Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 41) Twin timetables set going.

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  In 1982, twin timetables were set in motion. The slowest concerned the building project. Talking was easy but what would it all coast? A couple of professionals on the committee reckoned that it would cost at least of £300,000 (this is in 1982 when a pound was a pound!)  We realized no further progress could be made without appointing an architect and getting serious.  Really serious.

It had taken twenty-four Use of Premises Committee meetings before we brought the name forward of Saunders Boston as our architects in July 1982!  So many meetings but at last the timetable was set to go. Any reader who has been through a building project will know how high excitement at the beginning begins to dribble away as practical implications ram home.  Vitally, everyone in the church fellowship needed to share with free imagination about what might be - what spaces we might need for what mission purposes - in order to draft a basic working brief for the architects.  Actually it took sixteen months before the architects could next report.

The timetable for an assistant minister was faster.  Again a brief was needed.  What would we expect this person to focus on?   Where were the weakest areas of church life? And, of course, there were many practical details such as how would we best find another minister?  Early we agreed to seek to call a leaving student from one of our theological colleges.  And the church saw a prime need to focus on people in their twenties and thirties.  The continuing rapid growth in the size of the fellowship and its commitments needed a gifted all-round pastor too. I was concerned also for someone to complement me in preaching at one morning and two evening services each month as well as leading worship.  Actually, I wanted them to take a key part in leadership - baptizing, marrying, burying, teaching, and above all loving.  Right in the thick of it.

Commonly churches seeking a new minister have an ambitious wish-list!  I realize we did too...and the outcome as we kept praying surpassed expectations.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 40) Not another minister?

(*please skip if you have not been following this story). I left readers dangling with my post on the Pressures builds.  What surprised us next?  Well, two things that were to run on and on.  One arose out of concern for Carol and me.  The church began to think and pray about calling another full-time minister to come and work alongside me.

You can imagine the lively debate! Surely it's too soon - how can we possibly support another minister (and family presumably) ?  Who knows what other major items lie ahead. Aren't we already praying for extending the use of our premises?  What could that cost? Have you looked at our finances recently? And countering were some fiery calls to act in faith.  How can we continue to grow without more help?  And how can we dare think of our city centre mission through redeveloped premises without strengthening the ministerial team?   And why get off the wave now?

The March Church members' meeting heard the proposal that we should start looking for an assistant minister.  All the above view points (and more) were expressed in honest, open and prayerful debate.  I have already mentioned how much I looked forward to our regular church meetings because of their quality of sharing and waiting on God. This was another one of those special occasions. At the end, after prayer, the vote was taken about whether we should start looking for another minister or not.

It was a unanimous Yes. The May prayer agenda listed at item 2: The search for an assistant minister that we may be led to God's choice.  This went hand-in-hand with item 3: Guidance concerning the possible redevelopment of our premises.  Both of these subjects were to dominate the months to come....but we were on the way!

A Cambridge God Adventure* 39) Tedium and a graveyard

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  I mentioned in the last post two things emerged in 1982 that were to go on and on.  The other theme was, of course, the future of our premises which had remained firmly embedded in prayers and committee meetings.  Early enthusiasm focused on a multi-storeyed development built alongside the church on the narrow ribbon of land which had once been a burial ground, though it was unused for over 150 years.  But, in only our third meeting our solicitor (also one of my key deacons) informed us that English law prevented any building on a graveyard, no matter how long it had lain unused.  Consequently the Use of Premises Committee had to reduce vision and was soon bogged down in the minutiae of double sinks and cupboard sizes for an upgraded church kitchen. The word 'tedium' comes to mind to describe committee progress.

But then.....I don't know the exact day but I can remember our amazement at the end of 1981 when we heard that English law was being changed to allow building work over disused burial grounds.  This change of law transformed everything.  The committee was  galvanized afresh into action.  So much so that the January 1982 Church Meeting was asked to vote on a proposal to commission a feasibility study on a much bigger project.  It was a step of faith but a safe one since it was only a feasibility study allowing enthusiasm without commitment!  Surveyor Brian Hogg was asked to present a design to maximize our site.  I think the meeting assumed that he would 'dream big'.

