Monday, December 25, 2017

Christians awake!

My memory flashed back today to a childhood Christmas (I think I was 9 years old) when I awoke with excitement and started unpacking the bulging stocking but, at the same time, was startled by loud singing from the stairs.  My father had bought a second-hand wind-up gramophone player in order to surprise us that Christmas morning.  And he had also bought a used 78 record which was unfortunately scratched. 

However, at full volume, with accompanying clicks and hissing from the worn surface he played a carol to greet us which he deliberately chose for our wake-up call.  Though we were certainly awake with happiness this centered us on the reason for the deeper joy that holds fast in every circumstance.  To awake and salute the happy morn whereon the Savior of the world was born, rise to adore.....that's the very best news.   

Christians, awake! Salute the happy morn
whereon the Savior of the world was born;
rise to adore the mystery of love,
which hosts of angels chanted from above;
with them the joyful tidings first begun,
of God incarnate and the virgin's Son.

I have not sung this for some time but today it was an earworm from the past that filled me with joyful memory.  And how odd to recall those old 78's, steel styluses that scratched so easily, the need to keep winding up the machine.  Wow, technology has moved on but the message is unchanging.  Yes, this is a day, like every day to begin 'Christians awake!'

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas friendship

Carol and I were eating in Wetherspoons (notice our economical lifestyle!) and sitting in a nearby booth was a young mother with her toddler beside her.  She looked utterly miserable.  Her whole demeanour spelt loneliness and sadness. Not a positive flicker crossed her face.  We ordered our meal and had almost finished while all the time she was in my sight line. Her utter isolation seemed to increase each minute as around her families enjoyed pre-Christmas meals.

And then it happened.  Another young mum came in, hugged her and her child, and with her own child sat down opposite.  The transformation was total.  Now her face was alight with happiness, her body energized and her conversation bright with laughter.  She was completely changed.  Her friend had come and the contrast was dramatic!

Genuine friendship is transformative.  Being with a friend enriches us like no other relationship.  And at Christmas when we marvel at the Word becomng flesh, of God immersing himself in our messed-up world, I thrill to the claim that through this baby God will make friends in the most powerful way possible.  Who can ever forget the Lord's words:  You are my friends! (John 15:14)  His relationship with us goes deep and it works like friendship to the nth degree. Many of us rejoice in family and friends this Christmas but the fact that Jesus has come to make friends lights up lives in the most extraordinary ways.  And he invites his followers to be friends together.  I hope my face shows it, especially when I worship tomorrow!   A very Happy Christmas to you!

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 22) 50 new members - seriously?.

The day after the prayer meeting the figure 50 loomed large.  How would the wider fellowship see this prayer goal?  Was it borne out of passing enthusiasm?  In the following days as we entered 1981 it seemed as though the number 50 revealed a true hunger among many of us to go on with our nagging prayer agenda.  Expectations were raised by past answers to our corporate prayer - now for God's new thing.

But I know that some in the church viewed it absurd....especially when it was published in the monthly church magazine.  If we remembered it at the end of the year (and I think many assumed it would be buried in memory with covering embarrassment) it would be a sign of our presumption and failure to read the signs of a declining church.  Sheer spiritual overreach.

However, we entered 1981 with something else too. At our December Church Meeting in the concluding Any Other Business my wife Carol stood up.  (I was in the chair and you can imagine my dread!) She shared something with the meeting she had never mentioned to me though I think that her conviction had grown out of the meeting itself.  She proposed that we have a Church text for 1981 which would be a weekly focus throughout the year.  Though we had never had such a text before the church agreed with the idea unanimously.  Significantly the chosen text was: ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE... (Mark 9:23).  Every Sunday this text was printed on our bulletin as as reminder that when we truly trust in the Lord and seek to discern his will so many good things could happen.  Even 50 new members!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Cambridge God adventure 21) Bold expection

Part two of our prayer time looked ahead with desire to set some specific goals for 1981.  We prayed about what we should pray about.  Again, without reserve people spoke out their concerns. Personal evangelism was a priority with a focus on each of us befriending, inviting and sharing with others the good news.  Developing corporate prayer and the work of Manna House was highlighted and the need for young families and children to belong to the church family.  Someone felt strongly about encouraging the congregation to sit nearer the front rather than hiding away at the back and several commented about deepening fellowship among us all.

As these issues were written down, one unspoken and unshaped goal seemed to hang in the air.  In 1981 we all dreamed that the church would grow.  Statistically it had shrunk in 1980 and the challenge about having a vision to serve on the main street when our resources in people and money were so limited loomed large.  Somehow the group agreed that we should pray specifically for new members to join us.  I remember my felt-tip pen hovering over the acetate sheet.  How specific should we be? I searched the faces of the exuberant group.  Tentatively the number 50 formed itself in my heart and even more hesitantly I mentioned it.  What an appalling risk and terrible presumption to place an actual number in a prayer request!  And in terms of our current size what a mountain of faith was needed.

It was an extraordinary moment.  Stillness was charged with expectation. For a few seconds there was quiet before heart-felt assent.  And my pen had written 50 new members in 1981.  Reflecting on this I marvel how the spirit of thanksgiving seemed both to liberate and unite us that night and to nurture faith. The Holy Spirit was blessing us with a bold vision of what might be.  Why 50 people I have been asked.  Facetiously I have answered that maybe it was one new member for every week of the year allowing for two weeks' holiday. But I have no idea.  Really. I was sharing in a spiritual reality on the threshold of a year when God could do mighty things.  Even with us.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 20) What a prayer meeting!

