Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Remembering Hugh

Today I attended the funeral of a friend whose painful short journey with cancer has shown so much courage and faith. Dr. Hugh Dawson was a friend who first came into my Cambridge church in the mid-80's, playing in the music group and making ready friendships.  As a new family doctor in the city he modeled the best kind of medical care, gaining a well-deserved reputation as a learned, gentle, careful, supportive doctor whose patients found him a true friend.  In his singleness he allowed caring to fill up most of his life (perhaps too much!)  After visiting our elderly neighbor he would come in for tea and share advice about how we could help as though she was his only patient.
Marrying later with two delightful children his medical practice blossomed as did his life as husband and father.  In 2013 when we returned to live in Cambridge we wanted him to be our doctor too.  And he proved to be the very best. We enjoyed some wonderful friendship that first year.  But it was cut too short.
The service today was so full many had to stand at the back. The service had been planned by him with his favourite hymns and prayers. I found it deeply moving.  So many things - let me share a couple:
  • How he coped with rampant disease.  He was only 63 when he died. Told two years ago that he had between two and ten years of life left,  it turned out to be the tragic minimum.  How he must have hoped for so much longer to see his children through college and into the future.  Yet, in the speedy decline he showed no feelings of bitterness, fear or anger at the unfairness of his suffering when he had given so much to help others win good health.  I find that extraordinary and it was explained by.....
  • How faith shone through with radiance.  Carol and I saw this when we visited him in the hospice a few days before he died.  He loved the psalms. 'Can I read you one?' I asked.' Do you have a special one?' He feebly reached for his worn copy of the New Testament and Psalms. Slipping in and out of consciousness we read Psalm 16 and prayed.  And, in spite of his upsetting weakness and pain his faith in Jesus shone through.  It did!
  • How uplifting were his service choices.  His hymns: In Christ alone my hope is found; I, the Lord of sea and sky; Before the throne of God above; Be thou my vision.  His Christian conviction was also sounded out by one of his closest friends who shared Hugh's faith story. 
I couldn't help but think about how members of that large congregation of several hundred were responding to such a brave faith-filled life.  What an example dear Hugh sets.  We continue to pray for his family and friends.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Chapel at Churchill College

Last night I had a delightful time preaching on the First Sunday of Lent in a Cambridge college. It reminded me of my past when I was Baptist Chaplain to the University.  However, Churchill is different! As Mark Goldie's history of the chapel begins: 'There is a chapel at Churchill College but there is no chapel of Churchill College'. At this college's beginning, named after Sir Winston Churchill, some key figures insisted there would be no chapel.

The most famous was Dr. Francis Crick, a Nobel prize winner for unraveling DNA and a militant atheist. He claimed that an institution dedicated to science, to the rational pursuit of knowledge and free speculation, has no business promoting superstitious nonsense. However, plans for the chapel emerged and though he was assured it was separately funded and that he never need enter the premises he resigned his fellowship, gaining national attention and fuelling publicity by a letter to Sir Winston in which he included a cheque for 10 guineas to open a College hetairia (a place for Greek courtesans).  This bordello would afford an amenity also open to all!   Sir Winston returned the cheque! The saga rolled on and eventually a compromise was reached and a chapel was built in 1967 at the far end of college grounds. With separate Trustees it must be termed - the chapel at Churchill College - to ensure its clear separation.

My delight in sharing yesterday owed much to the quality of  friendship and warmth received from chaplain and chapel community, which happily contained two friends I had not seen for over thirty years and who told me the chapel is their spiritual home.   Afterwards the meal with faculty and other chapel attendees was really enjoyable and, as you can imagine, included reflection about continuing (minor) ripples of the chapel controversy. The chapel's history is titled: 'God's bordello: storm over a chapel'.  I love its conclusion: 'the agnostics have never satisfactorily explained the persistence of religious belief among many brilliant scientists. At Churchill, two Nobels out of three were church-goers.' How many of us rejoice in persistent religious belief this Lent!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Making the organ sing!

Last weekend I went to an organ recital in Histon Baptist Church.  I have been attending for three years and never once heard it played.  Forlornly shuttered away on one side, it has been replaced by the music groups who accompany our worship services.  Apparently no one in the congregation is proficient enough to play it!

However, last Saturday Dr. David Rowland, the Director of Music at Christ's College Cambridge and also (most propitiously) the father-in-law of our Youth Minister gave an organ recital.  After opening remarks he sat at the organ with his page-turner at his side and launched into the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  I could not believe it.  This instrument took off with amazing timbre and volume.  I have heard this played so often but here in my own church was a glorious surprise. I was astounded at its quality and said so to my neighbor who agreed.

