point.  How rarely do we hear from others about our work and influence!  Truly, the instruction: Don't wait until he's dead' deserves attention
.
However, one comment really caught me out. Ron (my current pastor) and his wife were present. Ron had overlapped his final year as student at Spurgeon's College with my first year as Principal.  He had been there three years already and he shared his discouragement and how utterly dispirited he felt about going into ministry.  Now, he had shared that with me before but what he said next completely surprised me.


Apparently, for my first time preaching in the chapel I took the story of Abram's call, telling the students to begin reading the story in Genesis 11:27.  Ron said that they quickly looked up their bibles to see the background to Abram's call in Gen. 12:1-9.   Then Ron remembers my three points (which he repeated later):  God speaks, God disturbs, God promises.  'This was a transforming moment,' he said,' that turned my dejection around. It was a whole new beginning and I was renewed in my call to ministry'.


You can imagine (even those of who are not preachers) just what it means to be told this news 22 years later! I was humbled. But I was also reprimanded.  I have recently written three chapters of a book with the working title: ' Beyond three points - preaching for the twenty-first century' in which I critique the too familiar practice of hanging spiritual truths on predictable three pegs. I argue that there are other ways of presenting gospel truth.  However, Ron's reminds me sometimes three points can really make impact!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Threescore years and ten (3)

Coincidentally, one of the gifts that Carol gave me was a wall plaque.  She is rather particular about keeping walls uncluttered (as with the rest of the house apart from my garden shed which she has given up on!) but she has already put the plaque on the wall facing our stairs.  Every time I descend I am greeted by these words: THIS IS THE DAY.


Carol says she wanted me to have it as a challenge about seeing each day as a gift and using it well.  Though it was bought in a thoroughly secular shop (!) it has echoes of another psalm too:  This is the day that the Lord has made (Psalm 118:24) which is all together much more positive than Psalm 90!  You know how that verse continues 'let us rejoice and be glad in it.' Only after I had posted my last reflection did it dawn on me that I now had a daily reminder to number my days aright!  Preachers are always looking for ways to reinforce and apply messages and this is the perfect one.


Carol also found another text (though I am very unsure which translation it comes from). Live happily with the woman you love through the fleeting days of your life, for the wife God gives you is your best reward down here for all your earthly toil (Eccles. 9:9)  Probably she would have preferred to have hung that up as a plaque if it had been available!.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Threeschore years and ten (2)

I mentioned that Carol called my birthday biblical.  That's because of the KJV translation of Psalm 90:10 - The days of our years are threescore and ten.  I remember in my first pastorate in Blackburn I had a very sad first couple of years as five key church leaders died aged between 57 and 66.  This target of threescore and ten seemed to be set too high.  Of course I have conducted many funerals for eighty and even ninety year olds but my early experience emphasized just how precious life is and how easily we can take a span of even 70 years for granted.


In reflecting on reaching 70 I definitely do not take the years for granted.  Twice I have undergone life threatening illnesses needing radical surgery. And ever since my dystonia disease was diagnosed in 1987 I am aware of living between three-monthly injections, without which I revert to being physically twisted in serious pain. All this might rather seem too gloomy, but it fits the mood for Psalm 90.


This psalm gives a very sober view of human vulnerability from God's point of view. Verse 10 goes on: and if by reason of strength they be four-score years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.  Yet, amidst grim news there is a vital prayer and a promise.
  • The prayer : 'Teach us to number our days aright, that we might gain a heart of wisdom' (verse 12). No day is to be wasted. Start valuing time and life and you will learn more about living well in God's purpose.  I need to make sure that every day that's left counts for God!
  • The promise:' May the favour of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us - yes, establish the work of our hand (verse17).  Establish is a God word here. The God who has all the time in the world compared with me, calls me to count the days so that within them my little bits of work can really belong, sure and firm, in his long-term plans.
So, onwards into my 71st. year!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Threescore years and ten (1)

This week I celebrated what Carol calls my biblical birthday (more later).  In my youth I remember attending 70th. birthdays with a mixture of wonderment that people had lived that long and boredom that there were so many other old people present.  Well, having reached the same point I feel even more wonderment but absolutely no boredom!


Carol organized a surprise (and it really was) party on my birthday eve. Yes, eve - that's partly why I was not expecting it.  Around 7.30 pm she announced that we needed to bring in extra chairs from the garage as she set about organizing an extravagant array of desserts and drinks.  Apparently she had been quietly making preparations for some time but I in my normal oblivious state remained totally unaware.   Sadly, our house will not allow us to cater for larger groups but when 14 friends began arriving I was really delighted.  What's more Carol had the idea of inviting them to represent the last 35 years of my life. Before candles were blown out on my cake she invited certain friends in the circle to speak to the different connections with me.  As she bluntly put it: 'Don't wait until he's dead!' It was potentially cringing all round but people generously rose to the occasion with words that touched me.  I heard things I had forgotten or just did not know! (more later)

In reply I mumbled a few words of appreciation for them and expressed gratitude for their kindnesses.  It was only later, talking with Carol, that I could succinctly say what this occasion meant. First, I told her how on this particular birthday I looked back with wonder and thanks at the journey the Lord has brought me on.  It has been a full life with extraordinarily varied content.  As a Baptist minister  I am immensely grateful for God's purpose taking me through such experiences.  Second, I told her that she had been his greatest gift transforming the last 48 years in wonderfully rich ways.  Yet again she demonstrated her love and social gifting in organizing this surprise for me....I know how vastly impoverished my ministry and life would be without her.   So, thank you to all who remembered - 29 cards are on display - and very big thanks to God and to Carol!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Graduation Joys

Last Saturday proved to be a glorious Summer day for a delightful experience.  I returned with Carol to speak at Spurgeon's College Graduation.  We parked in neat rows on the main lawn and, grabbing gown and hood, headed towards the brightly decked crowds of graduands and families, posing for photographs and whooping with delight each time they spotted new friends.  After lunch we were driven to Croydon Minster in double-decker buses (by drivers who lost their way and needed local advice!)  Painstaking arrangements were sorted for seating and procession and we all lined up outside the main entrance for the Mayor to arrive.  A buzz of excitement circled around.


Far be it from me to comment on my address, except it was short and amplification meant I couldn't easily be heard at the back (where Carol sat)! But several things thrilled me to the core:
  • stories.  Time was taken to tell the story of each of the 55 students before they received their awards.  The range of experiences, of sacrifice, of achievement and of service was deeply moving and I could not have been closer as I shook hands with every single one, looking into their eyes and receiving their smiles.  It took over an hour but it was the highlight of the day, especially as families and churches celebrated with each in extravagant fashion. Wonderful.
  • singing.  The large church rocked with spectacular singing. Both old and new hymns took off with such enthusiasm.
  • network.  It never ceases to amaze me just how many connections spark into life in such a gathering. Of course, I met friends I had not seen since leaving Spurgeon's fifteen years ago, but many other meetings astonished me.  For one couple it was fifty-seven years ago that we were last together as students. I always marvel at the experience of belonging within the people of God. There's no sell-by-date.
So, a happy occasion and a genuine privilege.  Thank you to Spurgeon's for inviting me back and to the Lord for gracing the day with his joyful presence.