Saturday, October 19, 2019

Christian joy

The next three weeks, while our pastor is away, I am preaching in my home church.  3 weeks is long enough to take a theme into a little more depth. And in praying and preparation the theme of JOY surfaced strongly.  Perhaps, because many of us have found recent months of national uncertainty fairly joyless!  Mostly because Christian joy is sometimes overlooked as an extraordinary gift of God.  Understanding joy needs care because some equate it with jollity and extrovert enthusiasm   Of course, there is extrovert joy in Scripture - look at the intoxication of Pentecost Sunday.  But there is also introvert joy, a contemplate experience even in the face of suffering (Jas. 1:2).  It's a big and serious subject.

As the sermons are being written I realize that classifications borrowed from the film industry can be applied.  The first sermon on the source and causes of joy (Luke 15:1-10) is U certificate.  No-one can tease out the stories of the lost sheep and lost coin without getting Jesus' point.  Joy in belonging to God. Just underline the words joy and rejoicing!  The second has much more demanding content (Gal. 5: 13-26   ) and deserves at least a 15 certificate.  It places joy among the fruit (rightly connecting it with the other Spirit qualities) and contrasts it with usual human behaviour.  Two ways open up - the natural way of the flesh which is our daily default pattern or the Spirit way - walking and keeping pace with the Spirit.  And these two ways of behaving open up every day.

The third sermon really needs an 18 certificate because it looks at joy in suffering (Jas 1:2-8;Rom. 5: 1-5). To link joy with suffering takes us to deep places and I know that both preparing this sermon and listening to it will be demanding.  I shall keep in touch as this little series develops.  Perhaps you might like to look up the different passages and anticipate the messages?! 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Rembering Ron

Yesterday I was at the funeral and thanksgiving service for Ron Messenger (1923-2019).  Someone said to me: 'I hope there will be a good crowd.  When you are old not many will know all the good things you did.'  Well, the church was packed and the service inspiring. For me, he was the Baptist Mr. Counsellor.  From the beginning of my ministry I knew Ron as a pioneer of a therapeutic healing community of Greenwoods. Everyone in the denomination knew of him. With gentle authority he demonstrated such love and skill with some of the neediest, most troubled people.
You learn so much at a funeral. I didn't know of his service during World War Two as a navigator flying for the Fleet Air Arm. Nor how large his family was with five sons whose families now add up to nearly 40. Nor of his early enthusiasm with the Boys Brigade and his charismatic leadership of the community. Several words kept being repeated. We learned that the war changed him and forged the word FORGIVENESS as key to Christian living - which led him into ministry.  LOVE best described his life and ministry ever since.  Nobody seemed unimportant. And LISTENING marked his phenomenal ability to focus on you.  He used to say: 'Look how Jesus spent time with the one!'Oh, one-on-one....there was so much good to remember.

Personally, I shall never forget the wonder when in retirement he was willing to share his gifts as counsellor in my Cambridge church in 1989.  At first hand, I marvelled at his work in our Stoneyard Centre caring for people that I (and most of us) felt utterly inadequate to help.  He touched countless lives.  He led courses on pastoral counselling for the church (I still have the notes).  His marriage counselling was legendary including advising one couple they weren't ready to marry - and they agreed! To the leadership team he brought depth, experience and maturity...always with grace and a twinkle. So many stories of love and listening with forgiveness at their heart.

The last three years he was bed-ridden, totally blind and very deaf.  Yet he remained a shining witness with such faith in God's love.  We learned that one of his visitors asked him how he was, to which he replied 'Oh, it's good.  I'm learning to listen!  

Isn't it wonderful to have known and been influenced by people like Ron?

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Feels like Home

Recently I was given a book written by a pastor friend, Lee Eclov, with that title: Feels like Home.  He writes so well, packing the book with stories from his long ministry. What hit me between my eyes is his overriding conviction  - that the best way of viewing the local church is to see it as family.

He claims: You can’t feel at home in an organization. Summing up his ministry he says: 'I am not project manager, goal setter, strategist, but homemaker'. The church as God's household looms large (1 Tim 3:15 Eph 2:19).  Yet it contrasts with viewing church as organization.  It develops in a different way.  Vision statements don't work because it's about people who often don't fit in with vision. Outliers. In fact 'watching out for prodigals' is a top priority of God's household.  And growing family takes time - pastors need patience within God's family

As he teases out implications of belonging to Christian brothers and sisters he underlines the tension between nuclear family life and our first family in Christ and invites us to find a role within two families because a healthy church life is God's gift to any family.  Through all these he keeps illustrating by stories drawn through his long ministry.

His commitment to church as homemaker resonates with my own experience of him and his warm supportive ministry.  And his introduction continues to challenge me:
When Christians look for a church they are looking for a home.  They don't just need a place where they like the music or preaching, or where their kids are happy. They need a home because Christian discovery and growth can't happen without one.  The Bible knows nothing of Christians disconnected from other believers. Jesus' people are a family, "the household of God' (Eph. 2:19).  You might think a church that feels like home would be easy, but actually it is a miracle. Christian love and Christ-like service don't come naturally at fact life with our Christian family is counter-intuitive at every turn.  Everything that makes a church feel like home depends on the Holy Spirit working wonders within and among us. 
Do you sense a challenge too?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Fresh ambitions

This last weekend I made a couple of commitments.  By now, readers will know of the somewhat random nature of my postings...flitting from one subject to another.  And actually this is about trying to reduce flitting!

The first commitment was renewing my gym membership for a year.  I have belonged to a gym for several years beginning in the US under orders from a fierce doctor whose dire warnings about my health really motivated me.   In following years, motivation has become erratic and occasionally absent all together.  But, with a fresh year's renewal I really want to develop more regular exercise.  So, that's one ambition.

The other concerns reactivating my keyboard which has lived in the attic for much of the past year.  I pushed it up there when we needed the spare room for accommodation.  It's not full size and I only bought it because my minor stroke left me needing to exercise my left hand. However, like the gym, enthusiasm for doing exercises waxes and wanes.  In my teens playing the piano was one of my main hobbies but all that is in the far distance. I have a CD which re-introduces me to basics of scales etc.  It backs single finger exercises with extravagant orchestration so that Old MacDonald had a farm sounds positively symphonic.

How long will these fresh ambitions last?  I know the peril of going public but that's part of the pressure I need to put on myself.  Maybe I'll let you know.

Friday, September 20, 2019

An Akenfield Baptist

A couple of weeks ago a friend gave me a copy of 'Akenfield - Portrait of an English Village' (1969) by Ronald Blythe.  He said that I would be intrigued by its many village characters who tell their stories on its pages. Featuring a small Suffolk village in the 1960's it comprises direct speech monologues from forty-nine residents linked togther by the author's insights.

In the section 'God', we hear a deacon of the village Strict Baptist Chapel describe how he became a Christian (at a village tent mission) and his life in the church ever since. Warmly and positively he details how the chapel works and how making an open confession of Christ in baptism is essential.  He explains that the church chooses its pastor and needs to pay him as well as maintaining the church and manse.  At that time it had no pastor (because of the 'money problem').  However he reflects that twenty-five years before they had a full-time pastor and ran the church for just 3 shillings a week.

We could do this because the pastor was, well, a saint you might say. He was Akenfield. Ask anybody. Nobody ever did so much good or was so kind. A rich friend from Ipswich, a rare big businessman who wasn't one of us, gave him a car -this was when cars were rare in the village - and he never used it for his pleasure.  Only for others.  It was known as the 'hospital motor' because he used it to take patients and family to Ipswich and Melton hospitals.  It never mattered what time of day or night it was.  We don't quite know where this man came from.  Anyway, he stayed and cared for us, and none better.  He stayed thirty years and was one of us. 

What a tribute to an 'under-shepherd' of the Good Shepherd! I have been privileged to know a few saints like this - I hope you have too.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Visiting family

Over the last few days Carol and I have been on the road visiting ailing family on both Carol's and my sides. This accounts for nil postings recently. Such visits are rarely easy (many of you will readily recognize why!)  Fitting in with family who are much older or, in my brother's case, younger but dogged by ill health, requires sensitivity....which I hope we showed.

We return home glad to have completed the trip.  Though it involved less than 500 miles the 'being on the road' aspect proved to be exhausting....particularly the hours spent on the M 3 onto the M 25 and up the A 1M on the way home.  Often at walking speed (it seemed) the sheer volume of traffic, complicated by road improvement schemes fueled exasperation.  Really - what a surprise?!

Returning home late we planned a major shop the next morning to replenish stores.  Travelling towards the store we found that the entry to the main approach road was closed.  No warning anywhere!  Joining a lengthy diversion we arrived much later, rewarded ourselves with a coffee, shopped for provisions and then set off for home.  Except, that as we joined the line of cars leaving the car park we found ourselves stationary.  Normally, it takes about 12 minutes to reach home.  But we were in a monster queue that took 50 minutes to clear the store with a further 10 minutes of journey.  Another hour in the car again!  I commented to Carol about the Christian gift of patience....but I am not so sure it was helpful.

Anyway, I have had a little moan....forgive me.  We've all been there!

