Thursday, March 28, 2019

First 2019 outing

It has been 5 months since I last preached and, with fuller lungs after the pneumonia I stepped back into the fray last Sunday.  The date had been in my diary for ages because it was part of the 150th. celebrations of Walsworth Road Baptist Church, Hitchin.

The minister, Rev. Andrew Henton-Pusey, was a student at Cambridge in the mid-60's and attended my church becoming heavily involved in its student ministry.  Significant things happened like meeting his wife Julie.  Sadly, I had forgotten some key specifics. As he introduced me he said that 25 years ago (he gave the exact date) I had invited him (as President of the Robert Hall Society - the Baptist student society) to preach from the Cambridge pulpit.  Apparently it was only the third time he had ever preached.  In sensing whether he was called into ministry he remembers some of my words like: 'I shall need to put every hurdle in your way!' God's call is so demanding you should only say yes when you have faced its many challenges and have no other choice.

What a delight to see Andrew and Julie 25 years on, and to remember Andrew's parents who were so involved in Carol's early Christian life! But to cap it all, we had lunch with old student friends whom I had not seen for 52 years.  Les and Judith Ebdon were members of the London student society and Les became President of the Baptist Student Federation (a body comprising some 30 Baptist groups in universities across the UK).   What a wonderful surprise to see them again.  I have seen Les's name in the national media over the years owing to his prominence in education issues, having been Vice Chancellor in two universities and latterly Director of  Equal Access (something like that!) - promoting fairness for students.  He was knighted last year but this seemed to make no difference to him as a deacon, a worker of the power-point,  a committed lay preacher and everything else.

This is the wonder of unsought networking in the Christian family when you are surprised by friends from way back who stir deep good memories and are as committed to the Lord as ever!  I guess this will be like the heaven experience, only to the nth degree!   I hope you have such stories and surprises too.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Gleanings 17) Too personal

I realized that by bringing myself into the picture by telling of my own anxiety I was identifying with many in the congregation.  I believe that there are times when sharing honestly (and it must be honest!) may connect at a deeper level.  No longer is the preacher up the front, distant, talking spiritual truths which can sound rather general and can be easily dismissed.  When a problem faces the whole church and a preacher tells it like it is spiritual truth is no longer general or easily dodged.

However, in the sermon I told another story by reading out a letter I had received the day after the meeting from a young couple. (I asked them for permission and very fortunately they could remain anonymous since there were many possible young couples in the congregation!)
You stated last night that several people have already shown the foresight and faith to give for a future new building.  We are prepared to show the same faith in the future by covenanting £100 a year for the seven years necessary for a covenant, to ensure that we can build a new church/centre for the present and the future.  If we could all stand and speak with the conviction that Christianity means optimism in the future for God's sake, we'd have no difficulty in having a new place...
It is difficult to appreciate how much the pound has devalued since then.  I went online to discover that  £100 in 1973 is equivalent in purchasing power to £1,199.38 in 2019! This was a remarkably generous gift pledged when who knows what financial quagmires might lie ahead for this couple.  It seems crazy.  I commented 'When Abraham set off people thought him crazy but let no one doubt that he trusted his Lord and his faith influenced his conduct. When we set off let people think we are crazy, but let no one doubt that we trust in a mighty, living, loving God for whom we are prepared to take risks and climb in vision.

Yes, but I realized for the first time how a preacher can be in danger of manipulating hearers with stories like these.  Cicero, the Roman orator said that speech should teach, delight and persuade. The preacher's priority is always letting God persuade through Scripture and using personal stories with utmost sensitively.  It was a lesson I had to learn.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Gleanings 16) Connecting personally

The sermon contained more of me, and us as a congregation, than I had ever preached before. Beginning with the tragic mountain story (last posting) I said: 'The only way to avoid the risks of height is to stay at ground level....and that's just what most of us do in the spiritual realm. When we face the mountains of faith, when we are called to rise to a vision and respond to a call which leads beyond what we are used to, when we are challenged to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar, the known for the unknown, the safe for the risk, when we face the mountains of faith we want to stay put.' I then shared what happened to me after the meeting - my feeling physically sick, sitting in the car after the meeting. My fear about the future and blunt desire to stay at ground level, to stay with thing as they have always been.

Abraham setting out from the familiar (Gen 12) exemplifies how faith leaves the familiar for the frightening unknown.  I spent time reminding us of his journey - 'faith involves things you would never dream of doing normally.'  And moved onto how Jesus dealt with people whom he called to be and do new things and how he often said:' Don't be afraid'.

Faith is frightening but also reassuring. The sermon's second part took Rom 4: 18-25 - once God had given his promise Abraham had faith that God would stick by that promise. 'He did not analyse it, suspect it, rationalize it, over-dramatize it; he refused either to deny it or even to doubt it, but drew strength from faith and gave glory to God.  He was sure that God the Creator is powerful when men are weak and he promises the safest route (though not the easiest).

When God calls us to do things we would never dream of doing normally, and take risks we would never begin to calculate, and climb when it seems failure hems us in on every side then we begin to find out what a live faith is.  We don't know what would have happened if Abraham hadn't responded with faith - No Israel, No Old Testament, No First Covenant?  We don't know what will happen if we don't respond in faith, or do we?

