Thursday, December 31, 2020

5 Year Journals

Greetings for a bright(er) 2021!  Today I have reached the end of my 5 year journal which has charted daily happenings 2016-2020.  I started journaling in 1996 but have to admit that the journals only give 4-6 tight lines for each day.  Sometimes (as in these non-happening Covid days) this is more than enough space!  On other days I have needed to squeeze recording big moments.   As I look back I realize several things:

  1.  My handwriting is both appalling and small.  Really bad. To read earlier entries I now often need a magnifying glass and even then cannot decipher some of the words.  Clearly they meant something to me at the time.  This is the most frustrating find.
  2.  Nothing makes clearer the slowing of pace than to read of past life in a (Baptist) fast lane from early years at Spurgeon's College, through heady days in Chicago, to retirement in Cambridge.  I cannot believe what we packed into consecutive days back then.  A Wild 25 years!
  3. The jogging of memory that partially deciphered scribbles can still provoke - especially odd happenings of little consequence
  4. Overall, profound gratitude for the goodness of God shepherding us through these years and the kindness of friends who populate the pages.
I am glad I kept the discipline going through the years and though I have to wait a few weeks for a fresh journal (courtesy of Amazon) I shall try to keep going - with awareness both of the need for tidier writing and of the unlikelihood that will ever happen. 

May you have a really good fulfilling and healthy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2020


 Special (slightly late) greetings for all my blog friends with hopes high for 2021. As, on most Christmases, kind friends have sent cards and sometimes accompanying letters.   Some of you are among them.  We are really grateful for all the greetings.

Usually, I attempt a summary of the years' happenings which I confess made for much more fun when the children were at home and we possessed an adventurous cat.  We still revel in our children and grandchildren's exploits but now they send out their own letter and greetings.  This year of largely non-happenings posed a problem but I resolved it by telling a little story.   

Just last week, before (reseeing) another emotional TV session of Buying and Selling, Carol and I ventured a night walk round the block. This requires some daring. Most streetlights have been removed and intense darkness makes finding our way to the right home surprisingly tricky.  So many houses look just the same.  Since Carol’s severe labrythitis (starting this time last year) her loss of balance makes walking a series of erratic lurches.  Always needing to grasp my arm these lurches transmit an oscillation causing us to wobble together in a very distinctive zigzag formation. On this particular occasion, a man hailed us in the darkness: ‘It’s the Quickes…I recognized the walk’. Mercifully the night air carried his voice so, unusually, we heard him first time.  However, we had absolutely no idea who he was. We still don’t. This true story expresses much of 2020.  The powering down of memory cells, balance mechanisms, hearing and general alertness to life around. Fortunately, lockdowns mean fewer and fewer friends have been aware.

I know it's rather odd, but the whole year has been odd hasn't it.  So, with this insight into the Quicke lives let me express our love and greetings to my blog friends with prayers for a brighter 2021. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Nativity Play 2)


MARTHA:  It's certainly different

JUSTUS: I'm not sure I caught it all, when do the shepherds come on?

JOHN: There aren't any shepherds, I was really trying to get to grips with the whole concept of God incarnate.

JUSTUS:  Without shepherds?

JOHN: Well, yes really, without shepherds.

JUSTUS: But my wife's already started working on the costumes

MARTHA:  Could we maybe have one or two shepherds just to balance out the angels?

JOHN: Actually there aren't any angels in it either

MARTHA: But my daughter's set her heart on being an angel

SIMON: Could she perhaps play Mary instead?

JUSTUS:  I think young Sarah's down to play Mary

MARTHA: Maybe we could have two Mary's

JOHN: Erm, actually there isn't a part for a Mary

JUSTUS:  Come on, you'll be telling us there isn't a donkey in it next.

JOHN: But that's just it, I'm trying to look at the whole thing from God's point of view - to see it as the central purpose of history since time began. Rather than looking at what happened then, to try and express what it means now- to help people see the wonder of an infinite God taking on flesh and becoming one of us.

SIMON: Maybe he's got a point

JUSTUS: I still think it would be better with shepherds and angels

MARTHA:  People are going to be awfully disappointed

SIMON: It is Christmas John

JOHN: And surely this is what Christmas is all about

MARTHA:  I just think all this Word became flesh business is going to confuse people - keep it simple that's what I say. It might be alright for one of your books.

JUSTUS: Well you can put it in your book if you like, but I can't see anyone reading it. 

A Nativity Play 1)

One of the (many) joys when I was minister in Cambridge was the church drama group, who would often write their own material for our worship services.  I have just found this play set in a Church Meeting in North Jerusalem around AD50.  I jump into the script after some early church meeting matters (like signing the minutes!) ...

SIMON: Right - well let's move on to our arrangements for Christmas shall we? Now, John, I believe that you've had an idea for the nativity play.  

JOHN: Well, yes, I have actually, I've been working on it for a while. I thought it would be good to think about the coming of Christ in cosmic terms.

MARTHA: Mmm - sounds exciting

JOHN: To recognize the Jesus' birth was a truly earth shattering event

JASON: Amen to that.

SIMON: So have you got a script then?

JOHN: Well, actually I have. I'm hoping I might be able to extend it eventually into a book about Jesus' life- anyway here's the opening bit, that I thought we could use for Christmas.  In the beginning....

JUSTUS: Good beginning

MARTHA: Sounds a bit familiar

JOHN: In the beginning was the WORD....


JOHN: (After a pause) Well, what do you think?

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Grim Times

This week Carol received a bill for a rarely used credit card.  She knew she had used it at Subway for sandwich but was blown away by huge expenditures in Cape Town, S. Africa, which pushed the bill to hundreds of pounds spent.  What? And that was only up until the statement date of November 11th. Hundreds more had been spent since. Oh, you murmur, identity theft. Many of you will know the frustrations of dealing with fraud and the exasperation that such wicked mean people are around.  Especially at Christmas. Another spot of grim reality.

Putting this into perspective, you may have noticed that God, who has all the timing in the world, chooses a time of real wickedness and meanness in the reigns of Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas for the births and lives of John the Baptist and Jesus.  When Jesus is born Herod the Great massacres the innocents. In any happy safe story there would be an intervention. There isn't.  Jesus will begin his ministry when John is arrested (Mark 1:14).  In any happy safe story there would be a rescue of John. There isn't.  Surely John won't be beheaded in such a wanton way. He is. When Jesus is sent by Pilate to Herod who colludes in allowing the crucifixion surely there will be a reprieve. Some last moment of justice. There isn't.

From the beginning the world is a grim place for Jesus. The Herods are there at the begining and ending, inflicting fear, death, and random acts of cruelty.  Jesus comes when it is dark and he works as light in the darkness though the darkness will not overcome it.  Sometimes we behave as though Christian faith soothes out all the troubles and removes  problems and it's always going to be a happy safe story.  Christian discipleship follows Jesus today, knowing that he came within grim times to show that he is the Light of the World precisely within grim times.  Hallelujah. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advent shocks 3)

The greatest shock in the world remains 3. God chooses to become a baby. We should never ever get over this shock.  Oswald Chambers challenges us that it is not the Fatherhood of God that should amaze us but the babyhood of God.  He did not come from the human race. He came into it from above. Jesus Christ is not the best human being.  He is a being who cannot be accounted for by the human race at all. He is God incarnate, not man becoming God, but God coming into human flesh, coming into it from the outside.

Rationlists mock Christian claims about the virgin birth and the resurrection. Which sensible person could swallow such ideas?  But the two greatest events about God entering our world to change it - the birth and resurrection of Jesus - would always be much bigger than anything the world has ever seen before, wouldn't they?  This is God in action! They call for transrational thinking that recognizes subjects like God, infinity, incarnation and resurrection are beyond normal thinking. Honestly, would you expect to be able to explain them? 