Of the many prayer meetings I have attended a few jump out as truly unforgettable.  One occurred at the end of my first year of Cambridge ministry - the date December 30th. 1980 is etched as a big day. It was advertised as a look back/look ahead prayer meeting. I was surprised that in spite of  post-Christmas exhaustion the room was packed with anticipatory buzz like an audience waiting for the curtain to go up on some favourite show.  People really wanted to be there!  The evening was split into two major parts. First, the whole group was invited to share highlights in their lives and the church's life through 1980.  I used my current technology (!) -an overhead projector with acetate sheets -to record everything. I didn't want us to miss anything (and I also needed to be able to transcribe it accurately into the prayer agenda book!)

An avalanche of highlights poured in from all round the room. Praise tumbled out for those who had made personal commitments to Jesus Christ and for the powerful impact of the three baptismal services that year. Several people in the room had actually come to faith themselves in 1980 - oh, the enthusiasm of new Christians!  Clear answers to prayer and deepening of relationships in the care groups and gifts groups received special Amens. We marvelled at the work at Caxton village and new initiatives with our young people. Someone said: 'For me the highlight is the new feeling of warmth and caring in the church'.  Many nodded in agreement. Others spoke of their fresh understanding of corporate prayer. Free-wheeling thanksgiving filled the room.  You know sometimes how giving thanks can lack a sense of immediacy.  Well, this was marked by genuine gratitude to God. Spontaneity and gladness radiated throughout the room.

You can guess what a powerful spring-board this made for part two of our meeting - though what happened next remains one of the great surprises of the whole God adventure.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 19) Some earnest plodding

For those who are interested (just skip if bored!) I attempt to pick up the Cambridge story again (last considered back in October). I must emphasize how alongside eye-catching events - like opening the church at Christmas- there was much earnest plodding.  You remember the Use of Premises Committee (set up by the Church Meeting in response to the rejection of the coffee shop idea)?  Well, all the time this group was praying and working away on basic questions about our regular mission presence on the main street.  How might God be calling us to throw open the doors on Mondays to Saturdays?

You remember too that monthly church meetings expected to hear about progress!  And, true enough, this committee brought a recommendation that we improve one of the rooms in our Lower Halls to become a friendlier meeting place.  Volunteers were needed to decorate and upgrade this dingy Victorian classroom but everyone knew that this was the easier part. The committee suggested the resulting space become a welcoming centre for giving hospitality to passers-by.  Perhaps we could begin opening three mornings a week?

It was pointed out that a minimum staff of two people would be required each day and others were needed to bake cakes etc.  The committee pointed out this meant around twenty-six people to be involved on one morning each month and that it was long-term.  Would enough of us be willing and able to give hospitality? What name would we give the new venture?   We had some fun asking for suggestions for naming this initiative.  I cannot remember now any of the ideas except the one that a later church meeting agreed - the Manna House.  Nourishment in the desert!

I titled this 'some earnest plodding' because when all this took off - and gloriously it did! - it represented a much longer term commitment to serve the city. Passers-by really valued our service. From Autumn onwards the Manna House formed a vital element of our weekly mission.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Retirement issues

A friend asked me over these last couple of days to help in the process of devising a questionnaire for retired Baptist ministers.  He had worked hard at some of the issues that Baptist ministers particularly have to face.  Like all retirees so much depends on health, finance and relationships but questions about where to live, how to find accommodation, whether to move away from the churches they have served all have an edge.  Even more sharp-edged are questions about losing a public role with all its given relationships and expectations.  Ministers respond very differently to suddenly finding themselves in a new place without being able to exercise ministry as they once did.

One of the most interesting sections of the putative questionnaire concerns relationships.  Relationship with God is primary with questions about personal spirituality and accountability. Relationship with a local church is also vital with questions about which kind of church and on a Likert scale (1-5) how happy are they within this church.  How much do they feel part of it?  How good is the relationship with the minister? Do you belong to a home group and other group? Do you have good friends in the church?

The section on relationships also asks about Baptist regional ministry and a sense of belonging to the 'wider Baptist family'.  Does the minister have meaningful contact with other ministers?

Of course there is much else that is asked.  It's a long questionnaire - probably too long. I guess the process of its devising has some way to go.  Bluntly, I confessed that such a task is not my gift!  But it really made me think with gratitude about how I would fill in that section on relationships. For all retirees the loss of role and coping with ageing forces us to face a new range of life issues, but relationships with God, church, family, friends and the wider family remain constants!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Tenth Anniversary

My first blog post was on 18 November 2007.  I was (fairly) gently ushered into the experience by Rob my IT son who insisted it was the best way for me to keep in contact with friends, students, churches.  I began hesitantly and defensively.  It seemed to me, and it still does, that happenings and thoughts in my life do not merit much attention.  Content has wobbled through personal news (with the largest response ever when Carol wrote about my prostrate cancer!); details of my itinerary and preaching with requests for help and prayers along the way;  consecutive posts on subjects such as top seven ministry qualities, top ten texts for preachers, funny things that happened in ministry; multiple reflections often with a devotional edge; and random events along the way.

Some of the strongest stats for readership occurred when I was interim preacher in churches where members collaborated in sermon preparation - before, during and after each sermon. That was very special.  On several occasions when I have asked for help as I prepared for conferences the post has hummed with tremendously positive input (often sent privately to me rather than posted publicly).  On such occasions I have thankfully agreed with my son's early enthusiasm. 

However, 10 years on I have wondered about its value as my life in retirement quietens down.  Should I continue or not? One or two have said my recounting of A Cambridge God Adventure is of interest to them and encouraged me to plough on with telling that story. This is something a retired guy can do (!) and I have the advantage of possessing details close to the events which will ensure I am not relying on memory. But I will only do it as long as the Lord gains the glory. So I shall persevere a little longer but I am very alert to the dangers of going into dotage.   To those of you who have generously stayed with me over the years I want to say an IMMENSE THANK YOU for belonging to this little cyber community which has given me so much encouragement and surprise through the years.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A sober weekend

Over Remembrance weekend I read for the first time All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque. My oldest son gave me the book a little while ago but I had never given it attention.  It is a tough read.  A group of German soldiers who go to the trenches in the First World War experience the gamut of horrific experiences as seen through the eyes of a sensitive nineteen year old Paul Baumer. So much is incredibly sad as his company of 150 soldiers is reduced to 32 in an early battle.  You long for him and his particular friends somehow to survive when so many others are perishing but in the end they all die.  The story came out of the author's own experiences on the front line - its vividness, horror and disillusionment all ring terribly true.

