Monday, August 18, 2014

Odd anecdote (5)

Changing the tone abruptly, my old memory bank has been jogged (uncomfortably) ! My last odd anecdote about knocking the main front lamp in church as I handed back flags to standard bearers has reminded me of my years in the Boys Brigade aged 11 to 16. I enjoyed playing the bugle immensely and belonging to the band took us not only on regular church parades through the streets of Gloucester, but also brightened up town processions and fetes in the area.

However, there was much to distract as you paraded through the crowds. On one memorable occasion, I think somewhere in the Forest of Dean, we led a procession and I was given the task of marching at the front of the buglers to give them notice of impending action by throwing my bugle aloft in my right hand before pressing it to my lips.  This clear signal was intended to bring all the buglers simultaneously into crisp united rhythm with the drums. Readers will anticipate what happened!  Distracted along the way I realized too late that our big entry was upon us.  In movement so swift that no one could possibly follow, I ended up with a mournful solo squeak before the ragged ranks eventually caught on.  The bandmaster sighed deeply.

In spite of this I was later promoted as Lance-Corporal and was sent on a training course.  One exercise involved learning how to drill the company...'.by the left, quick march', etc!  New officers had to take turns.  I remember the hall was large with a well polished floor.  I guess 40 or 50 fellow officers formed the ranks. It had been carefully explained that as they marched down the hall we needed to give adequate time to command 'About Turn'.  This seemed so obvious for ranks to be able to turn and march back in orderly fashion.  Whether it was the legacy of my bugling faux pas I am not sure, but I regret to say that I left it far too late.  In panic, I shouted just as the first rank was trying to avoid the wall giving the second rank little other option then to slide into them.  Total disorder followed with about a quarter of the lads on the floor.  The commanding officer sighed very deeply.

I think moments like these have helped hone (!) my leadership skills - certainly the ability to cope with public embarrassment.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A third question - What a difference this would make to the church?

When people are serious about doing God's will they become seriously involved with other believers.  This transforms relationships in church!

  • No more singleness and brokenness.  Too often when churches talk of 'family church' they think of events that include children with parents, but which can (sadly) exclude even more those who live on their own.  No, family church means everyone belongs equally.  Like most families there will be disagreements, rivalries and worse.  But the ties of family bonding made possible by Jesus Christ create a new level of relationship where healing and belonging hold everyone together.
  • No more loneliness.  Sometimes I meet people who are starved of human contact. They speak of day-long loneliness with only the TV to keep them company.  When we are brothers and sisters in Christ we have such opportunities to belong that can fill our days.
  • No more selfishness.  You know that verse 2 Cor. 9:6?  Therefore as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. Doing good means doing good.  Not just talking kind words but doing acts of kindness.  Brothers and sisters who genuinely care for each other show it.  This is one of the reasons why many of us believe in small groups.  We are just about to join one in our new church and immediately you do, it gives specifics to mutual family responsibility.  Doing good becomes very practical.
  • No more ignoring anyone.  I learned a lesson as a new church member, just 14 years old.  I was out on the main street of Gloucester with my mother when we bumped into an older lady who was a church member.  I was impatient to get on with shopping and showed my irritation by visible teenage truculence.  As soon as we moved on my mother spoke in a way I have never forgotten. 'You should never, never ignore people and treat them as rudely as you did.  They belong in the church family and even if they are older and you feel there is nothing you share in common - you do.  You belong together in Jesus!'  
This question of Jesus leads to his profoundly new reality, hardwiring us into a mass of new relationships with unbelievable consequences ....if we let him!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A third question - the radical answer.

I really need to get back to that bombshell question of Jesus (Mark 3:33), left hanging in the air: Who are my mother and my brothers? As Jesus looked at those seated around him we guess the disciples were close.  Actually, Mark records he had only just called them (verses 13-19).  This turns out to be one of those questions that Jesus has to answer himself.  We would have given the obvious family ties answer and missed the point.  Who could have guessed what he says next?

