Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Making the organ sing!

Last weekend I went to an organ recital in Histon Baptist Church.  I have been attending for three years and never once heard it played.  Forlornly shuttered away on one side, it has been replaced by the music groups who accompany our worship services.  Apparently no one in the congregation is proficient enough to play it!

However, last Saturday Dr. David Rowland, the Director of Music at Christ's College Cambridge and also (most propitiously) the father-in-law of our Youth Minister gave an organ recital.  After opening remarks he sat at the organ with his page-turner at his side and launched into the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  I could not believe it.  This instrument took off with amazing timbre and volume.  I have heard this played so often but here in my own church was a glorious surprise. I was astounded at its quality and said so to my neighbor who agreed.

After this colossal piece, David explained the concert was in aid of refurbishing the organ.' Isn't it odd to give a recital on an organ that needs refurbishing', he asked. 'Well, yes, but I have practiced to try and compensate for where pipes no longer work.  Some of the pedals are inactive. Some of the keys stick.  It requires a heavy touch and you cannot be sure whether it will run out of air...but we shall see!'  As he continued to play Vivaldi, Franck (and Couperin on the harpsichord) I marveled that he had so compensated for the instrument's faults that the music worked beautifully with barely a hiccup.   At the interval one of the visitors said: 'A really good musician can really make even a poor instrument to work well'.  Certainly, he did.

And it doesn't take much of a preacher to see a little parable here about how in our own weaknesses God can also work out his glory. We can make far better music for him than we realize! I hope the organ is eventually refurbished to contribute to blended worship and I am thankful for the lesson.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chicken, Spinach and Bacon Sandwich

One highlight of this week was to come through another colonoscopy unscathed.  Because a pre-cancerous polyp was found five years ago I needed to go through the procedure again.  As fellow patients know this requires a fasting preparation process.  Because my procedure was late in the afternoon I began a liquid diet two days before.  On occasions I have fasted for spiritual reasons but when it is forced on you medically the motives are quite different!

Anyway, the consultant examined my colon and I was sufficiently awake to see the whole process on the colour monitor perched above.  When he declared I was free of any further polyps I was immensely grateful.  I really am.  But then came another highlight!  Even though I was a National Health Service patient I was given treatment in a private hospital in Cambridge.  Before the procedure they asked me what sandwich and drink I would like.   And as I recovered in bed the nurse brought me coffee in a silver pot and an exquisitely displayed sandwich, cut perfectly into three pieces and filled with chicken, spinach and bacon.  Alongside was a small salad which I laced with mayonnaise....and then began the delicious experience of savouring every single mouthful.  Oh, when you are really hungry! It was so much better than any sandwich I had eaten for years!
I am in the process of preparing a sermon for next Sunday in Churchill College on the temptations of Jesus.  The first concerned turning stones into bread.  For Jesus, hungry in the desert there must have been real physical temptation here. Astoundingly he will reject the possibility because 'man cannot live on bread alone'.  He must fulfill the big mission as the Bread of Life who satisfies in the deepest possibly way by giving eternal life.  For someone who was so satisfied at one level this week....the challenge goes so much deeper.

Monday, February 1, 2016

50 years ago (2)

I said there were two sides to my Arbury Rd. visit.  It's odd how many memories came back about my father's leadership which had lain without much reflection for years.  I guess for most young people reflection is not a strong suite! In talking with my younger  brother it was revealing how little we thought about his ministry back then, even though we are both ministers now.  But now, several times we both used the word courage and expressed deep gratitude for what we hadn't thought about enough!   My brother wrote out some thoughts which I shared at the lunch afterwards.  Let me highlight some:
  • Early on he pioneered the All Age Sunday School when the entire church met for worship first and then everyone went into age-related classes all over the building.  Though he could be suspicious of American ideas he took this revolutionary project and ran with it as one of the first Baptist churches in the UK.  At first, he only had a slight majority of the church meeting in favour but how glorious it turned out to be.
  • He was actually called to the church with responsibility for building a new church. That took courage with plenty of persistence and prayer too. His direct appeal for funds especially when there was a crisis showed great moral courage.  Apparently, on one occasion there was an industrial dispute and the builders laid down their tools.  My father climbed up to where they had finished laying bricks and started to lay them himself.  The builders were horrified and were shamed back to work. (I like that story but I am not sure if it happened just like that!)
  • Another memorable project involved the Radwinter Hut story of near death.  Needing accommodation, we went to Radwinter (where Dad had contacts) and took down a hut methodically numbering its parts. Loading it onto a lorry we thought it was properly secured when suddenly it crashed down narrowly missing some of us.  Re-erecting it on the church site was immense fun bringing many of us together.  And it proved very useful in the years ahead.
  • Later when he was appointed President of the Cambridge Association of Churches he and my mother took a caravan and stayed with every village chapel in order to give encouragement.  It was Winter time and I think I remember a picture of them in the snow in a field seeking to enthuse the churches. 
I shared these at lunch and I know much more could be added.  But I think you can tell how much I valued growing under my father's ministry (and how much I wished I had told him too!) 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

50 years ago (1)

Today I preached at Arbury Rd. Baptist Church Cambridge to celebrate the 50th. anniversary of the 'new' church which was built when my father was minister there. For me the anniversary had two sides.

The first concerned the congregation's celebration and fresh commitment.  50 years ago the people dared to build for the future under my father's ministry.  In the hall next door a series of exhibits told the story and a fascinating much-thumbed album gave insights into 1960's people and the happenings.  God fired the vision for a new church on the large lawn in front of the current buildings and people prayed, gave and dreamed. From the membership an architect - Bob Wyatt - gave his skills of design and oversight free to the church.  And marvel upon marvel this high steel and brick structure arose, costing about sixteen thousand pounds!  I guess some people opted out but how wonderful it was that the great majority opted in! Of course, time has passed. I asked for a show of hands and less than 10 people signaled they had been there when the new doors were flung open on January 29th. 1965.

