Monday, November 12, 2018

Mystery Book

Last Sunday while I was greeting someone before the service began a book arrived on my seat, in a smart paper bag.  As soon as I found it I looked around to see who might have placed it there - with no success.  No one caught my eye!  Opening the bag I found a copy of Andrew White's autobiography: My Journey So Far.  Andrew is known as the Vicar of Baghdad but he gained international renown as a reconciler both between Christian and Jew and between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims.  Despite pain (sometimes acute) from multiple sclerosis he had never given up in his desire to show love in the most dangerous situations and he is one of my great contemporary Christian heroes.  He really is.

I love what The Spectator wrote of him: Canon White is instantly, unusually lovable...He is pure of heart in the way few people over five ever are. It makes sense that he's spent two decades as a peace-maker, negotiation with tyrants and psychopaths, because he's utterly disarming.

He really is instantly, unusually lovable.  I met him at breakfast in Wheaton a few years ago.  A mutual friend had invited me and I was quite overawed thinking I would spend some time with this larger than life figure I had heard and seen so much in the media.  But his love and warmth were instantly and genuinely overwhelming.  He told me how he had studied at Ridley Hall in Cambridge while I was minister at St. Andrew's Street and how he heard so much about the church, though his loyalites to the Church of England prevented him from coming.  I couldn't believe it.  And when I read his book I marvel how in his time in Cambridge he connected with several Anglicans who were friends of mine.

My guess is that the mystery donor of this book had no idea how thrilled I am to receive this book.  Actually, Carol wondered if it was left there by mistake, or intended for someone else!  I expect I shall eventually find out who left it and whether it was intentional.  But I rejoice in jogged memories of this wonderful lovable man of God.  Such autobiographies and biographies are exhilarating and encouraging reads, aren't they?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Love (2) Accountability

My second Sunday in 1 John 4:7-21 took us to two places: Love on the Day of Judgement and Love in Histon Baptist Church.  A few people spoke afterwards about both these.  One person said that they had been struggling with a deep sense of fear about things they were guilty of because they were aware that 2 Cor. 5:10 speaks of our accountability not only about belonging to Jesus (for which faith commitment means there is no condemnation) but also the 'things we have done while in the body, whether good or bad'.  Hearing those verses about 'confidence on the day of judgement' (v.17) and 'there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has do with punishment' (v.18) renewed them with hope. 

One of the men present said that he had actually cried towards the end.  'I am glad that you began with judgement and ended with love and it really touched me as I heard the last part,' he said.  At the very end I told the old story of the apostle John's last sermon.  News went round that the ancient apostle, the last of the disciples still alive, would give his last sermon.  People trekked miles to be there.  What a special event it would be.  Old John was carried in the midst.  With a weak voice he said: 'Little children, love one another'.  People strained to hear.  Crowds on the outside asked those nearer what he had said. 'Little children love one another' they were told.  Then John repeated the same sentence. Again people strained to listen. And again he said the same five words, and again...and again.  Some people turned away disappointed and even upset that this old man had been allowed to embarrass himself and obviously showed signs of senility. But others realized that out of his lifetime's experience with Jesus this spiritual giant was summing up the most important truth about living the Christian life that he could ever say, and he kept repeating it just as God in his patience and mercy keeps reminding us today.  Yes, little children love one another.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Love (1) Behavioural science

On Sunday I preached in my local church because our pastor was away on holiday.  Two consecutive Sundays allow a little more delving into a text. I was given freedom of choice though was concerned to try and listen out for God's choice - which seemed to be the theme of love.  All kinds of passages hit me as possibles but in the end I focused on 1 John 4: 7-21.

The sermon fell into three parts (they don't always):  God's love breaks the rules of common sense, God's love breaks beyond emotion and God's love breaks into the world's behaviour.  The second section majored on verse 11: Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. I stressed how the oughtness of God's love punches through emotions, feelings, moods. Loving God with all our hearts (headquarters of personality) soul, strength and mind, involves all of us breaking through the excuses why we shouldn't love - don't know him, don't like her, don't feel like it, don't see it as my responsibility etc.

I quoted Charles Finney, a great preacher who led the Second Great Awakening revival in the US.  Though immense emotion accompanied many converts he was desperately concerned that new Christians did not come to depend on their feelings.  He wrote: 'They should be carefully taught however dull their feelings may be, if duty calls (to pray, to love) DO IT.  Do not wait for feeling DO IT!  Do not wait for it and you are most likely to have the emotions - the happiness of religion. (His block capitals!)

Afterwards a psychologist in the church approached me with a sparkle in his eye.  'Exactly', he said. 'That's behavioural science that I practice all the time.  I tell my patients DO IT even though you do not feel like it and the emotion may follow!'  Well, we are made in the image of God so it's not too surprising to find the principle at work.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Life lessons

A few days ago I had to speak at a Men's Breakfast in my church in Histon.  The organizer suggested that I speak on the secret of  50 years of marriage but it took only seconds (and Carol's high amusement) to reject that idea!  However, it made me think about what life lessons I might pass on from these past fifty years or so. What might I say to a mixed group of believers and others that might be interesting and provoking?   I only had 10 minutes or so and I had to select a few:

1.  Live for a big picture - something that not only gives perspective and holds you through the tough dark times but which makes you grow stronger.  I spoke briefly on my Christian faith as the big picture with its two characteristics.  Its carrot - the sheer attractiveness of Christian living with its emphasis on love, forgiveness, service, honesty etc. And its stick as I live with accountability before a God who calls me to accountability for my actions 'done while in the body, whether good or bad' (2 Cor. 5:10).  It is this high sense of accountability that means I should never cultivate an insignificant life but live for bigger purposes - proactively rather than re-actively.