True enough he outlined a scheme for a three storey block to replace the little shop and cottage at the front and infill the whole area alongside the church between pavement and main hall block.  At one stroke, we had jumped from tinkering with small ideas into huge possibilities.  Was this part of God's mission?  It was a heady time of praying and thinking out loud with faith.  One of my deacons even suggested that a new building could be physically linked to the church sanctuary with new doors integrating worship and service.

Something new was happening.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 38) In other people's stories

Memories of Stephen Hawking in my last post reminds me of a whole dimension of church life that could only happen in a city like Cambridge.  There were often surprises in the pew!

From the very beginning professors from all over the world who were on sabbatical leave found a home with us. The first Winter a lone Australian minister called Noel Vose came.  He had given a key-note address at the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) world congress in Toronto just months before. I was there way up in the stands in Maple Leaf Gardens and only saw him distantly on the screen.  Goodness was it really him?!  Such a humble and warm person, he threw himself into church life.  He was there for Dorothy's healing (see earlier post). A deep friendship began which continued right through to his death in his nineties.  Along the way he became President of the 58 million member BWA and visited Cambridge many times. And I visited him in Perth and taught in the seminary he had founded. But what is extraordinary to me is the way he made it plain to his biographer just how important his times and friendships in Cambridge were. We had a role in his story!

This privilege was repeated in different ways every year as professors (in different academic areas) came with their families for a year at a time.   This phenomenon stretched us in providing hospitality but enriched us immeasurably. Personally it led to stimulating friendships which continued long after they had gone home and which sometimes developed into invitations to travel and preach overseas.  When I became gravely ill in 1987 they were to play a very important role (maybe I shall get to that story eventually). And when I eventually taught in the US I had a rich network of friends who only thought warm thoughts of their times in Cambridge.

To be in other's stories for good is a privilege, isn't it? These dear friends are certainly in mine and the Cambridge church's story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Professor Stephen Hawking

As tributes pour in from around the world to this extraordinary scientist and human being I need to add my two pennyworth.  And it all seems so unlikely.  One Sunday evening in the late 80's the church service at St. Andrew's St. Baptist had begun at 6:30.  I had already preached at our main morning service which was well-attended.  The evening service was (much) sparser.  We had been going about 15 minutes when the disabled entrance opened where the ramp led into the church and to my astonishment Stephen Hawking was wheeled in.  Of course, all attention swiveled in his direction.  One of the famous figures in Cambridge with his book A Brief History of Time a best seller. .. everyone knew who he was.

I think the sermon was from Amos - not the brightest moment I have to say.  Afterwards I greeted him thinking it was all a mistake on his part.  You can imagine my surprise when shortly afterwards he came to a morning service and in the coffee time afterwards engaged with all and sundry, especially the children who wanted to play his synthesizer.   And for a couple of years we became (sort of) used to this celebrity arriving irregularly in our midst.

I asked his nurse whether he really wanted to come.  She laughed and said: 'Stephen has never done anything he didn't want to do!' and she added 'He sometimes talks about your sermons several days later.'  When I visited his home I experienced what so many have spoken about - the strangeness of speaking and then having to wait until the synthesizer responded. When I told him that I found his book difficult to read he said I could skip it all but the last chapter.  There was humour and concern - he really wanted to know about my own disabling dystonia that had crippled me just a year or two before. 

I did pray with him before I left and saw him many times afterwards.  Of course there are so many questions about what this cosmologist ultimately believed that will not be answered this side of glory. But I was profoundly humbled to have had even this brief experience of a great mind and personality.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Celebrating Dr, Ray Brown

It's been an exhilarating weekend.  Nigel and Judy Wright (Nigel was my successor as Principal of Spurgeon's College) stayed with us in order to celebrate Ray Brown's 90th birthday.  Ray was Principal 1973-1986 (and Tutor 1971-73) and nine of us with strong Spurgeon links gathered for a splendid lunch and non-stop reminiscing, crowned by a formal speech from Nigel. 

