Thursday, February 28, 2019


Very thankfully I can report that the X ray this afternoon showed my lung was now at least 90% inflated. In fact, the Registrar put the before/after Xrays on the same screen so that I could see the good news for myself.  Rather like a washing powder commercial with ugly patches on one Xray alongside an almost clear one.  It is an immense relief and we owe so much to our many friends, all over the place, who have upheld Carol and me through these weary weeks.

The doctor was a little wary about my flying long distances but not prohibitively I think we can plan to make up for our long-postponed visit to see our family in New York and friends in Chicago.  Because my visit earlier in the week to a swallowing clinic (did you know there were such things?)  I still have to undergo ingestion tests which apparently involve X rays and a barium drink.  So, there is a still a medical question mark and I won't be discharged without clearer answers.  But we are so grateful and can look ahead to fulfilling speaking engagements etc.

It's been an extraordinary journey with some dark twists and turns and several new experiences. Eating a banana, yoghurt, a biscuit and then drinking water under the eagle eye and prodding finger of the swallowing specialist was certainly a first!

We believe that prayers have been answered - we praise God for healing through the wonders of the National Health Service which, though under strain, has proved full of compassionate skill.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Good Church Guide 1989 (yes..1989!)

(Still awaiting lung Xray....)  I have just found this 1989 book. Mercifully, it has a disclaimer that it's not about distinguishing good from bad churches. Only the Lord can do that! Rather it is an information guide about 2000 churches with little symbols rather like a National Trust Handbook.  In Cambridgeshire 8 Baptist churches are listed including the church where I was minister (in 1989) St. Andrew's Street and Histon Baptist where I am now in membership.

For each church, after providing address and telephone number there are three main sections: Historical Interest, Membership and Worship.  Stars accompany historical interest. St. Andrew's Street has three but Histon has four stars with a note 'two red brick buildings set in lawns'.  Membership shows both listed membership and the size of the average congregation.  In the book's introduction it explains that usually the membership size is larger than the attendance.  However, for both churches it is reversed with much larger congregations than membership. A good sign! Worship has a number of symbols. For music both churches have the combination of the Baptist Hymn Book and Songs of Fellowship. For sermon length St A's has 20-25 minutes, Histon 25 minutes.  Both have family worship, house groups, and support missionaries but Histon has an extra symbol for Healing services.

I doubt this book had a wide readership.  It doesn't seem to have had any successors! 30 years on I reflect on some changes such as how much music in worship has changed, and how the place of healing had a significant role at Histon (and a lesser one at St. A's).  But I also rejoice in the stories of these two fellowships and my God experiences within them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Prayer fact check

In these days of social media claims and counter-claims, we are warned to be on the lookout for fake news.  Sometimes fact checks are provided by objective analysts who survey the data in order to try and set the record straight.  Thinking about my last post: 'In yer face' I was wondering about a claim I read recently.  It was in a book The Open Secret (1906). As an aside, let me say that I often find stimulus in reading old books (especially by preachers). Written by a man who in his day was an influential preacher - R. F. Horton- its language is inevitably a bit 1906.  So, he writes of the 'prayer closet' thinking of the quiet place to which we go in daily prayer   Anyway, this is the sentence that made me stop and think.

 People who have met God much in the prayer closet cannot but recognize each other in the world; they have a secret sign and a mutual understanding; in the golden atmosphere of prayer their outlines merge and their hearts unite.

It made me think.  Do people who pray consistently and quietly on their own recognize others who similarly practice prayer like this?  Do they have share a secret sign with mutual understanding?  Is there really a golden atmosphere of prayer that unites people at a deeper level?

Of course, you have to be practicing prayer that truly meets God in order both to be recognizable to others and also to realize that you are recognizable by a secret sign!  Looking back over my ministry I can recall certain people who immediately struck me as having a deep interior spiritual life (though I certainly was on the shallower side!) Sadly, I guess the opposite applies too.  I remember Sister Margaret Magdalene speaking at a ministers' conference and warning that the prayerless person stands out a mile a way. Horton's claim in an old book raises an important point - is it true or false?

Saturday, February 16, 2019

In yer face

A strange thing happened in our church house group this week.  We were looking at the subject of prayer in (Mat. 6 5-15) and discussing (among other issues) how we might be in danger of hypocritical prayer when one member of the group suddenly spoke up and described his daily practice.  This involved using a liturgical prayer to the Trinity which then set the scene for other prayers. Then he looked straight across at the group leader and said: 'How do you pray?' 

As polite English people who tend to be private on such matters this was a considerable shock.  But our group leader began to describe how he prayed, often while in the car,  Then it was the turn for each of us to share our daily practice.  Only six of us were present which probably helped the openness.  It still took several minutes to listen to each other and reflect.  Aware of the dangers of hypocrisy we all admitted our practice was not always consistent.  It was a really deepening experience. 

