Saturday, February 24, 2018

Kettle's Yard Reopens

I know I sometimes post about random events. This week I went down memory lane.  As a student in 1964 I pretentiously projected myself as artist.  With an easel in my college room accompanied by the smell of linseed oil  I became involved in a small circle of student artists and, more importantly, I heard about Jim Ede.  I had no idea of his significance as a pioneer of modern art appreciation in the UK. A former curator of the Tate Gallery, he and wife Helen transformed a line of four dilapidated cottages at Kettle's Yard Cambridge into their retirement home with a purpose.  For in this space Jim created a gallery packed with paintings, sculptures, drawings and many other objects (especially pebbles) - all beautifully displayed in his living home.

His hand-written notice read: Undergraduates are welcome to call any day, including Sundays between 2 pm and 4 pm. His motto was: Do come in as often as you like- the place is only alive when used.  I remember ringing the bell (still in use) and meeting Jim for the first time who invited me to come in and enjoy his treasures.  Since then Jim has died and his home has been extended into galleries with a national reputation. His eye for art, beauty, balance enabled him to build an extraordinary collection, often having befriended artists in their early unknown years and benefiting by purchasing early work.  It has just been reopened after further extensions.

I remember one wet dismal afternoon ringing the bell and being let in.  Entirely on my own, Jim and Helen were upstairs, I plopped into an armchair just to drink in the surroundings.  After some time Jim came down and in conversation he learned that I was an artist!  Indeed, I was involved with others in an art exhibition in St. Catherine's College.  To my astonishment he promised to come and see my work.  Among my exhibits was a large 6 feet by 4 feet abstract oil painting called "The Catacombs" with Peter preaching a prime focus.  You can imagine my joy when later he told me he had visited the exhibition and he congratulated me saying he saw the influence of Picasso.

You can also imagine my wonder when he trusted me to take one of his paintings, by the naive artist Alfred Wallis, to hang on my college wall for one term. 'Just enjoy it' he said.  I don't think I took it for granted but looking back and seeing what Kettle's Yard has become (and how much that painting is now worth!) I revel in those memories.  Oh, the joys of being young and pretentious!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Dr. Billy Graham

We had expected it to happen...Dr. Billy Graham was so obviously failing and Parkinson's was gaining hold.  But to learn of his death yesterday was still a shock when we realized this giant for Jesus had been promoted to glory.  Living in the US, in Wheaton, meant that his name was always visible as I drove past the Billy Graham Center for Mission.  But, like millions of others, he made impact on me decades before when he came to Britain and entered our consciousness with crusades, films , broadcasts and books.

I remember the initial scoffing negatives about this tanned tall American with his brash stagecraft. Yet the transparency of this modest, courageous, single-focused man who was willing to tell people straight about personal salvation in Jesus soon became evident.  The more I saw him (and I was privileged to hear him several times in the flesh) the more I realized how unusually submitted to God he was.  No matter how daunting the context he never diluted the message of Jesus saves.  I remember him preaching at the University Church, Great St. Mary's, when I was a student.  In the midst of the 'God is dead' controversy he just shared the Jesus story. No dilution, no dumbing down - ''God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe' ( Cor 1:21)  Yes, courage to trust the foolishness of God.

No wonder that the Holy Spirit could own his words so wholly that thousands would come forward at his big crusades.  People murmured that there was nothing remarkable about his words themselves.  Actually, he himself said he was not a preacher "The preacher in my family is my daughter, Anne!"  He was an evangelist who humbly stayed on message all his life and that's why God blessed him so powerfully.

Much has rightly been said about his integrity, his pioneering, his commitment to racial integration, his willingness to work with other Christians, his concern about holistic mission and his giftedness at building a team which held for 50 years.  And, personally, as a preacher who knows the temptation to over-complicate the gospel message by the wisdom of the world I value his courage, in Rick Warren's words to 'draw the net'. "A lot of great preachers don't. They preach really good sermons, but they don't know how to call for commitment. It takes courage to stand up there and say, 'Will you do this?' And then, just wait. I watched Graham do this for years".  Letting God do the work!

I know we shall go on honouring this great man of God, who allowed God to use him.  And, perhaps, grow to be more dependent leaders and preachers ourselves. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 35) Not a 'student church'...yet!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story). Back in the 60's when I became a Cambridge student and threw myself into so many new opportunities, one of them was to join a university society for Baptist students.  Based at St. A's it was called the Robert Hall Society (RHS), named after an illustrious former church minister.  I must be careful not to sidetrack myself because I could write at length about what it meant to belong to this amazingly varied group of students who had a major influence on my life in many ways.  As a student-run organization I learned many disciplines including prayer, preaching, leadership and serving on summer missions. Friendships made have lasted for a life-time.  Actually, seven of my immediate contemporaries in this group later became Baptist ministers.  Those three cram-packed years proved to be the most concentrated spiritually and intellectually stimulating experience of my life (though I have had some good years since).

