Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 56) Springtime happenings.

(*please skip if you have not been following this story). On Pentecost Sunday (May 26th 1985) we celebrated the Church's birthday by taking another step of faith.  A second leaflet was printed: Something's happening in Cambridge. All the time new friends were joining the church and many shared a sense of urgency grew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  A fresh opportunity was given for further gifts and promises in our Pentecost offering.

It was glorious spring time in the city.  I was Chair of the Cambridge Christian Festival which was supported by city churches in arranging a mission in a Big Top on one of our main commons - Midsummer Common.  With the evangelist David MacInnes, crowds came night after night with many coming forward in faith. It was exhilarating working with many other Christians.  Across the top of the tent a huge banner read: YOUR GOD REIGNS.  No one could doubt the message.

The Sunday before Pentecost we broadcast the BBC Sunday half-hour of hymn-singing. I couldn't help marvelling how our music had developed from the early days and I was greatly surprised at the numbers of letters we received from all over the world thanking us.  In so many ways church life was expanding.  In June we twinned with Oradea Baptist Church, Romania - quite a step in Ceausescu's time. This led to many adventures in communist Romania (and my father learned Romanian so that he could really relate - but that's another story). 

On Pentecost Sunday we received more promises and gifts amounting to £45,180.  Wonderful! £226,837 was assured already.  Even as we rejoiced however the planning authorities rejected some of the outline plans.  But it was Springtime!

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 55) What do you do in a difficult meeting?

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  In the raw emotion we were brought back to essentials.  I think it was Martyn Travers ( my ministerial colleague who gave wonderful leadership) who stood up and said: 'Why don't we pray?'  Oh, yes! It was a godly intervention and goes down in the story as a key moment when a human group realized afresh their gross limitations and need for prayer.  So obvious in retrospect!

For half-an-hour one member after another led us in heartfelt prayer. Gradually the tension and frustration began to lift and be replaced by a love and unity that owed everything to the presence of Jesus Christ.  The experience of praying changed everything. Someone said that we were given a gift of togetherness.  Another commented that perhaps that was why we needed to have gone through the meeting.

After prayer by an overwhelming number it was agreed to delay taking the big decision until the February Church Meeting.  Continuing  tension was inevitable as we pushed the decision further away yet we had learned a vital corrective about keeping corporate prayer at the centre of church meeting.  Indeed, we planned a time of open prayer for February.

In February more were present and, of course, views continued to be divided.  When the proposal was presented that we should proceed with the scheme and obtain planning permission it greatly surprised me that only one person abstained.  Sitting on the fence was not an option. The figures were: Agreed 76. Against 27.  What made so much difference were all the other matters on the agenda as we prepared for more baptisms, welcomed new members, and continued all the mission and fellowship initiatives of previous years.  The future of our premises remained a part only of burgeoning church life.  And just as well!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 54) Problems, tension

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Alas, the practicalities emerging from our day conference added a further £75,000. Then the government's sudden decision to slap increased Value Added Tax on building work added a further  £75,000.  Worse still, examination of the site's geology indicated the need for deeper steel foundations than had first been costed. 

By the time we next met as a church in December 1984 the costs had risen to just under £600,000. .  As we gathered a power failure plunged us into the dark. It could have been a grim symbol but we recalled the Advent theme of a people who walked in darkness had seen a great light.  Admitting increasing concern, we emphasized that this remained a supremely spiritual issue far more than material or financial. As our Easter leaflet had asked: What is God's will for us? The scale of building costs had doubled already - were they to have the final word or was God calling us into a huge new venture?

We agreed to make a formal decision whether to go ahead or not at the January 1985 Church Meeting.  But it turned out to be held on the worst night of the entire winter! Snow had started falling early and continued through the day.  Though bitterly cold, icy and with snow drifts 80 members got through. I had never known such tension as chairman.  We are here to make the big decision many said.    'Let's vote once and for all' said someone. 'What about others who couldn't get through?' said another.  Yet, others wanted to postpone.  Tension, frustration, even some anger was all so understandable.  Having made huge efforts to be present we were divided twice - over the decision itself and over whether to postpone or not.

