Monday, July 24, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure (2) At a total loss.


When I wrote that I had no solid shining picture of the future that is an extreme understatement. I was shaken to the core.  All I felt was a profound sense of inadequacy and bewilderment!  Bluntly, everything about leading a city-centre church was overwhelming.  My first church at Leamington Road, Blackburn in Lancashire had been a strong community church. A large proportion of its congregation lived within walking distance of the church and congregations 300 strong had all ages in a genuine family community.  For a 27 year old minister it was exhilarating and humbling.  Not once did I experience a shortage of leaders for all its activities. I revelled in working with a full-time church social worker, Enid Bichard (appointed by a special fund in the Baptist denomination) as she developed the Community Room on the ground floor as a vital meeting place for the north-west Blackburn community and launchpad for many initiatives.

I never remember asking myself whether the church had a future. Yes, I did have a major building problem with very serious dry rot (that's another story) but, in terms of God's big picture, church life just flourished in body, mind and spirit.

But now in the centre of Cambridge I felt at a total loss.  With a prestigious history since 1721 and a building holding 800, the average morning congregation in 1980 had declined to less than 100 people and in the evening less than 20.  Elderly, with no obvious residential community and no students attending, there was only one other family with young children alongside ours.  When I was disturbed on the church steps I really had no idea what God might do. Really!  None of the lessons I had learned from Blackburn were relevant.  At the beginnings I had no clue.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure (1) Disturbed on the front steps

On a bright weekday in April1980 I was standing on the steps in front of my church. I had been minister of St. Andrew's Street Street Baptist Church in the centre of Cambridge less than four months. I was supposed to be meeting someone - I forget whom- but they never showed up.

Instead, something happened that changed my ministry.  For the first time I saw the tens passing by the church front doors every minute.  Shoppers laden with distinctive bags from the supermarket next door, students weaving in and out, sombre business people, colourful clusters of visitors, mothers with toddlers, the homeless begging.  Nearby, to my left, a queue outside the city's main cinema was forcing pedestrians into the crowded traffic.  This was a city alive, noisy, vibrant, needy.

With a jolt I realized I had only ever been at the church on Sundays and mid-week meetings when the city was quiet and the streets emptier.  When the city was bustling with life our oak doors were firmly closed and, bluntly, our flint stone premises with the side passage way, little shop, house, graveyard and rear premises all looking forbidding and unloved.  And locked-up!  We only opened when the city was quiet and strict Sunday trading laws (since radically altered!) allowed us easy parking. We only appeared at off-peak times.  Most of those people walking past took no notice of us and certainly not of our message. How tragically marginal and irrelevant to the modern city we seemed, with the good news of Jesus Christ restricted to a few on Sundays only.

I was deeply disturbed. Deeply. And I recognized that it was God who was deeply disturbing me!  He wanted his people to be alive and present on that main street, loving and serving!   Though no shining solid picture jumped into my mind as a vision for the future (actually, I confess very little was clear to me) I knew my ministry was going to be radically different.  It certainly would be!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Celebrating faith in action

This evening I shall enjoy a BBQ (weather permitting) which celebrates 30 years since the opening of the St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church mission centre.  Actually, the foundation stone was laid in July 1987 but the story began much earlier.  It's been memory tickling to exhume old documents, photographs, and letters which I left behind (in musty boxes) in England when we lived in the US which tell the story (or part of it - mostly from my point of view).

As I look back I consider it to have been the greatest faith adventure of my ministry because it began with so few resources and only the vaguest of hopes.  The few resources drove us to disciplined corporate prayer the like of which I have never experienced since.  Our small number meant that the vision of being a loving Christian presence every day of the week on one of the main city streets in Europe seemed absurd.  Utterly ridiculous!   Yet we held to the conviction that it is not great faith in God that matters, but faith in a great God.

At the bottom of one box I discovered a thick file in which I began to write the story of how my ministry lurched through these years.  It was never published because, even though I was invited to publish it when the church had moved on to some glorious outcomes, I thought it could be a burden to those who would write subsequent stories.  Experiencing a God-time, a kairos, when all kinds of divine surprises leap in from every side is an unusual blessing and, by definition, it is a 'time' which passes.

However, since I have this 'luxury' of a blog (that I am still surprised my friends follow) I thought I might, some thirty years on, capture some of the highlights of this adventure.  Because it was a God-time and it was glorious...and all the Glory was and is his.  So, watch out for A Cambridge God Adventure.

Friday, July 7, 2017

49 years on!

One of the great surprises of getting older is the rapid reaching of milestones which, in my youth, I assumed meant a very great age (with earthly demise just around the corner).  Yesterday, quietly in the Cathedral Refectory at Bury St. Edmund's, Carol and I reflected on that glorious summer day in 1968 when our marriage adventure began in Chatsworth Baptist Church, West Norwood, London.

One of our convictions that looking back we realize has held firm right through these years is just how much God was involved in bringing us together 11 months before we were married.  It was truly a God-happening.  It was at an International Student conference in Switzerland when Carol (recently orphaned) was chosen out of many applicants to be one of 6 representing Great Britain.  However, I shouldn't have been there!  Absolutely no way. But, having just taken a job in London working with students I learned that my boss had been rushed into hospital with peritonitis and I was immediately catapulted into not only leading the British contingent by ferry and train to Zurich, but also chairing the conference and preaching a keynote sermon.  I had great trouble finding my passport that I had only used once before, let alone preparing for what turned out to be a fairly demanding conference (- especially with a vociferous Marxist Italian main speaker!)  Yet, instantly for me (though not for Carol....why was that?) as the group assembled at Victoria Railway Station under the clock I knew that Carol was the girl for me.  Oh, yeah!

