Monday, December 31, 2018

As the sun at noon..

Tidying up a corner today we came across some words of John Donne that someone sent us (forgive me - I have no record who did and when).  In light of yesterday's post they seem very appropriate for anyone whose 2018 has been a dark one.
He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light; He can bring your summer out of winter, though you have no spring; 
Though in the ways of fortune or understanding or conscience, you have been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and numbed, smothered and stupefied till now, now, God comes to you.  Not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon...... 
That's how we look forward to living in the now of 2019.  A blessed and fulfilling 2019 to you.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

End of year blues

I don't want to moan but these last few weeks have reminded me of something that happened most Winters through my ministry.  After meeting all the extra Christmas commitments - preaching and all that was involved moving into a New Year - I frequently succumbed to 'flu.  Apparently it didn't happen in my first year of ministry as I look back in Gleanings, but it occurred regularly in succeeding years. 

And why am I reminded now?  Because I am currently in my tenth week of fluey stuff and Carol is in her third week!  My doctor calls mine a 'double-dip'.  After a virus at the end of October I became reinfected requiring antibiotics.  These appeared to work giving me back some bounce as Carol went down with virulent-keep-you-in-bed-eight-days flu. Then I caught her flu which hit me with a vengeance (in spite of having the flu injection).  'Oh,' said my doctor, 'I have never seen so much of this double-dipping as this year when patients have a virus, are well for a few days and then go down with something else.'  It's oddly encouraging to know that you are not alone.  Hopefully, you, my patient readers will have been spared this experience.

It is precisely in such end of year blues that the sparkle and joy of the Incarnation must shine.  We are not told how easily Jesus' birth went, nor the continuing state of Mary and Joseph's health.  Being in flesh never allowed them to escape times of blues, nor could their baby escape.  And because the Light of the World comes in flesh into the darkest places we should always remember his loving presence is with us right now. Immanuel.

I hope 2019 will be a fulfilling year full of God's loving presence all the way.  He makes all the difference.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Gleanings 7) Happy Christmas

On the evening of Christmas Eve some wanted another service (led by a deacon) but the majority left after a brief worship to sing carols in the neighbourhood. Many of the congregation lived nearby and to my delight not only did we make a joyful (fairly tuneful) noise together but many people came out of the houses to join in with us.   We don't seem to sing carols in big groups outside the church much nowadays. I still have a copy of the brightly coloured Bethlehem carol sheets we used.  It was an eye-opener how much we were welcomed.  Eventually, hoarse, we returned for mince-pies and coffee.

The next day began early  Before the short service several of us went to lead a brief service at West Bank.  The seniors were just finishing breakfast.  We came in with Father Christmas (a more or less willing deacon), sang, prayed and gave out gifts to these dear folk.  I used to visit this home regularly, as did several church members, and it seemed appropriate to make their Christmas morning special too.

Moving onto a full church, packed with families and favourite toys, I experienced a tradition which continued throughout my ministry - children showing me gifts that had been hand-picked by parents to cause merriment and sometimes, embarrassment.  Presents that I had no idea how to operate or really shouldn't have tried. But, the most wonderful part was the full-throat ed singing and celebration that Jesus has come, is with us.  There was so much joy.

Because this coincides with Christmas 2018 let me repeat one of the prayers I wrote:

Our Father, thank you for the glory that shone around the shepherds - ordinary, humdrum people like ourselves, doing their routine jobs. We thank you for the excitement and keenness of their response to the good news of Jesus and we remember the fear which drove them to their knees. May we be like them this Christmas, in the humdrum, worshipping with reverence and keenness.
We thank you for the star that guided the wise men - giving help and clarity to their journey.  We thank you for the wisdom you have granted us and for the source of all true wisdom about yourself - the baby Jesus revealing your love. May we be like the wise men, prepared to follow your guiding truth.
We thank you for the baby, whose destiny was to change this world of darkness and ignorance. Who said he is the Light of the World and who died to make sure the Light would never go out, but burn brighter and brighter. Let our worship we bright and joyful today. 
In the brightness of your glory we worship you,  through our Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Gleanings 6) Rapid fire firsts to Advent.....

These early months were full of firsts on a steep learning curve.  My first harvest festival and my first baptismal class. I yearned for my first believer's baptism and 'preached for a verdict' (as W.E. Sangster used to describe evangelistic preaching) on Romans 10:1-15 Lips and Heart. When would it be?