Reading this made a difference as Carol and I saw the British Legion Festival of Remembrance and shared in other remembrance events of the weekend. Several parts of the book particularly made me stop and think.  As when Paul Baumer describes a short home leave in the midst of the horror when he tries to come to terms with life back home. Now he sees what matters in life so differently from people back home.
They just talk too much. they have problems, goals, desires that I can't see in the same way as they do. Sometimes I sit with one of them in the little garden of the pub and try to get the point across that this is everything - just sitting in the quiet.  Of course they understand, they agree, they think the same way, but it's only talk...they do feel it, but always only with half of their being, a part of them is always thinking of something else . They are so fragmented, no one feels it with his whole life.

Feeling life with our whole life.
 Facing life changing realities should make a profound difference to how we live.  Central to Christian faith is the sacrifice of Christ which confronts us with the horror of sin and his gift of new life, the possibility of moving from death to life. And that should certainly make a difference to the way we feel life with all our being!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Driving again...and the joy of belonging

This weekend marked the end of what my doctor termed the critical four week stage of my stroke recovery.  And gave me freedom to drive again!  Carol and I celebrated by visiting Ely - its cathedral and market (for dairy free chocolate cake).  Walking in the sunshine, enjoying the autumn colours - just wonderful to be out again.

I know I have a different journey ahead with daily (strong) medicine and some tests still to come but we give immense thanks to God and all our friends who have prayed and supported us through these first four weeks.   I have just tidied all my 'get well cards' away which I looked at each day. They represented support from around the world.  Several had long messages inside.  Emails also came from all over the place.  I was able to give unhurried attention to each with immense appreciation for the trouble taken and love expressed.

One of the special delights was to realize that over a third of my cards and messages came from members of our local Baptist church.  Though we are relative newcomers, coming to the church fresh in retirement, we have been surrounded by such expressions of love and practical support.  Many friends visited me - some people I had never had a proper conversation with before.  Carol and I commented about the solid thrill of belonging to a community of love and kindness like this.  Oh, how thankful we are to belong to Histon Baptist Church - its Lord and his people.   Thank you to you readers too for sharing along the way.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Stroke doziness

Just a note as my state of dozy daze gradually diminishes.  As yet I have no news about the MRI and my heart 24 hour monitor is not until November 22nd. but I am feeling more positive.  And interest in the world around is actively creeping in.  In particular, the 500th. anniversary of the Reformation has given me a push to dip into Martin Luther's sermons - vigorous, blunt, creative and courageous. You can still feel their impact.  He was always concerned to preach in plain language.
When I preach I sink myself deeply down....I have an eye for the multitude of young people, children and servants, of which there are more than two thousand. I preach to them.  
At the same time he was deeply concerned about the authority of Scripture and interpreting it in its' literal, ordinary, natural sense.'  Woe betide anyone who complicated the process of interpretation. This week I also read his vituperative pamphlet against Jerome Emser who taught that Scripture had a literal sense and a spiritual sense - a secret often allegorical understanding.  Emser followed ideas of Origen, Jerome, Dionysius and others.  No, no, no! writes Luther.  His pamphlet is titled: Answer to the Superchristian, Superspiritual and Superlearned Book of Goat Emser of Leipzig.  You really get a feel of the reformer at full flow in his desire to exalt the authority of Scripture over tradition!.

Actually, later he himself was to see a deeper spiritual dimension to texts but he insisted that an meaning deeper than the ordinary must be signaled by Scripture itself. 

So a little reading has connected me this week with this extraordinary figure of Reformation history and in spite of my post stroke state I have been able to celebrate.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Stroke alert (2)

So many friends from our past have flooded us with prayers and support.   Carol's Facebook page has been red hot. (Alas, I rarely use mine).  The sense of being borne up by the love and care of so many has been wonderful.  Just wonderful.

From my side the news has largely been same as, same as.  The drugs at first knocked me out but I am adjusting.  Feeling is back 90% and though daily blood pressure readings continue a rocky profile they are generally downward from those first days.  Each day passes in a dozy daze.

The next major event is a MRI scan on Friday to check if a brain bleed precipitated my episode. Sadly, my family has a history of brain bleeds so we wonder if that is the problem.  So continued prayers will be valued immensely and I will post as soon as I know MRI results.  Sorry for this medical bulletin - hopefully there will not be too many more.  And days of dozy daze will pass!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Stroke alert

I have just returned from our hospital stroke unit.  How weird to write that sentence when I felt 100% fit last Friday!   However, on Saturday morning as Carol and I prepared to go out to a local Methodist church coffee morning I came down the stairs and in a matter of seconds lost all the power down my left side.  The paralysis was as alarming as it was sudden. I plopped backwards. When Carol helped me to a chair we realized that I had probably suffered, what I had come across as a pastor several times in others, a mini stroke.

Phoning our NHS helpline led to an emergency ambulance hurtling to us in less than 5 minutes.  Paramedics tested me and declared that I needed to go to hospital Accident and Emergency.  Less than 11 minutes later with wailing siren and (extremely bumpy) ride I arrived to find the stroke crash team awaiting me with amazing attention.  Shunted into a serious illness bay I was examined carefully with ECG, blood tests, Cat-Scan and continuous blood pressure measurements.  All the time the paralysis was gradually receding though the blood pressure readings were sky high (for me who is normally low!)   How unreal it all seemed.

