Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A cemetery farewell

On our last full day in Toronto I walked through the Mount Pleasant Cemetery which is close to our apartment.  Spread over a wide area, containing graves of many of Toronto's good and great, I needed to find the memorial to William Davies with whom I had found a family connection.  The office clerk looked up the details of William Davies (1831-1921) and told me several people were also buried at the memorial.  With a detailed map of the grave's location I set off and, to my great surprise, found that it was very close to the main gates that I have often walked through these past days.

But the real surprise, and a very sad one, was to see that William and his wife Emma who lived 89 and 75 years respectively buried eight children at this site.  Their names are inscribed on the other three sides of the squared memorial.  George (3 weeks), James (32 years), Nellie ( 35 years), Charles (37 years), Samuel (25 years), Philip (23 years), Mary (5 months) and Arthur (29 years). Eight times the parents stood there in bereavement;  William was there nine times.

There is obviously a story behind the deaths off Charles, Philip and Samuel for two died in Nassau, Bahamas in 1890 and the third, Samuel died in New York on his way home from Nassau in 1890.  What on earth happened in Nassau to these young men in their twenties and thirties?   What tragedy lies behind the stark dates?

What struck me was the care that had been taken to give Scripture references to each one.  Some surrounding memorials had descriptive tributes.  Not here - just plain Scriptural testimony that death is not the end! Christ is risen! In the sadness and mystery of short mortality this conviction remains the greatest hope.

Preaching Adventure (3)

Last night I concluded my six sermon sprint at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.  As anticipated, it has been a great time of interaction about sermons....I have received more in-depth response after each service than for a very long time.  By in-depth I mean the willingness of individuals to talk about different biblical texts with personal involvement and insights!
The short series 'The God who makes friends' ended with the greatest theme of all - Love.  God's love for us and his command to love him and each other.  The two texts spell out startling implications of Christ's offer of friendship before the cross, John 15:1-17 and, after his resurrection, his restitution of the failure, Simon Peter, John 21:15-19.  I had never preached these passages before with the theme of God's friendship as central and all the preparation really refreshed me as preacher too.

As guests Carol and I were treated to meals after the services, including a late supper on the concluding night. It was stimulating to share in conversation about the appropriateness of this theme 'The God who makes friends' as people around the table spoke of its personal impact but also its connection with current culture in which deep friendship seems rarer and loneliness more prominent.  One person told me about a recent cartoon showing an empty church with a coffin at the front. The funeral director was saying to the minister: 'I thought there might be someone here. He had 2000 friends on Facebook!'

Anyway, we are shortly returning home, full of gratitude for the friendship of so many and the opportunities to spend some summer in Toronto.  Thank you to all who have been remembering us!

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Toronto Connection

This week I made my way (through temps in low 90's) to Toronto Archive Centre.  Only recently I have realized that one of the great figures on my mother's side of the family belongs within Toronto history.  Isn't that odd?  Only towards the end of my uncle John Davies' 91 years (which I posted about last year) did it become clear how his father came from a Welsh Baptist family and his great uncle, William Davies, emigrated to Toronto in 1854.   Families sometimes have personalities whose exploits go down the generations.  William Davies certainly did!

Born in Wallingford 1831, leaving school aged 12, he was running his own grocery business by the age 20.  When he was 23 he emigrated and three years later founded William Davies & Co in 1857 which specialized in exporting cheese, butter and eggs.  However, his main interest was in meat and in 1861 he opened the first Canadian building devoted to cutting and smoking meat, especially hogs.  The business expanded greatly with large premises in central Toronto.

His biographical entry comments that he was a rugged individualist and remained a Baptist throughout his life making generous gifts to the founding of McMaster University, Brandon College, also supporting hospitals, sanatoria and, of course, Baptist churches.  The biography notes he was the most important pioneer in the Canadian meat packing industry.  Who would have thought it? I was able to find out where he lived and his church connections at the archive centre.

I guess it is the Baptist bit that thrills me and the weird personal connections!  I spent my last sabbatical in Wallingford and preached in the Baptist church there....the very place where my great- great-uncle was baptized before setting off on his adventure.  And here, in Toronto, is another connection.  And what about the 'rugged individualist' tag!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A vine mess! (2)

As one of you commented about my last post - a vine mess!  Unfortunately, that proved to be the least of my problems.  Preaching about the true vine I set up a gloriously positive picture of how believers belong together in Jesus Christ, bearing fruit.  A happy picture of abiding in him!  And it is a wonderful picture.

Yet, as I preached I was gradually introducing the warning that this happy belonging utterly depends on bearing fruit.  If there is no fruit of love in the life of believers then the vinegrower gets to work.  Pruning is the first step to make branches more productive.  But if there is still no fruit then the vinegrower throws away branches to die. Fruitfulness because we are obeying God's commandments to love one another is essential to belonging.  But, apart from him we can do nothing.