Back in those days, when denominational strength was greater and churches commended students from their churches to the care of chaplains and student groups, there were nearly thirty societies like Robert Hall based in universities across the UK.  I guess there were at least fifty plus students in our group. However,  when I became minister and was officially appointed as Baptist chaplain to the University, nearly twenty years later, only a few students belonged to RHS. It was a shadow of its former self.  Indeed, I felt something of a fraud whenever I turned up as a member of the University Deans and Chaplains group.

Yet, and this was one of those extraordinary divine by-products, with people like Andrew the organist becoming a new student and others being baptized, the Robert Hall Society sprang back into life. Indeed, this self-organizing group began manifesting just the sort of spiritual dynamics I had gone through twenty years earlier.  In October the church prayer prayer book noted with thanksgiving that RHS membership had grown to 51 students.  Below the radar, I was truly amazed at all these gifted young people identifying with a Baptist society when there were so many other options.  This was truly a gift from God.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 34) Not a 'student church'!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Nowadays churches seeking prospective ministers often prepare descriptive profiles and vision statements. Not in my day - but I do remember a leading deacon saying very emphatically when I first arrived: ' We do not see ourselves becoming a "student church". Rather we would like to become a family church of all ages into which students would be welcomed.'

I remember thinking how outrageously ambitious it was to imagine we might ever be a church filled with tens of students though it was true for several other Cambridge city centre churches.  Their programmes often revolved around university terms and dazzled with gifted speakers.  Such an aim seemed wildly far-fetched and I readily accepted the vision of becoming a 'family church.  How wonderful that would be.

By early June, 23 new members had come into fellowship.  It was a still a long way to reach our prayer aim of 50 new members but given our starting point we were immensely encouraged (as you can imagine).  One of the great joys was the range of ages represented in these new members.  Yes, there were students but they were outnumbered by many others.

And this diversifying continued in the next autumn baptismal service with three candidates - two of whom were much older with striking stories of God at work in their lives (especially the ex-rugby player) . Truly they added to the possibilities of becoming a 'family church'.  Again, prayers (sultanas and currants) focused on the impact their witness would have that God's good news would impact many others.  And, again, God used it wonderfully with new people coming to faith.  Baptismal services were becoming a visible spiritual pulse.  Every time they brought visible life and health to the whole community.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 33) Sultanas, currants and mission

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Also in June we shared in a Church Weekend Conference with Frank Cooke (of Purley) as our speaker.  Interestingly, he focused attention on the need for the whole church to grow in desire and willingness to pray. (Truthfully, I felt that this was one area that we had already focused on!)   But he described the prayer life of a church as being sultanas and currants in the mixture of church life - spread through everything. He challenged us that  'official prayer times' on Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings were of value but it was essential that prayer cells should spring up all over the place as clusters of friends prayed at coffee, lunch and even breakfast times.

Soon a prayer cell was formed to meet on Wednesdays and at the next 'official' prayer time we committed ourselves to follow up this church conference challenge with specific areas of intercession that not only included more prayer cells and basic housekeeping needs of a new church secretary but outreach in Cambridge and wider mission still.  The last prayer item was for  mission teams of BMS Operation Agri, Red Sea and East Africa where Marion plans to serve. 

Each of these mission issues was specific, but especially our concern for Marion. A very gifted student (who had studied botany at a high level) she felt an urgent call to serve full-time in Chad.  Her academic adviser urged me to halt the process of her call because, as he put it 'she is so gifted she could make much more contribution in her work than burying herself as a missionary.'   Marion's shining witness and obedience was to prove extraordinarily powerful as, undeterred, she opened up our responsibility to world mission by personal example.  The first of our missionaries to be sent out during my ministry she was to pioneer a stream of short-term and full-time missionaries through coming years.

Sultanas and currants spread through everything.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 32) A mini-Pentecost

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Much was happening alongside burgeoning music life.  We rejoiced as many newcomers came into membership and the congregation visibly grew. I guess as I reflect over these months I see the next major highlight was Pentecost Sunday.