We thought yesterday about the poor man Peter Tongeman whose peritonitis led to my good fortune. He was happily present at our wedding but it remains one of the great mysteries and wonders how much God uses the twists and turns of lives to weave together his purposes.  We give profound thanks that we see ourselves, actually can only really interpret all that has happened since, in terms of God working his purpose out. So, with surprise and joy we say, Thank you Lord.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Another list - from John Stott

My last posted listed some friends of Spurgeon which has led to a couple of conversations.  I always find it interesting to see summary lists of friends, influences, books when people look back and identify what has really impacted them.

Another book that was so easy to read, because it has many photographic illustrations (!) all from its author John Stott, celebrated his 80th birthday.  He looked back over the teachers who had impacted him. He drew an imaginary circle round the globe, plotted sixteen stopping places on it and stopped at each to highlight people who have been his teachers.  He calls it: 'People my teachers'.

He explains that they are all historical and some lived in the distant past like the apostle Paul (Turkey), and St. David (Wales).  Others are in the near past like Festo Kivengere (Uganda) and Richard Wurmbrand (Romania).  Some he has known personally like Dr. Paul White (Australia), Bishop Bjorn Bue (Norway).  For others he has visited their graves as with Shackleton on South Georgia and Temple Gairdner in Cairo.  He writes that many have made impact on his life either by a book they have written or by their reputations which means that one way or another he can share a personal anecdote about each.

Also included are:  Gandhi (India), Lilly O'Hanlon and Hilda Steele (Nepal), Hudson Taylor (China), Allen Gardiner (S. America), Charles Darwin (Galapagos), D.L. Moody (the American student world), John Franklin ( seeking NW passage), Thomas Becket (Canterbury and Choughs).  Are there some surprises?  Gandhi? Darwin? He writes: 'All of them have a lesson or lessons to teach us'.

Of course the list is not exclusive.  He had a gift for making friends all over the world, but I love its range which helps to explain how he was nourished in his own leadership. How much we can learn from others - especially those in the past.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Spurgeon and friends

A friend wrote to me saying that my recent posts about C.H. Spurgeon had persuaded him to read more which opened up many themes about this great preacher.  And there are many!  Before I move on in further blog ramblings let me mention a book in my library: Spurgeon and his friendships by Cunningham Burley, who relied heavily upon the insights of Spurgeon's oldest son, also called Charles Spurgeon. 
The book claims that Spurgeon possessed the genius for making friends. A great personality yes, but he had the grace of receptivity.  He 'cheerfully admitted that he owed much of his ascendancy as a leader and author to the loyalty of his comrades and the love of his friends.'

The range of friends is listed under different headings.  Wonderfully it begins with Susannah his wife, and Charles and Thomas his sons.  In spite of all the pressures he genuinely valued his family as friends.  This is a good reminder for Father's Day this coming weekend.
Ministerial Friendships include Joseph Parker, Alexander McClaren, Dwight Moody and De Witt Talmage- it is challenging to see his warm open links with other great preachers of his day. How preachers should admire this when competitiveness and jealousy can  so easily prevent such friendships.  I have books on and by all these men and it is thrilling to think they were friends.
Philanthropic Friendships include William Booth, Lord Shaftesbury and George Muller.
Soul Kinships - John Ruskin, William Gladstone, Henry Ward Beecher, Robert Louis Stevenson...but also children.  Friendship with children marked out his ministry.
Dumb Companionships includes 'Dick' the cat, 'Punch' and 'Gyp' - his dogs.

Looking at this list and reflecting on these different headings leads to personal questions about my grace of receptivity and who might belong in my circle.  It really makes you think, doesn't it?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Political choices

Britain is embroiled in a general election.  Cambridge is a hotly contested seat with the two main parties exchanging members of parliament in the last election.  Unsurprisingly, we have been visited by both parties in person and have literature pushed through the door almost on a daily basis as Voting Day (June 8th) rapidly approaches.  On the national scene the party leaders have been fighting for our votes with competing manifestos and, as any you of reading this in the UK will be well aware, the resulting dynamics are complex (to put it mildly)!  There never has been an election like it, say some pundits.

William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury (died1944) who was renowned for his preaching and writing was especially concerned about supporting economic and social reform.  Today I was reading some of his comments:
Herd and Fellowship - The real defence of democracy is...that by calling upon people to exercise responsible judgment on the matters before the country at any time, you develop their personal qualities; you make them feel that they belong to one another in this corporate society, and so you tend to deepen and intensify personal fellowship. You are leading people forward from the relationship of the herd to that of real fellowship by the mere process of calling upon them to take their share in the government of the groups of which they are members.
Its sounds as though it comes from a different, altogether more reasonable era, doesn't it?.  Yet, the possibility of developing personal qualities by exercising political judgment, of ensuring we move out of a herd mentality sounds good. I need to record that I have been giving scrutiny to the local candidates with awareness that responsible judgment places great responsibility on me to think with a Christian mind.  As Temple writes elsewhere:
Political Test - Man is created for fellowship in the family of God: fellowship first with God, and through that with all God's other children. And that is the primary test that must be applied to every system that is constructed and every change in the system that is proposed.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Discovery by stealth!

I do not wish to embarrass her and must therefore let her remain anonymous but the lady I mentioned at the end of the last post gave me her card as she was leaving.  I was surprised to see its printed picture bore the words: Rehoboth Children's Homes Trust (with her own name on the back).