My first Remembrance Sunday I discovered to be a very big deal because so many had lost friends and family.  And then my first Advent!  Those advent Sundays from December 3rd in sequence were my first proper experience of leading a church through part of the Christian year.  How much I was to value this discipline in the future and how much (helped of course by having a young family) I was going to love celebrating Christmas.

On Advent Sunday: The people were in expectation (Luke 3:15) compared the bustling Blackburn shopping crowds to the river bank where John the Baptist is preaching!  How easy to say we have seen it all as we prepare for Christmas.  Disappointment lurks as it did then.  The advent question is 'Will we be disappointed?  Knowing the story, Joseph and Mary, the baby in a manger, shepherds, and all that, we can say 'It's all just what we expected. Just another year." We can expect  no surprise and show no excitement. NO. This is the most impossible event in the world. Without Christmas there would be no Easter, no Holy Spirit with us now, no hope for the world.  We can never say 'He's just what we expected'. Like the crowds, we should stand and gape in expectation.  In the evening I preached on the Second Advent in Mark 13. with its challenge to 'business as usual'. For God has interrupted once and he will do again.

The pace towards Christmas quickened with further sermons like: The Narrow Door (Luke 13:22-30) with its poignant analogy in the stable door and which speaks of the humility of Jesus, and humility for us, the church and the world if we heed his call to strive to enter by the narrow door. On the third Sunday evening the children led a Candlelight Service at a slightly earlier time.  As the children sang, with proud parents looking on, Carol and I felt such warming. We belonged within this big gifted church family.

Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday with a Carol Service in the morning,  Entitled The Brilliance of Christmas, it fell into sections:  The glory around the shepherds, The Star for the Wise Men, the Light of the World. I still have a record of all those who read Scriptures and other readings.  This was to be the stuff of my future ministry and for the first time it really did fill me with surprising expectation.
Interestingly, early on in the service the primary children left to sing at the Old People's Home just round the corner from the church.  This home, called West Bank, was to feature prominently in our commitments on Christmas Day too.

Oh, it was all so new, exciting....exhausting.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Mystery parcel

On 12th November I posted that I had moved from my seat in church for only a few moments to return and find that someone had placed a book there.  It was a great read on one of my heroes - Andrew White.  No one took responsibility, though I asked several people.  My appeal for the donor to reveal themselves continued apace with a notice in our church bulletin followed up by a personal appeal from the pulpit from Carol.  I was to ill to attend the service and in my absence she gave a stirring speech including the thought that maybe it was never intended for me as a gift at all!  Still I have heard nothing.

Then two days ago we received a large mystery parcel through the post addressed to Carol.  With no helpful post marks we removed the outer wrapping to find a beautifully wrapped box with a little card wishing Carol a Happy Christmas!  No sender.  The handwriting doesn't strike us as familiar.  We are left wondering who sent it.

As we approach Christmas this reminds me of a children's talk I often gave because nearly always we received cards which were unsigned.  One year I had a couple of anonymous cards and I asked the congregation about the senders.  Again nothing.  But the point was obvious!  When the greatest gift the world has ever received is given in the birth of Jesus we are left in no doubt who the sender is.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room....

Monday, December 17, 2018

Gleanings 5) Giveaway sentence

I mentioned my inexperience showing. In these early months I see mostly a random selection of texts and themes.  No big purpose seemed to hold sermons together.  Some sermons challenged people about their faith as in a sermon on 1 Cor 2:14-3:2. Which of the three are youUnspiritual man, spiritual man, mature man .1) Spirit absent  - threatens to describe so many who in practical living fail to look on the Cross and let the Holy Spirit guide their living - even in church so used to doing the Christian round of activities that we think this is the sum total of godly living. 2) Spirit present  - being born from above (John 3).  Paul says that the spiritual person has the gift of understanding, the mind of Christ, to perceive that the Cross is the power of God.  Spiritual people have access to a wisdom that the world mocks and the unspiritual dismiss.3) Spirit dominant - moves on from being spiritual babes to maturing and showing fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on.  Yes, it's easy to label others but what about ourselves?

Other texts popped up like Psalm 99 The Lord reigns/, Isaiah 28:14-22 He who believes will not be panicked,Mark 1:32-2:12 And a leper came to him .  Then I attempted a short series New Standards - 1) The new law of love, 2) New Worship, 3) New brotherliness.  I was working hard!

But in a sermon from Hebrews 5:11-.6.8  You cannot remain a good egg I had this giveaway sentence
Dear friends, I don't honestly believe that sermons make that much difference.  This growth in maturity to which we are all called must rest on our serious methodical Bible study, disciplined prayer life, ad dedicated use of devotional aids like hymns.