This morning (4 days later) the specialist undertook many more tests and declared it was a small stroke requiring several further tests. However, he reassured me about my general level of health and told me to live as 'normally' as my body allows. ' Listen to your body' he said. 'When you tire, stop!'  But I cannot drive for a month and (with immense sadness) we had to cancel our US trip to visit our family next week. 

So, it's a wake-up call that takes me into good company with many friends who have also suffered TIAs.  And,yet again, in the reminder of life's fragility we have discovered the deep bonds of love of family and friends.  Our church family in Histon has been magnificent with prayer and practical support.  So too friends from around the world.  Thank you so much for your concern and prayers for us both.  We are immensely grateful.  We really are.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Totally jazzed (3)

Earlier I mentioned that preparing on the subject I was given - Preaching as Disciplemaking - pushed me into fresh areas of thinking. It pushed me into expressing the preaching task in a new way. In a sentence:  Preachers are lead-disciples proclaiming to other disciples in community.

Bearing in mind the whole LICC thrust of encouraging Christian disciples' daily mission I saw the whole of Col. 1:28 as significant: It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone so that we might present everyone mature in Christ.  Jesus Christ is central to proclamation and living for him means discipleship.  Yet everyone is involved in learning as disciples...the repeated everyone involves preachers just as much as hearers.  Because preachers have the primary task of proclaiming they are lead-disciples.  They are not the only lead-disciples but they should see that preaching as lead-disciples to a community of disciples requires ALL learning together from God's word.  All are on the learning curve towards developing maturity.   Lead disciples preaching to other disciples.  What a difference that makes!  Critically it means that preaching involves the task of disciplemaking.

I quoted John Stott (no surprise in LICC!) who urged preachers to 'enter other people's world's of thinking and feeling' not content with translating Bible words for today but incarnating them, fleshing them out.  And fleshing God's word out in their own lives as fellow disciples. I spent much of the half hour talking about how this means immersing in the lives of our hearers in order to immerse into God's big story for his people. It was a fresh way of expressing the preaching task .There are always new things to learn...I know I am only a little way on road to maturity!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Totally jazzed (2)

Yesterday at the Whole-Life Preaching Workshop (organized by the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity) proved to be even more exhilarating than I had prayed for and expected.  As I entered St. Peter's off Oxford Street I was greeted by a packed church with full tables of eight people round each.  Actually they ran out of spaces!  Making my way to an empty chair I was hugged by some of my former Spurgeon's students -two of whom are still in the same church twenty years since leaving the college.  Later I was to catch up with such encouraging stories - there is nothing like hearing genuine good God stories. Several others I recognized as old friends. Church leaders had come from all over the UK and the buzz of anticipation was glorious.

The central event was the launch of a six-part video Whole Life Preaching which belongs within the LICC commitment to help Christians make a difference wherever they are.  Many of us are grateful for the quality of their commitment to give us so many good resources for daily mission and ministry. And, of course for me, the focus on preachers was tremendously encouraging as we worked through the afternoon together.  One pastor, a Methodist from Doncaster, said that she had been yearning for a workshop like this for years and afterwards declared to the whole conference that it had met her expectations....especially with the six-part video series now released.  The full series is available free online at

On the train journey home I reflected on the joys of a day that was replete with good things.  So many!  I only caught the train with a minute to spare because I was guest at a celebration meal in a nearby restaurant when many LICC staff shared their happiness about the day and (I was thrilled to witness) about being a team together.  Experiences like this are truly to be treasured.  Thank you LICC.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Totally jazzed

Someone asked me recently whether my involvement in the 'preaching world' has dropped off now that I no longer have heavy commitments in the US.  It is a revealing question.  Partly because there are definitely fewer opportunities in the UK., but also because my most recent conference (scheduled for two weeks ago) was cancelled ten days before it was due to happen. Why? Because of 'lack of take-up' said the organizer!  It was a conference in Cambridge for preachers with a poet, story teller and myself speaking on 'Words of Wonder' with workshops. It sounded interesting...but perhaps not!

However, next week I am speaking on Preaching as Disciplemaking at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity in central London.  A new programme is being launched calling for Whole-Life Preaching and I am kicking the event off with an address followed by a feedback session. In the words of a US speaker I once heard, 'I am totally jazzed by this opportunity.'  It really does excite me. I have appreciated LICC since it started and have come to know some of its staff but what a delight to have a little part in an event which is definitely going to happen!   And it's about preaching though the choice of subject has pushed me into some fresh ways of thinking about it.

Another good thing is that the organizers are busy praying for the conference day.  How thrilling to know that prayer is considered as such a practical necessity. It's just great and I am jazzed!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 18) Pause for Christmas

The prayer diary during Autumn 1980 is packed with God-given responses. In particular, prayers about a new church organist and the future of church music  resulted in an extraordinary answer.  One of the young people from my previous church in Blackburn, Andrew Gosden, volunteered to work full-time with us before he became a student at Magdalene College.  He and his parents entered our church story with significant impact.  As did the new leader of our young people. Prayers continued for Caxton and Willingham where one of our members  had become minister.  At every turn positive things were happening.

Approaching Christmas, the Evangelism group turned its attention to those who lived nearest to the church, visiting the homes with invitations to our Christmas events.  Nearly 1000 people were contacted with special emphasis on an OPEN DAY on Saturday December 20th. to see the church decorations, enjoy refreshments, hear singing and enjoy meeting us.

The pavement outside the church was heaving with Christmas shoppers as the supermarket next door went into consumer hyper-drive.  Weather was cold and as we opened the doors at 10:00 am we truly offered warmth!  New lighting inside the front porch and carol singing added to the welcome.  As we had found before a stream of total strangers began coming in.  Some because of the invitations, others drawn in by the sounds of Christmas and the warmth.  Some sat down and joined in the carols with the group singing at the front.  Periodically I said a word about the true purpose of Christmas.  It was a joy to see people put down their bulging bags and share with us.  Pausing for Christmas truth.