I had been preaching the story of Exodus where there was plenty of tension, frustration and sheer disappointment.  We really had a measure of raw emotion this night.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 53) A step forward

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  May 15th 1984 proved to be a momentous evening.  There was no hiding heads in sand, pushing controversy under the carpet.  The spirit of faith that eventually emerged cannot possibly be explained without the presence of our Easter Lord.
Though some dissented, a positive resolution was passed by a majority:
Following the miraculous response at Easter 1984 we believe that it is the will of God that we proceed with a substantial development and improvement of our premises in response to the vision that God gives us.

Of course we were still a long way off committing to a contract and we had little idea how many hurdles lay ahead (- you're telling me!)  It was only one step forward. Many wanted to work on the practicalities of our mission.  Of all the people passing us on the main street who would be our priority? We set aside Saturday June 30th. for a day conference in our Upper Hall when we would work hard to gain consensus about what our key priorities might be. Where would we be committed personally?  In the end the priorities seemed to include a very wide range indeed!
1. People who work in the city
2. Students and young people
3. Unemployed, lonely and people with special needs.

All this thinking impacted upon the future of our premises - not only did we need a large lounge/coffee bar area with kitchen and adjacent rooms but ideally required a permanent warden/counsellor with a team of helpers.  A new Development Committee was established to work through these details (and more) with the architects.  Already there was a list of deficiencies to be addressed and these fresh ideas gave new momentum. But I am not sure momentum is the word. It is difficult to describe the frustrating process that lay ahead without making readers frustrated!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

An Unusual Birthday

To interrupt my Cambridge saga. Yesterday Carol celebrated her birthday in atypical fashion, awaking on the eighth floor of a Travelodge near Crystal Palace.  Carol opened her gifts and sheaves of cards while sipping tea in a bathroom mug.  I went down eight floors to collect 3 cards still in the car but on returning found a wood pigeon enjoying our furniture.  For safety reasons the window opened only a fraction yet still this wide-bodied noisy bird managed to join us, flying its own air-show routines touching down on every surface.   The hotel manager had never experienced this before and mercifully the bird eventually exited of its own accord. And in recompense we have a voucher for the same value of our stay.  A birthday bonus.

Lunch with our good friend Vic Jackopson at Dulwich Art Gallery cafe proved to be a lengthy affair. After a patient hour we learned a mistake in the kitchen had delayed service and to soften the blow we were awarded tea and cakes to take away.  So another birthday bonus.

But the main reason it was unusual - Carol had to attend the 140th. anniversary of Chatsworth Baptist Church in West Norwood, London.  Part of her really wanted to - this was her church family when she was baptized, married and big events happened like my ordination and induction as Principal of Spurgeon's.  But this was her birthday after all!  Planned for 5:00 pm who would come?  On a Saturday?  At the front doors balloons and banners cascaded out from the church down the railings outside.  Would you believe it? Inside a full church with people who had come back from the past, local ministers, the mayor, and many people with a significant place in the story of the church.  We celebrated in a service for over 2 hours during which I preached and was able to ambush Carol into sharing her testimony.  Instead of me telling the story I knew it would be so much better coming from her, but I also knew the more notice she was given the more nervous she would become. So ambushing was necessary and (without exaggeration) I saw the whole congregation lean forward to catch every word with whoops and applause. It was spectacular and everyone agreed - just right!

