Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 26) A ministry colleague in a time of need

Visiting Dorothy, seeing her in the collar and suffering all that pain, I knew I could not fudge my response.  We needed to take James 5 seriously and rather than let healing be some side-activity for a few like-minded people hidden away from less enthusiastic people, I needed to bring it to my leaders and to the whole church.

I shared Dorothy's letter at the next deacons' meeting and immediately sensed awkwardness and resistance from some.  In my early hepatitis illness at the very beginning of ministry there had been no hint that the church could exercise healing ministry.  Indeed, I think many would have regarded that as somewhat suspect and sensationalist. A new minister requesting laying on of hands would have raised several red flags!  However, one or two deacons were clearly supportive and it was agreed to ask the entire church meeting in January to support Dorothy's request.  Frankly, the meeting responded in somewhat muted fashion like the deacons. You could feel the undercurrent - what are we getting into?

I have always been grateful for colleagues in ministry who have given me support and shared wisdom.  To my joy, the minister of a nearby church (where I am now a member !) Tony Barker shared with me out of his own experience from healing ministry.  More than that, he agreed to come and share in leading a service in Dorothy's home.  He had developed a pattern for such a service and came alongside to mentor and encourage.   I shall always remain grateful to him for the support he gave as twelve of us met early one evening to pray for Dorothy.  I think the twelve of us never forgot what happened.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 25) A spiritual hand grenade

Earlier in the same month Ray was baptized I received a letter from Dorothy, one of my deacons.  It was a spiritual hand grenade thrown into our midst - she asked if I would arrange a service for healing.

In the previous summer she started having blackouts with falls - one of which fractured her ribs. Referred to hospital she learned an artery in her neck had become twisted and trapped by osteo-arthritis spasmodically cutting off blood supply leading to loss of consciousness.  The only remedy was a stiff surgical collar for the rest of her life.  But this was minor compared with spinal damage they found that meant increasingly strong pain-killers and, as a last resort, major surgery. Continuous pain drove her to write quoting James 5: 14-15: Is anyone of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.

Grenades cause disturbance.  Why was I shaken?  Not because I didn't believe firmly in the ministry of healing. In my previous church I had practiced James' command often accompanied by sympathetic members of the church.  But I knew the whole subject of healing proved spiritually sensitive and stirred up some hostility. As one person put it: 'Some churches may practice that but its not what we do! Another commented how it attracts unbalanced people. raises expectations and causes disappointment.  Indeed, looking back on my experiences though many people shared how these healing services had helped them no-one experienced definite physical healing.  So, I guess the letter caused me feelings of inadequacy and anxiety too.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 24) Just as I am!

Sharing in the momentous prayer meeting which focused on 50 new members in 1981 was a relative newcomer called Ray.  In his mid-forties, a bachelor, he lived not far from the church and walked past its doors every day on his way to work.  One Sunday morning earlier in the year he stumbled into church because, as he put it: 'All I do with my life is earn a living, dash home for a bite to eat before going down to the pub to play my favourite game of darts. It's working, pubbing and darting.'  Actually, he also played bowls to spice up his life-style.

He came into church on his own,driven both by frustration with a life that felt increasingly empty and (though he didn't know it at the time,  by the Holy Spirit).  When he met Jesus for real during a Sunday service he requested believers' baptism so that he could share his faith and new life with the world.  The date of his baptism on January 18th 1981, was firmly in our prayer agenda.

Baptized alone he shone with transparent joy.  He wrote a congregational hymn specially for us to sing that day. As he was baptized the full congregation sang the first verse of the hymn 'Just as I am'.  As Ray left the pool I challenged anyone in the congregation who felt that Christ was calling them to make a commitment to come forward as we finished singing. There was movement in the aisles - one, two, three people were coming to stand in front of the baptismal pool.  Four, five, six, seven.  As I looked into their faces I knew that God was really at work.  Seven new disciples. Some were students and others included a formidably built ex-rugby player.  Ray's testimony was his story.

You can imagine the worship exhilaration in that evening' service and the days following ...we were praying and God was truly at work.  Ray couldn't believe it. 'Who would think that me on my own could lead to that?'  Who indeed!

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 23) Taking personal stock of year 1*

(*please skip if you are not following the story).  Just before Christmas I had brought the first year's story to a close with that astonishing prayer target of 50 new members allied with a church text for the new year: All things are possible...

Anyone reading so far might assume that this year (1980) of such apparent good news filled my ministry with an immense glow of blessing.  How wonderful for such a relatively small group of people to come together in prayer and commitment so that such striking events could happen!  Surely, I must have felt exhilarated.  But, honestly, did it seem a glorious God adventure?

It seems counter-intuitive that Carol and I looked back on this first year as one of the worst years of our ministry.  What?  I guess part of it was being in double bereavement with the tragic death of my mother who had just moved to be close to our family, and also how much we missed friends and excitement of our previous church with its immense resources of people and weekly exhilaration of worship. Our two boys took to the move badly at school and I could understand their pain. In contrast with all we left behind, St. Andrew's St. had very few people our age and an ethos which took some adjustment (to put it mildly). One of the senior trustees, an academic, called everyone by their surname (including me!) and that spoke volumes about the church's formality.  Coupled with so few resources it all seemed daunting.