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Gen Z values

It is obvious that this latest generation is highly tech savvy and obviously this was vital in explaining the wildfire way that Jordan's vision (see last post) spread across the US and into Europe.  As I listened to him describe what he sees as some of the distinctive features of Gen Z I noted some contrasts.

   -  They want to see change.  I suppose Greta Thunberg is the poster girl for this characteristic but this new generation is reckoned to be more highly charged about wanting to make a difference.  They desire to get involved in big issues.
 -    They want community.  Belonging to small groups is deemed valuable especially when they are involved in change. Collaboration matters.
 -    Story and conversation are valued strongly and are key to enthusing others of their own age.
 -    They can be wide-eyed with wonder when confronted by the new.

However, alongside these characteristics Jordan mentioned:
   - They are troubled by mental ill-health in larger numbers.  Anxiety is common - a recent survey found that 23% of this group was in depression.  Some of this is likely provoked by comparisons and trolling on social media.
  -  They are much less likely than previous generations to have a Christian world view.  He mentioned a Barna survey in the US found that less than 4% of this group had a Christian world view. For most Gen Z the Bible is a closed book and church is alien.

I am left with real concern for this latest generation - it seems with so many positives yet serious negatives. How we oldies need to keep praying for them, especially when they are in our families and churches!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Meeting Generation Z

Recently I have been reading a little about the latest generation born between 1999-2001 that have been dubbed Generation Z.  Past classifications such as Baby Boomers, Generation X have prepared us for the next iteration and with hesitation because of the dangers of their massive generalizations we can discern some definite changes and differences. Of course, my grandchildren have already taught me some by their hyper tech savy awareness and immersion into the digital world. Social media is their breath!

This interest was sparked by meeting Jordan Whitmer a couple of days ago when he came to visit us in Cambridge.  He shared how he had passed beyond Generation Z having (just) reached 21 years.  However, as a Gen Z member he demonstrated what he sees as some of the distinctives about this next generation.  When he was 16 he felt God's call to witness to his peers and with 5 friends, using social media, they planned a meeting in their home town of Harrison, Arkansas. They called it How to Life. Expecting a few tens, they gathered 750 teens in a rally where 75 made commitments of faith in Jesus Christ.  Other high schools joined in as news rapidly spread throughout 20 different US states, coast to coast.

A teenager in Wigan read about it which led to How to Life taking off in England with an international conference in 2018 in England and Hamburg.  Jordan was over here because the movement is now spreading to other countries in Europe.  As he puts it: 'Teens listen to other teens more than to any others'!

My day spent with Jordan introducing him to Cambridge and its history was sheer delight.  His interest in Reformation history, his mature self-awareness even as the founder and CEO of this rapidly expanding movement (which could so easily lead to conceit), and his clear vision for winning others made him a memorable visitor.  I learned so much and was encouraged by his perception that among Gen Z there is receptivity to the gospel and when teenagers feel empowered remarkable spiritual things can happen.  I'll mention a couple of things next........

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Photo realistic computer animation and a punt pole

With our grandchildren staying for a brief visit I had opportunity to be with Elliot (13 years plus) and Sophie (10 years) for at least a couple of experiences.  One dismal wet day I decided to take them to see The Lion King.  I had read about this billion$ grossing movie with its photo realistic computer animation remake of the earlier Disney animation. I had also read some mixed reviews!

In the small studio with about 50 recliners and ample space all round, we stuck popcorn and drink on a swing table between us and laid back (almost flat) for the pre-programme and then the (very) long movie. I know I am losing some hearing but when the lights went out it was deafening. Both children agreed it was too loud (though perhaps they were humouring me!)  Anyway, the movie itself was extraordinary, bringing animals to life in spectacular scenery and I gawped at the wonder of technology today. So, a very contemporary deafening experience.  My grandchildren besotted with ipads and games felt right at home.

On their last full morning Elliot wanted to go punting again.  He had already made a couple of happy attempts and wanted to expand his skills.  Going upstream my son punted leisurely towards Granchester/ Just river bank scenery, ducks and swans. Sophie was helped to wield the pole and her smile of triumph as she sat down was a delight.  Elliot then took over.  Unfortunately, the river bed was quite sticky and trees overhung either side.  His strenuous efforts took us from one side to the other and back.  And then the pole firmly stuck in the mud and (fortunately) Elliot let go. Suddenly we (and some onlookers on the bank) were enthralled by adventure.  Paddling furiously back to the pole we rescued it with such laughter.  Genuine enjoyment in the moment. Of course they took a video and pictures on the iphone but I couldn't help but contrast these two experiences.  One created by technology for us.  The other...just messing about in a boat. There's nothing like creating your own enjoyment together, is there?

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Proud father

When Rob was a teenager he volunteered one Summer at Addenbooke's Hospital radio in Cambridge.  Visiting the wards, gaining requests and communicating greetings he fell in love with the process of radio.  Of course, this was very local but it was sufficient to spark enthusiasm for the whole world of radio. His ambition became fixed on 'getting into radio'.  As parent I sought to be wise!  I cautioned him about having too narrow a focus. About the danger of shutting out other possibilities and, of course, the possibility of serious disappointment if it didn't happen.

But his focus on radio never wavered once!  At Oxford University though he was reading English he with a couple of friends launched the first UK's FM student radio station.  It hit the headlines though his Principal said that if he had spent  the same amount of time on his academics as setting up the radio he could have excelled!  However, since then he has gone from strength to strength, collecting an unrivaled number of national awards for his own university station in the US, founded Student College Radio Day, and the international student radio organization that has been held this week. Always radio!

And for the first time this week at the conference I heard him speak. It was an extraordinary sensation to listen to Rob in full flow with wit, clarity, content, great skill and contagious enthusiasm communicating his passion, now so obviously fulfilled.  I was immensely proud of him (and his wife has been the most supportive partner in it all).  To see his dream fulfilled with such gifting was quite overwhelming.  I know why I cautioned him those years ago but I am delighted to see he stayed with his vision.  Quite wonderful.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Thinking Radio

Yesterday, I was at the 2nd. International Student Radio Conference - Alternatives 2019 - at Jesus College, Cambridge.  Those readers who know of our son Robert's work with student radio will guess that Carol and I were both there in the bonds of parental relationship!   Following up from our Golden Wedding at the college this time last year, Rob resolved to organize this radio conference at the college too.  It's been very hard work - representatives have come from all over the world and trying to bring the admin. and content together has involved Rob and Lori sleepless nights and the rest.   But it has launched with a very good spirit though many attendees were delayed.

Rob asked me as a former student of Jesus College to welcome them with a word about the city and the college.  I began by mentioning that Cambridge is statistically in the driest part of the UK.  Guffaws echoed round the room since it had rained heavily all day and wet weather is set to continue through the rest of their stay.  Oh, blame the shifted jet stream!

It is easy to overwhelm with welcome facts but I knew I had to communicate the thrill of staying in a place of such history.  You never know who studied in your room in the generations before!  Because it was a radio conference I had to tell them about former student Alistair Cooke who emigrated to the US.  In 1946 he was commissioned to give 13 weekly radio sessions which became 'Letter from America'. After only a few weeks the BBC knew they were onto a winner.   He continued giving weekly 15 minute talks....well, for how long?  I asked them to guess.  No one got it!  Until 2004!  He had broadcast for 58 years without a gap - a world radio speech record.

Earlier, before the conference started, at a coffee morning I had asked the group of older friends we meet with how many remembered Letter from America.  Everyone round the table did!  With animation one after another told of episodes they remembered - like his eyewitness to the shooting of Robert Kennedy.  Yes, radio connects.  I hope the conference inspires many.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Reformation Cambridge 4) Fresh learning

I mentioned how I had learned new things.  After the cool we were hit again by the heat as we walked by the Market Square into Great St. Mary's - the University Church.  I had no idea that in the window of opportunity for Reformers granted by a different monarch (1547-1553) one of the great German reformers, a personal friend of Luther, a brilliant scholar and a powerful preacher had actually come to be the preacher in this church as well as Divinity Professor.   Martin Bucer is one of those names that should be better known.

He came to Great St. Mary's and preached from a three-tiered pulpit set up at the front of the church. So influential was his preaching that when he died after only two years in Cambridge (in 1551) the town and gown mourned him in vast numbers.  3000 people gathered at his funeral as he was buried in the church.

Sadly, the story does not end there.  Soon afterwards when Mary came to the throne she ordered his coffin to be dug up and his body burned with his ashes scattered in the nearby Market Square.  Later Queen Elizabeth 1 ordered the ashes to be collected and reburied in the church.  A plaque at the east end on the floor now remembers this great man.

In the sweltering heat we paused to take in this bit of history.  For me, it led to finding out more about Bucer.  One biographer reflects that he hasn't received enough attention for his influence on others was immense (especially on Calvin who claimed Bucer's commentary on Romans was one of the very greatest!)  So many aspects of his work sparkle - like how he initiated small discipleship cells for the spiritual renewal of believers with an evangelical service of confirmation (he designed) being a focal point of commitment to Christ.  What a story we belong to!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Reformation Cambridge 3) In the cool and wow.

