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.