In the first part of the sermon my interpreter seemed relaxed.  My sentences were repeated briskly in even shorter Romanian.  Suddenly, as I moved to the work of the vinegrower as pruner a marked change came over him.  To my great surprise he began to speak rapidly long sentences all on his own.  I stood there speechless as he launched into a mini sermon of his own.

Only later did I hear from my father and a church member with excellent English that his earlier translation only approximated to my words.  He was enjoying preaching his own sermon on the true vine.  When he realized my sermon had taken a turn (that I had well and truly signaled but he had failed to mention) he had to explain to the congregation that the preacher (and more importantly, the text) was saying something else.

I don't think this sermon will go down as one of the most effective!   Any stories you have about working with interpreters?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Romanian preaching adventure (1)

My preaching next Sunday on John 15: I am the true vine brought back to mind an incident when I visited Oradea to preach in its famous Baptist church.  My father accompanied me.  In his mid-70s he had mastered the Romanian language sufficiently to be able to preach and at the packed morning service he first gave a greeting.

Because I needed an interpreter I had decided to bring along a visual aid.  I cut out, painted and glued together a lengthy vine with many branches.  Folding it carefully I carried it  safely in my suitcase.  On the Sunday morning I was relieved to find it all still in one piece.  Going up onto the platform with my father (and several other leaders in black suits)  I gently placed the folded vine under my chair.  In the hymn before I preached I reached down and placed it on the seat so that it would be easily accessible when I spoke from the podium.

Moving to the front with the interpreter I began to preach, setting the scene with opening sentences and adjusting to the interpreter (and he with me!)  Early on I turned round to reach for my prized visual aid. To my shock, in the hymn all the platform party had shifted along one chair and my father was sitting firmly upon my vine.  I could see a branch hanging down the side.  Swiftly, I realized the complications of trying to rescue it would create far more commotion than could possible be warranted.  So I ploughed on without it.

Afterwards my father said:  'I thought you were going to use some visual aid, son'.  'Well, yes Dad, but you were sitting on it!'  'Was I?'  he said, with genuine astonishment.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Preaching Adventure (2)

Yesterday I was back in the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto after a twelve-year absence which shrunk in significance as we greeted many old friends and found ourselves in a largely unchanged cathedral setting.  My last post mentioned my delight at being invited to a church that takes preaching so seriously that they actually budget to bring in international preachers during the summer!  Certainly, summer holidays definitely made impact on numbers, especially because it was Canada Day (July 1st) weekend....yet levels of engagement were as high as ever.

Following the morning service several spoke about the message. One woman shared her experience of encountering Christ and her 'need to lay aside all her assumptions about how life works...to accept that God's grace utterly baffles the intellect.  It just doesn't make sense to a world that insists on seeing and touching does it? But how glorious it is to be able to say by faith that Jesus Christ IS alive!'

To my joy, in the evening service (yes, the church has the full works on Sunday evenings too!) I was able to repeat this comment within my sermon on prayer.  I say 'to my joy' because I believe strongly in sharing the witness of the congregation whenever possible.  Nothing makes for sermon reality like hearing congregational members' experiences. Usually, I ask permission and check details but time was pressing. And I found out afterwards that she was present!  I said that I hoped I had done justice to her words and that she didn't mind....to which she said it was incredibly affirming to have shared in that way!  Actually, many others also shared their own prayer experiences after the evening service.

So the preaching adventure has begun very encouragingly - thank you to all who have been remembering us in prayer.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Preaching Adventure

I shall never forget Summer 1984 when I was invited with my family to spend a month in Toronto.  Why unforgettable?   Because it was on the basis of my preaching a month of Sundays (morning and evening) that we were given fares, accommodation and wonderful hospitality.  On the basis of preaching in the Summer!  Just when many churches close down as congregations relax and take holidays (together with their preachers) this church - Yorkminster Baptist Church - planned its preaching with immense care.  It was humbling and stretching...especially since the famous resident preacher Dr. John Gladstone was present and spent time with me!
I recognize that 'preaching centres' can be created and sustained by a variety of motives - which perhaps deserve a separate posting.  But when a church really cares about the ministry of preaching, with anticipation and eager response, I am sure it encourages the best prayerful preparation.  Certainly, I have worked hard in preparing the six sermons I have to deliver this coming month and (as will be absolutely no surprise) I am really looking forward to being in this church again where preaching has such a high priority.

However, I also need to say that my vulnerability levels remain high - this is a privilege that is undeserved and nothing good will happen unless God is at work.  One of my sermons is based on John 15: 1-17...'apart from me you can do nothing' (verse 5).  That's a vital warning!
You may not hear much from me during the next few days but if you can make a little space in your prayers for me I would be grateful.