We passed through the crowds gathered round the locust clock (apparently 5.3 million visitors came to Cambridge last year) and went down a narrow alley opposite King's College to the church of St. Edward King and Martyr.   On the ancient church door was pinned a notice to keep the door shut.  However, it was ajar held by an empty beer crate.  Entering the darkness the drop in temperature was startling.  By many degrees!

With gratitude many of the group sat while I described how this had been the college chapel for Latimer and Bilney.  Outside the bishop's authority it could therefore be the one place in Cambridge where Reformation truths could ignite.  And on Christmas Eve 1525, one of the reformers Robert Barnes preached the first Reformation sermon in England.  He had known Luther and come to Cambridge to head up an Augustinian monastery.  The pulpit from which he preached is still at the front. Called Latimer's pulpit you are not allowed to climb it but many of us touched its pitted surface.  This is where it first happened!  On a side wall a plaque marks how reformers had met at the White Horse Inn as new ideas fermented before this church became the birthplace of the reformation.  It also notes how Barnes, Bilney and Latimer were all burned to death for their witness.

The professor leading the group, sitting in the welcome cool, said: 'It's hard for us now to realize just how revolutionary all this was.  Everything was changed.' We stayed there for several minutes quietly reflecting.  Revolutionary, yes.  In the cool, wow!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Reformation Cambridge 2) The clock and plaque

The group of students I was hosting was on an assignment about post-Christianity.  I shared how the latest British attitude survey put 52% as non-religious with 26% of the population avowedly atheist, who are better at passing on their atheism than the small Christian percentage passing on their faith.

As if to prove the point.... I had scouted out the reformation walk beforehand. Walking along King's Parade (towards the iconic King's College Chapel) I saw a large crowd spilling across the road with their cameras out.  It was close to one of the most significant reformation sites.  However, moving closer I saw they were all looking in the opposite direction at the Corpus Clock which shows a monstrous locust-type creature gobbling up the seconds on top of a 5 foot high disc clock. Unveiled in 2008 by Stephen Hawking it is a strange sight.  Indeed its designer called it a chronophage - literally time eater - with the words in Latin beneath: 'the world passeth away, and the lust thereof.'

Admittedly, it is an unusual sight.  However, on the opposite side of the road is a blue plaque commemorating the White Horse Inn where the first reformers met in secret to discuss Luther's books which had been smuggled down river in 1521.   It is called 'Little Germany' for obvious reasons. The modest plaque adds: the birthplace of the English reformation.  Just near this spot scholars like Thomas Bilney (Trinity Hall), Hugh Latimer ( Clare) and Nicholas Ridley (Master of Pembroke) dared to think through Scripture afresh that believers may have a direct relationship with Jesus Christ, unmediated by priests, a relationship of grace, justified by faith and all that.  All these three men (and more) were later to be martyred for their daring.

Nobody was interested in this plaque.  But nobody.  Parked in front were several motor-cycles preventing you getting close.  Returning with the group of students this scene was repeated.  All the interest was expended on the clock with nil interest in the site of the revolution that was to impact the world.  Sadly it served as a poignant example of post-Christian Britain.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Reformation Cambridge 1) History frisson

I had little idea how much background in Christian history these students had.  And how much/little interest would there be?  In my introduction I mentioned how amazingly God joined up the dots for the English Reformation in Cambridge with a good edition and translation of the New Testament (1516) , successful smuggling of Luther's books down the river (1521),  gifted reformers meeting in secret (1523) and then the very first Reformation sermon (1525).  Later the boy king Edward VI (1547-1553) provided a brief window of opportunity for the Reformers before crushing persecution and the burning of 300 martyrs under Mary 1.

That 1516 edition of the Greek New Testament with a brilliant Latin translation was the work of Erasmus, who was brought to Queens' College Cambridge to fulfill this work.  Two of the students caught me afterwards.  'Erasmus of Rotterdam', they exclaimed. 'What was he doing in Cambridge?  We have been studying him and he seems to have been a very big influence on the Continent helping to prepare for the Reformation'. You can imagine my delight.  Genuine interest! And when we reached Erasmus' Tower at Queens' College and looked up at his study window I could sense some frisson for these two.  Really? Up there!

There is real irony too.  John Fisher, the President of Queens', brought Erasmus to his college but as a Roman Catholic detested the Reformers and Luther's interpretation of Scripture.  Indeed, he ordered the burning of Luther's books in the Market Square.  Erasmus,  also Roman Catholic had no intention of breaking away from Rome though his personality and brilliance emphasized that religion should be about who we are and not what we do in a faith that is deep and reasonable.  As one historian put it: 'He did most to make educated Europe think that things must change because they could not be borne any longer.'

Friday, July 26, 2019

Hot, hot Cambridge

Yesterday, Cambridge registered the highest temperature in the whole UK at 38.7 C (just over 101 F).  I was due to play host to a small group of students from Anderson University, South Carolina, who were on a course while visiting England.  Their two accompanying professors are well-known to me and I was looking forward to spending the day with them all  My task was to give a talk/lecture on evangelicals in post-Christianity and then to lead them on a Christian heritage tour particularly marking the birth of the English Reformation (which occurred in Cambridge).

Two days beforehand we were warned that Thursday July 25th would be among the hottest days ever recorded.  Little did we know just what it would mean for those travelling by rail and going on walkabout on a city tour!  Their scheduled train from London was cancelled and their eventual train limped along on rails twisted in the heat.  The Cambridge Uber taxi driver didn't know where the St. Andrew's Street. Baptist Church was and took the students in the opposite direction to St. Alban's before being corrected by a frantic professor by phone.  I was due to speak first in the church - I assumed for at least an hour before lunch. But all that planning went south.  True, I gave an introduction to the walking tour but the lecture/talk was jettisoned.

After lunch at Nando's (iced drinks) the walk itself was amended on the hoof.  Of course, I had determined to cut it short but as we dragged along in the intense heat, with one student in a wheel-chair, I kept reducing it.   Yet, we hit the main spots and, sometimes wide-eyed with wonder, the group stayed with it.

As air-conditioned youth I guess they will always remember it as an adventure in the heat. 'What happened when you visited England?  Well, it was one of the hottest days ever recorded and there wasn't a single moment of air-con in Cambridge!   But, as I shall mention in my next post, I found it a refreshing learning experience,,,,and I love the heat!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Surprising connections

Our church house group only has ten members. At our Sunday church picnic I sat next to one in a beautiful garden. Sharing an enjoyable bring and share lunch we relaxed.  And, as you do, conversation meandered widely. I mentioned the fingerposts that my friend had repainted and how excited he was.  With a jolt he sat up: 'Why, that's exactly what I have done in the Cambridge area.  All kinds of different metal posts, sometimes at ground lever and often in a bad way.  It's hard work I can tell you. Yeh, that's what I have done.'  Fancy that, another enthusiastic for repainting metal sign posts.

And yesterday at our small group BBQ (in this extraordinary heat-spell) I sat next to another man.  In conversation I touched on the task I have tomorrow of taking a group of US students on a Christian heritage tour in Cambridge.  I mentioned Erasmus of Rotterdam and how we will walk past Queens' College where he came to translate the New Testament.  My friend smiled broadly.  'I worked at Queens' for many years.  Erasmus worked up the tower (now named after him) and I painted his study room as part of my job there.  Oh, yes, its quite a place - you can see the Erasmus Tower from the street.'  He went on to advise me who to talk to in order to gain proper access and to other important artifacts.

Alas, on our tour I won't have time to take the group but I was struck by how these two casual conversations within three days of each other touched on stuff I was just thinking about.  It just shows the importance of conversation - talking and listening to others.

In my preparation for the US visit tomorrow I have learned much...I shall share a couple of posts shortly.

Monday, July 22, 2019

West Country break

Last week we were away visiting friends in W Somerset ( That's why even fewer posts than usual). Stuart is an artist (with his own shop in Porlock) and Christine is a County Councillor.  Both are Christians - that's how we met them.  Every time we catch up with them they take us into very different worlds.  On arrival they gave us a roast meal welcome and he presented me with a book :A field guide to Exmoor's traditional roadside fingerposts (2019).  You see what I mean by different worlds!

On page 15 Stuart is pictured up a ladder repainting one of these posts.  A campaign was launched in 2017 to repair these cast iron signposts many dating from the beginning of the twentieth century.  They looked to retired volunteers to take on the task. The book gives exhaustive details about their designs and the process of cleaning and rubbing down with a wire brush, treating bare metal with a primer and undercoat, applying top coat and then the black lettering.  Several signposts are featured because of special historical features and oddities.  Only one is painted red at Luccombe. Stuart told us that we would pass this red post when we drove to our lodgings.  He also mentioned the only post with one moveable finger on our route.  It says: Porlock 3 miles but because it is on the corner of a narrow lane it has to move to allow larger vehicles pass.

Never having given much thought to these fingerposts I now noticed them every time we drove around. The moveable finger to Porlock was often pointing in a completely opposite direction (apparently the wind will move it as well as mischievous passers-by).  The red post gleamed!

Reflecting on this holiday experience I thought how marvellous to keep so interested and involved - two folk in their 70's so zestful for life.  I preached in their local church and there was Stuart playing the flute and Christine greeting everybody.  A great example of ageing!  Yeah!