Being put on the spot spiritually is unusual for most of us.  I recall as Principal of Spurgeon's College being present in my home church of Holmesdale, South Norwood.  Alas, I rarely attended because most weekends I was away preaching.  After this morning service, an older West Indian gentleman sitting close by turned and asked me: ' How is your walk with Jesus?' It was a shock....but I thought afterwards it shouldn't have been.  I know it will expose hypocrisy but that is the key question.  And 'How do you pray? is another.  How would those questions find you?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Gleanings 12) Elephant in the roof

During all the time that I was offering my first sermons I was aware of a massive problem. A discovery had been made  in the months between my accepting the call to Blackburn in early 1972 and actually arriving. Surveyors and architect had found very extensive dry rot in the roof and walls.  In fact, it was judged to be so serious that it posed a huge question mark over the future of the church buildings.   Perhaps major repairs at great cost might save the building but it was suggested that maybe because it was so large and high it should be demolished and rebuilt!

I first heard about this when the church leaders wrote to me with the news and in 'good conscience' said that they would release me from my call to the church.  As they put it - it seems unfair to place such a heavy burden on a new minister.   I wish I had kept that letter!  Looking back it now seems such an unlikely scenario. I guess it may have happened to other ministers facing their first pastorate but with some naivety (I now realize) Carol and I prayed about it and replied to the leaders that we believed the call was still operative.  We would still come.

I had no clue what this might mean for my future ministry.  And from my first Sunday I could see the large areas of wall and ceiling where the plaster had been stripped to lay the problem bare. The elephant really was in the roof.  I no longer possess minutes of those early meetings when I arrived -so much background stuff is lost in memory.  But as I have been gleaning through this sermon file I was looking for the first signs that I would be facing this elephant, with my people, from the pulpit.

I really needed to...but how? 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Biopsy - some good, some mystery

Definitely some good!  The doctor informed me yesterday that the bronchoscopy revealed kiebsiella oxyloca infection (in case you are asking!) but no evidence of endobrochial mass. An immediate injection was required but earlier sinister possibilities seem to have faded away. Hallelujah! My Christian doctor commented that my pneumonia had been serious and it would take some time for me to feel really well but that we could see how prayer had worked through these weeks.  'We have a good Lord!' he said.  And we all fervently agreed.  Of course, though this is difficult to think through, we would still need to say that we have a good Lord if it had turned out to be lung cancer.   God's goodness is a constant!

However, some lung mystery remains.  The cause of my problem requires further analysis at a Dysphagia Clinic and the state of my collapsed lung cannot be assessed until Feb.28th. when we assume the hospital will look to see, with fresh X rays, how much of the lung has inflated.

Through all this weariness we rejoice in your prayer support and care which has made a tremendous difference.  My hope is that I shall only need to post once more on this drawn out illness...soon after Feb 28th. with a full(er) lung.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Gleanings 11) A great day for the piano player

(Still waiting biopsy results...soon!)  In my record collection I used to have a Duke Ellington disc, recorded live, and on the back of the record sleeve it said: 'A great day for the piano player' as it described the extraordinary circumstances of the particular live recording.  For a preacher there should be many great days but in my first year I discovered the thrilling dynamics of preaching at Easter. Looking back at these first sermons I catch the wonder and privilege.  I see several features that were to prove true for the rest of my ministry.

First, through the pacing of Lent and Sundays after Easter the gospel account of Jesus' last days captured me and gave such energy to re-enacting the agony and triumph of Easter. That wonder has never left me. I had reveled in my first Christmas but preaching at Easter became so significant for me that right up until the last couple of years (when I have sat in the pew) I have preached every Easter. That's over 46 years in very varied contexts - UK churches, festivals, and US churches of different stripes. Titles of those first sermons include: The Inescapable Cross (John 12:20-32), The courage of Jesus, Blessed are the meek (Zech. 9:9-12,Mark 11: 1-11), The Silences (Mt. 26:14-29,36-46) Die with him to live with him (John 20: 1-20; Rom 6:3-11), Is God alive today? , Full of gloom? (Luke 24:13-35).

Second, Easter morning was also a believer's baptismal service - with the Romans 6 text.  Janet, Kathleen and Brian were baptized and in the evening shared their conviction that God is alive today. It was a thrilling way to testify to being Easter people right there and then.  This was another element that was repeated right through my ministry - combining the Easter story and its transforming message with contemporary transformed people.  In honesty I must admit that some of the congregation objected through the years.  As one person forcefully told me: 'Having baptisms really spoils the day with its great hymns and family holiday spirit!'

Third, I was introduced to witnessing with other Christians in dramatic ways. On Palm Sunday 1973 the Blackburn churches set off from 6 assembly points to walk through the city for a service in the Cathedral.  I shall never forget the excitement of seeing so many coming together and the Provost exhorting us to shout out: Jesus is King!  At a later Easter I was the cathedral preacher for the day and the Provost (who became a good friend) said it was a real Baptist preach!  What did he mean?

Oh, yes, a great day for the preacher.