His reply is devastatingly radical. Devastating because it alters mass relationships among the people of God in the deepest of ways. Listen to his answer: 'Here are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother'

We should understand that Jesus loved his mother taking great trouble on the cross to care for her, and some of his family became devoted followers with key leadership roles in the early church. This answer does not slight his family but rather claims the reality of a new kind of family.  As he looks at his followers who unite around him, he applies the high language of family, of blood ties, of group-belonging to describe how closely God's believers are bonded together.  Jesus is the divinely common denominator of a new community that is created not by human will but by God's gift (John 1:12).

This ushers in a revolution of belonging. Other social political experiments have attempted this. Communism sought to inspire equality of brotherhood. But there has never been an initiative like this.  Such is the power of God's grace in the ministry of Jesus that he dares to name and begin a world movement that overrides age, gender, singleness, race and culture, likes and dislikes.  His love forges believers into brothers, sisters, mothers of his family whether they choose these others or not.

And that's the crunch point.  Once we take God's will for our lives seriously we are pitchforked into belonging within the most cross-cultural, inter-generational, variegated bunch of people you could ever imagine.  And this 'belonging' involves being as close as brothers and sisters. What?  I need to think what a difference that would make to my local church.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lights Out!

This week began with the 100th year commemoration of the First World War.  Like many others we put out the house lights at 10:00 pm and lit a candle. Several memorial events were televised that day and through these last few days grainy black and white photographs of young men in the trenches have confronted us in news events and documentaries.
Yesterday, some dear friends from Wheaton - Tony and Marian Payne - visited us for the day. I mentioned that the main American war cemetery lies just outside Cambridge and they asked to see it.  We arrived late afternoon at this extraordinary site.  A massive white wall holds the names of over 8,000 US servicemen whose bodies were never recovered.  In immaculate rows down the hillside are the graves of over another 6,000.  For much of the time we just walked in silence.  The sense of loss is overwhelming.
The Great War generation tended to keep quiet about their experiences. My grandfather never opened up to me even though, as a teenager, I was keen to hear.  My father requested his 80th. birthday meal in Wantage, Oxfordshire.  All the (small family) was present and afterwards he pressed us to go with him into the nearby parish church.  None of us had ever been to Wantage before.  He gave no explanation.  We reached a memorial on one wall with the names of all the local lads who perished in 1914-18.   He pointed to two adjacent names - both Quickes.  'They were my uncles', he said. 'Both went out as teenagers and died on the battlefield.'  To see your family name and sense my father's sadness brought it so close.
One preacher at Westminster Abbey on Monday said that the main focus as we look back should not be remembrance so much as repentance as 'we reflect on the failure of the human spirit that led to an inexorable slide into war'.  This week the world seems as violent as ever.  Our repentance coupled with prayers and commitment to peace-making remains vital for our world.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

All Age Service

This morning I was at Histon Baptist Church for a family service.  Why the need to post anything about that?  Over the years I have been to tens of these and even tried to lead some myself.  There are obvious challenges when all ages are present, especially when the very young wander freely and expressively. To capture and hold a congregation, with ages from a few months to 80's plus, sharing gospel news in ways that do not patronize children nor irritate adults, is an art that very few of us have.
But, today, the speaker was John Hardwick who happens to be a member of the church. His web-site spells out his gifting as author, song writer, creative communicator.  As someone who specializes in children's work he was clearly on their wavelength, but what thrilled me was the contagion of his worship leading.   Several things hit me:
  • song writing, often based directly on Scripture verses,  combining words and actions in such lively and authentic ways.  Leading with the guitar he engaged all age groups.  One long-standing Anglican said to me afterwards: "It couldn't have been more different from our early morning traditional liturgy.  But I loved it - it was real.'  How refreshing to be able to say that. 
  • memorable communication - telling good news can be so hackneyed and sometimes (especially when children are present) trivialized.  Here was thoughtful, energetic (oh yes), very creative communication which involved children, juggling, flags and plenty of interspersed music.  He presented the wonder of the 'biggest family on earth'.  His 5 'P's' were clear: Peter, Pentecost, Paul, Philip and....People, when he had the whole church on its feet as we each in turn shook hands with two people. 
  • love for children - it is obvious how the love of God motivated John and especially focused  his skill to excite children about Jesus. Afterwards, we spoke and he commented sadly about some church congregations where children are never addressed.  No one should ever underestimate the power of children to learn and to share the gospel.
John may be bemused that I was stirred to write this.  He has many commendations on his web-site and certainly doesn't need mine. But what struck me was the joy I experienced in worship today.  Yes, it was noisy.  Yes, there were songs I didn't know.  Yes, I felt awkward because actions don't come easily to me (and I was not alone).  But when you share in all-age worship like that you do participate in something not found anywhere else on our planet.  Truly..the biggest family on earth.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Walking Etiquette

