Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 5) Bertha's secret

Many memories crowd in these first months. So many conversations and happenings!   One unlikely happening occurred when visiting Bertha, an elderly single lady living in social housing.  She seemed rather ill at ease that the new minister was sitting and listening to her.  Once I left I carefully noted our conversation for reasons that are obvious.

'There's something I want to tell you but I don't think I can say it at the moment', she said with obvious awkwardness.  'It's far too embarrassing to mention... and people will think I am funny in the head and laugh at me if they know.  You might!  She lapsed into a state of confusion obviously regretting she had even mentioned this subject. I assured her that I would not laugh at her,  I would not think she was funny in the head.

Half reassured she then stumblingly told me: ' When you first came to preach as someone who might be our minister you led a Communion Service.  And something extraordinary happened to me.  I was sitting in my usual place looking towards the front of the church but instead of there being a few people it seemed as though there were hundreds filling the church.  As I stared at the front it was as though standing behind where you were there was Jesus himself in all his glory. And it felt so good. It was the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.  Of course, I haven't told anyone else.  Do you think such a thing could ever have happened to me?  What do you think it might mean?' 

I could see on Bertha's face that it truly was so good - her experience was still alive.  But wondered how many would have seen this as a divine sign and would have asked why Bertha of all people should have seen such a thing! But I already knew that God works with surprising people in surprising ways and I have never forgotten the joy in her face and the sign I felt it to be!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Old preaching books

In the last weeks I have been trying to downsize my library.  Already I went through the pain in the US, giving away many hundreds of books and donating much of my homiletics library to the seminary.  But, returning to the UK, I was reunited with my collections of older books that I had made from foraging in book shops over many years.  I built mini-libraries of some of the wide variety of preachers whose personal ministry has thrilled me.  But, I realized how the time has now come to pass them on!  I thought that this week's Preaching Congress would be a good place to ask around. Were any of the participants passionate about some of these past preachers?

I made a list, noting where I possessed first editions (some of which are valuable in the professional market).  In conversations I delighted to find (much) younger preachers with a similar passion for some of these past figures.  When there was interest I promised to bring appropriate books in from my study for them to look at.

Some collections are big: Spurgeon (39 books), Parker (31), Boreham (19), Weatherhead (16), Sangster (12), Studdert Kennedy (11), Fosdick (11), Thielicke (10),  Stewart (9), Sheppard (9), E. Stanley Jones (7).  In addition there were 40 names!   What fun I had collecting these - and reading many...well, some of them!

This week I discovered special enthusiasm for Spurgeon (what a surprise!), E. Stanley Jones (I am shipping that collection across to the US) and James Stewart.   Because of luggage space mainly single or double volumes were taken for the following: Richard Baxter, Alexander Maclaren, Peter Marshall, F.B. Meyer, J.C. Ryle, Charles Simeon, Gipsy Smith, John Wesley, George Whitefield.  To see these books find new homes was so encouraging.  I shall keep nibbling away at this low-key process - hoping to find more enthusiasts for old preaching books.  I shall respond to any interest shown!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Preaching Hope

Last night the International Preaching Congress concluded.  After my sermon, B.H. Charles Jr. - the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention preached.  To hear one of the most famous black preachers in the US (whom I had only ever seen on-line at his Shiloh church) in flesh, in Cambridge, was extraordinary. In a way, last night's combination of black and white preaching summed up much of the glory of the congress.  Entirely at their own expense, some of the most effective preachers (I know that is difficult to quantify but in terms of their impact locally and internationally that would seem to be true) joyfully meet to learn from each other.  And there is no bigger contrast than between white preaching and African American preaching!  

Some reflections:
-    most importantly, hearing God through each other ensured this was not some sermon tasting time! Several times while listening the Lord was at work in me (blessing, challenging etc. etc.)
-   effective preachers never want to stop learning from each other and, at their best, truly support each other by sharing immense affection and encouragement.  Oh, the hugs of friendship!
-   different voices and styles reinforce the glorious breadth of good news tellers.  How refreshing to hear such different kinds of sermons....and how it wakes you up to proclamation's  rich variety.
-   but, on a negative note, how limited was the interest of local preachers.  One of the very few who registered from the UK (a United Reformed pastor) shared in one session how he longed for more of his British colleagues to show interest in strengthening their preaching.  I know event publicity was poor this year...but I think this preacher had a point.  Perhaps, some seeds were sown!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Preaching Hope amid local calamity

This (wet) week I am fully engaged in the International Congress of Preaching which is being held at my old church, St. Andrew's Street, Cambridge.  The theme: Preaching Hope in an Age of Fear is being addressed by a succession of preachers - many of them African American - and many of whom (to my great joy) I know through my Chicago and US days.