Yet, it was this very lack of human resources that pushed me so hard into ministry practice in two areas especially:
preaching really had to make a difference.  If people were to learn to practice prayer together, my preaching needed to be clear, specific and encouraging.  If people were to be won to Christ, I had to preach for a verdict. Nothing generic and aimed just for the head but preaching which God could use to make things happen to whole lives and a whole community.  It was many years later that I wrote: 360degree leadership - preaching to transform congregations but here my conviction about leading through preaching was birthed.
-  expectant corporate prayer - this grew out of preaching and was the single most important happening in church life. In my previous church where spiritual life bubbled along I never saw an urgent need for corporate prayer.  But now I learned a lesson for life because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, when you are truly desperate without a clue where to go next you are in a good place to grow in dependency.  And we did!   It's never comfortable to be truly desperate....that's why this first year was a difficult one.  But it proved to be so necessary for the unfolding story.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second test over!

I am very grateful for kind friends who have followed by path since the mini-stroke.   Today, I was able to preach for the first time for several months - indeed I led the whole service from beginning to end (just like my early days in solo ministry) at Emmanuel United Reformed Church in central Cambridge.  Again, Carol sat on the back row looking somewhat anxious, especially when the lectionary reading included 1 Cor 6:12-20 about sexual immorality. What was I going to say? But again, because of the many prayers, I felt able to fulfill the task without losing my way and, much more importantly, telling out gospel news. 

Beforehand I asked the elder what specific issues should be included in the prayers of intercession and he asked me to pray for the whole fellowship as it moves in a few weeks' time to join in with another central Cambridge congregation.  This was a first for me but it requires little imagination to recognize what patience, love, mutual understanding, and prayer will be necessary as two families become one.

As a footnote, it was mightily encouraging to connect with a few old friends after worship, including a church history professor who was a fellow student in the Cambridge University Baptist student society over fifty years ago.  Only old people can know the thrill of memories activated after decades and there is no greater joy than when they are Christian memories!  Growing old has some perks.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Overcoming getting stuck!

The weekend away-day gave me an opportunity to brush up on some of my US enthusiasms.  Because the church's theme emphasized 'journey' and recognized that churches should be on the move whenever God is involved with them, I linked some of  John 15 themes with the 'journey' of four stages that I believe churches should grow through.

Initiation - marks the beginning of new Christians' faith commitment to Jesus Christ and a local church.  It is an exciting time.  Remember A.W.Tozer's words: 'Give me a new Christian before he has met too many other Christians and heard too many sermons.'  It's a great time developing the personal relationship - Jesus and me.

Integration - moves onto a stage of belonging to others where the group requires thinking 'Jesus and us'. However we might feel about each other (and every human group has its likes and dislikes) when Jesus call us to be branches in the Vine he chooses us rather than we choose him (v.16). And he chooses us together, to belong as brothers and sisters.  Only on this stage together can we practice discipleship and prayer properly.  Discipleship in the gospels involves learning with others and certainly corporate prayer cannot work any other way.  We need to belong in deeper ways as a cluster of branches.

Character formation -  this third stage takes the serious journey towards 'maturity' (Eph. 4:13) and expects a church to be modeling the qualities that were listed on the flip chart.  Growing together means we are becoming nicer, more humble, kind, patient and loving.  Those around us should be helping us be better people. Valuing others higher than ourselves practices maturing love as never before.

Missional living - dares to express how a whole people together model what it means to be a new kind of community - a holy nation, royal priesthood.  Like living stones, so practicing the kingdom way, living differently such good lives among neighbours that they 'may see your good deeds and glorify God' (1 Pet. 1:12).  Missional people realize they do not decide the mission agenda but God does. His mission is already underway in the neighborhood.  He longs for us to be a community of witness because we live so differently together as we join in with him on his mission.  And this living differently means joy and friendship of a quality just not possible outside Christ.

Some churches are stuck at an early stage - but Christ's invitation to belong to the vine encourages us to push on in the greatest journey in the world.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

First test over!

Cantering into 2018 brought my first speaking engagement for several months.  Yesterday I gave the keynote address for Oundle Baptist Church Away Day at the beautiful Madingley Hall (set in magnificent grounds just outside Cambridge). Ever since my mild stroke Carol has been concerned about, as she puts it 'my lack of sharpness'. Unsurprisingly therefore she was apprehensive when I fulfilled this commitment yesterday. Sitting on the back row she promised to keep a close eye on me because 'It's worse because you don't use notes and you could go all over the place.'

Thankfully I report that I passed this first test helped by the prayers of many and a most attentive church group.  At first I used a flip-chart to record their responses to the question that the conference organizer had asked me to address.  'What are some key characteristics of fully-fledged Christians who are at the centre of the church?' It's a good idea to find out where people are when you are in a new context.  Their replies went onto a second sheet.  I didn't keep a record but the long list included:
Be filled with the Spirit, Unity, Welcoming, Kindness, Loving, Humility, Selflessness, Spirit power (such as healing), Commitment.... and so on.

It was extremely helpful because I then illustrated (with felt tips) belonging to the True Vine (John 15) and highlighted characteristics that Jesus identified: discipleship (v 5,6,), prayer (v.7), love (v 9,12), joy (v.11), friends (v 14) and fruit-bearing. There was much overlap in the lists, though the theme of prayer was missing.  When Jesus says: If you remain in my words and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you (v 7) he is referring to expectant corporate prayer which only happens when disciples practice the discipline of wishing together.  I need to comment further....but let me say how thrilled I was to be back in action.  Thank you for all your prayers.