Ever since seven friends made faith commitments in January we had prepared them carefully for the next steps of baptism and church membership.  Those two elements belonged together - baptism into the body of Christ! Baptism is not only personal witness but corporate belonging. Preparing for both required considerable work because we knew the majority of students would leave Cambridge at the end of their courses and we yearned for them to find churches in which they could continue service.  Each prepared with a partner/mentor who worked through many weeks of study materials (using a booklet prepared by the Scottish Baptist Union).  Partners were encouraged to walk with their baptismal candidate before, during and (especially) after the service of baptism.  Everyone needed to realize what a big deal this was.   And how their witness would have such powerful evangelistic appeal as they invited family and friends.
June 7th. 1981, Pentecost Sunday, therefore became the focus of intense prayer.  I can see that in our prayer agenda.  On this birthday of Christ's Church, eight people were baptized and we experienced yet another spiritual breakthrough event when God's trans-rational presence was powerfully felt.  Again, people came forward to the pool in response to the invitation.  The gallery was filled with students - most of whom had never seen a baptism. You can imagine why this was a highlight.  Compared with the previous year who could have imagined such a happening? We really were experiencing a mini-Pentecost of new life and purpose.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 31) Fresh melodies

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  In his pre-university year Andrew was willing to work not only in the music life of the church but also to help with youth work.  It is fair to say that his youthful energy and optimism did not always receive the greatest encouragement from the elderly and musically-conservative choir.  Yet his classical training and expertise as an organist was quickly recognized as a wonderful gift to all of us.

Andrew was encouraged to dream - about developing an orchestra for special events and developing music beyond the Baptist Hymn book (and anthem book). The siting of a piano at the front of the church provoked considerable tension as did the introduction of worship materials from other sources.  Before long plans were afoot for compiling our own songbook to include contemporary songs and hymns.  The process of making choices and seeking permissions was tedious and, at the beginning, the church meeting only allowed the song book to be used in the evening services.  Because these were less well-attended I am sure critics felt this was a safe compromise.  Actually, the greater freedom within evening worship allowed guitars and the formation of a small music group.

I know one or two boycotted these evening services and several more hoped it was a passing fad so we could soon return to chants and anthems.  Yet, Andrew's patient leadership and musicianship enabled the choir to continue to function well and to complement the new.  To some it was threatening but to many others it was refreshing and a clear answer to our prayers.

I know Andrew sometimes reads my blog - I am sure he has strong memories of what it was like as a young man to be thrown into this music tension!   But how grateful we all were for this beginning and his willingness to be the answer to our prayers.  The consequent story of music in worship on the way to some glorious blended worship had many twists and turns but this beginning laid solid foundations.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 30) Oh, the music!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Tragically, the expression 'worship wars' has emerged in recent years when churches have suffered conflict between traditional hymn singing with organ and contemporary songs with band (and drums!)  Many churches have gone through times of transition and so did we.

To say that the church's current music was traditional is a massive understatement.  One of the last Baptist churches in Britain to sing chants for both services, singing was led by a small elderly choir that sat behind the central pulpit and organ console. My ministerial predecessor, Arthur Jestice, was a gifted musician and he lavished care on the organ, finding extra pipes from dying organs to augment its rich tones. Services began with introits and contained anthems with the organ sedately accompanying hymns - a pattern unchanged from when I sat in the pews as a student in the 1960's.   And why should it need to change? many older members argued.

However, the declining choir and ageing organist had put as the opening request on our very first prayer agenda: a new church organist.  We all knew this was essential. But newcomers were hoping for greater music variety as contemporary music made impact in many churches across the country. As one outspoken visitor said to me: 'Oh the music! Something must be done, Michael!'

And, as sometimes happens in the Christian family, something surprising was done!  Andrew, one of my young people at my former church in Blackburn won a place at Magdalene College to begin in October 1981. In retirement his parents had moved to Cambridge in 1980. Andrew's musical gifts were evident in Blackburn, playing the organ for congregational worship, but now before he began as a full-time student he offered himself to work full-time in the church.  Was this an answer to prayer? You bet.

Meeting two authors

I enjoyed a fascinating evening this week when two detective mystery writers visited Cambridge - Ann Cleeves (of Vera and Shetland fame) and Louise Penny (of Inspector Gamache fame).  All my reading life I have enjoyed this genre and here were two friends at the top of their game, relaxed with each other and us as an audience willingly sharing themselves.  I love listening to creative people and noted several things:

-  both spoke of the compassion and kindness to which their own work testifies and of their conviction that contemporary detective fiction has moved to greater empathy with both victim and perpetrator.  As Louise Penny put it: 'Murder is such a terrible thing.  It reveals profound truths about humanity'.
-  they showed remarkable differences of approach.   Ann Cleeves told us that she never works out a plot beforehand and completes the book in one or two drafts.  Rather she lets the story tell itself as it is 'revealed' to her. Louise Penny agonizes through a long gestation period filling up her notebook with ideas and her first draft is a total mess (her words!)  It takes up to five drafts to arrive at something she is willing to show others.
-  their need for discipline.  Both work in the mornings and have to set themselves the specific target of 1,000 words each day.