Moving into the hall next door we saw two magnificent cakes. One to mark 140 years and another two tier cake with extravagant icing bow on top for Carol's birthday.  Everyone joined to sing to her and she was presented with a beautiful basket bouquet of flowers.  We didn't get to bed until nearly 1.00 am the next day but we agreed the whole birthday had been a memorable one for so many good reasons.  Today we went to our own church and found it difficult to describe just what had happened when people asked us about Carol's big day.  It was quite full.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 52) Wonder and hesitation

(*please skip if you have not been following this story). Brian commented online after the last posting this was rather like a soap opera making us wait with baited breath for the next episode. Looking back I realize afresh just what drama was occurring!  The Treasurer's poker face revealed nothing! I looked down at the slip of paper he gave me and when  the congregation finished the hymn I announced with a tremble of wonder and joy in my voice that the gifts and promises amounted to £167,964.

Apparently, I said with emotion:
It is possible to be amazed at this figure because it contrasts with what you might expect.  It is possible to be amazed at people - how much I have grown in love with you as pastor.  But we are amazed at our Lord because he has given us the ability to give, to see and to step out in faith. 
We sang the doxology with full hearts.  I learned later that about 150 people had participated in this experience of the Easter Lord at work.  There was no one large gift (as some suspected!) but many smaller though sacrificial gifts making up the whole.

Wonderful though this was it was only just over half-way towards the target. Now, some felt the future was less clear than ever.  Indeed, several people wrote to me with their major hesitations about going any further with a big scheme, especially since we knew the costs would rise above the architect's estimate.  Throughout my ministry I have kept a file of letters which are critical (and often therefore very difficult to read). I have kept it not for masochistic reasons but for humbling because I know how easily I can get things wrong!  Christian leadership requires sensitive listening because among  downright negative (and sometimes unkind) comments there are often corrective words that must be heeded.

A few of my leaders fell into the latter category.  One wrote about his concern that this figure, wonderful though it was, fell so far short it did not give us clear guidance to go ahead with the architect.  We agreed that the only way forward was to pray hard with honest discussion and see if corporate conviction emerged at our next church meeting on May 15th.  As someone said: 'Is God telling us to go for it?'  Good question.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 51) Easter People

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  On Easter morning the congregational offering was added to the sit-in total and the Building Fund Treasurer took it all into the small side vestry to calculate what our total financial response was.  He promised to open the vestry door half-way once he had completed the task.  I had no idea what would happen.

Meanwhile I preached on "Easter People" who share the miracle 'Jesus is Lord', use the Easter title 'Jesus is my Lord' and live the Easter faith 'Jesus is risen for me' (actually 3 points!)  I quoted Ray Lindquist: Where Christ goes, drama goes. For it is impossible to look anywhere in the gospel and fail to find something powerful happening. The risen Jesus sets miracles in motion today.  And I stressed that though individual faith is essential, Easter people can experience 'corporate miracles' when they are led through events which are contrary to the regularly observed processes of nature.

Obviously everyone was thinking about our financial faith response - a very specific sign of the Easter Lord at work. I think that some regarded linking financial giving with Easter as unworthy, even tawdry. Admittedly, it was strange. What would happen? Looking at my sermon notes I realize that I shared what some people had told me what would happen. Gloomy members explained how the church is mostly elderly or students ' You cannot expect money from any of us.'  Others even put a figure on it.  One said, 'You won't get more than £20,000.' Another stated categorically 'You won't get more than £30,000.'  I wonder whether I mentioned this to soften any disappointment?

As I preached the vestry door remain closed.  I was reaching the end of my prepared sermon (I rarely preached longer than 20 minutes) and I wondered how much longer I needed to continue. Perhaps I would have to dip into my evening sermon!  Just at that point the door opened.  I announced the closing hymn during which the Treasurer climbed the pulpit steps to give me a slip of paper......

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 50) The Sit-In

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  My emotions were mixed that Holy Week as I waited in my small vestry. Some described it as my sit-in.  At that time sit-ins were a standard form of protest when protesters would occupy a strategic building.  This had a very different purpose but I confess to some fear that very few would come and that I had put myself in very vulnerable position as a leader. Yet, I also believed God was working with us and calling us to act.  In the corridor outside my door, where portraits of my predecessors look down austerely,a line of chairs had been optimistically placed (like a dentist's waiting room).  Nearby, another room was set aside for prayer.  That first session I held my breath and listened for footsteps.

