Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 35) Not a 'student church'...yet!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story). Back in the 60's when I became a Cambridge student and threw myself into so many new opportunities, one of them was to join a university society for Baptist students.  Based at St. A's it was called the Robert Hall Society (RHS), named after an illustrious former church minister.  I must be careful not to sidetrack myself because I could write at length about what it meant to belong to this amazingly varied group of students who had a major influence on my life in many ways.  As a student-run organization I learned many disciplines including prayer, preaching, leadership and serving on summer missions. Friendships made have lasted for a life-time.  Actually, seven of my immediate contemporaries in this group later became Baptist ministers.  Those three cram-packed years proved to be the most concentrated spiritually and intellectually stimulating experience of my life (though I have had some good years since).

Back in those days, when denominational strength was greater and churches commended students from their churches to the care of chaplains and student groups, there were nearly thirty societies like Robert Hall based in universities across the UK.  I guess there were at least fifty plus students in our group. However,  when I became minister and was officially appointed as Baptist chaplain to the University, nearly twenty years later, only a few students belonged to RHS. It was a shadow of its former self.  Indeed, I felt something of a fraud whenever I turned up as a member of the University Deans and Chaplains group.

Yet, and this was one of those extraordinary divine by-products, with people like Andrew the organist becoming a new student and others being baptized, the Robert Hall Society sprang back into life. Indeed, this self-organizing group began manifesting just the sort of spiritual dynamics I had gone through twenty years earlier.  In October the church prayer prayer book noted with thanksgiving that RHS membership had grown to 51 students.  Below the radar, I was truly amazed at all these gifted young people identifying with a Baptist society when there were so many other options.  This was truly a gift from God.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 34) Not a 'student church'!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Nowadays churches seeking prospective ministers often prepare descriptive profiles and vision statements. Not in my day - but I do remember a leading deacon saying very emphatically when I first arrived: ' We do not see ourselves becoming a "student church". Rather we would like to become a family church of all ages into which students would be welcomed.'

I remember thinking how outrageously ambitious it was to imagine we might ever be a church filled with tens of students though it was true for several other Cambridge city centre churches.  Their programmes often revolved around university terms and dazzled with gifted speakers.  Such an aim seemed wildly far-fetched and I readily accepted the vision of becoming a 'family church.  How wonderful that would be.

By early June, 23 new members had come into fellowship.  It was a still a long way to reach our prayer aim of 50 new members but given our starting point we were immensely encouraged (as you can imagine).  One of the great joys was the range of ages represented in these new members.  Yes, there were students but they were outnumbered by many others.

And this diversifying continued in the next autumn baptismal service with three candidates - two of whom were much older with striking stories of God at work in their lives (especially the ex-rugby player) . Truly they added to the possibilities of becoming a 'family church'.  Again, prayers (sultanas and currants) focused on the impact their witness would have that God's good news would impact many others.  And, again, God used it wonderfully with new people coming to faith.  Baptismal services were becoming a visible spiritual pulse.  Every time they brought visible life and health to the whole community.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 33) Sultanas, currants and mission

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Also in June we shared in a Church Weekend Conference with Frank Cooke (of Purley) as our speaker.  Interestingly, he focused attention on the need for the whole church to grow in desire and willingness to pray. (Truthfully, I felt that this was one area that we had already focused on!)   But he described the prayer life of a church as being sultanas and currants in the mixture of church life - spread through everything. He challenged us that  'official prayer times' on Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings were of value but it was essential that prayer cells should spring up all over the place as clusters of friends prayed at coffee, lunch and even breakfast times.

Soon a prayer cell was formed to meet on Wednesdays and at the next 'official' prayer time we committed ourselves to follow up this church conference challenge with specific areas of intercession that not only included more prayer cells and basic housekeeping needs of a new church secretary but outreach in Cambridge and wider mission still.  The last prayer item was for  mission teams of BMS Operation Agri, Red Sea and East Africa where Marion plans to serve. 

Each of these mission issues was specific, but especially our concern for Marion. A very gifted student (who had studied botany at a high level) she felt an urgent call to serve full-time in Chad.  Her academic adviser urged me to halt the process of her call because, as he put it 'she is so gifted she could make much more contribution in her work than burying herself as a missionary.'   Marion's shining witness and obedience was to prove extraordinarily powerful as, undeterred, she opened up our responsibility to world mission by personal example.  The first of our missionaries to be sent out during my ministry she was to pioneer a stream of short-term and full-time missionaries through coming years.

Sultanas and currants spread through everything.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 32) A mini-Pentecost

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Much was happening alongside burgeoning music life.  We rejoiced as many newcomers came into membership and the congregation visibly grew. I guess as I reflect over these months I see the next major highlight was Pentecost Sunday.

