At the Blackburn church I was greeted by friends from my very beginnings in ministry. One lady reminded me of her gravely disabled child, a teenager able only to lie in a large pram. How, when her child died, she had first felt she needed a quiet family service, but the conviction had grown that we needed to come together to make a witness that God is love, and in this child her parents had amazingly experienced this even through the pain and the questions. It was one of those remarkable services that only believers can enter. With tears in her eyes she said: “I expect that was your first service like that”. Oh, yes! Someone else said; “This was the church where you did everything for the first time.’
I was there seven years and such was the pace of life that it almost felt that I faced everything a minister can do. The only Baptist church in a town of over 100,000 people I was thrown into so many diverse situations that demanded a response. Often I was a first-responder meaning it was my first opportunity to respond to an issue I had never met before. Murder, suicide, a rapist who was in the headlines, deaths at every age from a few hours to ripe old age. Divorce, infidelity, marriage, disputes and breakdowns. Racial tension. And always, ongoing responsibility for two sermons every Sunday, mid-week Bible study and prayer meetings, pastoral visitation, denominational networking, collaboration with others in this cathedral town. And, especially, new believers coming to faith and by baptism into membership.
Here I was 40 years on with men and women who had become my friends back then, through thick and thin, through my failures and inadequacies. Anyone sharing in a reunion knows the rush of memory, and the general goodwill that thrusts the best of memories forward, often giving them an affectionate polish. But as we worshipped together and sang some of the great hymns of the church I knew (and my wife with me) that we have a privilege that few other jobs give. Of belonging with a family made up of otherwise unlike people united in this strange community in Christ, called a Baptist church.