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Cambridge day 2) That detour

Just to add...I mentioned that my grandson and I dashed into the church restaurant for a quick bite. Extraordinarily, we found Carol sitting there.  She had planned to eat elsewhere but had finished up there. Greeting her, breathlessly highlighting key points of our day so far, I tore off my jacket and hung it on the chair-back, as we placed our orders.  Alas, time ran out on actually eating the snacks because we had to rush to a lecture which introduced potential students to studying Geography in Cambridge.  It proved very profitable.  Afterwards, reaching into my jacket pocket for my car key I realized I had left my jacket with key on that restaurant chair.  I hoped that Carol had seen it before she left...but no.

It was someone else in the restaurant who put two and two together.  Realizing that Carol would likely be waiting for a bus home, he dashed round to find Carol still waiting at the bus stop.  I don't know how many other bus stops he tried but it was a minor miracle he found the right one.

Carol, no doubt muttering about her absent minded husband folded the jacket but felt something heavy in its pocket.  My car key but no car park ticket.  With the ticket she would have been able to take both jacket and key home.  Instead she would have to find me somehow. Puffing her way to the Geography Dept. which she had never visited before, an academic saw her worried state, heard the story, texted me and promised to keep the key safe in her room.  Missing the text, I 'phoned home, to hear this saga and then set about finding my key. Unfortunately, by this time, the academic had left....but eventually a staff member opened the right door.

I would have seen this as an irritating experience that dampened the day. However, as we  searched for the room containing my key, the professor who had earlier spoken at the lecture met us in the corridor and engaged my grandson in a conversation which turned out to be key.  He could ask one-to-one questions.  What a bonus.

Reflecting on the whole day my grandson said "I don't think it could have gone any better!'   How about that!  That's enough about that day......but, as you can tell, I enjoyed most of it.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A Cambridge day (1) A grandson's dream

This week my seventeen-year old grandson called me and asked if I was free the next day.  Cautiously, I admitted I was. 'Well, it's the Cambridge University Open Day and I wondered if you would go round with me.  I only have a 'partial ticket' which allows me a little access but one person can go with me." 'What are you hoping to study?' said I.  Past conversations with him have ranged over a wide number of options!  'Geography', he replied.  'Really, that's exactly what I studied' I told him, though I think he already knew that.

Arriving by train we raced down to the Geography Department building.  Holding his partial ticket expecting some rebuffs, instead we were able to plunge into full engagement with tutors, students, lectures.  Told to visit some of the colleges where geographers cluster we visited St. Catherine's, Emmanuel, and Downing before dashing into our former church's restaurant for a 15 minute snack.

This led to an unexpected detour which I shall mention next.  But staying with geography for a minute I found myself wallowing in memories of 1964-67 when I read geography in the same place, same lecture theatre (exactly the same!), same library etc.  We went up to the library where the librarian greeted us warmly.  Hearing that I was an old boy he found the volume containing the final examination papers for 1967.  'This is what you took', he said. My final year was devoted to geomorphology.  As I looked at these papers, the font, the questions, the smell (it seemed!) I just escaped falling into a trance!  It was surreal. This was my life!  And here, standing beside me, was my grandson possibly coming to the same place.

Doesn't life have surprises for us?  This was a good one!  I hope you don't mind me sharing it with you?

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Smoke alarm

Last Saturday at 10:00 pm the smoke alarm directly above our heads in the sitting room suddenly shrieked with a piercing squeal. The battery needed replacing.  Just as our energies were sleepily decelerating I had to fetch the step ladder from the garage and find the right screwdriver to reach into the alarm's aperture which supposedly simply releases it from the ceiling.  To my exasperation, no matter how hard I tried with different approaches the alarm refused to budge. The shrieking continued to gain in pace. It echoed through our house and we were sure would penetrate our neighbour's sonic range too.

After more failed attempts I decided to knock on my neighbour's door and ask for help. I know it was late. I apologized!  His wife, seeing my face assumed that at the least Carol had fallen down the stairs.  It was obviously an anticlimax to hear that it was only a smoke alarm problem.  Apparently, his alarms look very different.  As a practical man he mounted the ladder and applied pressure in several attempts.  Failure again. (I confess a little relief that it was not simply resolved).  'I may have to break it, ' he said. 'Go for it' urged Carol as the noise continued.   Exerting a mighty thrust the alarm came away...broken. It was still shrieking in his hand until a new battery was fixed/ 'I think it might have been broken before' our neighbour said.   Well, maybe.

Fitted back loosely the last three days have been mercifully quiet.  But on Sunday some visitors for an evening meal were sitting underneath and to our horror it started again.   'Oh, no' we chorused, as we retold the story.  Our friend smiled broadly. 'It's not that' he said.  And then he scraped his rubber sole on the wood floor to make an identical shriek again.

I can't think of learning many lessons from this experience though we note how good neighbours are a blessing and some friends are mischievous. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


For months our TV has been playing up.  The remote button has failed to register '1' which has meant much jiggery-pokery as we use 2 or 9 and go down or up to find some channels.  The guide button has also failed.  Then several channels we used to receive have gone totally blank and even some that we can see occasionally cascade into pixels at inconvenient moments.

We have repeatedly (you're telling me) promised each other that we would get onto the TV helpline .....and weeks have passed.  Part of the delay comes out of past experience when neither of us could understand instructions given us over the phone as an increasingly agitated agent told us which leads to disconnect and buttons to press.

I got the impulse last week to finally deal with it.  I got through to an agent who called me 'Dahrling' She said her birthday was near mine and clearly could see that I was an old boy who would respond to her affection!  Help! It was obvious I needed a new remote she declared and ordered a replacement to arrive the next day.  When it did we could hardly believe the difference it made - we recognized just how slow many other buttons had also become.

However, the problem with the programmes would need a two hour session she said.  This was booked for yesterday.  With abundant affection she began the session by asking me to go to one of the missing channels.  Promptly, with the new remote, I did.  Then I needed to press a couple of buttons before hitting an entirely new purple one.  Instantly the dead channel became alive.  I expressed my delight.  Two hours were not needed.  She gushed her joy dahrling.

'Why didn't we do this before?' questioned Carol.  What a good question.  And it applies to a number of more significant issues too!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Less usual moments 2) Magician's touch

At my watercolour evening class (3 years ago) the teacher advised us to use good quality paper, paint and brushes.  He particularly mentioned sable brushes - wonderful for holding paint and flowing lines etc. he said. I quickly found out that they were priced top of the range...really top.

While in Wheaton (where we once lived) we saw that the art shop is closing down after over 100 years of family ownership.  Everything is marked 50% down so I looked at sable brushes.  Under lock and key they were originally priced $300-500 plus.  The brush I had my eye on was still nearly $240 half price!  A week later they had reduced prices again but it was still $180.

The salesman saw us dithering.  Carol said she might make it a special birthday gift for me. Then he spoke: 'Honestly, sable brushes are over-rated.  I have one and it's nice to use but you can get really good brushes much cheaper.  After all, it's the magician's touch with whatever brush they are using that really counts.  The brush doesn't do the magic.'

I laughed.  Partly because he was doing the shop out of a sale by being very unsalesman-like.  But mostly because he is exactly right.  It's the artist and measure of their gifting that really matters. That applies to other aspects of life too, doesn't it?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Less usual moments - can you smell burning?

While we were in the US most days took usual shape.  However, one or two odd things happened. One occurred on our shorter flight (just under 2 hours) between New York and Chicago. As we were seated on UA755 Carol asked me if I smelt burning.  I detected a very slight smell and dismissed it.  An hour into our flight which had left on time the captain announced we were returning to New York. Somebody was unwell and there was a maintenance problem. Finding a doctor on board quickly resolved the medical problem - the young lady returned to the seat behind us saying it was just nausea.  But....the maintenance problem continued.

Returning, we were told the plane was being taken out of service because...guess what?  The oven was faulty and a new oven had to be fitted.  It had been smoking!  Carol was right.  Of course. Waiting in the departure lounge, with a drip feed of sometimes contradictory information we were eventually informed the same plane was being refitted so that we would be flying on it after all.  Bottles of water and snacks were provided to keep us going for the five hours' wait.

It is tedious to relate how the flight was further delayed on the runway and the luggage took ages to appear at baggage claim.  The journey had taken  as long as between London and New York. Deplaning, Carol mentioned to a stewardess that she had smelled burning when we first sat down. 'If only you had mentioned it!' she said.  Would it have made any difference?  We shall never know.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Back from the US

We have just spent nearly four weeks visiting our family in New York State and friends in Illinois where I worked for over 15 years.  Though woozy because of jet lag we rejoice in the many many good times sharing with family and friends -it seemed we had only been away a week rather than the year (with bad health and all...).

All those who have lived for a time in two places can experience the weirdness of transplanting between cultures. Gerald Locklin wrote this poem: Where we are

I envy those
who live in two places:
new york, say, and london,
wales and spain,
l.a. and paris,
hawaii and switzerland.

There is always the anticipation
of the change, the chance that what is wrong
is the result of where you are.  I have
always loved both the freshness of 
arriving and the relief of leaving, with
two homes every move would be a homecoming.
i am not even considering the weather, hot
or cold, dry or wet: i am talking about hope.