However, yet again my emailing system let me down.  Oh No! Many months ago the organizer asked me to be willing to give the Keynote Address when the conference began on Tuesday.  I began reflecting seriously on the theme several weeks ago (the advantage of semi-retirement) and drafted some possible options.  Because I was preaching at my own church at Histon in July I was able to develop one of these passages which sums up Christian hope for me.  When, in the dark storm, Christ walks on the water to meet his disciples and says: ' It is I: do not be afraid!' (John 6:20).
But, two weeks ago, local publicity blazoned that I was preaching on the final night! I assumed this was instead of the keynote.  Only on Friday, with 3 days to go, did I see (from a local church notice) that I was preaching both the keynote and the final address.  What?!   On Sunday morning I met the organizer who anxiously explained that he had started emailing me in May giving me full details and he was in despair about my failure to reply..Oh technology! Yet another notch on the learning curve! I'll let you know how it all ends!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 4) Inadequacy works!

My illness added to a deep sense of inadequacy.  However, I was going to discover how genuine inadequacy opens the door to God working in ways that I had never experienced before.  It's true that in our weakness he can work his strength. Because when we really are at a loss we are more likely to pray as people who really need God's help!  And may need to pray like the man in Jesus' parable (Luke 11: 5-13) who was so desperate that he kept on asking, seeking and knocking until he got his answer.  Such persistent nagging prayer, commended by Jesus, becomes the dominant practice when you genuinely do not know what to do in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

(Incidentally, the obverse is sadly true.  That when we imagine we know what to do and are confident we can manage to work things out then prayer becomes irrelevant.  We may top and tail meetings with devotional words but it's pious window-dressing.  We already know we can make it work without God's help!)

My father had been influenced by Hugh Redwood (a Bristol journalist) who believed that prayer needed to be taken so seriously that a record was required of the agenda of serious issues with an account of responses that God would give.  And so,  in total inadequacy the church began a decade of 'agenda praying', modeled by Luke 11: 5-13.  Instead of bread we prayed about which four or five issues we would persist in prayer about.  And, yes, we kept a record book.  This battered hard-backed book remains my most precious possession from my Cambridge God Adventure. (Eventually it will go into the church archives).  It traces corporate agenda praying from 1980 to 1989.  It is extraordinarily specific and traces every significant step we took....because we did not know what God wanted us to do.

The first five issues included: a new church organist, the upcoming baptismal service, the Cambridge Christian Festival with David Watson, Martin Staple a missionary in Zaire. And item 3 read: The Church Conference on Saturday 26th April that the whole church may see clearly what God wants us to do next.  And the book shows we expected answers!   We needed specific answers!

(I realize that the idea of 'agenda praying' deserves more attention than I am giving, but in this rapid-fire set of reflections it stands out as the critical centre-ground to everything that happened next).

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My birthday and C S Lewis

On Sunday my birthday coincided with the international CS Lewis Institute's service at Ely Cathedral.  For me, this was a big deal because I was the invited preacher.  Arriving while the CS Lewis Chamber Choir was rehearsing Carol interrupted them by whispering into the conductor's ear that it was my birthday. Suddenly, a perfect Happy Birthday rang out with at least 6 parts to its harmony my embarrassment and delight.

The choir director, John Dickson, is a long-standing friend who worked with the Institute Board to get my preaching invitation!  And, as I reflect on the 13 minutes' sermon (I was timed by one of the academics who told me about it later...I think with relief!) I realize what a joy it was to preach in such a magnificent setting, with a large congregation and a great text: John 7: 37: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!

Several friends took the trouble to attend the 4:00 Evensong Service - their presence meant a great deal - and afterwards Carol organized a thoroughly impromptu evening meal in a local restaurant.
Institute meetings continue this week in the University as CS Lewis aficionados work on aspects of Lewis' legacy.  I cannot help but remember my father telling me that as a student in Oxford University he visited Lewis in his rooms for an informal discussion meeting. (I don't know how often that happened for him). But he commented how few of them recognized at the time just how famous Lewis would become.  Indeed, my father found his fierce intellect rather intimidating as did others. Yet, how his influence continues and I was humbled to have a little part in this summer institute. I won't forget this birthday.