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.