Going online I discovered that in 1981 she and her late husband founded this children's home in the Philippines because they witnessed the desperate needs of so many orphaned, abandoned and neglected children. With desire to give them the best of Christian nurture and education the work began with a local pastor and wife becoming the first house parents.  In the thirty-six years since then it has grown so that currently 70 children are being cared for residentially and through their education programme. The trust is connected with Godmanchester Baptist Church as part of their wide mission concerns.

This is one of the wonderful truths about the Christian family - that you can find out almost by accident so many good works that flow from faith.  I remember once reading a quote about the best part of Christian kindness is that it is only discovered by stealth! 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Spurgeon follow-up

I have not been able to find about Richard Knill's response to the eighteen year old Spurgeon, though how could be not have been thrilled. However there is an interesting record of a conversation a few years later.

Knill was with a group of friends enjoying dinner when the conversation turned to the hot subject of a wonderful preacher who was pastor of the New Park Street Chapel in London.
'What's his name?' asked Knill.
 'Mr Spurgeon'.
'I know him' said Mr. Knill.
'No, no,' a friend replied, 'I think not!'
'Yes, I do, sir!  I saw him at his grandfather's house some years ago when I preached in the village for the missionary cause, and have always been convinced that he would one day be a most extraordinary character in the Christian world.  I remember taking the lad into the garden, I conversed with him and prayed with him, and found that he possessed a mind far beyond his years.'

Isn't it interesting how Christian stories intertwine and how we can look back and remember connections.  Richard Knill's was a major one and deserves its place in Spurgeon's story....but on  lesser scales have you experienced connections like these?

At the Waterbeach meeting a lady who told me she was blind asked to speak to me afterwards.  She recounted how she was visiting Cambridge and worshipped at St. Andrew's Street while I was minister some thirty years ago. Even though she was not staying long she filled in a card to join a house group and I arranged this with her. Apparently this led to the most amazing friendships which have lasted until the present.  Indeed she had just spent time with one couple in Dundee. 'I owe so much to that group. All because I filled in a green card and you followed up!' she said.  Oh, to be surprised by such connections.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

C H Spurgeon aged 18

Last night I was speaking at Waterbeach Baptist Church where CH Spurgeon began his meteoric ministry.  I mentioned a letter he wrote when he was 18 to an older preacher called Richard Knill. The interesting back story involves Richard Knill visiting Spurgeon's grandfather's church some 8 or 9 years earlier. Seeing the young Spurgeon he said: 'I think this little man will one day be a preacher of the gospel, and I hope a successful one!' Hearing again of Richard Knill when he was 18 stirred Spurgeon to write him a letter in which he first reminded him of the incident and then told him what had happened since.
When sixteen and a half years old, I was persuaded to preach in the villages. Once started in lay-preaching around Cambridge - where I was am still assistant in a school - I put my soul into the work. Having been invited to supply, for one Sabbath, the Baptist Church at Waterbeach, I did so; I was invited to continue and have now been the minister of the congregation for one year and four months. The chapel is always full, many profess to have felt the power of Divine grace, and residents in the neighbourhood say that there is a visible reform manifest. I preach thrice on the Sabbath; and often, indeed, almost constantly five times in the week-nights.  My salary being insufficient, I still remain in the school. Though the congregation is large they are poor - though their kindness may be judged from the fact that I have been to sixty-two different houses to dine on the Lord's Day. Thus are your words in part realized.
Your words spoken in season have been good to me; and if I am of any use in the army of the living God, I owe it in great part to you that I ever enlisted in it.  I am not nineteen yet; and need, and trust I shall have a mention in your prayers. With the greatest respect, I am, Yours truly, CHARLES SPURGEON.
I read the letter mostly because the meeting was a Mission Festival and Richard Knill was a pioneer missionary whose discernment was not only of historical significance but speaks volumes about our continuing need to discern God's call on others and ourselves.   But note the details - preaching eight times a week while still teaching at school.  A village on its way to being transformed - an extraordinary story of God at work.  And 62 different houses - he had counted them! That's hospitality.

Before I move on I shall try to find something about Richard Knill's response.  I am sure he found this a massive 'beam of encouragement'!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Feedback

The last post was positive - how good it is to be genuinely thanked.  But I was challenged by a conversation after Sunday morning's service.

I was talking with someone who sings in a quartet. She had just returned from a contest in Gateshead alongside hundreds of singers who had performed in different categories before judges.  ''It's scarey,' she said, "singing before people who are so knowledgeable and who will give you several pages of comment about your performance!   The first time we went to this festival we were so nervous thinking what they might say! Yet, I have come to realize that it is the only way you grow and improve, isn't it?' Actually, this year they won the award for best in their category so she was flushed with victory.

I really liked her spirit.  Of course she was willing to put herself through this with her three friends and expected rigorous feedback.  But her point about learning from others' critique as the best way to grow and improve is a critical one. I loved my beam of encouragement about my bible notes but I never stop needing honest feedback which may not beam!  I have just been involved in a viva for a DMin thesis on preaching and I was surprised that the student ended by quoting me:  'The one golden rule of preaching is that you never stop learning.' I still agree with myself. Honest feedback is vital for growth, isn't it?

Monday, May 22, 2017

A beam of encouragement!

Carol and I shared an interesting conversation about recent books we have read and our failure ever to write a thank-you for the joys/challenges that they have added to our lives.  'You never think to bother', she said.

This was triggered by an email redirected to me by a Scripture Union editor about my bible notes which emerged these last two weeks (for Encounter with God).  She forwarded a note from someone who wanted me to know just how much my notes had helped him.  I was thrilled as you can imagine..  His message shone like a beam right into my day and lit me up. I replied briefly to him expressing gratitude for the trouble he had taken. 'When you write in isolation it's rare to receive any feedback' I said. His reply revealed he was an Anglican church leader who had been reading  Bible notes for the last 55 years.  He confessed that only once before had he written thanks. He had never thought about the writer sitting so alone compared with public ministry when you can see what is happening (though you don't always receive encouragement!)