They told us about their daily discipline after I had asked a question about their practice.  Later, when I queued up to get their latest books signed, Louise Penny thanked me for my question. 'Do you write?' she said. 'Yes, a little - academic books'.  'Oh, on what subject?'  'Preaching', I answered. 'How wonderful,' she enthused, 'That's just what we need at this help people preach!'  I was in a queue so sadly conversation was truncated. But it gave me a glow! 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure * 29) Losing some control

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  I realize that I have written Dorothy's  story in some depth.  That's partly because this whole event gave the church a remarkable deacon and leader whose new-found energy had thanksgiving threaded through all she did. Even those who balked at the idea of Dorothy's healing marvelled at her vibrant health and contagious faith.

But also as I reflect on this story I recognize that it was pushing the church outside its comfort zone.  Dorothy's healing opened up possibilities of God working beyond our control, of the trans-rational dimension where ordinary people experience the beyond-our-control power of  God. Too often church life can be entirely explicable - everything that happens has human explanation and stays firmly under human control.  As a church we were being encountered by God who acts beyond human control, uncomfortably and gloriously, doing things among us and within us. A spiritual hand grenade had exploded spiritually!

Having said that I must emphasize that as we developed future healing services we were going to make some big mistakes, especially when we opened up to the public with far too little preparation which allowed unhealthy expectations and major disappointments.  Yet, through the next years the positives mightily outweighed all the rest.  Without a doubt this was an important growth spurt in our understanding and experience of what God might do if we let him.   

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 28) In her own words

(*please skip if you have not been following this story). The following Sunday morning I shared the news of Dorothy's healing with the whole congregation.  Enthusiastic thanksgiving came from some while others were muted and even downright suspicious.  One or two rounded on Dorothy questioning whether it was not 'mind over matter'.  Nothing trans-rational here!  I think many traditional congregations would have exactly the same range of responses.

Dorothy wrote her story for the May church magazine:
Praise God I have never needed to put my collar on again. The pain in my back and foot has completely gone as have my joint pains. At a recent checkup my blood pressure was found to be normal even though I have stopped all medication. I kept my appointment at the hospital when I should have told the doctor whether I'd decided to have the spinal operation or continue on pain- killers.  When I told him of my healing he said: 'That's great - I'm so glad for you.'
Why did God heal me directly and immediately?  I had prayed most earnestly for healing in order that I might continue to serve God and take a full part in the exciting and ongoing work of our church at this time of spiritual growth.  I am praising Him that he is enabling me to do this.  I feel sure that this healing was not for me only but that the faith of all of us may be built up, that God's power and love is demonstrably at work today.  To God be all praise and glory.
Vitally we gave thanks at a follow-up meeting at Dorothy's house. (Giving thanks is essential - remember the nine lepers who failed to do this (Luke 17:19)? I invited Tony to join us again but with wisdom he encouraged us to trust God ourselves for the unfolding future healing ministry. Her room was packed (with Holly of course). Earlier group were now  joined by others. What thanksgiving was shared as new requests were heard! Looking back to the quality of that meeting with its balance of joy yet temerity about expecting further acts of faith, I could see Dorothy's conviction that her healing had much wider implications was beginning to come true.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 27) *No more collar

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Early in the evening, twelve of us gathered, rather cramped in Dorothy's living room (with her collar visible under her chair). We heard scratching at the door. Her friendly little Spaniel called Holly had been shut in the kitchen and was whining to be let in.  With wagging tail she dropped quietly at her mistress's feet.  The whole scene seemed both normal and yet extraordinary as we began with Scripture, prayer and heard Dorothy retell her story.  She described the illness and expressed complete openness to God's will with a serene trust evident to us all.  At the same time there was high expectation of God's power in the room. Tony and I with another church member then joined in anointing Dorothy with oil and laying hands upon her.

Dorothy later told us that she was aware of deep peace and God's love in the laying on of hands, and as we stood to say the Grace together she knew with absolute certainty that she had been healed.  She immediately stood up without putting on her collar - we all noticed that!  And then she began organizing coffee and biscuits for us all with an apparent complete freedom of movement. Her transformation reminded me of Peter's mother-in-law and her serving immediately after Jesus' healing (Mark 1:29-31).

There was still time for Dorothy to cycle to her small group meeting that same night.  She swept into the group meeting and without a word of explanation said: 'Right let's get on with it'!  Every group member goggled with wide-eyed amazement at the evidence before their eyes. Dorothy was without her ever-present collar.  Some had only been Christians for four weeks.  Dumbfounded they asked her what on earth had happened.  Back came her even more dumbfounding reply: 'I have just been to a healing service and I know that God has healed me. I won't be wearing the collar again.'