Ray is the last person to laud his academic, preaching and pastoral accomplishments through the decades...and these have been huge and influential.  His immense gifts have taken him all over the world and touched thousands of lives. So much could be said but  Nigel summarized that it is his kindness that is the key quality shining through all he did as scholar, pastor, academic, headline speaker and the rest.  All of us agreed that his kindness and grace, coupled with winsome humility and humour have been gloriously present throughout the decades we had known him.

And what was stunning was that all these qualities dazzled again on Saturday combined with a gift of recall that was able to reflect on details throughout these years with startling clarity.  Each of us had specific memories of him and as we shared them he showed a grasp of detail back then that  was staggering.  Oh to have a memory like that!

How grateful we are to know Ray who consistently models Christian love and whom it is very easy to love.  Since his wife Christine (who matched him in grace) died it must be lonely, though his family is close, yet as I see him from time to time I marvel at his witness in bereavement and his energy.  As he was leaving he whispered that he enjoyed reading my blog.  If you see this Ray, know how many of us love you and truly value you for all you are to us.  Happy Birthday.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Cambridge God adventure* 37) Pressure builds

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Two prayer issues were to dominate 1982 - the use and redevelopment of our premises, and a surprise number 5 item: The minister and his wife - especially in the preaching and pastoral ministry - and for the deacons in their leadership.  

A surprise to me because others insisted that this was now an urgent priority. It is possible for some personality types to manipulate church busyness and to put too many demands on yourself in leadership.  Yet, sometimes spiritual life accelerates because God happenings occur at his bidding. Rick Warren (of Purpose Driven Church fame) takes a surfing image to describe how ministry should look for the next wave and then jump on to join in what God is doing.  Honestly, I believe that we were experiencing some of this... yet the wave was bringing so many new people and issues and so many fresh ideas and visions especially with new groups. Too many?  Spiritual growth pushes leaders like nothing else and spiritual conflict accompanies every forward step.

Many Christian leaders have been there before me.  Unfortunately my wife Carol had become ill over the Christmas period requiring surgery and people in the church shared my concern about her.  Pressures building on me didn't help Carol either.  She reminds me still of her weekly lament. ' I loved sharing in the Sunday worship but I dreaded Sunday night when I knew another week was beginning when you would be at work every day and every night except our day off on Thursday.'

Was I running unwisely?  Probably.  Were other church leaders also working hard to catch up?  Most definitely.  And the prayer group discerned that the whole church needed to focus on us. And were we grateful and surprised at what happened next ?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 36) Freezing night, prayer on fire.

(*please skip if you have not been following this story) Tuesday December 22nd 1981 was a bitter night which decimated numbers for our end of year prayer meeting. Only nine were present and I imagined it would be a real downer. Yet, it turned out to be a tumultuous time - prayers cascaded throughout the session. It's glorious when people really want to pray. So much had happened in the previous months. All the initiatives of the previous year like the Open Church at Harvest and Christmas, the gift, care, healing groups and prayer cell, accompanied an amazing growth of congregation and membership.  Thanks came very easily.  The prayer book noted that all these good things had come from God alone. In block capitals it states: THE ONE ALL-IMPORTANT FACTOR IN THE CHURCH'S GROWTH WAS PRAYER.

At the same time we recognized areas of failure that humbled us which required an extended period of confession. In spite of the big freeze and our small number this was real engagement with God.

Of course we reflected on the most controversial part of our prayers through the year - that we grow by 50 new members!  We weren't at this target...actually numbers of new members had slowed down in the last part of the year.  It took us many more months to see this prayer answered and it taught us lessons about stepping out in bold faith yet not presuming guaranteed timed outcomes!  The new church text for 1982 was chosen: Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive...(Matt 21:22). We continued to be an expectant people.

We prayed about a new prayer agenda for the next months. Again, targets were specific.  By now our missionary Marion was in Djibouti, Chad so we could focus directly on her prayer requests. Issues such as a Scripture outreach distribution and further development of groups were included. But there were two new items which were to dominate the next year in ways we could not have expected.