We are profoundly grateful for the powerful Christian friendship that marked the freshness of arriving.  There are so many stories of meeting up with friends - three times in Illinois different groups, adding up to over 40 people, arranged group meetings.... and every day was packed with conversations and food.  And the weather was warm and bright too. We are truly grateful.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Gleanings 26) Thanks for these beginnings

I admit that dipping into the archives, as with these cuttings, is likely to have mixed value and limited appeal.  And this is true of trudging further through years of sermons and ministry in Blackburn.  I have already told the story of my ministry in Cambridge (at length!) and do not propose to prolong telling the Blackburn ministry.

Suffice it to say that, above all else, the large number of sermons through my seven years spent there helped me grow into lively expectation of preaching Scripture. 2 Tim. 3:16 declares that Scripture is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness and though I recognized (I think) early on how easily it can be manipulated I also learned about the power of God's transform individuals and a community. Time and time again God's word struck through sermons like a two-edged sword.  So, in my personal development I can see how my early experiences laid foundations not only for the demanding pulpit in Cambridge but for my passion and writing about preaching in the later part of my life.

To satisfy curiosity I should report that this first year ending with the "Sit In' led to a five year story during which the vision for a new church developed into reconstructing striking new premises with over £70,000 given by church members and friends.  A Community Room was also developed with a full-time Church Social Worker becoming a partner in ministry.  Blackburn's chief executive was quoted in the paper: The church should be congratulated on its spirit of adventure in undertaking this reconstruction, which besides giving a spiritual uplift to the town has made a significant contribution to the architectural heritage.

I shall always be grateful for these beginnings - I learned a great deal. Thank you for following some of these gleanings.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Gleanings 25) Viewpoint - Cricket

This is the last of the cuttings I have and it switches mood! It also speaks of a time before T20 and all forms of speeded up cricket!
I have just been watching some cricket. For me the perfect English summer day is to sit in a deckchair and hear the thwack of a well-timed stroke out on the cricket green. But I  know many people would disagree and murmur: "It's too slow a game for me." I suppose they would be more interested if every ball knocks down the wicket or is walloped for six. The ideal game would end up like that concoction of highlights that you see on television news when a test match is reported. Every moment shows either a wicket falling or someone getting a hundred. Cricket is not like that. It's not just the wickets falling and the big-scores - it's all the hard graft, the defences, the subtleties and the tension that fills up the time in between the big events.
And these make the game so interesting to me.  This is exactly what happens in our own lives - there are the big events of course, but it's the days between them that really count. Our lives are full of times when nothing seems to happen except for hard graft but - as in cricket - these are the times in which we are preparing and building up for the big events. we have to learn that every day can be used profitably, however uneventful it might seem.  That is why we are commanded: "Make the very most of your time (Col. 4:5) This is our responsibility before God.
In Graham Greene's place "The Living Room" there is a tragic failure of a crippled priest who is unexpectedly confronted with his young niece seeking help. Later on in the play he confesses: "For more than 20 years I've been a useless priest. I had a real vocation for the priesthood, and for 20 years it's been imprisoned in this chair. Last night God gave me my chance. He flung this child here as my knees asking for help, asking for hope.  I said to God 'Put words into my mouth' but he has given me 20 years in this chair with nothing to do but prepare for such a moment, so why should He interfere? And all I said was. 'You can pray.' If I'd ever really known what prayer was, I would only have had to touch her to give her peace." 
The tragedy of not making the very most of our time. No one can tell what you and I will have to face - that is why we must take every opportunity to pray and prepare, growing in God's love as we "Make the very most of our time".

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Gleanings 24) Viewpoint - Corruption

There's a terrible smell in the air. Corruption seems to be in every headline. But Watergate, Poulson, T. Dan Smith, allegations about the police, suspicions about M.P.'s - these are but a well-publicised whiff of a decaying odour many of us breathe in every day, because the places where we live and work also see the pressures which are dishonest, unethical, untruthful and corrupting. 
Christianity is brutally frank in its diagnosis of our mess. Its blunt assessment is found in that often misquoted verse: "The love of money is the root of all evil."  Note it's the love of money, the overmastering desire for more that pushes men into dishonesty and its harvest of corruptions.  Whenever man loses perspective and puts money so high on his list of priorities that it dominates all else then he is in severe danger. The fact that we belong to God and we live in God's world is forgotten,. Instead we plunge into the labyrinth of deceit and self-seeking. 
If the diagnosis points to man getting money out of proportion and forgetting God, what is the cure?  I believe there is only one cure and that is to know a greater love than anything we feel for money and possessions. That greater love is seen in God's gift to us of Jesus Christ, who died that the stinking mess of this world and our deceits and self-seeking might be cleansed. When we see God's love for us at Easter all the stress we put on money and material things seems far less important.  There was a sign outside a church which read: HELP STOP TRUTH DECAY.  Certainly truth is under siege and men are anxious in the swirling stench of corruption.
But the only way we can stop truth decay is with God's help as we grasp his love and get things back into proportion. There is nothing more important than knowing the love of God. If we begin to grow in that love then money and its threat of corruption will be knocked off its pedestal and we shall have helped to stop truth decay in our hearts.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Gleanings 23) Viewpoint - The Exorcist

Now this is really dated!
Even if you are a rare film-goer like myself, you will probably know that Blackburn is screening "The Exorcist" for the first time this weekend. The Council has approved its showing after some of its members have had a private viewing. Part of me is reluctant to mention even this fact because whatever I say, I know, shall be giving further publicity through his column - and that's exactly what the film makers want. This film has become a huge box office success just because of the warnings against the film and people's inflamed curiosity.  Films are part of the entertainment industry and there is a small group of people filling their pockets with delight as "The Exorcist" taps a new world- the supernatural- for its entertainment value.
That's the thing that worries me most. This commercialization of something real, tyrannical and fearful. Perhaps you saw and heard the first audience in London to witness this film.  The TV cameras were there. People talked of fright, of nausea. Some of those people who never gave a thought to God came out believing with fear in the devil. Because this is no ordinary horror movie. It is based on a book which in turn is based on an actual case of demon possession.
Some entertainment! I realize that psychiatrists and parsons have already had a field day with this film but I must emphasize that this strange world "The Exorcist" unveils IS real, tyrannical and fearful. It's not all in the mind.  Man has something to fear outside himself and this realm of evil which the Bible sums up in the description "Satan" has to be taken very seriously. We see Jesus Christ confronting the powers of this dark realm - these demonic forces which tempt him and which, in the end, crucify him. Believe me, you cannot be in the Christian ministry long without realizing the power of evil and its self-destruction as some people are enslaved by it. But we thank God that Jesus Christ has won a victory over the demonic powers. As Paul writes: "He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them (Col. 2:13) This is the vital part of the meaning of the cross - it's God answer to the realms of evil and terror. We find it difficult to understand but we can claim its victory.
This film, and I presume there will be others to follow it, speaks of something which is real. It does so for commercial ends - that's why I shall not add my money to the millions of pounds already made. I shall not see it. My belief is that for some people who will go to see it, this new dimension of the demonic will come as a shock - and they will have fear.
As a Christian minister, I want to stress that the power of Christ has already come to grips with evil and has overcome , so that Jesus can promise us instead of fear - peace through his victory. It is no good being realistic about the power of forces unseen, without claiming as true the words and deeds of the one person who declares that he has dealt with sin and evil - Jesus Christ. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Gleanings 22) Viewpoints - Christian Aid

These yellowing newspaper columns I have just found cover a range of issues.  I can't remember how many I did in total but I have three from May 1974 and another in summer 1974.  Of course the language is sometimes dated (man!) and the contexts are also dated - like the controversial first screening of 'The Exorcist" movie in Blackburn. As I review them I often see an enthusiastic, young preacher using this column as an extension of  his preaching!  How amazing to think that this high circulation daily newspaper gave space to such explicit stuff.  The first viewpoint was an obvious one for a Christian minister to write - Christian Aid Week. Sadly, this remains intensely relevant.
It is Christian Aid Week again - the annual pricking on our consciences about the poorest people in the world. As we are tempted to find small change for the envelope that popped through the letter box, let me tell you a story. It's called 'The feeding of the five thousand - how it didn't happen".   
The crowd sat patiently in the late afternoon sun, waiting to be fed. "Is there really bread for everybody, Mama?" asked a child at the back. 'Yes, dear. The Master is giving it to His disciples now." The child rubbed his eyes. " Will it be long?" Mother took him on her lap. " No, they're passing it to the front row now." Slowly the child's eyes closed. When they opened the sun was low in the west. He sat up quickly. " Did you save me some, Mama? I missed it, didn't I?  Mother stirred uneasily. 'No dear, It's not come yet. The front row is still eating." The child returned his head to her lap " I'm hungry Mama, Isn't it here yet?"  Mother looked anxiously ahead. " No, I think there's something wrong. The front row is having some more." The child sighed. " It's no good being in the back row,is it Mama?"
When the last tinge of colour faded from the sky the child sat up again. "I bet there isn't any!' he declared.  Mother shook her head. "Yes, there is, I can see them eating it."  Darkness fell and at last Mother got slowly to her feet. " Let's go home. They said it was for everybody, but I guess it's only for the front row after all."  
Let all of us on the front row take note and make this week the beginning of concern and giving for those missed out as we enjoy God's world. If we fail to help there will be a tragic story - the feeding of the millions: how it didn't happen.  