It really made me think about my failures to take the trouble to send out encouragement beams to others, especially if some extra effort is involved.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Life stages

On returning home last weekend we went immediately to an outdoors' tenth wedding renewal of vows with reception - an imaginative happy event (and the rain kept off...just!)  The next day we drove to an Induction Service in Kettering (an hours' drive away).  The preacher was my very gifted successor at Spurgeon's College - Dr. Nigel Wright - who himself retired three years ago.

He challenged the new ministry team not to 'go off the boil'.  To these younger ministers he spoke about his own ministry journey which described as going through distinctive stages:
Radical -  The beginning was marked by writing challenging books in a challenging ministry.
Mainstream - Becoming a founder of a renewal movement within the Baptist denomination
Establishment -  Becoming Principal of Spurgeon's College and President of the Baptist Union
Old School - in early retirement as he now looks back and realizes he belongs to an older generation yet remains active
Has Been - enough said!
(Incidentally, the first three stages are written up by Andy Goodliffe in a formal academic appreciation in the latest Baptist Quarterly Journal).

I joked with Nigel afterwards about the process of discerning the transition from old school to has been! Thinking of life in terms of stages should lead to gratitude to God for life and purpose.  In my own story that's true - how are you doing?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Public kneeling

Flying out from the US four days ago brought the usual problems of balancing the weights of our suitcases.   With a limit of 50lbs (US non-metric!) I began juggling between our three cases a few days before leaving.  We travel with a measurer - it's hook goes under each handle and as the suitcase is raised the needle gives a reasonable read-out.  Eventually I had moved heavy articles with sufficient care that each case seemed to be marginally under the limit.

But, as you will have likely guessed, in the main Departure Hall at O'Hare airport the official baggage weigh-in proved I had been optimistic.  The first case to go on the scale was 47 lbs.  I relaxed.  The second case was 51lbs and the third was also 51lbs.  The wearily cheery clerk said: 'Easy - just take a pound out of each and put it into the first.'  However, the cases are butterfly designed, flopping open at the middle to expose the entire contents on either side.  To my horror I found myself obstructing far more of the queue than I intended.  As people stepped around my kneeling figure I removed items from one offending case,  and then the another, to place them in the first case.  Standing up, flushed with accomplishment, I then found out that this case had become a 1lb too heavy!  Overcompensating! On my knees again!


Carol pleaded - 'What is one pound over in the big scheme of things?  Good grief, they don't weigh passengers themselves!'   However the machine said OVER WEIGHT.  Sheer legalism! Anyway, we have made it back....and rejoice at overcoming travel obstacles!  Thanks to those of you who prayed for our journey.  Alas, my airport kneeling did not contribute positively to prayer!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Collegiate joys

I have just returned from Grand Rapids where I met with representatives of the other 16 seminaries involved in Lilly-funded preaching projects across the US.  Many are academics involved in teaching preaching.  Sometimes, the fact that many academics are introverts and slow to warm up (have you ever noticed?! ) makes these experiences hard work but these past three days have been filled with joy. They really have.

It was my last such conference and that fact added a dimension of memory and thankfulness as I caught up with teachers I have met in different places over the last seventeen years.   At several of their seminaries I have given lectures and preached, staying a few days on their campus, making friendships and memories.  One of the three professors at Gordon Conwell, Boston, which I have visited many times reminisced about Carol as well: 'She really is something!' he said - and he clearly meant it to be a compliment.

Of course, I shall miss the collegiality of this annual meeting but isn't it encouraging to know that your work and presence has been noticed!  In different ways I hope that is true of all of us as we come up to retirement. (Often that means making sure we express our appreciation to others too). At some point I may post about the future of the preaching project that I started when it becomes clearer with the leadership of a new President and a new Director of the program.  But this occasion truly expressed the best kind of valediction on a very different part of my ministry.  I return to the UK with immense gratitude to God for doors he opened.  

Friday, April 28, 2017

Friends and friends and...

Those who know Carol and her gift for friendship will not be surprised at the high frequency friendship rate of our US trip. The first two nights friends hosted us in their homes. The third day I had to give a talk at a retirement complex where several friends live.  Beforehand the organizer of the meeting invited us to lunch with his wife.  By email another friend there invited us to lunch and planned for a group of five.  Unfortunately, our reply was lost in the ether and original lunch for two mushroomed as plans merged, other friends joined us, and eventually eleven of us sat down. We were the common link because many did not know each other.  It was utterly joyful.

And so it has continued day after day.   One group (originally called First Friday about which I have posted before) hosted a special night.  Another group (originally called the Tuesday Wheaton group) met for another evening.  It has been gloriously humbling that so many people have wanted to see us. Well, it's seeing Carol really.

And to prove exactly that point - on Wednesday I had a free morning and Carol suggested we return to the hospital where she was palliative care visitor for 10 years.  Apart from taking 25 minutes finding a parking space,  the welcome was overwhelming. Friends greeted Carol like long-lost soulmates - which they are. Lunch at the cafeteria with special friends was prefaced by the man on the cash desk who asked Carol where she had been. 'I've missed you,' he said. Surprised that four years later he still remembered her, she commented on his memory. 'I may be losing my hair', he replied,'but I've not lost my memory, honey!' Walking around the hospital several others remembered her and back in the Volunteers Office the hugs and kisses were ecstatic. It made me realize just how valuable Carol's work and presence had been, as I trailed in her shadow.  Wonderful.