As I review that sermon, though, I am left with a question about how personal a preacher should be.....

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Gleanings 15) A shaken preacher.

The special meeting about dry rot drew 160 people. After presentations there was a strong sense that rather than pull the building down, the rot should be eradicated with the large affected areas left bare and, a new false ceiling built underneath.  I no longer possess the details but we knew the expense was likely to be huge. I knew people had been praying with vision and one or two people actually pledged gifts to make something happen within the meeting. But the majority felt extremely uncomfortable and I had strong criticism afterwards about the way the whole meeting had become too emotional.!

Immediately afterward when most people had gone home I went to my car and sat down. For a few seconds I felt physically sick.  Tension roiled right through my body. I was overcome about the sheer unknown future. I asked myself: 'What will happen now?  What will become of us?  Will we all respond to the challenge?'  I felt real fear about the future.  All that seemed familiar, known and safe was under threat.

Truthfully, though weekly offerings just saw us through regular commitments these were low considering the congregational size.  Giving was not our strong point. The financial implications of some big financial project were frightening.  Suddenly the church was faced by a mountain to climb. And that was the picture I had.  A mountain to climb by faith - full of risk.

Recent news had told the story of three schoolboys who were climbing Snowdon on the safest route - along the railway track.  Yet, tragically all three had fallen 600 feet to their deaths. Joe Brown the world-renowned mountaineer in the 70's was asked how this could have happened. Apparently, it was very safe apart from one short section, only 100 yards long, but with a sheer drop either side.  Here frozen snow could make the surface treacherous.  Climbers were tempted to rush across because it was such a short distance!  But that risked disaster and over 20 climbers had perished at this point in recent years.  There is no completely safe route when you climb a mountain.

As I thought about my next sermon I titled it :Faith - frightening yet reassuring (Gen. 12:1-5; Rom 4: 18-25) and decided to begin with this news story.  I now realize that I was more personally engaged with this sermon than I had ever been before.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Gleanings 14) Blessing then...and now

Looking for signs that this difficult church business meeting about dry rot actually began to make a difference to my preaching I found that shortly before the meeting I preached on Blessing (Deut. 28:1-14).  Blessing as 'God's power on the move like a surfer's wave engulfing and carrying high..."soul power" for the whole person, a whole people, who might know God's success". But, enjoying such blessing has a condition - 'if you obey the voice of the Lord.'  Blessing means experiencing God's power but his power comes through our obedience.  As I ended the sermon I definitely had this business meeting in mind:

'Deut. 28:2 warns us that if there is no obedient commitment then we shall not know what to aim for and the power at our disposal will not only be wrongly directed but it won't have the undefeated, unconquerable blessing of God.  That's what we should pray for as a church and as individuals. That the blessing of God shall come upon us and overtake us, leading positively and confidently forward, because we are committed, joined together in the massive band of people belonging to the Kingdom of God, with Jesus who leads us on to greater things.'

It seems such an obvious thing to do, doesn't it?  To listen to God as a whole people about his will in the practical problems they face.  And to hear publicly God's will through the preached word.

Two days ago an old friend called from Blackburn. A widow whose husband died a couple of years ago. She talked about the days when I was their minister in Blackburn and then she said: ' Just recently I was looking through the piles of old papers he kept and I came across his prayer book.  It was begun in the 70's and I found where he was praying for you specifically by name and that big meeting that we had in back July 1973 about what we should do about our building.' 

You can imagine what blessing that gave me. And what timing! I told her I was at that moment looking back at those days and how much I learned as a young minister.  And how much I owed to friends' prayers like her husband's.

Something was happening!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Gleanings 13) Bells and facing an elephant

My last post about gleanings from early sermons brought me to the dismal reminder that ever since my first Sunday in Blackburn I had seen signs in the roof and walls of serious building disease. High scaffolding in the early months of 1973 brought further investigations showing how widespread was the dry rot.  Just what was the future of the church building?

As I look at my sermons I see them trundling through stand-alone sermons - picking out key themes such as the Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.  But each one was entirely detached from the current dire situation. The Trinity sermon: Above all, Through all, In all  (Eph.. 4:6)  praised God who has dominion over us, communion with us and possession within us. I ended: ' By these three simple prepositions the scope of God's working with us leaves nothing out...Let us never underestimate any aspect of God's working.'  The same service bulletin had a notice urging members of the church and congregation to attend a special church meeting three weeks later to 'discuss the future of the church buildings.'  Maybe a connection between the 'God whose working leaves nothing out' and our practical building dilemma was in my mind.  But it wasn't explicit in my preaching.  I needed to get on a major learning curve about connecting preaching with real people and real situations!

One church member was a delightful retired Welsh Baptist minister.  When he wished to encourage me he would say with lilting accent: 'That rang five bells today!'   Mercifully he didn't grade me with lower bell counts...that rang one bell today! I appreciated him (as you can imagine) but it reinforced a expectation of little stand-alone sermons, little teaching/inspirational bubbles, to please people. No, I needed to join the dots between God's revealing transforming word in Scripture and my particular congregation, in this particular place, with this particular need. Was I ever going to mention God and dry rot?