Of course, much does depend on the quality of our discipleship but here I let slip that I couldn't see sermons making much practical difference to people's lives.  In the years since I have grown more and more convicted about how much difference God can make to lives and communities when he empowers preaching.  Now it's all up to God to enable sermons to make spiritual impact but he also needs preachers who are expectant, open and humble.   I don't know whether I was any of these in these early months.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Gleanings 4) Beginning for real

Finishing training in the Summer I began in earnest on September 3rd 1972.  This was for real.  I was exercised about where to begin.  I wanted big themes. 

In the morning just four words: In the beginning, God ( Gen 1:1-13).  Emphatically everything begins with God.  These 4 words 1) put the world in its place.  I mentioned a friend who said to me "What I don't understand is why you need God.' How absurd to talk about our need! Without God there is nothing. It's not that man without God becomes a heap of dry bones or a handful of dust.  He's not even that - without God there's not even any dust.  In the very breath we draw to question God's significance we depend utterly and completely on him.  Its God first, humans second; God independent, man dependent; God Creator, man as maker; God as Love, man as loved.   These four words bring us to our knees in wonder and awe.

But, also these 4 words 2) put the church in its place.  Everything of value about our past and future as God's people depends on Him.  What a challenge to our pride, our spiritual assumptions, our future planning.   Our dependence on God should show in our humility, prayer, worship and listening to him  I told the story of the Hull politician Stanley Twidle who thought he had given such a important speech the local newspaper would be full of it. But he found just one line: Mr. Twidle also spoke!

 All this linked with the evening message:  In the beginning was the Word (John 1.1).  Jesus is the 1) first word - without him we would not have heard of God's love and gift of new life.  I warned of the church using a 'Do-it- yourself kit' and by our practice denying God the first word - excited by our own ideas, exalting common sense, talking all day without ever mentioning Jesus.   But Jesus is also the 2) personal word (v14) -  'we can meet Jesus as a person and in trust prove him future ministry in Blackburn will be spent spelling out what Jesus means to us - his personal word.  He is also the 3) last word  - Alpha and Omega who has the final word on us.

Yes, I was keen to push big themes but the following Sundays I was to reveal my inexperience.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Joy down memory lane

Last weekend took me back nearly thirty years - in the best possible ways.  Katherine and Lloyd Porter were visiting Cambridge with their daughters, having travelled from Perth Australia where they are both key leaders for Operation Mobilization.  Katherine is one of the eight-strong Global Leadership Team overseeing some 3,500 missionaries.  Lloyd is responsible for OM in Western Australia from where over 200 missionaries has been sent out in recent years.  Why was it so joyous to connect with them?

Because, in 1989 I baptized Katherine in heady days of conversions and sending out of missionaries in St. Andrew's St. Baptist church.  Upon graduating she went to Russia and served for 17 years, during which she met Lloyd.   And on this past weekend,29 years on, we not only spent time with this very gifted couple whose Christian glow lights up the room, but also on Saturday, at an Open House, other former students gathered to celebrate their time with Katherine in the Robert Hall Society (a Baptist student society based at the church).  One of them Michael Wray, who I had not seen since 1990, was our first Pastoral Assistant giving a year's service to the church following his graduation.  He brought four packs of very informal photographs of fellow students - on mission, doing pantomime, actually doing all sorts of studenty things.  The laughter as we passed these around, the memories stirred of others' names and personalities and the ongoing stories of their lives post-Cambridge were blissful to hear. Katherine commented  about the sheer wonder that all these people continue in Christian leadership across the world.

For Carol and me it was the first time we had sat down with a group of returning students with so many affectionate memories pouring out.  What joy down memory lane.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Gleanings 3) And next?

What happened afterwards? I heard nothing. Nothing at all!  Later I learned that many said I was too young for this 250 plus congregation church (and maybe it was the preaching too!). Disappointed, I went on to preach with a squint at another church which proved much keener to follow up with me.  However, just before I was due to preach with a view there, eight weeks later in the Christmas post came an invitation to preach with a view in Blackburn on 30th January 1972.

I am surprised at the sermons I preached. I really am. In the morning But Peter said 'No' (Acts 10: 1-16) engaged with the age old confrontation between man of habit, God of change; static man, dynamic God; man stays entrenched, God moves on.  I talked about experiments on 'learned responses' like those born blind who had recovered sight yet could not identify shapes they once knew by touch.  Now they had to count the corners by sight!  Peter finds personal habits, social habits and especially religious habits that have bound him are radically transformed and he cannot say No to God's new way.  I ended by confession that we look at those habits in our personal and church lives that restrict our response to God now. Dramatically different from my previous visit I involved myself in a willingness to be changed. And I needed to show the OT mattered too! In the evening 2 Samuel 18:24- 19:8 took some challenges from the narrative about David mourning his son Absalom.