When I was training for ministry my college Principal, an eccentric Welshman, sometimes surprised us in college chapel.  I remember him praising God that he was like a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere?  This really startled me. 'What did he say?'  How could God be a circle,  how might this picture help me praise God. Only later did I realize he was quoting Augustine with a desire to emphasize both the omnipresence of God with each of us yet also his infinity beyond our knowing.  And it does work to express how Jesus meets with us by his Spirit where we are though he reigns with the Father in glory.  Yet, does it work in this particular story?  God remains infinite in majesty, glory and power yet the centre of the the circle is SOMEWHERE.  Bethlehem and Nazareth.   

A large dose of transrational thinking is necessary for Advent praise!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Advent shocks 2)

 The first shock I noted was: 1. God chooses Nazareth.  My guidebook says: Nazareth 30 km from Tiberias, 35 km. from Haifa. It lies in a lovely position, nestling as in a cocoon scooped out of the hillside. Closer contact tends to disappoint the visitor...noisy and dusty with traffic, it wears a shabby and neglected air, in spite of the ostentation of some of its religious monuments.  And it is disappointing! You wonder why on earth God chooses this place.  Bethlehem is foretold by the prophet Micah and has a rich place in history as traced through the Old Testament. Nazareth, on the other hand, is never mentioned anywhere in Scripture until now.  How come this nondescript place becomes the home of Jesus for 30 years?

When I visited Nazareth with a group we saw the traditional sites but overall the guidebook summed it up  accurately.  Then, as were were about to leave, something happened that I shall never forget. I looked out of my coach window onto the busy, noisy dusty street straight into an open coffin carrying the body of a young woman.  Her family and others were following in procession.  Suddenly Nazareth was a place of real people going through life and death. In this place we were were passing through ordinary people lived a lifetime. 'God became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood' (John 1:14 The Message).  This neighbourhood.  He will be known as Jesus of Nazareth and cynics will say: 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'  

Why did God choose Nazareth.?  Is it possible because Mary lived in Nazareth?  That, because 2. God chooses Mary - the place of Nazareth becomes inevitably vital in God's story?  The choice of Mary has become so familiar in its telling yet it should still startle.  This teenager, probably mid-teens is engaged to be married (which in Jewish law was binding and should the fiancĂ© die she would be a widow).  All her future is settled, planned out in trusting faith.  Until Gabriel interrupts with what seems to be impossible news that she will give birth to the one who will be called the Son of God.  But as Gabriel says: 'nothing is impossible with God,' (Luke 1: 37).   What turmoil this stirs up for both Mary and Joseph, yet this birth will change the world.   Onto choice 3.......

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Advent shocks (1)

I am calling next Sunday's sermon Advent Shocks though I know how difficult it is to be shocked by a story we know so well.  Rather like telling something good about someone and then asking them to act surprised if they hear it from the person concerned. 'Pretend you don't know!' How difficult is that? And yet, I shall seek to push for some surprises in Luke 1:26-38.

I shall dare to ask about God's choices.  Why did he choose certain elements of this story? Obviously the 'sixth month' (v26) emphasizes the role of Elizabeth's pregnancy in the advent timeline.  Six months into her pregnancy reminds us how God chooses to begin the Christmas story with the nativity story of John the Baptist.  To have two utterly unknowns Zechariah and Elizabeth in the frame, with Gabriel giving them a parallel message to that of Mary, wakes us up to see how God loves to work by ordinary human ways to change the history.  When he could have gone public with Gabriel's God-zapping in a big impressive way he chooses to work by his Spirit with ordinary humans - pregnancy, birth and trusting lives.

I invite you to look further at these familiar verses and reflect on what surprises I might be about to highlight concerning God's choices.  I see three key advent shocks.  I will spell them out in the next post or two.  I am fairly sure you will guess them!

Monday, November 30, 2020

An emergency Advent sermon

Preaching on zoom in our church involves a practice with the zoom master (a new liturgical term) at 9:30 am, which involves all those taking part to ensure seamless interchanges between different speakers in their homes. I was ready to join on time when my laptop announced that I had no internet connection.  Fortunately, this happens rarely. Fairly calmly I rebooted the house internet.  This has worked before!  Not this time.  Less calmly, as an IT rabbit, I attempted to reconnect as Carol kept urging me to call John, our main church zoom master.

Eventually, I did call and John immediately invited me to preach from his own office housed in their attic. Readers of this blog will know of my GPS fortunes (!) and I put his postcode in the Garmin with a little foreboding as time was running out.   And, alas, I was led to the wrong house though John charged down the road to retrieve me.  I was the first person in their home since lockdown but John (masked) said to me (masked) this was an emergency and surely allowable. 

His equipment is professional though I needed to be careful - since I like to stand I had to mind my head on the sloping roof!  And so, in surprising circumstances, I was able to share in a very well planned service led by two friends from Brazil who lit the first candle and shared something of Advent in Brazil.  My sermon on Luke 1:1-35 was on 5 names and 4 births.  The 5 names are obvious though it remains remarkable that Gabriel's God-zapping intervention lasted only a few minutes and the rest of the story is of God working through ordinary human ways to change history.  

It's worth asking also how many births matter at Advent. Obviously, Jesus (though too often he is ignored). Luke's history insists that John is critical too with his being the first advent nativity. Then it's you and me - in God's long term planning we are included. And the fourth birth is the second birth, being born anew in the love, forgiveness and power of Jesus.  I was able to include the testimony of one of our housegroup members to illustrate how God's Spirit works through ordinary human ways to change history and change us.

Angelus Silesius put it this way: Christ could be born a thousand times in Galilee....but all is vain until He is born in me.

Thursday, November 26, 2020


One of the high points of our US experience was the annual Thanksgiving Day (today - the last Thursday of November) when families and friends gathered over a traditional meal in thankfulness.  I know I have posted on this before because Carol and I never got over these delicious times of being positive and consciously finding reasons to be thankful and sounding them out to others.  Since returning to the UK we have continued the festival, inviting friends to our Cambridge home.  Over the meal Carol recounts the origins of the celebration in the early travails and harvest success of the Pilgrim Fathers before each of us around the table shares something they are truly thankful for.

I say truly thankful because I guess thanks may not always be truly!  That song line: Give thanks with a grateful heart has always posed the question to me: Can we give thanks with an ungrateful heart?   And I think we can....perfunctorily, as duty, we can say thank you without allowing enough pause and thought about the kindness, effort, and love involved. 

On this Covid-clobbered day Carol and I will  share Thanksgiving alone.  She set the table last night complete with a model Pilgrim Father and (of course) thanksgiving napkins.  Putting the photograph on Facebook we were astonished at the greetings and likes from all over the place.  We know we have so much to give thanks for with genuinely grateful hearts.  Thanks to God for all his love so powerfully expressed at Advent and for the love shared with family and friends.  We hope to banish anything  perfunctory or duty!  And enjoy the turkey.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A tough sermon

I knew preaching last Sunday would be tough. Part would be OK.  Rev. 21:1-7 describes the ultimate picture of what lies ahead for this world and us. Its description is glorious: a new heaven and a new earth, with God in the midst and no more death, mourning, pain because the old has passed away and the new has come. Sometimes used at funeral services its a wonderful picture.  But move onto verse 8 - shock and horror! How often do we hear about the 'fiery lake of burning sulphur' and God's judgement! I confessed on Sunday that in an earlier sermon I only used v1-7 with its upbeat theme of those who will be overcomers as they stayed true to Jesus.  Linking the encouragements given overcomers in local churches in chapter 2 (and to us today) with the final picture of a new heaven and new earth where again overcomers (21:7) are encouraged to see their inheritance - ultimate glory with heaven and earth transformed as God is in the midst - sounds out such a positive picture.

However, verse 8 is necessary to see the whole of  God's Project Big Picture which shows him not only as the God of Love and Mercy but also of Justice.  And you cannot have justice without judgment or mercy without justice.  Everyone is accountable to God (2 Cor. 5:10) but those who reject him to destroy his creation and its relationships face dire judgement.  How uncomfortable this message is.  How rarely do we talk about. 