Ever since seven friends made faith commitments in January we had prepared them carefully for the next steps of baptism and church membership.  Those two elements belonged together - baptism into the body of Christ! Baptism is not only personal witness but corporate belonging. Preparing for both required considerable work because we knew the majority of students would leave Cambridge at the end of their courses and we yearned for them to find churches in which they could continue service.  Each prepared with a partner/mentor who worked through many weeks of study materials (using a booklet prepared by the Scottish Baptist Union).  Partners were encouraged to walk with their baptismal candidate before, during and (especially) after the service of baptism.  Everyone needed to realize what a big deal this was.   And how their witness would have such powerful evangelistic appeal as they invited family and friends.
June 7th. 1981, Pentecost Sunday, therefore became the focus of intense prayer.  I can see that in our prayer agenda.  On this birthday of Christ's Church, eight people were baptized and we experienced yet another spiritual breakthrough event when God's trans-rational presence was powerfully felt.  Again, people came forward to the pool in response to the invitation.  The gallery was filled with students - most of whom had never seen a baptism. You can imagine why this was a highlight.  Compared with the previous year who could have imagined such a happening? We really were experiencing a mini-Pentecost of new life and purpose.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 31) Fresh melodies

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  In his pre-university year Andrew was willing to work not only in the music life of the church but also to help with youth work.  It is fair to say that his youthful energy and optimism did not always receive the greatest encouragement from the elderly and musically-conservative choir.  Yet his classical training and expertise as an organist was quickly recognized as a wonderful gift to all of us.

Andrew was encouraged to dream - about developing an orchestra for special events and developing music beyond the Baptist Hymn book (and anthem book). The siting of a piano at the front of the church provoked considerable tension as did the introduction of worship materials from other sources.  Before long plans were afoot for compiling our own songbook to include contemporary songs and hymns.  The process of making choices and seeking permissions was tedious and, at the beginning, the church meeting only allowed the song book to be used in the evening services.  Because these were less well-attended I am sure critics felt this was a safe compromise.  Actually, the greater freedom within evening worship allowed guitars and the formation of a small music group.

I know one or two boycotted these evening services and several more hoped it was a passing fad so we could soon return to chants and anthems.  Yet, Andrew's patient leadership and musicianship enabled the choir to continue to function well and to complement the new.  To some it was threatening but to many others it was refreshing and a clear answer to our prayers.

I know Andrew sometimes reads my blog - I am sure he has strong memories of what it was like as a young man to be thrown into this music tension!   But how grateful we all were for this beginning and his willingness to be the answer to our prayers.  The consequent story of music in worship on the way to some glorious blended worship had many twists and turns but this beginning laid solid foundations.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 30) Oh, the music!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Tragically, the expression 'worship wars' has emerged in recent years when churches have suffered conflict between traditional hymn singing with organ and contemporary songs with band (and drums!)  Many churches have gone through times of transition and so did we.

To say that the church's current music was traditional is a massive understatement.  One of the last Baptist churches in Britain to sing chants for both services, singing was led by a small elderly choir that sat behind the central pulpit and organ console. My ministerial predecessor, Arthur Jestice, was a gifted musician and he lavished care on the organ, finding extra pipes from dying organs to augment its rich tones. Services began with introits and contained anthems with the organ sedately accompanying hymns - a pattern unchanged from when I sat in the pews as a student in the 1960's.   And why should it need to change? many older members argued.

However, the declining choir and ageing organist had put as the opening request on our very first prayer agenda: a new church organist.  We all knew this was essential. But newcomers were hoping for greater music variety as contemporary music made impact in many churches across the country. As one outspoken visitor said to me: 'Oh the music! Something must be done, Michael!'

And, as sometimes happens in the Christian family, something surprising was done!  Andrew, one of my young people at my former church in Blackburn won a place at Magdalene College to begin in October 1981. In retirement his parents had moved to Cambridge in 1980. Andrew's musical gifts were evident in Blackburn, playing the organ for congregational worship, but now before he began as a full-time student he offered himself to work full-time in the church.  Was this an answer to prayer? You bet.

Meeting two authors

I enjoyed a fascinating evening this week when two detective mystery writers visited Cambridge - Ann Cleeves (of Vera and Shetland fame) and Louise Penny (of Inspector Gamache fame).  All my reading life I have enjoyed this genre and here were two friends at the top of their game, relaxed with each other and us as an audience willingly sharing themselves.  I love listening to creative people and noted several things:

-  both spoke of the compassion and kindness to which their own work testifies and of their conviction that contemporary detective fiction has moved to greater empathy with both victim and perpetrator.  As Louise Penny put it: 'Murder is such a terrible thing.  It reveals profound truths about humanity'.
-  they showed remarkable differences of approach.   Ann Cleeves told us that she never works out a plot beforehand and completes the book in one or two drafts.  Rather she lets the story tell itself as it is 'revealed' to her. Louise Penny agonizes through a long gestation period filling up her notebook with ideas and her first draft is a total mess (her words!)  It takes up to five drafts to arrive at something she is willing to show others.
-  their need for discipline.  Both work in the mornings and have to set themselves the specific target of 1,000 words each day.

They told us about their daily discipline after I had asked a question about their practice.  Later, when I queued up to get their latest books signed, Louise Penny thanked me for my question. 'Do you write?' she said. 'Yes, a little - academic books'.  'Oh, on what subject?'  'Preaching', I answered. 'How wonderful,' she enthused, 'That's just what we need at this time.....to help people preach!'  I was in a queue so sadly conversation was truncated. But it gave me a glow!