From counting cups of tea and mince pies afterwards we knew that over 500 people had come in.  And at the following services there were some new friends attracted through the invitations and Open Day. Our celebration of Christ born for us was truly joyful. Being on the main street had again proved significant for mission.

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 17) Evangelism and social action

One of the wonders of letting believers go with the flow of their gifts is that anything can happen. One group, concerned about the needs of the undeveloped world, calling itself the World Development Group, also had a vision about opening church premises during the nationally dedicated One World Week. With Church Meeting backing they fleshed out a plan. The Mayor of Cambridge agreed to open a four day event at a special ceremony on the Saturday. Visitors would be ushered into the large Upper Hall to see an exhibition mounted by fifteen organizations. Downstairs in the Lower Hall continuous films would screen, again provided by different aid organizations.  Of course, basic refreshments would be available with a hunger lunch too!

Participants multiplied.  The choir and orchestra of a local school at Blinco Grove agreed to give a public concert with an international flavour on Saturday evening with a retiring offering for Save the Children. Sunday services would continue the theme with a member talk of her VSO experience in Papua New Guinea.

On Friday night the whole place buzzed as staff from Christian Aid, Tear Fund, Leprosy Mission, Save the Children, Oxfam, Help the Aged, Salvation Army, Baptist Missionary Society, SOS children's villages, United Nations Association, VSO and many more transformed our Upper Hall with colour and challenge.  Next day, after the Mayor declared the exhibition open, people began moving through the premises to face tough world challenges of poverty, hunger and violence. Later a packed evening concert with children in national costumes continued the message.

Too often in church life those two aspects - evangelism and social action - can be in serious tension. Yet, we were to discover how different giftings within one fellowship can enable the whole church to share in both.  Members of each group contributed to holistic mission. Gloriously, we found ourselves using our premises both to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ as well as to serve others' needs.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 16) Being in the right place

Our Harvest Open Day had some memorable moments. I particularly remember one.  A short beautifully coiffured lady swept in accompanied by a man who looked like a bodyguard, and turned out to be one.  She asked me if I was the pastor and when I admitted I was her composure crumbled. She asked me if I could spare a few moments and in the side vestry we shared in one of those experiences which surprise on the main street.

She was a famous country-and-western singer on tour in Britain who was performing that night in Cambridge. But on this particular Saturday she felt at such a low ebb physically and spiritually she said that she needed to talk to someone.  As a Christian she felt utterly dry and exhausted. 'Would you mind praying for me, pastor?' she asked. You can imagine my joy at being able to pray that this needy lady receive some gentle assurance of Christ's love and peace coupled with his promise of strength in the Holy Spirit. Apparently, in the exhausting itinerary of travel, rehearsals and concerts she had longed for somewhere to be quiet. 'We only had a few minutes spare today,' she said, 'thank you for being there'.

Obviously, I have held back her name for confidential reasons.  Later I purchased one of her records and met her eyes on the record sleeve with a jolt of happy remembrance.  Returning to the US she sent me a letter including the line 'It was so refreshing to have some Christian fellowship.' Being willing to open the church proved to be the right place at the right time for her and others.  What a thrill to be useful for the Lord.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Privileges of age

I must interrupt my Cambridge story by mentioning my return to Oxford last night. My college, Regent's Park College, was celebrating a Gala Dinner.  In rain-soaked marquee and grounds a large crowd gathered at which it soon became apparent I was one of the oldest by some distance. This brought certain privileges.

First, the conversations. I sat with Dr. Rex Mason, a venerable academic whom I have known since the 70's (who was the oldest person present) and Dr. Paul Fiddes (the former Principal and also a very venerable academic) whom I have known since we were in college together in 1970.  To be able to spend an evening with such friends whose interesting lives overlapped with mine in countless ways enabled extreme conversation.  We talk of extreme sport......well, extreme conversation is 50 years of action-packed reminiscing and pontificating.  And it was wonderful.

Second, the organizers had displayed old black and white photographs in plastic sleeves all over a table in one of the rooms.  If we could identify anyone we were asked to write names and any relevant dates and stick them on the sleeves  I recognized many of course.  But what thrilled me was a photo from 1952 (or thereabouts) showing faculty and students in formal pose in front of the main hall.  In the middle next to the imposing figure of Robert Child (who was Principal and a predecessor of mine at the Cambridge church) was my youthful looking father (who was Bursar).  It really made me smile and as I scribbled down his name I identified Ernest Payne and Neville Clark too (two important Baptist figures I also grew to know).

Yes, to be older has privileges of having shared in history and being able to reflect on it with others who shared in it too.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 15) Harvest with a difference

The prayer diary records all this discussion and also how earlier initiatives, like the formation of gift groups, were gathering speed.  In particular the Evangelism Group under the leadership of Jim Adam, a very gifted retired Area Superintendent, was moving in exciting ways on two projects.

One was a visitation mission in Caxton, a village some eight miles outside Cambridge. Its Baptist church neared extinction, but the evangelism group (after training sessions) visited villagers and invited them to come to the almost defunct chapel for a Harvest Festival. A crowded chapel thrilled us with possibilities for new life ahead.Caxton was embedded in our prayers.

The other project focused on our own Harvest Festival weekend. Traditionally the church was decorated with some of the brightness and beauty of God's world. Members with gardens brought in greenery, vegetables, fruit, and armfuls of brilliant blooms. Though a large space, members filled up all the window-sills alongside a magnificent display at the front.  The first time I witnessed the end-result, and smelt its fullness, I marvelled at the transformation of the whole sanctuary.  It really was a celebration of God's creation.