I recounted how C.S. Lewis as an atheist rejected God because the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had he got this idea of just and unjust. He wrote: 'What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust. If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show find myself in such violent reactions against it.   Of course I could have said my idea of justice was a private idea but if I did my argument against God collapsed.  Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words that the whole of reality was senseless - I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – the idea of justice was full of sense.   Atheism is too simple. If whole universe has no meaning we should never have found it that is has no meaning'.  Later he put it this way: 'There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’  and those to whom God says in the end ‘Thy will be done’….. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.'

Sometimes being faithful to God's word requires all the verses in a text! Tough! (Anyone wanting to follow this up can find the sermon on Histon Baptist Church website under resources!)


Monday, November 16, 2020

Bible use/misuse

Thinking about that spider story, purportedly from the Bible (last post), I can't help but think back to past days when going to church often meant carrying a Bible.  I remember jokes in the 50's and 60's about the bigger the Bible you carried the holier you were!  And some people did carry big Bibles!  It was certainly encouraged in my youth and teens with the express intention that when the Scripture reading was announced you located the verses and followed along.  And, then, most importantly when the preacher began speaking, Bibles were open again so that the sermon's exegesis helped open up the text in front of you.  

At its best, this meant that in a piece of Scripture God freshly spoke to you.  We were sometimes encouraged to make underlinings and keep accompanying notes. But at its worst, it would raise awkward questions about key points missed or other bits skated over. And, I suppose, whether a story about spiders was even there!  Today, obvious Bible carrying seems less, though scrolling the Bible on smart phones works for many.  Clearly churches with screens carrying the text have substituted using your own. However, attentiveness to open Scripture while listening to sermons often seems missing.

Preparing next Sunday's sermon I realize how attentive Bible readers would have given me a much harder time in the past.  My text is Revelation 21: 1-8 - God's promise of a new heaven and a new earth.  Looking back I see that I have preached a sermon 'The Overcomers' with delight in God's glorious vision for the future.  But, to my horror, I chose only Rev. 21:1-7.   Anyone with a Bible open when I was preaching would have noticed how I had missed verse 8 with its judgement ending in the 'fiery lake of burning sulphur.'  It's obvious why I stopped short!  Who wants to hear about judgement?  My preaching was aimed positively for Overcomers.  But God's project big picture holds together love and justice.  So that's why right now I am preparing this sermon firmly including verse 8.  And calling it: God's project big picture.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Where did the spider come from?

I was intrigued to read Bob Woodward's book 'Rage' last week.  At the beginning he describes some background details in the lives of political characters caught up in the Trump story. He writes about  keen Christian friends, Mike Pence and Dan Coates together with their wives who met for a lengthy prayer session in their concern to follow God's guiding about their political futures. 

On this occasion Pence recounted the Old Testament story of David, who was hiding from King Saul in a cave when God sent a spider to weave a web across the cave opening. On seeing the web, Saul did not enter the cave. The spider had concealed David's presence and saved his life.  The story showed that even a spider might be an instrument of great salvation in the hand of God. 

Marsha Coates, whose grandparents were ministers, had never heard a sermon as serious and deep. The story raised obvious questions. Could a spider normally a cause for fear, bring salvation? (Page 25). 

You can guess why I was intrigued?  Two reasons (at least).  First, it's not in the Old Testament!  1 Sam. 24 certainly tells of David in a cave, but while he is hiding, the pursuing Saul comes into the same cave to relieve himself!  Oh, no spider?  David's men want him to kill Saul, but instead David cuts off a corner of Saul's robe, only to be conscience stricken and to confess to Saul leading to an extraordinary reconciliation.  

Second, where did the spider come from?  I immediately thought of the story I learned at school about Robert Bruce in the cave witnessing a spider at work and marvelling at its patience!  Surely not that! So, where did the spider come from?  Was it some misheard sermon or illustration that became confused with the bible story.  Did Bob Woodward misreport it?   Somewhere along the line biblical illiteracy is at work - all the more seriously if this is the most serious and deep sermon ever heard. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

120 letters 4) Big regret

I must cease further commenting on these letters because trawling through them has triggered too much else that is of little or no interest to others.

However, I do have one very big regret.  Apart from sending a handful of replies I deeply regret that I did not write  return letters to most of these friends, who had sometimes spent a great deal of effort describing events and relationships in my past with some delightful reflections.  As I have read them again I realize just how much I should have replied properly giving back with some quality time and thought.

I know I can make excuses that time was pressurized (and it was) and that several told me not to bother to reply.   But how splendid it would have been to match these handwritten letters of support with grateful thankyous!   Sending thankyous was imprinted on my childhood manners.  My mother insisted that as soon as I received something I should immediately write a thank you note.   I remember the inevitable birthday mantra - ' 'Have you written those thank you letters yet?'  I think it is good practice....but sadly recognize I largely missed the opportunity back in 1993.   A bit late now, but a jolt to future behaviour!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

120 letters 3) An insight

Looking over these letters seems a little like trailing through a Baptist Who's Who of 1993.  A surprising number of denominational leaders and others took the trouble to write - often handwritten letters too.  (A friend commented how rarely we write by hand today...and how much we miss that personal touch.  I am guilty of typing though Carol tells me noone can read my writing anyway!) 

One of the letters came from a man I did not know yet and in his hand written letter (!) he commented: 'I was told that you did not seek this post.  When the Lord leads us in this way I always think it's such a confirmation that it's right!'  Not only was he right about me not seeking the post but I actively rejected the possibility when a member of the search committee first approached me.  It seemed to me an utterly absurd idea - and I could list many reasons why I was disqualified.  Another member of the search committee tried again with me.   It was an extraordinary time as I underwent a gradual 'Christian battering' from people I didn't really know.  I went to the first interview thinking I was making the numbers up.  Indeed, after that interview one of the interviewers called me and begged me to be more proactive in the second interview!

I have come to believe that this comment above is a true insight.  Because when you really do not seek the call it may be the Lord's leading!  Of course, much depends on the spiritual qualities of those inviting you!  And looking back I realize that not one of my ministerial moves was of my own volition.  Moves to Blackburn, Cambridge, Spurgeon's and the USA were never sought.....indeed the move to the USA was the weirdest set of circumstances of all.   Now, I know this is not true for many people, especially in these days of seeing vacant ministerial positions and needing to apply but my testimony is that this backwards way of moving into a new role can be blessed by God.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

120 letters 2) A hymn

The first hand-written letter in my file came from an evangelist friend, Vic Jackopson, who was at that time heading up HOPE NOW International Ministries.  Vic was a long-standing friend of both Carol and myself.  Indeed he sent a very generous gift to Carol to buy herself a new outfit!  That was especially welcome in our very tight finances. But what really impacted me was a four verse hymn that he had written to celebrate my appointment.  Set to the tune 'For the beauty of the earth' it is based on Psalm 16.  He wrote that one of his fondest memories as a student at Spurgeon's was when the Vice Principal Frank Fitzsimmonds prayed in chapel :'We thank you, good Lord, that you have caused our lines to fall in pleasant places'.  Vic having left prison as a new Christian before coming to college especially appreciated that prayer.

Having just rediscovered this letter and hymn I was amazed when yesterday Vic phoned us out of the blue.  Still hard at work he was asking for my preaching help for a student he is mentoring.  When I told him about his March 1993 letter and hymn he had no recollection of writing it and said it was not likely to be of the highest quality writing. But, as you can imagine, he was thrilled that I had kept it and treasure it still. 'Please would you send me a copy?' he asked. 

I have just sent him scans by email and marvel at the way that an old letter provokes so much praise.  Like his second verse:

Lord, you have been our God and King

And a great Provider too;  

For we possess no good thing 

But that which has come from you. 

Therefore shall our tongues give voice 

And our hearts in you rejoice.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

120 letters

I have just struck a little treasure trove which (as a sure sign of age) I had no idea I had kept through the years.  No idea! When I was appointed as Principal at Spurgeon's College in 1993 I received many personal letters (sometimes very personal) from a wide range of people, churches and organizations.  It has been such a revelation to browse through them.  One wrote a celebration poem, another a hymn, another sent a picture of Spurgeon and me!  Many expressed surprise at my appointment - which I felt too. Some told me things about myself I had never heard before!  I am humbled by the care so many friends and church leaders took in writing their reflections. 