An important notice (underlined) on the service sheet mentioned the Special Church and Congregational Meeting on February 8th. to make its decision about me.  This time I did hear back quickly that the majority felt (despite my 27 years) that God was calling me to be their minister. Carol and I had fallen in love with Blackburn and the church on our first visit and I remembered my pastor father's advice about discerning a call: 'You should fall in love with it.' We had and this confirmed it powerfully.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Gleanings 2) A squint

Baptist churches usually call their ministers after two preaches - first with a 'squint' and then (maybe) with a 'view'.  I had clean forgotten details about my squint  preach at my first church in Blackburn. The discerning church is supposed to learn much from this exercise -as does the minister!

My squint sermons on 17, Oct, 1971 were both evangelistic. First, John 10:7-21 focused on the crowd division after Jesus' Good Shepherd claims.( vs. 19, 20).  Mad, Bad or Good?  Second, John 3: 1-17 focused on Nicodemus asking 'How can this be" (verse 9).  I likened Nicodemus to a BBC commentator in a recent BBC documentary called The Jesus Trip. \It featured the unusual evangelist Arthur Blessitt who carried a cross and attracted crowds of ex-hippies.  At his Soul Clinic in Texas crowds of new disciples sang: 'You've got to be a baby...You've got to be a baby!  When the interviewer asked 'How?' this song was their reply. Not very sophisticated or satisfactory.

In John 3 Nicodemus is asking 'how' when Jesus says 'You've got to be a baby! Nicodemus finds this unsatisfactory and assumes the stance of sophisticated man: So, three points: 1) I'm not a baby is the response of 'conventional wisdom'.  I quoted J K Galbraith to make the point.  Nicodemus would like a debate.  2)'You've got to be a baby gives no scope for extended discussion.: Gavin Reid in The Gagging of God asked: 'Would discussion groups in place of the sermon imply that anybody's opinion is as good as God's?  While the church needs to be good at listening, and while it must be a welcoming community accepting those who will not dot every i' of biblical truth, it is not a debating society and the gospel is not up for discussion.  I concluded by challenging my hearers to say 3) I'm a baby..  You will never fully understand the mechanics of what God has done for you. You've got to be a baby. You can say 'Yes', or 'No' but not 'How' when you face Jesus.

Both these are a keen young man's sermons, aren't they? They reveal my love of John's gospel and of inductive sermon beginnings!  I sure wanted them to know that I was all about Jesus and us.  They met afterwards to consider me as potential minister.  Guess what happened?  .

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Gleanings 1) Intro

I have been thinking about dramatically thinning out my preaching archives.  In my first church in Blackburn I preached solidly (is that the right word?) for seven years - which means about 600 sermons. Preaching in my second church in Cambridge was mostly in a team with my associate ministers but I still reckon it's about another 1000 sermons. While I was at Spurgeon's College and in the US I preached many least another 500. Good grief!  The bulging box files confront me whenever I go into my study.

I remember a friend whose father was a very effective preacher asking me what he should do with the piles of his late father's sermons, all written in a meticulous hand.  Works of art, with underlining in different colours. Sadly, there is no positive way of describing the inevitable garbage disposal!  Apart from the greats in Christian history whose sermons are recorded, our preaching is necessarily for a time and a season. If the Spirit brought it alive it was back then.  

But, with the advantage/indulgence of my blog I am wondering if I can look back and see if there are elements  worth capturing.  I am calling them 'gleanings' because that refers to ideas etc. that are not acquired as a whole but are gathered or collected from different sources - in this case from sermons preached from 1972 until the present. My biggest problem will be selecting gleanings and not losing myself in nostalgic memories. Since each one took 8-10 hours to prepare (sometimes longer/shorter!) I invested a vast amount of time through the years.  Maybe 21,000 hours, 875 days? Of course my files of conference addresses, talks, lectures, speeches add extra groaning boxes.  Groans..yes!

My criteria for selection will (try) to edit items that are devotionally challenging stories, anecdotes and quotes. Sometimes illustrative of stages of my ministry who knows what I might find. I shall experiment for say 10 posts and then pause to reflect. As soon as it becomes boring with numbers of readers dropping off I shall cease.  That's a promise.