The Evangelism Group challenged us at a Church Meeting (yes, the 'government meeting'!) about making the Saturday before the Sunday services an OPEN DAY with the front doors flung wide open to passers-by.  Harvest hymns (the old favourites) would sound out onto the street with invitations to enter for free tea and coffee. There was understandable nervousness.  How many people would actually come in? How easy would it be to share in conversations?  Among the first visitors was an elderly couple who had lived in Cambridge all their lives and said they didn't even realize there was a church on the main street.  No, they didn't normally go to church but they would try to get back for the next day!  To our joy tens of people began entering, looking at the display, drinking and talking with us.

How many eventually came in?  Somewhere between 250-300 were served coffee and members of the evangelism group (and others) reported some good conversations.  Wonderfully, it seemed to give a green light to developing a role on the main street.  Prayers were being answered and we were thankful.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 14) Reality check

Perhaps a word on the role of Church Meetings! Baptist polity involves members of a local gathered church being responsible for meeting together in order to discern the mind of Christ for their congregational life. Such 'government' meetings are the heart of all vital decisions. It is a high claim. Our pattern was to hold monthly meetings at which all matters of church life - big and small - were discussed.  Though these occasions (like committees) can garner a bad reputation, they became for me the second most exciting parts of the God adventure (behind the prayer diary).  Even when they didn't turn out as I had hoped (especially when they didn't) I discovered in church meeting how much we grew in our spiritual life together through the years.

However....taking part in a radio phone-in panel on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire late one Sunday evening, the last caller gave his name and asked to speak to the Baptist on the panel. 'I want to ask you how your Baptist church meetings work.  Is your democracy based upon humanistic enlightenment principles of the eighteenth century.  You know, everyone has a vote and you act on the majority'?  Yes, he really asked this.

I answered: 'No, it's not democracy.  What happens when issues come before the people of God is that first the elected leaders think and pray them through as they seek to discern God's will so that when the full church meeting occurs prayer is already at work. When it is a major issue we really stress the need for prayer. And when we vote it's not based on what we like or dislike but what seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.  We dare to believe that we might together know something of the mind of Christ and that people will vote for God's will.'   The presenter asked if this answered the question. 'Yes', he said and with thanks to our listeners some music faded us out.

Afterwards, the Anglican on the panel said 'You know I never understood that Baptist meeting thing until you explained it.  That really is amazing....that it can work like that.  Amazing!'  And I confessed to him: But is it true? That's the principle but, frankly, church meetings need spiritual maturity and  fallen people (in fallen churches) can easily demand their own likes. Yet, from my experience, when a people really want to learn and do God's will together there is no better way than to share in Church Meeting.'  I know it is not always so but to be able to confront conflict, disagreements, personality clashes in the context of prayerful togetherness meant developing genuine fellowship and growth. My Cambridge experience of church meeting was a glorious treasure over fourteen years. Really!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 13) Exhilarating slow down

I had imagined that the best outcome of the Church Meeting would be a resounding 'Yes' to the Coffee Shop plan.  But in the days following I witnessed something far more significant. People were genuinely sharing and listening to each other.  God had slowed us down in order to speed us up in the quality of fellowship, prayer and discernment.  Not for the first time we were learning about God's pace-making and our need to keep in step with him.

Responses to the new committee came from almost everyone (it seemed).  Actually, few ideas were about a new coffee shop.  Far more people focused on the main halls block which is set back from the main road and reached down a path beside the disused graveyard.  Someone suggested that we make one of the rooms in these old halls an attractive coffee bar - weren't there possibilities here to offer Christian friendship with light refreshments?  Others shared grandiose ideas such as completely rebuilding the whole halls block.  The extremes of minimal expense and hundreds of thousands of pounds were on display.

Whatever else many were concerned about 'doing something, anything, about our church kitchen' which existed as a cramped narrow broom cupboard. Equivalent to four adjacent telephone boxes it had enabled every act of hospitality since the opening of the church.....somehow catering for major events.  Someone commented that you could always tell how alive a church community was by the size of its kitchen.  By that criterion we were dead in the water! If we were serious about welcoming friends and strangers then we had to change basic resources in our premises.

The committee convener rightly kept asking us who were the people we were wanting to reach and if God wanted us to offer something to people who passed by the church did we have enough people and commitment to make an immediate start.  How could we best focus our evangelism and service? These key questions dominated our thinking and praying.  We were a much stronger church for the slowing down.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 12) God said 'Not Yet'

There was no doubting the passion among some of us present - we could see the Coffee Shop in action. To ensure good preparation the leaders had set up a small group to review practical and financial issues.  And as the meeting developed a number of other ideas emerged. Some suggested extending the small church kitchen with a redesign of the lower halls to provide convenient places to serve coffee, food and share friendship.  What other changes could be useful to mission? If the shop was right could it perhaps operate part-time?  Oh, so many possibilities.

An outcome was eventually agreed.  Guess what? That a committee be convened to assess the feasibility of the many ideas that had arisen.  Its convenor, David, promised that a full report would be brought to the October Church Meeting.  He wrote to us all:
If you have an idea or comment, however sweeping or trivial it may seem, please make sure that I know about it so that we can consider everything before we start spending money.  Often I find myself saying, 'What a pity that no one suggested that it's too late'.  Please make sure that doesn't happen to your idea this time.

This should have been a crushing conclusion after all the prayer and excitement.  Delay by appointing a committee.  Oh, no! Committees have been described as narrow country lanes into which good ideas are lured and strangled to death.  How could such a bold project have been sabotaged in such a predictable way?  Yet, just when you would expect annoyance and even anger something curious happened to us all.  To my immense surprise there was no sense of frustration or disappointment.  I didn't feel any at all.  True, I had felt certain that I could picture God's next step but it was as though he was breathing his peace and purpose into a certain 'Not Yet' to us all.  The urgency at the beginning of the meeting had been displaced by a deeper need to think and pray some more.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 11) Would God say yes or no?