One of the longest letters came from Frank Goodwin, the minister who had baptized Carol in Chatsworth Way Baptist Church, W. Norwood.  He later became President of the Baptist Union and I grew to know and greatly respect him.  His four handwritten pages contain so many gems including some advice about the task of ministry.

  'I'll not "congratulate" you for that would imply that there is something higher than the pastorate and that I cannot accept.  However, I doubt there's a more demanding and necessary task than preparing those who have a call to the ministry. If I had any advice to give it would be: 

  1. Encourage the power of communication, so many know but know not how to tell.
  2. Show them how to both lean on one's members and yet lead them.
  3. Encourage the remembrance of the Call for that can be a well of cool water in a hot dry spell.
  4. While one is there to serve, one is always Servant of God. He sets the agenda.
  5. All students should read P.T. Forsyth.  His observation that the first task of the individual preacher is to enable to Church to preach has guided me and set me goals.
He also mentioned about encouraging ministers' dress sense!  At the end he invited me to stay in their retirement home in Tenby which we duly did.  So many things have popped up since discovering this little trove.  Perhaps another post?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

GPS exasperation

A short while ago I posted our (mis)adventure with our GPS.  I called it a frolic but it was anything but.  Yesterday, we needed to post a card for a friend facing an operation. Having learned from our past experience I put the address in the GPS keeping the address details in the car.  It should have taken around 15 minutes though three way temporary traffic lights proved frustratingly erratic - only turning green for road repair vehicles to wander across blocking our way before turning red. (Aren't three/four way temporary lights the worst?)

As we neared the turning, the gentle GPS voice guided us to turn right down a road and then announced we had arrived.  However, we were on a completely different road.  As rain began to fall more heavily I drove on and on through the estate looking at every road sign.  Back on the main road we re-entered the process to begin again. Carol was sighing - not again! By now the rain was intense.  Still there was no sign of the missing road but a woman was running, without a coat, to get out of the rain.  Without sensitivity Carol shouted out where was this missing road. 'I'm getting wet' she said, pointing back where we had come.  By now the rain was monsoonal sweeping a small flash flood down the road!  As we turned round we saw a layby and a path that was almost obscured by parked cars.  And also obscured was the name of the road which turned out to be a path between houses.  Having checked the number Carol waited for the gusting rain to ease and when it didn't she set off only to find she couldn't find the house anywhere. Through the windscreen I saw this forlorn figure wandering about and eventuallycrossing a front lawn to a house tucked away on the side. 

So, relief the job was done but with guilt that a woman was soaking because she had given us directions and exasperation that a reputation is growing!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020


A particular rail journey came into my mind recently.  I was travelling up to York. We made good progress until north of Doncaster where we suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere.  Over the intercom, after a crackle ,came an assuring voice:' Good morning, this is your conductor speaking. I apologize for the delay but up ahead there is a train across the line.  I shall let you know more just as soon as I hear more details. I apologize for the delay,'  People smiled wearily in the carriage and I thought at least this man had told us what was happening though it did seem rather odd.

Fifteen minutes later came another crackle: 'Good morning, this is your conductor speaking. Did I say there was a train across the line? I meant to say there is a tree across the line.  They have called for a team to cut it down. I shall let you know when I am next told anything'.  There was amusement in the carriage but also a loss of could someone make a mistake like that?  And, of course, it meant a lengthy delay to our journey

When we are on a journey there are some details that we want to be trustworthy and true.  And on the 'journey of life' it is critical for the living of lives and the end of lives and, indeed, for the end of time that we can be assured about the big picture ahead.  All this came to mind when I was reading Rev. 21: with its vision of God's future: Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true (v5).  That's what we need to hear! 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

A Follow Up

Tonight Carol and I were delighted to just catch Ron and Gill before they move away from the church house where they have been a great couple in ministry for 19 years at our Histon church.  The house is now bare as final removal occurs this weekend.  Carol mentioned that I had found the Ordination and Induction service leaflet for the beginning of their ministry at Stradbroke.

They appeared astonished!   Neither of them has a copy and were clearly surprised that I had found mine. 'Would you like to receive it?" I asked. ' Oh, yes!' they chorused.   Ron reminisced how it was an unusual service comprising both ordination and induction in the new church and Gill couldn't remember that she actually made a vow as Minister's wife.  I still cannot remember any other minister's wife making such a vow in the many services I shared in over the years.  And, what's more, she really fulfilled the vow:

Superintendent: Gill you have heard the commitment that Ron has made to this church, do you promise to encourage and support him as he exercises ministry in this church and community?

 Gill: Relying on God's help, I do.

My archives continue to contain far too much stuff but I am glad to have uncovered this at the propitious time - marking a beginning with a good ending! 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

A Happy Discovery

My last post shared about my memory bank being happily opened in a carpark.  Yesterday, I discovered something else that happened...... on Saturday 17th September 1994.  It was my first year as Principal at Spurgeon's College and one of my new responsibilities was to conduct ordination and sometimes induction services of students who had settled in their first churches. I remember it was a hectic Summer and it turns out that I had five such services in September alone.

Yesterday, in an old file, I found some details about them including some printed orders of service.  Now, I can remember the students themselves (sometimes vividly) but I confess I could not be sure when and with whom I was actually involved in their ministry beginnings.  But there in black and white were the details for 17th September at Stradbroke Baptist Church where my own minister who has just retired was ordained by me!  Ron and Gill Day made their vows (with a special vow of commitment of the Minister's wife) at the beginning of their ministry in Stradbroke before moving to Histon Baptist Church in 2001 where they both ministered until retirement.  At the back of my mind I had a picture of being involved but  now I know.  

I preached on Rev. 3:7-13 focusing on verse 8: See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.  Written originally to a small community with little strength but which has been faithful, this is the most positive of the seven letters in Revelation. The picture of the open door suggests two journeys.  One - IN into God's promises which Jesus unlocks with a triumphant universal YES. In the face of an uncaring world and negatives all around, we trust in God's promises. On my ordination I received a card: 'The Lord bless you more than you deserve and as much as you can take'.  Two - OUT, into God's world.  It's a temptation to close the door on the world's noise and hostility. But Jesus calls us to go through the door of mission and service in his courage and love.  You can imagine how the challenge went!

What thrills me reading back about this, is that I have been present as a church member as Ron and Gill have moved to retirement and I have witnessed their ministry going in and out of the open door for all of us in Histon.  Their story of ministry has ended so well...and who knows what doors may yet be open. It is still true for them: The Lord bless you more than you deserve and as much as you can take'.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Car Park Rendezvous

When we retired to Cambridge I mused that it was a city where we had a bit of personal history which meant that though we had been away 25 years we would occasionally be happily reminded of our past.

The other day an errand took us the other side of town and we visited a supermarket that we rarely use. Parking, donning masks and getting shopping bags ready we were surprised to hear the man about to load shopping into the car parked next to us. He spoke! Wearing a mask which slightly delayed recognition he greeted us with such enthusiasm. As he spoke the years rolled away.  He was a youth leader in our Cambridge church - an entirely voluntary role into which he flung himself headlong.  A gifted teacher, his rapport with the young people, combining immense energy and Christian zest, helped many young people make Christian commitments. Others were in the leadership team but his contribution was outstanding.

'Oh, how I miss those days!, he said. 'I'm still in touch with all those young people and they are still going strong for God. Some are church leaders now and I follow their marriages and family happenings and all that sort of thing'.  His face beamed.  Right there in the car park, I was suddenly reconnected with my past and realized with joy how the story has gone on and on.  We made promises to keep in touch more conscientiously.....and I hope we do.  There's nothing like picking up an old story of past joys and discovering it remains contemporary.