Monday, May 6, 2019

Gleanings 21) But what happened?

It's all very well remembering sermons that may have put people on the spot but what actually happened in the 'Sit-In'?   I had to look it up to recall the exact details and I found a copy of the front page headlines of the BAPTIST TIMES, October 11th. 1973 £26,000 sit-in that saved a church. Actually, it was £26,446!  (Astonishingly the value of this £ sum compared then and now is estimated at today's spending power around £230,780!)

The paper reported: The minister, Michael Quicke, told an astonished church that the result of the 'sit-in' had been a massive £26,000 and that the future of the church looked secure. He told the church: 'Never in the life of this church have three days meant so much. Through you, God has spoken his Yes, when many thought it would be No. I believe this is the beginning of something really great for God'.

I love it that Carol was also quoted: 'We have been thrilled with the way people have responded. We are all one hundred percent together in this, and we have no doubt that with our work and sacrifice we shall succeed and see new church premises built which will be of real service to the people and really be to God's glory'.

In my gleanings I recognize the partnership that Carol gave right from the start of ministry, in spite of a baby to look after and some ill-health.  100% together n it was right! Actually, I used to read my morning sermons to her last thing on Saturday nights though too often she nodded off before the end.  She joked that she had to go to church to hear how it finished.  Yes, any account of my ministry should include Carol's commitment all the way.

Among yellowing newspaper cuttings like the above I also found copies of  "Viewpoint" that I wrote (with other clergy) in our main evening regional newspaper.  Some still have relevance....perhaps!  See next time.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

King Ahab and wife

Arriving at church on Sunday, a teacher in the children's work asked me whether I could help act out a part for their morning class.  She explained that I was to be King Ahab - one of the notorious figures of the Old Testament. A gold crown (slightly too small) and a purple robe (also minimal!) were provided with a script to follow which emphasized that I was to strut arrogantly and regally as I made my entrance.

At the right moment as I waiting outside the door the teacher opened it with the words: 'And who do we have here?'  In I swept, exuding nasty authority, and exclaiming that I was King Ahab, the seventh king of Israel.  And that I was married to Jezebel who was very beautiful.   Just at that moment Carol stuck her head round the door to see what was going on.  The teachers burst into laughter and, of course, I repeated the line!   However, the story turns sour as Ahab said that Jezebel had introduced him to the god Baal and that he was now worshiping Baal instead of the old-fashioned God of Israel.

One of the children was primed to confront me as the prophet Elijah and tell me that there would be no rain in judgement upon me...and I am glad to say that God had the last triumphant word in the painful story.

I haven't been to visit the children's and youth work for years and as I saw all the work the different teachers had put into the morning sessions I was reminded of the vital, demanding, and skillful effort that our teachers put in month by month, year by year.  How easily their role is taken for granted!  We owe them so much for their dedication.  Thank you - everyone who works with our children in church.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Gleanings 20) On the spot 3

I started Gleanings because my stack of sermons needs pruning/burning? and before taking drastic measures I looked back to my beginnings in Blackburn in the 70's.  In the building crisis my short series called: BUILDING FOR THE LORD shows me wrestling with Scripture with dangers of manipulation lurking everywhere.

Sermon 2) UNDER ORDERS (2 Samuel 7: 1-18) began with the story of Saddleworth (in Yorkshire) where an ex-sprinter councillor argued for an Olympic-sized running track.  People said 'What a good idea.' The expensive track  was joyfully completed but ever since it has been permanently water-logged and unusable.  King David pleased with his rich palace thinks it a good idea to build God a rich temple too.  Consulting prophet Nathan, he received an immediate green light only for God, later that night, to break in with his rebuke.  David is not to build his temple.  No. Man is wiser after the event; God is wise before.  David and Nathan have to learn to be under God's orders.   I emphasized that a) God only knows and warned how we can all make Nathan's mistake. 'We should saturate every step with prayer as we look to our future. There can be no jumping at the good idea until we are sure it is God's order'.  And b) God only succeeds - we do wonder what God is up to?  It's a strange sort of success as David is told to look to his son.  And we are told to look to God's son and a strange sort of success in the crushing agony of Gethsemane and desolation of Calvary. But under God's orders Jesus completed the task and now as we look to the cross we see it empty, deserted - the failure of man's worst to annihilate God's best. And in his power God would have us stay under his orders today....

Preachers should often ask as they preach Old Testament stories - how is Jesus wanting to tell this today? How does this Old Covenant story belong with the New Covenant?  And are they just using a story to make a personal point?  Good questions.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Lady Selena

I am just back from speaking at the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion Annual Conference.  In the heady days of eighteenth century revival with John Wesley and George Whitefield, Lady Selena experienced dramatic Christian conversion which led to her extraordinarily fearless witness to all - peers and servants - as she established preaching centres using every ounce of influence and wealth for the gospel. Facing opposition from the established church, she reluctantly organized her connection of churches of over a hundred chapels as a group of separatists.  She stands out as one of the most significant women in Christian history.

Knowing that I was going to speak, a US professor friend wrote to me: 'The Countess of Huntingdon! Oh, wow! dear Lady Selena.  I had no idea her Connexion still existed. Where do these congregations exist?'    I read this to the conference who ,with laughter, wanted to reassure him that they still exist! I promised to write and let him know.  True, numbers of churches have shrunk to 22 and some of these are small but the connexion's spiritual life with its partner connexion in Sierra Leone was evident from the very first.  Carol and I loved sharing sessions and meeting friends from places ranging from Ely, to Middleton, to Eastbourne to St. Ives, Cornwall. Children and young people had very lively parallel activities. Interestingly, at a Mission Marketplace churches had been asked to bring details of their recent outreach. I went from table to table, picking up leaflets as members enthusiastically described their hospitality projects, schools' work, overseas' commitment, work with special groups etc.  Wonderful.

In my three talks on the Connexion's tag-line: Welcoming, Supporting and Networking" I introduced some of the challenges that come with being a missional church.  Of living in the faith and vision that GOD IS AT WORK EVERYWHERE AS HE GATHERS AND SCATTERS HIS CHURCH AS MISSIONARIES.  I warned them to be ready for OUCH moments when God would ping them with a fresh challenge and maybe rebuke!   People told me they experienced several of these.  Indeed one person said they were sitting near the door to escape too many more!

So, I am grateful I was well enough to undertake this.  The Connexion website had asked prayer for me earlier in the year and when I first arrived I was encouraged by the people who asked me about my health and said they had been praying.  Thank you Lord for opening up to Carol and me another part of your great family.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday

I led prayers in my local church this morning and as I reflected on today, which marks the beginning to Holy Week, I remembered with clarity my pilgrimage to Jerusalem during Holy Week when we were able to follow in the footsteps of Jesus through to Easter Sunday and then onto Galilee in resurrection celebration.  At key points we read Scripture, sang, prayed, were quiet (so important) and sometimes shared communion.

On the road down from the Mount of Olives we read Luke 19: 28-44 when the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices: 'Blessed in the king who comes in the name of the Lord, peace in heaven and glory in the highest'.  And a little later as Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city he wept over it and said, 'If you,even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace...'  Peace with God and in relationships with others through the harmony of his love and forgiveness.

Standing there with the city of Jerusalem uncaring, even hostile to the momentous event ahead, I recall both the sense of grief that this city would miss the opportunity, tears for the lost, but also the sheer courage as Jesus went ahead in spite of such massive rejection.  He is often so alone this week, especially in the garden and on the cross, with a city that is closed to God's gift of peace.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a focus on those for whom Easter needs courage in the face of so many around them who are unconcerned and uncaring about the peace that Jesus brings.  For Christians all over the world in all kinds of situations we pray for bold witness this week.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Gleanings 19) On the spot 2

At the Church Meeting which approved re- building a specific proposal was made.  Again, the bulletin spelled it out:
'ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-THREE PEOPLE met last Tuesday and were unanimous that:
the Minister be available on the Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday morning, October 4th, 5th, and 6th, for the church to give gifts or promises for the building fund.'
With the prayer meeting nearby, I sat in my vestry to receive confidential gifts. This "Sit-In" stirred much interest with the local paper following events which must have seemed bizarrely risky. To go public when so much was at stake. Readers of my earlier postings on the St. A's story 'A Cambridge God event' will recognize a pattern developing because I was to repeat this exercise in Cambridge!
Leaflets gave fuller details and sermons kept emphasizing the theme of climbing the mountain of faith and the need for sacrificial giving.  And what kind of texts and themes would be suitable?  Well a series was called BUILDING FOR THE LORD.

Sermon 1) AT COST (1 Chron. 21:16 -22:1)  I began with a comment someone had made: "Wouldn't it be great if a millionaire donated £100.000 for the building work"?  The story of David refusing the free gift for the land on which to build an altar (from Araunah the Jebusite) comes close to this millionaire wish.  But David rejects the offer completely. "No, I insist on praying the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours or offer a whole-offering that costs me nothing."  This is a basic principle - gifts to God must cost.  No party-tickets where one person can pay for the rest.   The story in 1 Chron. reveals that the cost involves REPENTANCE as David acknowledged his pride as well as REAL GIVING when he put theory into practice.  There were other sermons too......