Excitement built for developing this small shop!  With some of the deacons I walked into it for the first time.  It smelt musty and really was small - just 36 feet by 17 feet with one toilet. Could this be the stuff of our vision to serve the city?  Our prayers about discerning how best to use the premises were rather grand and short of detail. Yet, maybe this was exactly the kind of rapid breakthrough that God can give.

Through conversations, meetings and prayer the positives seemed to outweigh the negatives. The dynamic of persistent prayer built up expectations.  As leaders we believed it was right to present a solid proposal of a Coffee Shop in this run-down space.  No time was to be lost.  So, with enthusiasm we brought the idea to the July Church Members' Meeting ( a monthly meeting to discern God's will together).  The more I prepared and thought about the meeting and shared in daily prayer the more exhilarated I became.  Legally there were no problems about taking back immediate possession of the shop. Such imaginative possibilities lay before us.  Yes, on a small scale....but we were still few in numbers.

I challenged people to attend: On Tuesday July 15th. the Church Meeting will be sharing the possibility of a 'Coffee Shop' on the main street as part of our outreach. Please pray about and consider this idea which other churches have developed in other places, but which would be totally new to most of us.

The meeting proved to be the first of a long series of extraordinary occasions. Opening worship was no formality - we really wanted to be open to God's will.  I prayed that we might be gifted with something of 'the mind of Christ 'and that whatever the outcome we would experience that spiritual confidence that 'seemed good to the Holy Spirit to to us.'  Undeniably there were financial implications but wasn't this a case of the Lord providing a wonderful opportunity?  Would God say yes or no?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 10) Sharing disquiet

I could not keep my uncomfortable experience on the steps to myself.  But, to my immense relief, I found whenever I shared my story visiting leaders and members in the following days several others shared my disquiet. Indeed, some of the most elderly yearned for witness and service that really would make a kingdom difference. They talked about the church being at a crossroads.  I was far from being alone. And, what is more, this concern showed itself when we visited planning the next prayer agenda.

Reflecting on the initial five prayer agenda items we knew that some needed to continue - like finding a new church organist and the whole pattern of church worship as well as remembering our missionary. But now new prayer needs had emerged. We prayed about what we should pray about (!) and on June 24th 1980 the prayer diary introduced a radical new item.
           Let us pray for a clear vision of God's will for our city centre strategy - particularly the use of  our premises.
That night someone prayed with passion: 'Lord help us to see the right uses of our strategic buildings that we might not waste any opportunity to use our resources.'  Several affirming 'Amens' showed how this struck a deep chord.  The strong undertow of regular focused prayer was beginning to pull us deeper into big issues about God's mission in central Cambridge.

Beside the church was a small shop with a caretaker's house sandwiched over and behind it. Behind alongside the passage way that led into halls was a patch of garden that had once been a graveyard. Owned by the church, the shop was dingy and depressing.  Its last occupant had sold (or tried to sell!) sewing machines but it now stood increasingly unattractive with still a few dust-covered machines barely visible through dirty windows.  Could this unprepossessing place be of any value to God's mission?  It opened straight onto the busy pavement.  Even as we began praying about using our premises was this novel possibility right under our noses?  Why not develop it as a coffee and gift shop as a means of outreach to those passers-by who concerned us?  Perhaps you can imagine our excitement!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 9) Standing on the steps

I began these reflections with the story of  meeting someone outside the church on the front steps. I described how as I waited I was struck by how many hundreds of people were passing the church front doors. Shoppers laden with plastic bags from the large supermarket next door, smartly dressed business people, tourists with cameras round their necks, young mothers and toddlers, groups of young people, students weaving on bicycles (dangerously) through heavy traffic. A queue had formed outside the cinema nearby, some homeless were begging for spare change. All kind of people were five-deep on the pavement right outside the church.

In telling my story I need to mention that it was three or four months after my beginning that this event actually happened.  I am not sure whether it was April (as I mention in the first post) or in May. My first months were very much caught up in church business and I hadn't experienced that deep trouble that when the pavements were crowded and the city was alive we were missing.

It pushed me to ask why the church was actually here!  I mean here on this particular main street. This question pushed me relentlessly. What was God calling us to do in a city, then of some 110,000 people?  What was our mission?  Was it on Sundays only? Or more?

The person I had arranged to meet never showed up. But I knew this was an all-important God experience. I hesitate to speak of it as a vision for the future. I could not see anything that God might do with us.  Truthfully, everything was rather depressing.  But it was a kick from the Holy Spirit about continuing to do church as normal, Sundays only.  I knew something had to change.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 8) Integrating new members

Sadly, the integration of new members into church life is often a weak point especially when believers' baptism is not followed up by helping those baptized to belong effectively within church life. Baptismal classes can prepare for the high-point of baptism yet give little specific caring afterwards.  It makes for the worst kind of 'anti-climax'-  after glorious baptism into Christ's body, the community of his church, newcomers are left alone instead of being enabled to take their unique place in the gathered community of believers.

I think, because of the increasing vision for working in small groups, we recognized how valuable it would be if all baptismal candidates were linked within groups that would ensure progress beyond baptism. Joyfully we formed what we called CARE GROUPS.  Three teenage girls were due to be baptized shortly and we began immediately by providing support of older Christians who promised to meet with them before, during, and after baptism to help them belong and discover their own gifting. Even as we planned this first group, two older friends requested baptism and this led to a second care group.  Suddenly groups were sprouting up everywhere.  Such a large proportion out of the active membership were engaged in fresh and demanding ways!