Friday, September 18, 2020

GPS frolic

This week we were invited to a Covid aware 80th birthday - just four of us for tea in the garden. We had not visited them before so I punched their details into my GPS -  postcode, full address and house number.  Their village is less than 6 miles away and we left early just in case we caught a traffic problem. Carol had warned them that even with a Garmin voicing directions I can easily get lost.

With joy we entered their one long twisting road of new houses, with nooks and crannies at every turn.  They had told us they were tucked away in a corner and we should look out for their white car and park beside it.  To my alarm, no sooner had we driven into the road than Garmin announced we had arrived though clearly not at the right house - not in a corner, no white car.  Carol said the house number was 30, so we drove round to find it.  It had no white car but many cards along the window ledge. No one replied at the front door so Carol went round to the garden.  Mercifully she met no fierce dog nor fierce anyone.  Wrong house.  Driving further along we saw a house tucked in a corner with a white car and Carol knocked on the door to discover a delightful couple who invited her in to phone our friends and find exactly where they were.  It was then we realized we had not brought details of their phone as well as house number.

We tried our friendly Church Elder on the phone to get the details but he was out for a walk.  So, with Carol telling me she would never drive out with me again, we began to drive painstakingly up and down this long road in the hopes our friends would see us.  We were surprised how many white cars there were.  Our friends had promised to look out for us....but for forty minutes we explored every nook and cranny without seeing anyone.  Filled with doom we drove along the entire road yet again when we spotted our friend waving furiously in a corner.  Apparently we had visited earlier and he had actually seen us from the front window, come downstairs to greet us only to see us career off again.  The number of their house was nothing like 30.

How utterly stupid to visit someone without their address and phone number!  I know!  I really know! Happily I can report that we had a good time once blood pressures had subsided.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Old Codger

Yesterday, I had to be in church an hour early so that the whole service could be run through with the zoom master and team which involved extra work on making sure the power point was not in too much danger of being poisonous (as last post!)  When the service went live there were 30 people in church (with masks on and socially distanced) and a church friend Andrew was leading the service.

Something embarrassing happened just before the sermon.  I went up on the platform ready to speak and I saw that he had a print out with my photo on it with some of the details of my education, ministries etc.  To my horror he said that he needed to explain to people who I was since many of them would not know. So he read out some of the biographical stuff.   Afterwards he said to me; 'You didn't like me doing that, did you?'  I said no and how it reminded me of past occasions, especially in the US, when a screed was read before I spoke. (Actually I think British people can often react badly against this and probably some found it extremely irritating).  'Well', he said, 'I don't want people to think you are just some old codger who has wandered into Histon Baptist Church!' 

I had to smile.  Old codger it is!

Friday, September 11, 2020

Power point poison

I have been preaching again these two Sundays at my local church and they are keen on using power point for preaching. That has become the tradition over many years. So, I am currently completing a short set of slides. Looking out through my office window I saw a friend walking his dogs on the road and thought it would be good to greet him.(All distractions welcome!) Going outside I told him that I was in the middle of working on power point for my sermon to which he exclaimed: 'Power point poison!'  'You don't like power point?' I asked rather unnecessarily. Emphatically he told me that so often the content on the screen swallows up the speaker so that you just don't listen properly and all the words just slide off instead of sticking.  The technology comes between speaker and hearers and poisons the art of listening.

It's a long time ago that I posted some blogs on the merits and demerits of power point. When I heard my friend it reminded me how very negative they can be for some people. Certainly, because I preach without notes I am necessarily constrained by power point but I also recognize that congregations develop their own response patterns dependent on the preacher's usual style.

I have ended up with just nine slides for Sunday.  Because we use zoom I am unable to click the next slide and the IT team needs to operate the slides.  I asked them to show each slide briefly and then return the screen to me.  The team leader was puzzled:;'Normally, we leave the slide show running the whole time'. 'Ah,' said the worship leader, ' he wants to see the whites of the sinners' eyes!'  I wouldn't put it exactly like that but I am hoping it will be a good compromise between seeing the speaker and having salient points emphasized on the screen.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Another word on Bunyan

With my interest in preaching I must add this. As a young adult Bunyan could neither read not write.  He did not make Christian commitment until his late twenties and did not preach until almost 30 years old. Yet. this late developer was to become known world wide as a Christian writer of long lasting influence as well as a gifted preacher. 

He describes how in his church fellowship 'some of the most notable among the saints with us' perceived that he might be a preacher and they asked him to accompany the preaching elders to give his testimony or even a sermon.  I guess it was to test his gifting.  Well, they found out soon enough.  He was immensely surprised to find himself a preacher as the hundreds flocked to hear him.  Often in the open air on village greens, in barns, in private houses and sometimes even in parish churches people's lives were changed as he preached. A biographer comments that his passionate sincerity coupled with a  concern for the souls of his hearers meant he always worked to find some word from God which would awaken their consciences. The biographer says he also preached with fear and trembling.

In his book Grace Abounding he writes'In my preaching I have really been in pain, and have as it were travailed to bring forth children to God; neither could I be satisfied unless some fruit did appear in my work.' He goes on to say that ' it pleased me nothing to see some people drink in opinions if they seemed ignorant of Jesus Christ' but rather those who found ' the worth of their own salvation, sound conviction of sin, especially for unbelief, and an heart set on fire to be save by Christ , with strong breathings after a truly sanctified soul. That it was that delighted me; these were the souls I counted blessed.'

I was struck by his humility and his focus. Genuine surprise that he was selected to preach and anguished trouble if his preaching made no difference!  The high call of preaching.  Here was no passing on information but only desire to be used by God to transform.  I am glad to be reminded of him.

Monday, August 31, 2020

John Bunyan

I have just noticed that on August 31, 1688 the English Puritan writer and preacher John Bunyan died at the age of 59.  In the Cambridge church, where I was minister, we had a large stained glass window at the front showing key figures from the story of Pilgrim's Progress, with a central focus on Christian and his burden rolling off as he looked up at the Cross.  Baptist churches do not often have such windows! It was a powerful reminder of the Christian message as well as of John Bunyan who spent his life within 5 miles of his birthplace in Bedford apart from occasional visits to London such as the one in this story.

So many aspects of his life are remarkable.  But I didn't realize until today that he died because of promise he made to a young man whose father, who lived in Reading, had become so angry that he threatened to disinherit him.  In the middle of August 1688 Bunyan had to ride horseback to London to preach there and, because of this young man's trouble he decided to detour to Reading.  He was already tired and probably his wife had not wanted him to travel at all but Bunyan had friends in Reading with whom he stayed and for whom he preached. The day after, he visited the irate father in the morning and successfully achieved reconciliation with his son.  About midday he set off to cover the 40 miles to London.  But before long a heavy storm broke and pounded him with rain for several hours. Soaked to the skin, shivering and exhausted he reached his destination where friends put him to bed, and gave him a potion.  He seemed to improve a little and next day worked on his latest book for publication. Indeed, he felt strong enough to preach but two days later pneumonia hit him.  A doctor could nothing for him and on 31st. August he died.

Some biographers have commented how typical it was of him to take key themes of his preaching - love and reconciliation - so seriously that he made this detour and suffered sad consequences. That he was pastoral to the end.  With all the other tributes that can be made to him we see he never stopped caring for people. This story really brings out the character of the man and I am even more grateful for his legacy given to us all.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

God's Growth Book 3)

 Completing the C's:

  • COVENANT - God makes promises to a chosen people, beginning with Abraham, in a two way relationship which is intended to bless the whole world.  The rest of the Old Testament spells out the story with its ups-and-downs through sacrifices, temple, prophets, priests and kings.
  • CHRIST - the pivotal point of revelation when God becomes flesh to live among us and overcome the barrier of sin by his own sacrifice to put us at-one-ment with God. 
  • CHURCH - a people within whom God's Spirit lives who now belong to a new covenant which is intended to bless the whole world.
  • CONSUMMATION - Jesus' return and ultimate remaking of cosmos.
3. It's human and divine - 66 books written by different authors over 1500 years comprise one whole story where God is intimately involved so that we can claim the Bible is the Word of God given in the words of people in history.  Within each time period God is revealing more and more of himself.  He doesn't change but his people are on a journey and only when Jesus comes, called the Word of God, does God reveal clearly the amazing truths of his love and reconciliation.  The way that human and divine work together in Scripture means that God still speaks through the words.