And, guess what?  At least six of these friends are visiting us in Cambridge.  Three have made specific plans and others are equally decided.  I say at least six because several others have also said they are coming.  But that's friendship, isn't it?  We just hope they don't all coincide!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A whirlwind

Within three months the seminary where I have been based since 2000 is vacating its spacious property, for a building some seven miles away.  Apparently, needs must and most people are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with this massive move, including emptying the residential block (where we are staying) of its inhabitants.  It's a whirlwind with new faces including the new Director of my preaching program (who commutes from Cincinnati) and some missing old faces.

Yesterday one of the staff asked me to preach in chapel today.  Yes, the next day!  Apparently, in all the moves the message hadn't got through.  I have to say that it was a thrill being back with my friends for the last time in the chapel room.  You'll never guess (!) but I developed the theme from my last post about the risen Jesus coming alongside (very) ordinary people in their questions and bewilderment.  It seemed especially appropriate.

As Carol and I spend our last few days here we have been reminiscing about what this seminary has meant through our recent years. Of course, it's all to do with the people we have belonged with - around every corner, in most rooms, conversations, friendships, breakthroughs as well as occasional sadnesses have resonated.  So, along with many others we shall dearly miss this old place...but pray for the new place to quickly become a place of belonging too.

By the way, temperatures have been in the 70's touching 80 Farenheit, so the whirlwind is a hot humid one.  I know from friends in the UK it's not quite like that at home!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Wonder

Last week I heard the Today interviewer Nick Robinson on Radio 4 introduce a new programme by saying that all the assumptions that we once held as certainties had been shredded.  He emphasized the word shredded - almost with a note of despair. Certainly the unknowns seem to increase with each daily news bulletin.

I suppose to many non-Christians these three days (Good Friday to Easter Day) seem irrelevant and for anyone to claim these three days change the world for ever appears beyond absurd.  Yet this story remains the only source of world hope in spite of its often downbeat telling.

On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend (Luke 24) have only shredded certainties.  With the death of Jesus of Nazareth weighing so heavily on their minds they plod the seven miles with deep dark questioning.  We cannot begin to imagine how the risen Jesus, after the greatest reversal in the world, can afford to come alongside them. Why spend time with such a couple of people discussing on the road.  Surely he has more important things to do?  Much more important!  Yet, as with a woman in the garden, Easter is about ordinary people.

As he listens to their recital of gloom he, the Easter Lord hears some of the Easter story without hope.  Tenderly, yet firmly, he takes them into the Old Testament to speak of the suffering of the Christ and their hearts are strangely warmed.  On the greatest day of history he spends time quietly, generously on two people of no importance, entering their house he breaks bread and they recognize Jesus alive with them.

The wonder of Easter is that Jesus is like this. He comes alongside ordinary people who have their questions.  Easter is not for spiritual giants - it's for people like me.  Yes, it has cosmic implications too and the wonder is - Jesus is alive and nothing can ever change that truth.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

So there!

Those who have heard me speaking about preaching will have heard my lament about preachers who major on information.  Please no!  Good news is never merely information!  It should also be associated with inspiration and transformation.  Sermons that are informational may interest the mind but more rarely do they stir the spirit and move emotion.  Of course, the Holy Spirit is the one who aids inspiration and transformation and He blows where he wills.  He can use anything offered humbly. But information is more likely to be about Scripture than enabling direct proclaiming of Scripture's good news.  Explanation of the text is elevated as the priority!

So, imagine my surprise when turning to the Scripture Union Encounter with God notes for the next quarter.  At the beginning they list the authors with a thumbnail sketch of each.  My description ends with the words:  ' He is also an.....informational speaker.'  I think it was meant to read - international speaker - but it serves me right!  Mind you I suppose it is better to be an informational speaker rather than a vacuous one. No comments please.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

'Taken' - A One Man Drama

There's nothing too unusual about one person plays but yesterday in my local church, Histon Baptist, it was highly unusual.  Why?  Not because it was held in our worship space, nor that the actor Lloyd Notice was a professional with impressive credentials. Nor because props were minimal with white sheets forming three walls with a mattress, chair, table, glass.  It was surprising to have a camera blinking continuously into the stage area but then the stage represented a bare cell with the actor inside as a hostage victim, spied on by his captors.  But what really took our breath away was the way that the actor (inspired by Terry Waite who in captivity helped retain sanity by reciting Scriptures he had memorized) recited much of Mark's gospel with such sensitivity and power.

In a context of menace, with disturbing music and sound effects of fellow prisoners and guards, Lloyd scratched his head as though pushing himself to recall word-for-word the story of Jesus.  Fear was palpable but so was the reality of his story-telling.  His expression held us rapt. You really felt his joy as he retold stories of Jesus healing - his rejoicing, jumping up and down with laughter and dazzling smile connected so powerfully.  Especially because he was in a prison cell!

And you really entered the pathos.  For me, his breaking down at the death of John the Baptist tore the heart, as when we told of the betrayal and cruel suffering of Jesus.  Someone said to me today that they couldn't get out of their minds his miming of the pressing down of the crown of thorns on his head.  And what sheer wonder there was at the transfiguration and resurrection.  Actions, silences (oh how significant!) with familiar words told as story left us all in a spirit of worship.

And telling as story was key.  He told the story as a joined up narrative.  He gave us a flavour of how the first disciples (with high contemporary oral memory) told out the story of Jesus for the three decades before Mark's gospel was written.