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Gleanings 18) On the spot 1.

I was beginning to realize at this point in my short preaching career how vital it was to ensure that what was happening in church life was made explicit in every bit of literature as well as in the sermons.  First in the literature - I see evidence in the service bulletins.
   - we should book the date, Tuesday September 4th to take the decision about rebuilding on the church site. 
   -we should respond in preparation by praying with faith and vision and in our financial giving - our offering should be at least doubled every week and our covenanting should greatly increase.
  - we are called to think, work, pray in these next weeks as never before. 

Controversially, the following Sunday a new item was included in our church bulletin:  WEEKLY OFFERING - we thank you for your gifts for the Lord's work last Sunday, which amounted to £71.92.  I say controversially because it put finances in black and white figures for all to see.  It put us on the spot. Some felt it rather undignified like putting washing out on the line! Perhaps dirty washing. And others resented the public spotlight.

I guess publishing church weekly offerings rarely happens today because people have standing orders and those who can covenant their gifts too.  So it is very difficult to know exactly what is being given.  After the September 4th meeting that confirmed the decision about rebuilding on the church site an official Building Fund was set up, so it's details were included too.  Every week.

It is fascinating to revisit the impact of making our giving explicit. Three months later giving on October  21st. was General Fund £ 93. 07p and Building Fund £39. 20p. Definitely, the challenge was on but I also recognize how much more was to happen....seriously.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

First 2019 outing

It has been 5 months since I last preached and, with fuller lungs after the pneumonia I stepped back into the fray last Sunday.  The date had been in my diary for ages because it was part of the 150th. celebrations of Walsworth Road Baptist Church, Hitchin.

The minister, Rev. Andrew Henton-Pusey, was a student at Cambridge in the mid-60's and attended my church becoming heavily involved in its student ministry.  Significant things happened like meeting his wife Julie.  Sadly, I had forgotten some key specifics. As he introduced me he said that 25 years ago (he gave the exact date) I had invited him (as President of the Robert Hall Society - the Baptist student society) to preach from the Cambridge pulpit.  Apparently it was only the third time he had ever preached.  In sensing whether he was called into ministry he remembers some of my words like: 'I shall need to put every hurdle in your way!' God's call is so demanding you should only say yes when you have faced its many challenges and have no other choice.

What a delight to see Andrew and Julie 25 years on, and to remember Andrew's parents who were so involved in Carol's early Christian life! But to cap it all, we had lunch with old student friends whom I had not seen for 52 years.  Les and Judith Ebdon were members of the London student society and Les became President of the Baptist Student Federation (a body comprising some 30 Baptist groups in universities across the UK).   What a wonderful surprise to see them again.  I have seen Les's name in the national media over the years owing to his prominence in education issues, having been Vice Chancellor in two universities and latterly Director of  Equal Access (something like that!) - promoting fairness for students.  He was knighted last year but this seemed to make no difference to him as a deacon, a worker of the power-point,  a committed lay preacher and everything else.

This is the wonder of unsought networking in the Christian family when you are surprised by friends from way back who stir deep good memories and are as committed to the Lord as ever!  I guess this will be like the heaven experience, only to the nth degree!   I hope you have such stories and surprises too.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Gleanings 17) Too personal

I realized that by bringing myself into the picture by telling of my own anxiety I was identifying with many in the congregation.  I believe that there are times when sharing honestly (and it must be honest!) may connect at a deeper level.  No longer is the preacher up the front, distant, talking spiritual truths which can sound rather general and can be easily dismissed.  When a problem faces the whole church and a preacher tells it like it is spiritual truth is no longer general or easily dodged.

However, in the sermon I told another story by reading out a letter I had received the day after the meeting from a young couple. (I asked them for permission and very fortunately they could remain anonymous since there were many possible young couples in the congregation!)
You stated last night that several people have already shown the foresight and faith to give for a future new building.  We are prepared to show the same faith in the future by covenanting £100 a year for the seven years necessary for a covenant, to ensure that we can build a new church/centre for the present and the future.  If we could all stand and speak with the conviction that Christianity means optimism in the future for God's sake, we'd have no difficulty in having a new place...
It is difficult to appreciate how much the pound has devalued since then.  I went online to discover that  £100 in 1973 is equivalent in purchasing power to £1,199.38 in 2019! This was a remarkably generous gift pledged when who knows what financial quagmires might lie ahead for this couple.  It seems crazy.  I commented 'When Abraham set off people thought him crazy but let no one doubt that he trusted his Lord and his faith influenced his conduct. When we set off let people think we are crazy, but let no one doubt that we trust in a mighty, living, loving God for whom we are prepared to take risks and climb in vision.

Yes, but I realized for the first time how a preacher can be in danger of manipulating hearers with stories like these.  Cicero, the Roman orator said that speech should teach, delight and persuade. The preacher's priority is always letting God persuade through Scripture and using personal stories with utmost sensitively.  It was a lesson I had to learn.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Gleanings 16) Connecting personally

The sermon contained more of me, and us as a congregation, than I had ever preached before. Beginning with the tragic mountain story (last posting) I said: 'The only way to avoid the risks of height is to stay at ground level....and that's just what most of us do in the spiritual realm. When we face the mountains of faith, when we are called to rise to a vision and respond to a call which leads beyond what we are used to, when we are challenged to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar, the known for the unknown, the safe for the risk, when we face the mountains of faith we want to stay put.' I then shared what happened to me after the meeting - my feeling physically sick, sitting in the car after the meeting. My fear about the future and blunt desire to stay at ground level, to stay with thing as they have always been.

Abraham setting out from the familiar (Gen 12) exemplifies how faith leaves the familiar for the frightening unknown.  I spent time reminding us of his journey - 'faith involves things you would never dream of doing normally.'  And moved onto how Jesus dealt with people whom he called to be and do new things and how he often said:' Don't be afraid'.

Faith is frightening but also reassuring. The sermon's second part took Rom 4: 18-25 - once God had given his promise Abraham had faith that God would stick by that promise. 'He did not analyse it, suspect it, rationalize it, over-dramatize it; he refused either to deny it or even to doubt it, but drew strength from faith and gave glory to God.  He was sure that God the Creator is powerful when men are weak and he promises the safest route (though not the easiest).

When God calls us to do things we would never dream of doing normally, and take risks we would never begin to calculate, and climb when it seems failure hems us in on every side then we begin to find out what a live faith is.  We don't know what would have happened if Abraham hadn't responded with faith - No Israel, No Old Testament, No First Covenant?  We don't know what will happen if we don't respond in faith, or do we?

As I review that sermon, though, I am left with a question about how personal a preacher should be.....

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Gleanings 15) A shaken preacher.

The special meeting about dry rot drew 160 people. After presentations there was a strong sense that rather than pull the building down, the rot should be eradicated with the large affected areas left bare and, a new false ceiling built underneath.  I no longer possess the details but we knew the expense was likely to be huge. I knew people had been praying with vision and one or two people actually pledged gifts to make something happen within the meeting. But the majority felt extremely uncomfortable and I had strong criticism afterwards about the way the whole meeting had become too emotional.!

Immediately afterward when most people had gone home I went to my car and sat down. For a few seconds I felt physically sick.  Tension roiled right through my body. I was overcome about the sheer unknown future. I asked myself: 'What will happen now?  What will become of us?  Will we all respond to the challenge?'  I felt real fear about the future.  All that seemed familiar, known and safe was under threat.

Truthfully, though weekly offerings just saw us through regular commitments these were low considering the congregational size.  Giving was not our strong point. The financial implications of some big financial project were frightening.  Suddenly the church was faced by a mountain to climb. And that was the picture I had.  A mountain to climb by faith - full of risk.

Recent news had told the story of three schoolboys who were climbing Snowdon on the safest route - along the railway track.  Yet, tragically all three had fallen 600 feet to their deaths. Joe Brown the world-renowned mountaineer in the 70's was asked how this could have happened. Apparently, it was very safe apart from one short section, only 100 yards long, but with a sheer drop either side.  Here frozen snow could make the surface treacherous.  Climbers were tempted to rush across because it was such a short distance!  But that risked disaster and over 20 climbers had perished at this point in recent years.  There is no completely safe route when you climb a mountain.

As I thought about my next sermon I titled it :Faith - frightening yet reassuring (Gen. 12:1-5; Rom 4: 18-25) and decided to begin with this news story.  I now realize that I was more personally engaged with this sermon than I had ever been before.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Gleanings 14) Blessing then...and now

Looking for signs that this difficult church business meeting about dry rot actually began to make a difference to my preaching I found that shortly before the meeting I preached on Blessing (Deut. 28:1-14).  Blessing as 'God's power on the move like a surfer's wave engulfing and carrying high..."soul power" for the whole person, a whole people, who might know God's success". But, enjoying such blessing has a condition - 'if you obey the voice of the Lord.'  Blessing means experiencing God's power but his power comes through our obedience.  As I ended the sermon I definitely had this business meeting in mind:

'Deut. 28:2 warns us that if there is no obedient commitment then we shall not know what to aim for and the power at our disposal will not only be wrongly directed but it won't have the undefeated, unconquerable blessing of God.  That's what we should pray for as a church and as individuals. That the blessing of God shall come upon us and overtake us, leading positively and confidently forward, because we are committed, joined together in the massive band of people belonging to the Kingdom of God, with Jesus who leads us on to greater things.'