4. You always come to the Bible as interpreter. Most of us need an English translation which involves interpretation but we recognize that while for unbelievers it may seem an irrelevant jumble, Christians by contrast are promised the Holy Spirit to help us understand it.  The key verses from 2 Tim. 3:15,16 sum up so much that is important.  Perhaps some more in another post?

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Bible - God's Growth Book

Thinking about 4 key truths about the Bible I began:

1, It's the source book for Christianity - it's the only place to see Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection from historical eyewitnesses in the gospel records.  And it's the only place to read about the world Church's beginning together with Christian theology (God Talk) in the writings of apostles Paul, Peter, James, John.  It is essential first-hand reading. This seems an obvious point but it is critically important to realize that though Jesus didn't write a book, his life embedded in history is powerfully documented for the world only in the New Testament.

2) It's ONE whole story about God and his world -  the New Testament as the Jesus source book is Part 2 that must belong alongside Part 1 the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible of the Jews.  They belong together because only when read together is the whole story of God's dealings with us revealed.  Of course, for Christians the New Testament is the critical starting point. But, because Jesus was a Jew you cannot understand him nor his sacrifice upon the cross without the back-story in the Old Testament. 

Several people have summarized this one story through Part 1 and 2. One method uses 6 words beginning with C.   The first C lays the foundation for everything.  CREATION.  The truth that God created everything and every relationship with the intention that it would all be good in harmony with him - this is the conviction that undergirds the ONE story.   Probably you can guess the other C's?

CORRUPTION - sadly sums up the rebellion against God and breaking up of good relationships as people turn against God in self-willed living.  What the Bible calls sin.  

More in the next blog.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Bible - God's Growth Book 1)

The latest member of our church to be baptized and join us shared a vision at his baptism of beginning a Growth Group for anyone interested in learning more about the Christian faith.  Isn't this a great initiative? A mixed group of people at different stages of discipleship has since met diligently once a month with friends gathering in church (socially distanced of course) while others join in via Zoom.  He chose a number of speakers from the church fellowship whom he had seen in action to take up topics appropriate to each.  A wide range of subjects emerged including Personality and your Christianity, Work/church/life balance, Prayer, Practical Christianity, Spending time with God, Suffering.  

And now at number seven in the course I have to speak on the Bible. Just that!  Such a wide open brief though strictly time-limited!  The first thing was the title - it seems to me that to call the Bible, God's Growth Book not only fits the nature of the group itself but sums up one of the important purposes of Scripture that by it we shall grow as people more into being God's people!  As 2 Tim 3:16 puts it.  All Scripture.. is shape us we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  

It also set me thinking about what key truths would I use as a framework.  Could I choose, say, 4 facts?  I know that many of you have great knowledge and experience with the Bible - what 4 main things would you say to a group like this?   That isn't a rhetorical question - I really would like to know! Send them to if you would prefer not to go public.

I'll give you mine as they emerged in my thinking.    

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Zoom and shorter sermons 3)

It has always been true that you can only measure the effectiveness of something by first having a clear definition of its purpose and outcomes.  If you see preaching, for example, as a piece of helpful Bible teaching then you can ask: Does this feed me?  And if it does it passes the test!  Certainly, this definition of preaching can work when it's seen and heard on Zoom.

As some of you may know I have tried to push for a wider understanding of authentic preaching. Of it being nothing less than the spiritual dynamic of Father, Son and Holy Spirit at work in the lives of speakers and hearers together.  So, my definition runs:  Christian preaching, at its best, is a biblical speaking//listening/ seeing/doing event that God empowers to form Christ-shaped people and communities (from 360 degree preaching).

It is this aspect of forming Christ-shaped people and communities that is under pressure from an individualized Zoom focus.  Our belonging together as God's people growing and learning from each other must never be lost. Preachers with a wider understanding of preaching will always seek to keep a communal emphasis. That after a zoom session hearers can never walk away thinking Christ's challenge is all about 'my life, my purpose, my future' rather than 'our life, our purpose, our future'. How is this word impacting my life with Christian brothers and sisters?  One of the happy surprises Carol and I have enjoyed is the weekly zoom meeting of our house-group (ever since the beginning of lockdown). We all agree this has given new opportunities not only to pray in depth for each other and the church but for growth in genuine friendship.  It has complemented the Sunday zoom worship by ensuring authentic togetherness.   Perhaps in bubbles like this we can experience more than ever what it means to grow as Christ shaped people and community. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Zoom and shorter sermons 2)

Many elements contribute to effective preaching.  The Power of Scripture, of Words, of our triune God, of the hearer, worship context and preacher. Experiencing zoom need not diminish many of these elements but it seems to me that the last three are put under pressure.

Active listening is essential.  One writer, George Sweazey, goes so far as to say: 'The skills of the hearers are more important than the skills of the preacher.'  Now we have to be careful here but often when we look at screens in our homes the listening process is different.  Partly because we are used to viewing screens as consumers with ability to choose according to taste but also because we can be distant and distracted all the more easily. It's not just that we can get up and make a coffee but the whole mode of communication has moved into the relaxed individualistic mode of television viewing. 

This individualistic mode which Zoom makes inevitable with its separate screens of our home pods is the most serious loss.  Because worship is about individuals being drawn together, into a congregation which, at its best, is 'a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ' (1 Pet. 2:5) Coming together as God's people, preacher and congregation, gives spiritual dynamic for Christian worship like nothing else on earth.  I think that we can compensate for some of this by preparing carefully at home before switching on, with a willingness to engage actively in spirit and in truth.  God can still connect worshippers at depth if we let him! 

I once wrote 'Preachers readily recognize the contrast between preaching with a worshipful congregation that is united in prayer and expectancy and one that is not. Within one there is a palpable quality of openness and responsiveness. Preachers partner with the congregations within the rhythm of listening and responding....but when a congregation is unresponsive there is instead dullness and flatness'. I still believe that! Happily, my local church has a hybrid set-up which enables preachers to be with a socially distanced group (of 30 people) while also connecting through zoom with many more.  I have not yet preached in this system but I look forward to the positive elements of going hybrid!

Technology has brought many positives in lockdown but we must be alert especially to the dangers of individualism triumphing over the corporate!   Are there other positives and negatives?


Thursday, August 6, 2020

Zoom and shorter sermons 1)

Others have also noted (and often rejoiced) that with churches employing zoom for their services in lock-down sermons have often shortened to 12-15 minutes.  Now for some traditions that is normal or even too long, but within the Baptist tradition that I know best many preachers speak for 25 minutes or (much) more. So, for some preachers this has been a new experience.  It's been said that zoom is here to stay for the future because even when we are allowed to worship freely again (which seems a long way off still) the benefits of allowing those who are housebound or travelling away to share are immense. (Now I know that it is smaller fellowships that have used zoom and I guess that larger church congregations who have streamed their services have not necessarily seen a shortening of sermons!)

However, staying with those that do use zoom this question of shorter sermons raises a number of issues. The important question is: Has the sermon lost its power if its shorter? Is God able to speak to his people less effectively? God has never needed length or quantity to make his point. Just look at the short stories Jesus told and his pithy teaching. Truthfully it's not how long a sermon lasts but its biblical reality and spiritual quality that enables God to encounter his people afresh by his Spirit. 

So obviously zoom challenges preachers about their sermon preparation habits including length of time. Why, do they always feel they have to preach for 30 plus minutes and begin in the same way?  Of course, I know why preachers hold on to the known pattern because they find it the easiest way to keep preparing. But it flies in the face of the rich variety of biblical communication as well as people's listening habits. Maybe, perhaps, zoom had shaken us preachers up in a helpful way to question well-worn habits. 

Less obvious issues are also raised by zoom.....