Did he recite every verse? No. He edited out whole chapters like 10,11 and 12....and he needed to. The first chapter took such a long time I confess that I was calculating how long sixteen chapters would take.  But the necessary choices he made held the story together with integrity.  And, yes, for those who ask technical questions, he used the longer ending of Mark! 
It remains the greatest story ever told because it is about the Lord of life for today and tomorrow.  I was so grateful to hear it like this!



Friday, March 31, 2017

Back to school -Water colour class (3)

The final class this week finished with a flourish as we attempted to paint two very bright boats (orange and blue) bobbing in a harbor with dazzling reflections. 'I want you to use bright bold colours as well as washes', said our teacher.  And we tried to!

I look back over the whole experience with gratitude.  It has kick-started me into a fresh activity which propels me into a very different zone from academics and sermon writing.   Earlier I mentioned some of the advice he has given us beginners and this has been added to through the classes:
-  Make sure your initial sketch is sound - nothing will compensate for a poor drawing.
-  Simplify, simplify, simplify.....always look for the bigger picture.
-  Stop before you think you're done.  Avoid dangers of over-painting!
-  Don't go back when its partially dried.
- When you paint wet on wet - let it paint itself.
-  Balancing tones is essential for distance and contrasts.
-  Be bold not fussy!

There's good stuff here if I remember to practice it and I guess I will continue some painting now the class as finished.  A friend visited and mentioned she had seen a documentary which analyzed three groups of retired people in order to monitor what most helped them most to keep healthy in body, mind and spirit. One group went on a diet, another took to the gym and the third did life-drawing.  Apparently, the last group won hands down with positive outcomes all round.  I still think that belonging to a lively loving church community with all that means will come out best but I am sure a spot of creativity adds spice!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Not too bad!


I promised to give an honest report about whether dabbling with paints compensated for not taking my laptop on my seaside break!  Since the weather turned very wet and cold with ferocious hail on our last day my ambition to wander out with sketchbook in hand and sun on my face was seriously sabotaged.  However, I managed to paint some harbour scenes in Minehead with opportunities to experiment with sea, waves, reflections and boats.

Overall the experience was a happy one though I made a discovery that applied to every picture I attempted.  Each time there was some element that pleased me.  Some tones, details, adjoining colours seemed to hum. It wasn't necessarily a large percentage of the paper but it made me feel my night classes have been worthwhile.  However,  each time there was also some element that greatly displeased me - tones or colours turned rather ugly or details jarred.  Of course I never wanted this to happen especially if it began sweetly.....yet it kept happening!  It  reminded me forcibly of life in general with flies too regularly in the ointment (and what an odd expression that is!) But, maybe as I keep practicing the displeasing parts will become less.  That applies to Christian practice too!

I go to my last watercolour class next week. It's definitely opened up another way of spending my time..... and trying not to waste it!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Severing a cord.

It has dawned on me that something is happening for the first time in seventeen years.  Carol and I are preparing for a few days' break, seeing family, friends and spending time on the Somerset coast.  In the usual order of packing one of the first items on the list has always been my laptop.  Always this has accompanied me so that I could snatch writing time to keep up with some deadline or other.  It has accompanied me as though attached by umbilical cord.  But NOT this time!  I realize with a jolt (and some pleasure) that there is no pressing writing commitment for the first time in recent memory.  Of course I could be doing some serious stuff but I don't need to.

Instead I am packing some paints and pastels in hopes that my recent art classes have inspired me enough to spend my time in worthwhile activity!  I know my long-retired friends will tell me that I should not be surprised at such a turn of events....that this is what retirement is all about.  However, its occurrence has suddenly crept up on me as I leave my laptop behind. It really is a wrench. I look forward to seeing what a difference it makes.

This does not mean some serious stuff does not lie ahead and I recognize that I truly enjoy the challenge of writing and speaking commitments to come.  But it will be interesting to reflect on how much I really can enjoy scribbling and washes instead.  Of course, it depends somewhat on the quality of the scribbling and washes!  I shall seek to make honest report on my return.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Still life apples

On Saturday I attempted another burst of creativity.  I participated in a three-hour workshop using pastels (at a different community college).  We were told to wear old clothes and that all necessary materials would be supplied.

Many years ago I used wax crayons for quick holiday sketches but was always disappointed by their anaemic appearance.  I wanted to see if I could overcome past experience.  Beforehand I mentioned to Carol that it was likely we would begin with a still life - like an apple.  Well, of course, having been introduced to the two contrasting mediums of chalk pastels and oil pastels we were each given an apple to draw!  Yes!  Mine was very green with a little blush of red - a rather poor specimen.  However, I set about drawing it with both kinds of pastels and was surprised by the different possibilities.

Why did we need to wear old clothes?  It became apparent as we moved on to more complex subjects that the prime method of using chalk pastels is to smudge colours with your fingers.  Within a short time you can gain very subtle shades while fingers turn disgustingly dirty.  Actually it reminded me of going down a S. Wales coalmine and discovering that everything I touched turned grimy.  I have to say the finished results were very different from my watercolour class and, in their way, quite encouraging.  One of the delights was to find that I was sitting next to one of the older ladies in the church we belong to who turned out to have quite a knack.  Yet another opportunity seized by retired and semi-retired tryers!  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Bone chilling half marathon

No, it wasn't me!   My days of marathon running are long gone but today my son Simon ran the Cambridge half-marathon again.  With two of my grandchildren we went to give support which turned out to be much more of a sacrificial effort than I expected.  Arriving (as requested) an hour before the race began we froze in heavy rain while floating on mud.  9000 competitors with supporters were trying to keep warm and/or joining immense queues for the portaloos.  It was a sea of misery with a loudspeaker exhorting competitors to stay alive and focused.  Eventually, as the mass of runners took off we tramped to the first agreed cheering point - sheltering in a shop entrance until the last moment when we burst out to cheer Simon on.