As a set of feet sounded outside and the first donor knocked on my door the enormity of what we were doing hit me. This was happening! They placed their gift in a box on the table and we shared some words and a prayer. Through that first evening several people came.  Many told me that they had never done anything like this before (no surprise there!) but how their faith had been challenged and built up through the previous months.  Several shared Scripture passages and experiences that had spoken to them and led them to give.

After each session the Building Fund Treasurer, Vernon Gosden, took away the box.  He kept quiet about everything but on the Wednesday evening after three sessions I just had to ask him whether in the most general of ways we should be encouraged or not. He said that there had been some real sacrifice and generosity but that we needed to keep praying. That brought some uneasiness but the week's ongoing worship as we celebrated the Last Supper and Good Friday put everything into perspective.  Our Lord went through this for us - that's the sacrifice that counts.  As one of my recent sermon series had repeated: It's not our great faith in God that counts, it's our faith in a great God.'

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 49) Preparing for Easter Day 1984

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Back to the story! The months between deciding that Easter would be our day of faith commitment and the Sunday itself was packed full with meetings, letters, and prayer.  A leaflet 'What is God's future for us?' set the background and declared that four times in the 260 years of the church's history our predecessors had exercised faith in massive capital expenditures including the schoolrooms in 1890 and latest church building in 1903. They had exercised faith and spiritual responsibility for later generations - for us.

The leaflet re-stated the church members' resolution clearly and invited friends to share in a church meal followed by information and prayer evening on the Tuesday two weeks before Easter.  I still have my full notes from that vital meeting which included answering  specific queries I had received some of which questioned the whole venture.

Included in the leaflet was a tear-off card with spaces and boxes to indicate exact amounts that people could give or loan in a variety of ways. For four nights in Holy Week. I agreed to sit in my vestry between 7.30-9.00 pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and 10.00- 1.00 pm on Saturday.  All gifts and promises would be kept confidential to the Building Fund Treasurer who alone would have responsibility for making calculations combining all our promises. These would be announced at the Easter Sunday morning service.  Of course the week's other evenings of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were vital times of worship together.  It was going to be an Easter I would never forget.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Golden Memories

This past weekend Carol and I were in Minehead celebrating the Golden Wedding of two dear friends, Christine and Stuart Lawrence.  They held a party for 40 of us in the Foxes Hotel (which was all part of their vision in their work for the Baptist Holiday Fellowship through the last 40 plus years).  Apart from their family we knew no one else.  Many friends from Coventry who had been present 50 years earlier were excitedly present (!) plus a scattering of politicians including an ex-MP!  And we discovered a startling number were also celebrating their golden weddings this year (including Carol and me!)

I was asked to make a speech which was easy because we have known them well since 1978 and they represent high quality team-work in their work and marriage throughout these years with their very different qualities complementing each other. Committed to making holidays work for all everyone who came to their centre (and how our family benefited) they gave so generously of skills, practically and emotionally. Bluntly, the Baptist Holiday Fellowship and Minehead operation would never have survived organizationally without them.  They saw it as ministry and service 24/7.

Yet, in addition to a rich family life they are such interesting people. Over 20 years ago, Christine became County Councillor for nearby Dunster and rose to become the first female Chair of Somerset County Council.  Stuart, an artist of considerable skill has a gallery in Porlock and a website.  His support for Christine in her public role shows such pride and willingness, driving her to hundreds of special events and accompanying her with aplomb.

Best of all, their mutual love shared so liberally with us owes everything to their Christian faith.  As I said in my speech, it is God's love for them that has motivated their love for each other and for us. Next day I preached at Millbridge Evangelical Church where Christine and Stuart are members and to our joy several party guests were there too. It seemed the right way to finish celebrating. It's good to have friends like this, isn't it?