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Remembering Jim Packer

Jim Packer was an evangelical statesman - once met never forgotten.  Tributes have flowed since his death a few days ago which have shared something of his wide scholarship, Puritan roots, love of teaching as well as his zest for life. I first read his classic 'Knowing God' years ago and later came to realize just how important he was in mediating contemporary evangelical emphases. He was willing to critique N. American evangelicalism as '3000 miles wide and half and inch deep'.  Yet, standing firmly within his own tradition, he always sought to build bridges and especially hold together social evangelicals with theological and spiritual ones.

I was reminded of his visit to Northern Seminary and his session with the faculty.  Into his eighties he still showed such enthusiasm.  I asked him what he would include as essential if he was designing a syllabus to prepare ministers. To my great surprise he replied that he would insist on all students spending some time as interns in Africa.  That experience would broaden and deepen them like no other he said.  I am sure he had several reasons including life style/culture shock and the immediacy of much African spirituality. 

About that last point: though I have downsized many of my books I still keep my Africa Bible Commentary close. In recent studies on Colossians this commentary places an essay on Angels, Demons and Powers in the centre and it wakes you up to a dimension so often neglected in the West.

So, much gratitude to this giant among us.  One essay about Jim Packer went back to William Tyndale's use of the word evangelical which he says: signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings that maketh a man's heart glad and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy. What a great definition of a life well lived. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

What older people appreciate

I know 'older' is relative.  It's helpful to distinguish between the young-old in their seventies and the old-old in their eighties though we may know plenty of exceptions of young eighties and beyond. But the truth is that even the young-olds know the sadness of friends and relatives dying, accompanied by our own fading strength and energy.  Compounded, sadly, by the isolation of Covid 19.

Firmly embedded in the young-olds ourselves, we have made friends in our own age group and just recently a couple came for a socially distanced coffee time in the garden.  It struck me forcibly just how much they lit up when conversation allowed them to share more of their own story.  In retirement as they have moved to a new place few know about their past achievements and fewer want to hear about them.  But, open up space and time to share and they bubbled with enthusiasm for the great times in former years.  It was lovely to see and hear.

That's what older people appreciate.  And I chuckle because I realize that I have been using my blog to do exactly this....tell out something of my story.  Actually, I have just completed 44,000 words of 'My Weird Life' ending with the birth of our two boys.  Truthfully I have appreciated being able to get some of the story written down though for a (very) limited audience.  When we tell our stories we can veer from exaggerating the positives to emphasizing the negatives.  I know my tendency is towards the former which makes it less gossipy and interesting!  Anyway, here's one older person who has appreciated being listened to. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Tough words

At my ordination I was given A Minister's Prayer Book with its disciplined pattern of Scriptures for each day and quotations from past spiritual leaders.   I shall never forget first reading a sentence from Bishop Walpole:
If you are uncertain of which of two paths to take, choose the one on which the shadow of the cross falls.
That sets the bar so high, doesn't it ?  Too high? It really involves being 'poor in spirit'. Sacrifice seems too strongly accented!  Surely there can be real joy in receiving a call?  That is certainly part of the desire that we can feel.  Yet, so often there are risks and uncertainties and accepting a fresh call can often mean leaving a place where we have grown comfortable.  Looking back I have to say that each of my ministry moves has actually been harder than my previous situation.  Each time I was forced into something entirely new and those who know my story may recognize why I say that.  However in each move I can affirm that God has guided me!

Unsurprisingly I have often emphasized God's call in my writing but I was shocked in my last year's teaching in the US when a minister told me that idea of a 'call to a church' is no longer part of the language of ministerial settlement in his denomination.  It's all about seeing advertisements, applying, being interviewed and working out if it's going to be suitable for the minister's family. It's a question of Christian common sense like any career choice.  I was stunned by his matter-of-factness, about his dispensing with the need for prayerful discernment in such critical issues. Almost as though speaking of God's call is some pious jargon that lacks serious practical meaning.  I just hope this isn't a trend!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Honesty about guidance 12)

In these last 11 posts I have laboured through my very first experiences of the call to ministry and my first church.  I realize that the cynic could explain all these happenings as just human experiences - a mixture of wishful thinking, changing moods, coincidences and organizational expectations.  What makes me believe that God was involved lies in the subsequent stories. We sometimes talk about 'signs following' (Mark 16:20) which confirm the rightness of decisions and throughout the next 48 years I have witnessed such answers to prayer and hosts of personal stories that I am convinced God has been in all of this.

One of the difficult parts of guidance is the saying No to a situation which seems right.  Ever since my Oxford experience I have received occasional invitations to something new and (very) attractive yet in prayer I knew it was not God's will.  A lack of peace was palpable.  But equally, saying Yes later on proved difficult.  I resisted moving from Blackburn and refused to consider the Cambridge church for nearly two years until a leader I much respected said: 'If God is calling someone to this church why shouldn't it be you?'  It still took some fasting and wrestling!

I have often wondered whether seeking guidance in the local church context is easier than when other Christian organizations seek their leaders.  The invitation to leave local ministry to become Principal of Spurgeon's seemed another silly idea hardly worth considering. What turmoil I went through in that process as some pleaded with me to take it seriously.  I am sure there was some prayer from both sides but pressures, some political, were inevitable and the interviewing process was entirely different.  Carol and I certainly didn't have the same degree of peace in moving to London and my boys say it was the worst thing that could happen to Carol.

And the move to the US.  Did I know guidance there?  This was the most complicated move of all involving more risks than anything we had done before.  Looking back over 15 years there I do see some 'signs following' but of a very different order from the transformed lives seen in local church ministry.  The complexity of spiritual discernment has made prayer an essential ingredient in seeking guidance in every move.  And that, I guess, is the fundamental lesson through it all!

Friday, July 17, 2020

Honesty about guidance 11)

Two or three months after receiving the call to go to Blackburn I received another letter. This was from the Chairman of the Management Committee (which I was to learn was a powerful group in the life of the church).  He wrote with much sadness he said.  I had noticed when I last visited the church building that there were large patches of plaster missing on the upper walls and ceiling.  No one mentioned that it was a problem.  A major problem.

The letter told me that expert advice had now been sought and that dry rot was so very serious in the main church structure that the building was deemed past redemption.  Many thousands of pounds would be needed to even attempt a repair but the damage was so extensive that success was unlikely.  The church had been advised that the congregation would no longer be able to continue on the site.  Demanding questions lay ahead that included whether a new church should be built elsewhere.

The Chairman wrote to release me from the call.  As he put it, it seemed extremely unfair for a new young minister to enter commitment to ministry when such major problems lay ahead. Release from the call?

I wondered if you can be released from a call if God is truly in it?  After all, He knew the future with its problems ahead of all of us.  I know I was naive about much of this call - in fact I said yes to the church without any details about accommodation, pay, holidays etc.  Contracts were rare in those days and frankly it seemed to me if God was in charge he would work it out.  In the same spirit I replied that I believed I should still come to be the minister.

It really was one of the weird happenings in my weird life - receiving a call that I was later recommend to retract.  In the interest of full disclosure building a new church inside the old did become one of the main visions of my seven year ministry and was to provide an amazing opportunity for sacrifice and mission.  One of the newspaper headlines ran: Thank God for dry rot!  because things happened on a scale that only God could organize.  But that's getting into a new story.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Honesty about guidance 10)

Carol, in the early stages of pregnancy, shared in meeting friends and there were at least two sessions with church leaders and members.  Compared with our earlier breezier visit this was obviously tougher.  As I looked at the people we met, all much older than us, steeped in Lancastrian tradition, I new how raw we appeared.

The deacons and advistory group were to meet the next evening and on the service sheet in block capitals Tuesday February 8th. was highlighted for a special church and congregational meeting: This is to discuss the pastorate and everyone is requested to make a special effort to attend. (It was interesting to see how this church combined everyone into a congregational meeting, though voting was clearly the responsibility of members only).  We returned home tired yet still with a sense that this could be the right place.