Desperately we broke away from the crowds to secure hot chocolates which brought feeling back to fingers and toes.  Then we set off for the next cheering point some two-thirds along the course on a crowded Trinity Street.  We realized that we were at least half an hour early for Simon as elite runners shot by but, with the surrounding crowds, we began to get into the spirit of the occasion.

Each runner had their name printed clearly on their vests under their numbers.  We began to shout out specific encouragement by name.  I felt particularly drawn to those who looked close to collapse and a rousing shout: 'Tom, keep going, you're doing well!'   'Susan, well done...keep going' etc. brought not only actual smiles but visible spurts of energy.  I particularly cheered every Michael, Simon, and Robert with loud partiality.   Runners were also high-fiving spectators if they were brave enough to hold out their hands.  Anton nearly lost his right hand as an enthusiastic runner took a swipe;  after that he was noticeably subdued.

Simon said that it really helped him knowing that we would be at three agreed cheering points, including the final stretch.  Over the loudspeaker, which broadcast commentary as people passed the finishing line, came the words: 'And here comes Simon with his face wracked with pain!'  He completed the 13.1 miles in 2 hours 10 minutes!   We rejoiced with him, going back for roast beef and a hot shower (at separate times!)

It obvious to see this an illustration of the race of faith with the cloud of witnesses cheering us on (Hebrews 12:1, 2) and the thought of being encouraged by name is truly cheering as we run with endurance, isn't it?



Friday, February 24, 2017

Back to School - Water Colour Class (2)

Half-term break last week brought us half-way through the course. One or two friends have asked me how I am doing and hinted they would like to see some early evidence.  I have firmly resisted, for a predictable mixture of reasons:

Realism prods me to acknowledge how unsatisfactory my early daubs are.  There are flashes where some elements seem to work together but they are often undone by clumsy brushwork and tone elsewhere in the picture. One time you achieve a passable sky with realistic clouds...but the next time its patently unrealistic.

Pride is obviously at work.....who wants to have viewers who, while showing compassion, are so clearly trying to find something positive as they struggle to give affirmation.   As the class teacher said of my first effort: 'I can see what you were trying to do!'  At least that was some crumb of comfort but it was a crumb!
Hope stirs me to look ahead with yearning that I will improve so that I can meet at least some of my expectations by the end.  Who knows?

One of you commented that I am obviously a man of many parts.  Let me honestly reply that I am yet to be persuaded that this is one of them!   But I shall go on....

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Grave disappointment

In December I mentioned a preaching tour spectacular scheduled for May 2017.  Four of us were to form a preaching team for conferences in Manila, Taipei and Seoul...all within two weeks.  Hearing that arrangements were developing full steam ahead with a deadline for materials at the end of February 2017 I pressed on eagerly and these last few weeks I have (mostly) written my address for translation.  Imagine my delight when talking with the Boston tour operator she then organized my first (business class) airline ticket to the Philippines from Heathrow.  It was becoming real.

However.....imagine my disappointment when I heard last week that the whole trip was cancelled!  Oh no!  An email shared the sad news without explanation though, of course, with much apology.  The US administrator said he was distressed by the news too.  Apparently I need to send him my address which may be published and I have to stand by because a conference opportunity in the US may open up in 2018.  But I cannot disguise my disappointment.

In the interests of full disclosure I also need to mention that Carol is exhilarated by this news.  Though expressing some sympathy for me she has never concealed her worries about me going off to foreign places without her.  Every piece of disturbing news about the three countries to be visited has reinforced her concerns and (though she is coy about admitting it)  I am pretty sure that she has been praying the trip would be cancelled!  For my own protection, of course. As one of my  friends said: 'Well, you know about the powerful prayers of a righteous person!'

Saturday, February 11, 2017

80 years young

We recently attended a 80th birthday celebration for a friend we have known for the last thirty years.  About 50 people gathered in a restaurant to enjoy the occasion and we were delighted to greet several other guests we know well and be introduced to several more.   After the meal a cake was produced and our friend made a short speech.


She thanked us all for coming and then said three things:
     I am unhappy that I am so doubled up that I now have to use sticks to walk (her arthritis is serious);
     I am very unhappy that my husband is not here. He died 10 years ago and I miss him terribly;
     BUT for the last 65 years Jesus Christ has been with me every step of the way.  I have to tell you that his friendship is the most important part of my life. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
It was a very short speech but it expressed so clearly and honestly just how she felt on her big day.


It was a timely reminder as ageing so often brings poor health and bereavement that the relationship with Christ cannot be broken - the same yesterday, today and forever.  Gratefully, I left the meal with that conviction ringing in my ears.  There's no substitute for live testimony like that!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Back to School - Watercolour Class (1)

The last four weeks I have been back to school - actually a nearby Community College - which boasts a variety of adult classes.  Though I greatly enjoyed painting in the past (that's forty plus years ago) I have never learned to use water colours.  When I saw this class posted for beginners and those with a little experience I signed up, albeit with many questions.  You know the kind!  Who will be there, who will teach and how, what will happen in ten weeks?  Ten of us started out and it seems to have settled down to around 7 or 8 - evenly divided between men and women with the average age knocked down by a younger couple.

So what happened?  I have been intrigued by how the teacher has worked with our disparate group.  First, he has gone for boldness and confidence.  He poured scorn on little brushes, small paper, and detail of any kind. "We are not maiden aunts with our little paint pads doing miniatures!' he said.  He demanded that we buy quarter imperial paper, big brushes (12 or 14 for those who know about these things!) and that we begin with big vistas and large brush-strokes.