After this colossal piece, David explained the concert was in aid of refurbishing the organ.' Isn't it odd to give a recital on an organ that needs refurbishing', he asked. 'Well, yes, but I have practiced to try and compensate for where pipes no longer work.  Some of the pedals are inactive. Some of the keys stick.  It requires a heavy touch and you cannot be sure whether it will run out of air...but we shall see!'  As he continued to play Vivaldi, Franck (and Couperin on the harpsichord) I marveled that he had so compensated for the instrument's faults that the music worked beautifully with barely a hiccup.   At the interval one of the visitors said: 'A really good musician can really make even a poor instrument to work well'.  Certainly, he did.

And it doesn't take much of a preacher to see a little parable here about how in our own weaknesses God can also work out his glory. We can make far better music for him than we realize! I hope the organ is eventually refurbished to contribute to blended worship and I am thankful for the lesson.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chicken, Spinach and Bacon Sandwich

One highlight of this week was to come through another colonoscopy unscathed.  Because a pre-cancerous polyp was found five years ago I needed to go through the procedure again.  As fellow patients know this requires a fasting preparation process.  Because my procedure was late in the afternoon I began a liquid diet two days before.  On occasions I have fasted for spiritual reasons but when it is forced on you medically the motives are quite different!

Anyway, the consultant examined my colon and I was sufficiently awake to see the whole process on the colour monitor perched above.  When he declared I was free of any further polyps I was immensely grateful.  I really am.  But then came another highlight!  Even though I was a National Health Service patient I was given treatment in a private hospital in Cambridge.  Before the procedure they asked me what sandwich and drink I would like.   And as I recovered in bed the nurse brought me coffee in a silver pot and an exquisitely displayed sandwich, cut perfectly into three pieces and filled with chicken, spinach and bacon.  Alongside was a small salad which I laced with mayonnaise....and then began the delicious experience of savouring every single mouthful.  Oh, when you are really hungry! It was so much better than any sandwich I had eaten for years!
I am in the process of preparing a sermon for next Sunday in Churchill College on the temptations of Jesus.  The first concerned turning stones into bread.  For Jesus, hungry in the desert there must have been real physical temptation here. Astoundingly he will reject the possibility because 'man cannot live on bread alone'.  He must fulfill the big mission as the Bread of Life who satisfies in the deepest possibly way by giving eternal life.  For someone who was so satisfied at one level this week....the challenge goes so much deeper.

Monday, February 1, 2016

50 years ago (2)

I said there were two sides to my Arbury Rd. visit.  It's odd how many memories came back about my father's leadership which had lain without much reflection for years.  I guess for most young people reflection is not a strong suite! In talking with my younger  brother it was revealing how little we thought about his ministry back then, even though we are both ministers now.  But now, several times we both used the word courage and expressed deep gratitude for what we hadn't thought about enough!   My brother wrote out some thoughts which I shared at the lunch afterwards.  Let me highlight some:
  • Early on he pioneered the All Age Sunday School when the entire church met for worship first and then everyone went into age-related classes all over the building.  Though he could be suspicious of American ideas he took this revolutionary project and ran with it as one of the first Baptist churches in the UK.  At first, he only had a slight majority of the church meeting in favour but how glorious it turned out to be.
  • He was actually called to the church with responsibility for building a new church. That took courage with plenty of persistence and prayer too. His direct appeal for funds especially when there was a crisis showed great moral courage.  Apparently, on one occasion there was an industrial dispute and the builders laid down their tools.  My father climbed up to where they had finished laying bricks and started to lay them himself.  The builders were horrified and were shamed back to work. (I like that story but I am not sure if it happened just like that!)
  • Another memorable project involved the Radwinter Hut story of near death.  Needing accommodation, we went to Radwinter (where Dad had contacts) and took down a hut methodically numbering its parts. Loading it onto a lorry we thought it was properly secured when suddenly it crashed down narrowly missing some of us.  Re-erecting it on the church site was immense fun bringing many of us together.  And it proved very useful in the years ahead.
  • Later when he was appointed President of the Cambridge Association of Churches he and my mother took a caravan and stayed with every village chapel in order to give encouragement.  It was Winter time and I think I remember a picture of them in the snow in a field seeking to enthuse the churches. 
I shared these at lunch and I know much more could be added.  But I think you can tell how much I valued growing under my father's ministry (and how much I wished I had told him too!)