It seems such an obvious thing to do, doesn't it?  To listen to God as a whole people about his will in the practical problems they face.  And to hear publicly God's will through the preached word.

Two days ago an old friend called from Blackburn. A widow whose husband died a couple of years ago. She talked about the days when I was their minister in Blackburn and then she said: ' Just recently I was looking through the piles of old papers he kept and I came across his prayer book.  It was begun in the 70's and I found where he was praying for you specifically by name and that big meeting that we had in back July 1973 about what we should do about our building.' 

You can imagine what blessing that gave me. And what timing! I told her I was at that moment looking back at those days and how much I learned as a young minister.  And how much I owed to friends' prayers like her husband's.

Something was happening!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Gleanings 13) Bells and facing an elephant

My last post about gleanings from early sermons brought me to the dismal reminder that ever since my first Sunday in Blackburn I had seen signs in the roof and walls of serious building disease. High scaffolding in the early months of 1973 brought further investigations showing how widespread was the dry rot.  Just what was the future of the church building?

As I look at my sermons I see them trundling through stand-alone sermons - picking out key themes such as the Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.  But each one was entirely detached from the current dire situation. The Trinity sermon: Above all, Through all, In all  (Eph.. 4:6)  praised God who has dominion over us, communion with us and possession within us. I ended: ' By these three simple prepositions the scope of God's working with us leaves nothing out...Let us never underestimate any aspect of God's working.'  The same service bulletin had a notice urging members of the church and congregation to attend a special church meeting three weeks later to 'discuss the future of the church buildings.'  Maybe a connection between the 'God whose working leaves nothing out' and our practical building dilemma was in my mind.  But it wasn't explicit in my preaching.  I needed to get on a major learning curve about connecting preaching with real people and real situations!

One church member was a delightful retired Welsh Baptist minister.  When he wished to encourage me he would say with lilting accent: 'That rang five bells today!'   Mercifully he didn't grade me with lower bell counts...that rang one bell today! I appreciated him (as you can imagine) but it reinforced a expectation of little stand-alone sermons, little teaching/inspirational bubbles, to please people. No, I needed to join the dots between God's revealing transforming word in Scripture and my particular congregation, in this particular place, with this particular need. Was I ever going to mention God and dry rot?

Thursday, February 28, 2019


Very thankfully I can report that the X ray this afternoon showed my lung was now at least 90% inflated. In fact, the Registrar put the before/after Xrays on the same screen so that I could see the good news for myself.  Rather like a washing powder commercial with ugly patches on one Xray alongside an almost clear one.  It is an immense relief and we owe so much to our many friends, all over the place, who have upheld Carol and me through these weary weeks.

The doctor was a little wary about my flying long distances but not prohibitively I think we can plan to make up for our long-postponed visit to see our family in New York and friends in Chicago.  Because my visit earlier in the week to a swallowing clinic (did you know there were such things?)  I still have to undergo ingestion tests which apparently involve X rays and a barium drink.  So, there is a still a medical question mark and I won't be discharged without clearer answers.  But we are so grateful and can look ahead to fulfilling speaking engagements etc.

It's been an extraordinary journey with some dark twists and turns and several new experiences. Eating a banana, yoghurt, a biscuit and then drinking water under the eagle eye and prodding finger of the swallowing specialist was certainly a first!

We believe that prayers have been answered - we praise God for healing through the wonders of the National Health Service which, though under strain, has proved full of compassionate skill.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Good Church Guide 1989 (yes..1989!)

(Still awaiting lung Xray....)  I have just found this 1989 book. Mercifully, it has a disclaimer that it's not about distinguishing good from bad churches. Only the Lord can do that! Rather it is an information guide about 2000 churches with little symbols rather like a National Trust Handbook.  In Cambridgeshire 8 Baptist churches are listed including the church where I was minister (in 1989) St. Andrew's Street and Histon Baptist where I am now in membership.

For each church, after providing address and telephone number there are three main sections: Historical Interest, Membership and Worship.  Stars accompany historical interest. St. Andrew's Street has three but Histon has four stars with a note 'two red brick buildings set in lawns'.  Membership shows both listed membership and the size of the average congregation.  In the book's introduction it explains that usually the membership size is larger than the attendance.  However, for both churches it is reversed with much larger congregations than membership. A good sign! Worship has a number of symbols. For music both churches have the combination of the Baptist Hymn Book and Songs of Fellowship. For sermon length St A's has 20-25 minutes, Histon 25 minutes.  Both have family worship, house groups, and support missionaries but Histon has an extra symbol for Healing services.

I doubt this book had a wide readership.  It doesn't seem to have had any successors! 30 years on I reflect on some changes such as how much music in worship has changed, and how the place of healing had a significant role at Histon (and a lesser one at St. A's).  But I also rejoice in the stories of these two fellowships and my God experiences within them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Prayer fact check

In these days of social media claims and counter-claims, we are warned to be on the lookout for fake news.  Sometimes fact checks are provided by objective analysts who survey the data in order to try and set the record straight.  Thinking about my last post: 'In yer face' I was wondering about a claim I read recently.  It was in a book The Open Secret (1906). As an aside, let me say that I often find stimulus in reading old books (especially by preachers). Written by a man who in his day was an influential preacher - R. F. Horton- its language is inevitably a bit 1906.  So, he writes of the 'prayer closet' thinking of the quiet place to which we go in daily prayer   Anyway, this is the sentence that made me stop and think.

 People who have met God much in the prayer closet cannot but recognize each other in the world; they have a secret sign and a mutual understanding; in the golden atmosphere of prayer their outlines merge and their hearts unite.

It made me think.  Do people who pray consistently and quietly on their own recognize others who similarly practice prayer like this?  Do they have share a secret sign with mutual understanding?  Is there really a golden atmosphere of prayer that unites people at a deeper level?

Of course, you have to be practicing prayer that truly meets God in order both to be recognizable to others and also to realize that you are recognizable by a secret sign!  Looking back over my ministry I can recall certain people who immediately struck me as having a deep interior spiritual life (though I certainly was on the shallower side!) Sadly, I guess the opposite applies too.  I remember Sister Margaret Magdalene speaking at a ministers' conference and warning that the prayerless person stands out a mile a way. Horton's claim in an old book raises an important point - is it true or false?

Saturday, February 16, 2019

In yer face

A strange thing happened in our church house group this week.  We were looking at the subject of prayer in (Mat. 6 5-15) and discussing (among other issues) how we might be in danger of hypocritical prayer when one member of the group suddenly spoke up and described his daily practice.  This involved using a liturgical prayer to the Trinity which then set the scene for other prayers. Then he looked straight across at the group leader and said: 'How do you pray?' 

As polite English people who tend to be private on such matters this was a considerable shock.  But our group leader began to describe how he prayed, often while in the car,  Then it was the turn for each of us to share our daily practice.  Only six of us were present which probably helped the openness.  It still took several minutes to listen to each other and reflect.  Aware of the dangers of hypocrisy we all admitted our practice was not always consistent.  It was a really deepening experience. 

Being put on the spot spiritually is unusual for most of us.  I recall as Principal of Spurgeon's College being present in my home church of Holmesdale, South Norwood.  Alas, I rarely attended because most weekends I was away preaching.  After this morning service, an older West Indian gentleman sitting close by turned and asked me: ' How is your walk with Jesus?' It was a shock....but I thought afterwards it shouldn't have been.  I know it will expose hypocrisy but that is the key question.  And 'How do you pray? is another.  How would those questions find you?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Gleanings 12) Elephant in the roof

During all the time that I was offering my first sermons I was aware of a massive problem. A discovery had been made  in the months between my accepting the call to Blackburn in early 1972 and actually arriving. Surveyors and architect had found very extensive dry rot in the roof and walls.  In fact, it was judged to be so serious that it posed a huge question mark over the future of the church buildings.   Perhaps major repairs at great cost might save the building but it was suggested that maybe because it was so large and high it should be demolished and rebuilt!

I first heard about this when the church leaders wrote to me with the news and in 'good conscience' said that they would release me from my call to the church.  As they put it - it seems unfair to place such a heavy burden on a new minister.   I wish I had kept that letter!  Looking back it now seems such an unlikely scenario. I guess it may have happened to other ministers facing their first pastorate but with some naivety (I now realize) Carol and I prayed about it and replied to the leaders that we believed the call was still operative.  We would still come.

I had no clue what this might mean for my future ministry.  And from my first Sunday I could see the large areas of wall and ceiling where the plaster had been stripped to lay the problem bare. The elephant really was in the roof.  I no longer possess minutes of those early meetings when I arrived -so much background stuff is lost in memory.  But as I have been gleaning through this sermon file I was looking for the first signs that I would be facing this elephant, with my people, from the pulpit.

I really needed to...but how?