Thus a pattern was established for integrating those baptized into membership which proved to be effective over many years in building up the body of Christ.  As requests for baptism multiplied (and how we prayed for this on our prayer agenda....more later!) so did the need for support and integration.  Eventually we moved onto establishing a partnership scheme which linked baptismal candidates with older members in a study programme developed by the Scottish Baptist Union.  I still treasure the names of those who belonged to the first Care Groups because they really lived up to their name.  Actually, I recall so many of those first group enthusiasts with immense joy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 7) In praise of small groups

Ever since Jesus called together 12 disciples small groups have proved to be vital for growth - they are essential for fellowship, discipleship and mission.  I won't detour to labour my conviction that small groups are the life-blood of growing churches, like cells of a living organism.

What happened on this Saturday, right there and then, was the birth of groups who felt that God was calling and gifting them together in particular ways.  One group focused on evangelism, another on pastoral care.  Others took up world development issues, offering practical help, church history, and health and healing.  By listening to God and each other, people were drawn into new dimensions of sharing - into many different ways we could exercise gifts God has given us.  We pledged to meet again and help these groups move from embryos into toddling....and maturing.

It had seemed self-evident that the best way for people to grow together would be to share in small groups. Not for the sake of activism but for deeper belonging. But the speed and enthusiasm took my breath away.  After all our agenda praying, this was a startlingly clear answer for this day.  Was God signalling just how important small groups would be for the future of the whole church?  The Holy Spirit seemed to be sparking off small group happiness and purpose.  In the prayer book the entry for May 13th. 1980 reads:
        Thanksgiving for the signs of the Spirit in our midst and the outcome of the Church Conference            in groups of various kinds.

And what kinds!  The Evangelism Group set itself to prepare for visitation and planned a project in one of our villages to help a struggling Baptist Church.  The World Development group worked toward celebrating 'One World Week'.  The Church History group committed itself to a serious study of our own church history.  The Service to Society Group began collating details of projects and organizations to which individuals were already committed in order to identify issues for prayer and cooperation. The Pastoral Group focused on the key issue of befriending visitors and how to encourage members to welcome others.  Each group wrote in the monthly magazine to canvas support and tell out their vision. Would this have happened without prayer?  I don't think so.  I shall always be grateful for this fellowship beginning and particularly for two other new groups ...see next time.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 6) Listening

Listening is essential in the Christian life - listening to God and to each other (through whom God may speak to us!)  I knew we needed a church day together - which was included on our prayer agenda.  Alas, my six weeks' illness caused delay but on an April Saturday the church met in our lower hall.  Of the active membership (around 70 people) many attended! I have always been convinced that the Lord gives the gathered church the necessary gifts we need to be his church when we gather in his name.  I hoped that not only would we would spend time listening to each other better but also would discern God's gifts among us. Looking back I realize how naively my enthusiasm as a thirty-five year old came across to a group twice my age.  I was amused to read the reservations of one of my older deacons:

I must say that I had my doubts at the very beginning.  Michael had that projector of his, plus the lens which he had remembered to bring on that occasion!  After he had demonstrated his ideas he divided us up into small groups, willy nilly, so that we should get to know each other better and understand our potential in the service of the fellowship.   Dorothy was in my group and she asked me what I did - as though she didn't know already. She asked me whether I had any musical talent, knowing that her father had patiently but unsuccessfully tried to teach me to play the clarinet. I was  feeling my most reactionary and patronizing that day and just wondered where that young man was taking us.

Later on he admitted with good grace that he felt rather ashamed of these feelings and that it was probably a good place to begin!  Each member of these random groups filled in 26 questions about their strengths and weaknesses and as an outcome I encouraged people to regroup in their special interests. What happened next was one of God's surprises...of which many were to follow.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 5) Bertha's secret

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Old preaching books

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

Preaching Hope

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

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Preaching Hope amid local calamity

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

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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 4) Inadequacy works!

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My birthday and C S Lewis

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 3) Personal tragedy

This cannot be anything but a personal story. Sorry - I'll try not to make it too personal! All this disturbance and uncertainty came in the midst of sudden bereavement and illness.  Just before I began my ministry the whole Quicke family had celebrated my father's retirement to a village just outside Cambridge.  It was the first time we had spent Christmas Day together because pastoral duties were impossible (with both father and brother Baptist ministers).  Christmas Day 1979 was joyful togetherness like never before.  Our two boys blossomed with their grandmother.  At the church service we all sang the Cowboy Carol with my Dad accompanying on his piano accordion.  Its chorus rang out: 'There'll be a new world beginning from tonight...'

Very early the next day, while it was still dark my 57 year old mother fell down the stairs and so damaged her brain that four days later we agreed to switch off life-support.  I went into the hospital alone to oversee that final farewell.  She had been so close to me in my spiritual life - like a Spiritual Director who knew me through and through.  I prayed and committed her to the Lord and though she and I knew the Easter Lord I also knew such desolation as I was ushered out, only to have her wheeled past me by the transplant team even as a sympathetic nurse was talking to me.  I wanted to shout out to everyone: 'That's not just a body! She's is one of the best people I have ever known...she's the greatest!'  Of course, I didn't....but fighting back tears I throttled deep pain, made funeral arrangements, gave a tribute, and tried to get on with new ministry just round the corner.

Throttling deep pain is not good practice.  Within a few weeks of beginning ministry I was hit by serious illness for the first time. Hepatitis knocked me out for six weeks.  Our doctor, who became a good friend, said this was the result of the shock of my bereavement.  You can imagine as the new minister, who so much wanted to prove himself, how much I hated this public weakness at just the wrong time.  Yet it was only the beginning of a long learning curve!

Monday, July 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Celebrating faith in action

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

49 years on!

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

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

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

Another list - from John Stott

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Spurgeon and friends

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Political choices

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Discovery by stealth!

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

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

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Spurgeon follow-up

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

C H Spurgeon aged 18

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

A beam of encouragement!

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Life stages

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

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

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