Second, he focuses on simplicity.  He recommends three colours are all we need: cadmium yellow, cobalt blue and cadmium red.  The rest is down to mixing with basic rules of eye-level, horizon, near, middle and far distances and concentration on tone.  It's tone that matters he keeps saying!

Third, he models from the front.  Sending out details about the next picture before each class he then encourages us to paint along with him.  As he slaps the paint on at the front (and at times it just seems a slap) he distributes little gems such as the need to preserve the white paper and the changes of tone to give three dimensions.  As we follow, he walks round, to give personal encouragement, advice and sometimes rescues a problem!  Rarely does anyone lose enthusiasm!

Four, he makes plenty of room for mystery.  At the outset he explained that because water colouring works with water  there is always some uncontrollability about what may happen next.  With experience you can build expectation but you never quite know.

I know I shall have a couple of reflections as the class progresses but the class agrees that he is a good teacher....and it's much to do with these four aspects.  I cannot help thinking about implications for those of us engaged in Christian teaching.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A recording device (2)

As a follow-up to Rob's oral history I should also mention his other recording exercise. At the end of their visit in 2015 he managed to compile a series of thoughts from all the family members (except us!) as they reflected on their time in England.  Well edited, it combined humorous and off-beat comments combined with several poignant and heart-felt words.  Listening to it reduced Carol to tears!

This time he produced another masterpiece.  Recorded during our final Chinese takeaway meal it began with rapid fire interviews with somewhat eccentric responses asking how family members chose to eat their Chinese. I am not sure we needed to know some of the enthusiasms!  But then Rob asked for their thoughts on all that had happened at Christmas with Nanny and Grampy!  One by one our children and grand-children spoke with seriousness and kindness.  Elliot (10 years old) said: ' I like that Nanny always plans ahead and prepares everything so carefully. When she told us that she had made the beds in the house we were staying it made me feel so welcome to England.' (What an insightful lad!)  Our daughter-in-laws both commented on Carol's gift of hospitality.  One of them said:' I love it when we come into the house and everything is so clean and ordered and right from the beginning we can relax.' Several other comments are too personal and it would be self-serving to report them (!) but you can guess how much we treasure this recording.

It reinforced the value of stopping to reflect and thank. This is not easy. Too often our busyness pushes us into the next thing without pausing for breath.  But when we consciously stop in order to be grateful and, better still, express those thanks - to God and to each other - we share in experiencing more the 'now' and live a little more deeply.  In 2017 we don't need a recording device to act on this.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A recording device (1)

After all the family happenings of these last few days so much merits reflection.  My son Rob, who is an associate professor of media studies (radio) at William Paterson University NJ, announced that he had packed his digital recorder in order to begin an oral history of his parents!  Though he stated this intention early in the visit it was only on the last day (actually within the last few hours) that he set up the impressive machine together with its heavy boom microphone fixed on a lightweight tripod.  I think both Carol and I were a little nervous and perplexed.  How on earth do you describe your past life in 45 minutes.  Actually, we only managed the first ten years.

A couple of things happened:
- As to the question How? - it all depended on sharp questions intelligently asked and sensitively followed up. He really is a good interviewer.  The time passed very quickly as we gave it our best shot.  Carol's birth story, her non-adoption giveaway, her frugal home and upbringing.  Living in the same house until she was married, she recalled early years playing with friends in the street, going to school, and special memories of her mother.  In contrast, I spelled out my early years in London, followed by idyllic times in Faringdon, Berkshire with village life spilling over with  'Darling Buds of May' stuff (H.E. Bates rosily pictured the Larkin family in the 1950's) followed by brutal experiences in S. Oxford school, followed by a move to Gloucester....all before the age of nine.  Surprising memories tumbled out. Really vivid.

- Rob expressed such amazement in hearing about us both. At the end he kept saying: 'I never knew that....I just never knew that!' Of course, why would he?  I realize how I never sat down to ask my parents to tell me something of their stories.  I really wish I had!
I don't know when we shall next tell some life-stories but it was deeply rewarding for us to look back with gratitude for all that God has given us and how he has led us.  How important it is to listen to others stories! And to tell them!
 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Welcome 2017

Just a line to greet you as the year has turned.  I guess optimists face 2017 optimistically and pessimists pessimistically with many of us probably wanting to identify as centrist realists.  For me, one expression has jumped out from Zechariah 9:12 (NLT)
Return to your fortress,
O you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.


Prisoners of hope!  Christians are in the extraordinarily paradoxical situation of being caught up, trapped, in God's bigger kingdom purpose which does not remove the troubles, grief and despair of the human condition (which sadly continues in this fallen world) but which empowers cosmic conviction that 'Our God Reigns!'

Omid Safi sums it up well in his blog 'On Being':
Hope is powerful. Hope is different. It is more, much more, than mere optimism.
Optimism is ultimately about optics, about how we see the world. It’s about seeing the glass half-full.
Hope is different. Hope is a cosmic quality. Hope is rooted in faith, with feet mired in suffering. Hope is a heart in agony that yearns for liberation.
Hope is tied not to how we see the world, but to the faith we have in how the world actually is and will be.
Hope is not about seeing the world, but about the heart behind the eye, the soul that sees.
Hope is not a choice. Hope is not optics. Hope is not mere politics. We are wrapped up in hope. Caught up in hope. Imprisoned in hope.
Return to your fortress,
O you prisoners of hope.

We hope in the moral goodness of the universe. We hope in the goodness of God. We hope in the victory of good over evil.
Welcome 2017!