But, wonderfully, the story goes on. Today, it was thrilling to see the congregation (admittedly smaller than it was) under its new minister using the building to the full. The best part was reading his anniversary letter by which the church is challenged about God's vision for the future.  He, with other leaders, spelt out some long-term possibilities (which, yes, involve fresh building) with some short-term possibilities. A special offering was taken up.  Here was no exercise lost in nostalgia but one of faith and hope.   All anniversaries should be like that, shouldn't they?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Churches Together

Last Sunday on a cold evening I preached at a service for Churches Together in Ely  to begin the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Over the years I have attended many of these in the UK but this was markedly different - in a good way! 
  • the church building (Countess of Huntingdon) was full with very lively worship in which everyone seemed to join under enthusiastic leadership.
  • people with their clergy came from a wide number of churches so that it truly represented Churches Together.
  • they said together a covenant that seemed to be specially written. I was struck by the humble way they confessed where they had hurt each other in the past and expressed desire to love in the future.
  • at one point a list on the screen showed some of the ways in which the churches had acted together.  It was lengthy with the Foodbank one of the major commitments alongside much participation in city events. It was a great list.
On a personal level I was thrilled to meet old friends - someone I baptized over 25 years ago and a retired Regional Minister who I hadn't seen for 15 years.  I could hardly believe that he remembered to ask me how my neck problem was.  That's impressive pastoral concern. I continue to marvel at God's special kingdom network.

And though I hesitate to mention it, after I preached some of the congregation applauded!  This is highly controversial....I remember reading that only bad sermons are applauded because the genuine article should stir the soul not excite the mind.  It happened to me once before in a Chicago church and the church officers banned it in the strongest possible language the next Sunday. So, I don't expect it to happen again.  And probably......it shouldn't !

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Galilee remembered.

Something extraordinary happened this week.  Just before Christmas a conversation occurred in a Histon sheltered housing complex.  Eileen, a newcomer aged 84 who had recently moved in, was trying to make some new friends.  In general chat with Molly aged 93 she mentioned going to the local Baptist church and somehow the name Michael Quicke popped up. 'I know Michael Quicke', said Molly 'but I am not sure its the same one!'  Later, in their communal lounge she brought along some photographs taken over twenty years ago. 'This is me being baptized in the Sea of Galilee by Michael Quicke' she announced. Eileen and one or two others agreed that it was the Michael Quicke they know (though now considerably less youthful!)

Astonished, Molly asked whether they ever saw me and where did I live? They told her that they saw me every week at church, at the cheap pub meal and at the over 60's community time!  She expressed the hope that perhaps she could meet me too. Well, this week it happened.  As I visited her flat and saw the photographs of her baptism powerful memories flooded back....I remembered the day vividly.  I recall her and her friend Dorothy so well.  Oh, all the preparation of her and three others (involving discussion with their supportive home churches) to ensure this was no cheap tourist photo-opportunity.  But what a wonder on the day itself with each of them giving testimony in a little chapel beside the lake before descending into the water.  And, as the photos captured, the moments of joyful baptism with all four candidates praying afterwards in the lake. I'd never seen these pictures before!

The greatest thrills in talking with Molly came from hearing her testimony since....that baptism truly marked a life-changing event in her Christian journey and that she kept in touch with the other candidates long after the pilgrimage.  No one-off in exotic surroundings - it has proved to be genuinely unforgettable...as believers' baptisms should always be.

I was so surprised to be plunged into such joy.  Many pastors will know this best kind of surprise - of God working on in lives that we only briefly touched.  I never knew what it meant, but how grateful I am to know now.  That's true encouragement.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Life in Music

Over the last few days I have enjoyed reading the story of Sir David Willcocks in A Life in Music which a friend loaned me.  Several time I saw him in action on Christmas Eve at King's College (with his famous carol descants) and, as a teenager, sang (poorly) from his Carols for Choirs.  But his career dazzles in its wide range, taking in Westminster Abbey, dramatic wartime service, Salisbury and Worcester Cathedrals concluding with directorship of Royal College of Music and the Bach Choir. What makes the book unusual  is wide-ranging engagingly told by transcribed conversations with Sir David and friends.

Many things struck me. People who knew him best always remarked on his beautiful and meaningful conducting of the psalms.  He said he could recite many of them by memory and when preparing the choir he would ask questions like:
Where does the main stress come?  In a verse like "God is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble" (Ps. 46:1) is the stress on 'very', 'present', 'help', or 'in trouble'?  You have to work in rehearsal to make sure that the entire choir feels the words in the same way.....I love the psalms. They cater to every mood, and speak of joy, sadness, sorrow love, hate, redemption and reconciliation - every mood experienced by man is to be found in the words of the psalms.  
How right he is.  It just so happens that I am starting a new set of Bible study notes for Scripture Union which includes two psalms -108 and 109. You can certainly see some moods there!  Oh, to love the psalms too.

I also enjoyed (amongst much else) his philosophy of conducting. 
I'd say to any person who wants to be a conductor, "Play in an orchestra, sing in a choir, be at the receiving end, and make up your mind what it is you like about the person up on the rostrum.  Is he talking too much?  Is he encouraging?  Is he getting to the really important points, or is he fiddling around with little things that don't really matter?
 Is it possible that I hear a message there for training preachers too?

Another aspect that impressed me was the loan copy was personally inscribed with a lovely message to my friend, Maggie, who was also responsible for transcribing interviews, for collating book material and for photographs. Listening to her speak of her own fond memories (sadly not included!) including his very last years make me even more grateful for the difference that Sir David made to so many of our lives through his glorious music making.