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.