On my birthday yesterday, we went to St. Ives (Cambridgeshire). Walking along the busy Market Street, past Oliver Cromwell's statue (he once lived there) I came to a green area beside the river. It is likely this is where John Wesley preached in 1774 where he noted in his journal he found hearers 'very well dressed yet well-behaved'.  I wondered about his past experiences with well-dressed people!

Moving on beyond the crowds milling around on the river bank,  I found a quiet path continuing on beside the river which eventually led into tranquility through ancient forests, meadows still rolling with medieval troughs and ridges from oxen ploughing, and glorious glimpses of sunlit countryside beyond. Occasionally, along my hour long walk I met walkers coming in the opposite direction.  Every time we approached each other, we looked each other in the eyes and greeted one another with a 'Hello' or 'Hi'.  The contrast with the crowds on Market Street could not have been greater.  I began looking out for exceptions. Surely not everyone walking that path would politely acknowledge me.  Well, true enough, several cyclists didn't ,and a group of young people ignored me.  But 99% of my journey was punctuated by smiles and cheery greetings.

It's something mysterious about country walking in Britain (and probably elsewhere too).  Begin to walk for the sake of enjoying a beautiful world and you seem to have more time for people too!  The very act of stepping out brings you into a world where people slow down enough to notice things...including other people slowing down to notice things. I resolved that I need to do some more of this mutual noticing!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cambridge connections!

We always thought that being back in Cambridge for much of the year would bring us extra passing traffic.  So many people visit Cambridge for conferences and other events we hoped that old friends would pop by!   Yesterday looked a free day.  But out of the blue I received an email from my colleague at Northern Seminary - Cherith Fee-Nordling.  She was speaking at the CS Lewis Conference here in Cambridge.  Hurriedly, we found some free time in her schedule and invited her to our home for a meal.  Great conversation followed - all the more so because we had no idea she was down the road. What a surprise!

She invited us to the evening conference session in St. John's College Chapel which took the form of a two hour Choral Concert on the Christian Virtues.  This was based on the conference theme with spectacular singers belonging to the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute Chorale.  Only I could go with Cherith.  Looking through the glossy programme notes I discovered that the Founder of this Chorale and the Director is John Dickson.   Sitting next to Cherith in the (uncomfortable) choir stalls I looked at his photograph and blurted out: 'It's John Dickson!'  Back in the 1980's John and his family had been on sabbatical in Cambridge and attended my church.  Since then, I had met up some ten years ago at a church conference in New Mexico.  But we had lost contact.  I couldn't believe it as the choir processed down the aisle and this elegant man in black led us through the evening - could it really be him?

I told Cherith I just had to try and see him at the end!  But, of course, there were crowds surrounding him. Different groups demanded him in the centre of their photographs.  Patiently I waited. Then he turned and saw me, and immediately threw his arms around me, announcing to all and sundry that I had been his Cambridge pastor.  He was just as astonished to see me as I was him. And just as thrilled.  Quickly, his wife joined us and then a couple of friends from Louisville whom we visited over twenty years ago.  It was the most exciting reunion - all the more for being totally unexpected. Such joy!  We are determined not to lose contact again - yet the wonder of Christian fellowship is that we are going to be surprised over and over again in God's kingdom.  You really cannot get over the bonds that bind us in Christ.