2. Never underestimate the power of kindness - so often kindness is mistaken for softness.  It is assumed that leadership needs strength of character not kindness.  But actually the strongest most mature character knows the power of kindness to turn a situation of hostility, tension and breakdown and set a better agenda. 

3. Never lose your curiosity.  This seems of much lower order but to take real interest in everything and everyone builds lives and relationships of immense strength. Asking questions and listening carefully are vital skills for full living.  Self-absorption kills such hopes.

I gave some illustrations along the way to reinforce how I was learning these lessons.  And at the end I challenged the group to think about what they might identify as some life lessons.  It's a stimulating exercise.  Try it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 89) Anything to add?

Someone commented about this story: 'If it could happen in St. Andrew.s Street Baptist Church it could happen anywhere!'  It wasn't because this was a particularly needy church beset by dire problems.  Not at all. It was just that in its long influential history in the centre of Cambridge its best days seemed well behind it.  Visit it and you found a small band of mostly elderly believers in a large church building.  Middle-of-the road, theologically mixed, and formal in style.  A continuing gentle decline seemed almost inevitable.

Posting all these blogs about the fresh happenings was not intended to pump up another 'success story church' for some self-glory.  Rather it was to recognize that a story begun with so few human resources discovered the unlikely ways by which God can work out his purposes immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us (Eph. 3:20).  I hope that it will be an encouragement to readers and stir up faith.

However, I also recognize that God does work in seasons, in what Scripture calls kairoi - God quality times.  He brought so many different factors together with dramatic effect within a short period of time.  Another friend looking back on it said: 'I was so grateful to have lived through that special time.  I know God can give those times but I also know I cannot keep expecting them!'  That made me think hard about living with responsibilities in less exciting times - God is still working his purposes out though less dramatically.  Someone else warned me that they saw a danger of some idolatry as church people looked back to these good days.

I am not sure what may happen to this collection of blog posts.  A historian friend said that I should ensure it ends up in the church archives so that the personal experience of one of its ministers wasn't lost.  Well, maybe.  But thank you everyone for reading so far and to any who can add colour, correction, encouragement please be in contact:  I am sure there are things to add.  Blessings.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 88) The how.

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  As the church story went on I found myself invited to speak about undertaking 'faith projects' at various conferences and churches.  I always stressed that I was a surprised as anyone (except the Lord of course) about what actually happened. Sometimes I was asked for specific advice - just how do you develop a big scheme? I recently found notes on seven points that I gave on one occasion:

1. Don't do it unless the Lord gives you no choice. Begin with his vision and seeking glory for him.
2. Only do it with prayer and keep praying, praying all the way.
3. Seek God's unique plan for your church because of your community's need. Don't quickly copy another.  Ask what is God's strategy for your premises where you are. Launch out where he sees the fish.
4. Keep communicating - every issue must be open and every decision shared.
5. Expect opposition - every step forward for God will be under attack.
6. Expect rising costs - projects always seem to cost more than first envisaged.
7. Expect great things from God, Attempt great things for God.

I was with someone two weeks ago who lived through the entire Cambridge God adventure. He has been a member of St. A's for several decades so my ministry and this vision was put into perspective. 'Looking back,' he said, 'I believe the most important thing that happened in your time was prayer.  As a church we really prayed through those years and I shall never forget what happened.'   I think he was absolutely right.  Number 2 above was essential for all the rest.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure *87) One highpoint...and a bump!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  I am near the end of this story because its unfolding from 1990 onwards is so densely packed I wouldn't be sure how to pick out appropriate highlights. So just a couple more posts.

Mention of the TV morning service in my last post reminds me of one significant highlight which I cannot miss because when our congregation and its mission went national it was a kind of summary event.  August 4th. fell awkwardly because it was both family holiday time and out of term.  I remember my wife Carol urging people at a church meeting not to go away on holiday!  Certainly, when the day arrived the church was full. Interestingly the service began with David Beer,  my successor as Free Church Adviser to Anglia TV (I had to resign when dystonia hit me), explaining about the church by sitting in the Stone Yard Centre restaurant.  In a few frames he encapsulated the whole story of faith and mission. Then the camera went through the doors into the packed church.

Everyone was on best behaviour.  Our different music groups combined to make music. We sang a new hymn written by our music leader. Drama brought Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to life.  Leaders led prayers and read...and I did my thing!  It seemed joyfully to sum up so much of our journey together.

However, not everyone was on best behaviour.  Returning to our home, high as kites, we discovered our house had been ransacked.  Thieves seeing publicity for our big event took full advantage of our absence and burgled our house at leisure.  We didn't have much of value, but what little we had was found!   It brought us back down to earth with a bump.  But it couldn't take away from our worship experience and when I have occasionally seen the CD recording since I can only rejoice again in what the Lord did with us all.