Having no 'phone we had to await the letter to tell me the outcome.  I confess that I wondered how much prayer was happening - on both sides of this search for guidance.  This has always bothered me because I know how easy it is for group think to occur when choosing a minister rather than God-think.  When the letter arrived it confirmed that a majority of the members believed that I should become their next minister.  All the leaders had voted Yes but 13 people had voted No and, much later on, some of them confided that they felt I was far too young to be taking on their complicated fellowship.  However, the great majority said Yes and our hearts leapt for joy.

However, hearing this news my Area Superintendent tracked me down with urgency.  He had heard that the previous minister was staying on in membership with his wife and family.  Did I know that? Actually, I didn't.  He told me how often a predecessor staying on could make trouble!  Only a short time later he contacted me again: 'Forget what I said. I have just met your predecessor at our Area Superintendents' meeting - he is a marvellous man and my worries about you going to be with are groundless'. They did turn out to be groundless because he became a great friend and supporter.

You would think this guidance about my first church was now settled.  Not so. A major crisis was yet to emerge.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Honesty about guidance 9)

Apparently, the Blackburn church had heard several potential ministers preach but the congregation could not come to a decision about any of them.  In their last meeting a member stood up and said: 'What about that young fella who came some weeks ago?  Surprisingly there was enough enthusiasm for the meeting to propose that I return, this time with a squint to the ministry.  And so, Mr. Newell had written inviting me on 30th. January 1972.

Just a day or two later the invitation to become minister of the Northampton church arrived.  When I talk about guidance I often think back to the confusing mixture of emotions we experienced then.  On one hand this Northampton church was generously expressing their commitment to me.  But on the other hand Blackburn still stirred desire which did not have an obvious cause.  It was still only a possibility with plenty of potential hazards.  Yet, in prayer we felt we could not close it off.

With considerable nervousness I spoke to the Northampton church secretary.  I told him the truth that another church that I had not expected to hear from had re-emerged.  When I preached in Northampton I assumed this option was a dead-end - it would have been dishonest to have two-timed.  Yet, now that this other church had reactivated its interest I told him I needed to resolve whether it was God's choice for me.  My memory was that he was very understanding and allowed me to withdraw with good grace.  But we were mightily confused.  I wondered just what a risk we were taking.

Travelling back to Blackburn was serious this time.   I still have notes from the sermons I preached and, frankly, I do not rate them very highly.  The morning sermon on Acts 10:1-16 was entitled 'But Peter said "No".  That could be prophetic!  Still a strong sense remained that we were being drawn to this people though I knew some regarded me as far too young - and I shared that concern too!

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Honesty about guidance 8)

Blackburn was not on the radar as the Area Superintendent put my name forward to a Baptist Church, in Northampton.  This was much closer and I drove my motor-cycle to preach there. Obviously the congregation knew that I was a student seeking settlement - preaching with a squint. The lively congregation filled the building with all ages represented and the whole day was an encouraging one. Sadly, Carol had suffered a miscarriage and was unwell so was missing this episode.

Soon I received an invitation to preach with a view to becoming their minister.  I realized that this could be it!  God's will in action.  The second visit included a Parade Service in which the church's  Boys and Girls Brigades marched in with their colours. At the conclusion I was instructed to present appropriate flags before saying the Benediction, after which the brigades would process out.  Hanging over the pulpit and communion table area was a glass lampshade. Taking the largest flag in an over generous sweep from its stand I hit this lampshade full on.  Mercifully staying intact it made a significant clang while dislodging dust which gently floated down. Over mass giggling I said the Benediction - though you need to know that I maintained my dignity as best as I could.

As is the Baptist custom the church meeting conferred within a few days.  Would they invite me with my obvious coordination gifts or not?  I confess that I did not feel the same measure of excitement as visiting Blackburn and yet as we had kept praying we knew that excitement is not the only sign of guidance.  The fact that Carol had been unable to share in these visits obviously dampened feelings too.

It still amazes me to think of the timing of what happened next. Just as I was waiting for a letter from Northampton another letter arrived.  And, yes, it was from Blackburn!

Monday, July 6, 2020

Honesty about guidance 7)

Nothing happened for several weeks.  Meanwhile a church in the North of England had fallen vacant because its minister had become Area Superintendent for the North West area of Baptist churches. One of its previous ministers Peter Lorkin (who I had met when visiting his church about a student mission) was convinced that I would be a good fit there.  He wrote to friends at the church and suggested that I preach there. I remember a denominational leader once lamenting how few ministers God seemed to call to serve in the North of England. Certainly I had never thought of it.

I didn't expect much from this speculative prod.  In fact, the whole idea of becoming minister of Leamington Road Baptist Church, Blackburn seemed absurd.  This large church was the only Baptist church in this cathedral town of over 100,000 population and it inevitably contained a wide range of people. For us, it was set in a part of the country totally unknown with its own traditions and (sometimes strong) dialect.  It seemed the unlikeliest possibility.

But, to my surprise I received an invitation to preach in October.  My parents loaned us their van to travel up there to stay with the ultra formal secretary Frank Newell and his wife. After preaching at a full morning service, packed with children, we had lunch with them and afterwards he took the current Baptist Union Handbook he told me he was looking at the name of the next possible minister.  I guess he thought it was the kindest way of letting me know the score!

Yet, very strangely, as Carol and I continued to meet people later that day and I preached again in the evening we felt a very strong pull to this place.  We realized how unlikely it would be but half-hoped an encouraging follow-up letter would come.  But none came as the weeks passed.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Honesty about guidance 6)

By the end of the month, to our immense surprise and disappointment, we had both come to the decision that the call to John Bunyan, Cowley was not God's call. When a sense of unease takes away peace and in prayer awareness grows that something is not right you have to take it seriously.  There was no obvious reason why we should decline this gracious generous invitation. We had really wanted to go there. No other church was on the horizon and the practical advantages seemed immense. It seemed an unnecessary risk, yet we knew I had to say no.

I remember going to the deacons' meeting on the evening that I promised my reply.  I thought the meeting was at 7:30 pm but in fact they had met since 7:00 p.m.  There was silence as I entered the room.  I apologized to them that my news would not be positive and shared how waiting the month and praying about the call had led to us saying no.  Quietly the secretary, wonderfully called Mr. Hope, thanked me.  And I left sad yet convinced that it was the right decision.

As a sidebar when others heard about this they were annoyed.  In the college the Dean was particularly aggressive.  He said that I have been arrogant in rejecting this church and treated me with hostility right through my last year.  Others were puzzled - but then so were we!.  I had been so keen and yet in the end had felt guided to withdraw.  To many it must have seemed that I had turned my back on glorious possibilities not just of service in Oxford but of developing my academic credentials.  This is what I mean by being honest about guidance.

The Area Superintendent who helped settle Regent's student into ministry put my name into the national settlement system and we began the waiting.  It was a very strange time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Honesty about guidance 5)

The next big crunch for guidance was obviously going to be which church was God calling me to as I completed my ministerial training.  At the beginning of my three year course I had been placed in a    local Oxford church - John Bunyan Baptist Church, Cowley.  I was to serve alongside its minister Sidney Crowe.  Its striking contemporary building could seat 300 people and average congregations more than half filled it with all ages represented. It was a wonderful opportunity to grow in preaching, lead the youth work and immerse in local church life. However, in my first year the minister, Sidney Crowe, announced that after 31 years serving this church he was shortly to retire.  Supported by another ministerial student I was then invited to care for the church until a new minister was found.

As we approached our final year in college something happened that taught us both important lessons. Out of the blue the John Bunyan Church gave me an invitation to become their next minister.  We were both absolutely thrilled.  The church leadership declared that we could move immediately into the church manse for my last year at college and that they would not expect full ministry until my Final exams were over.  Several commented how this would enable me to keep in touch with the college and some thought doctoral work would be part of the future deal.  Just imagine - a new home with a people we had grown to love and the prospect of developing my academics for wider service.  It seemed just perfect.  Expecting our first baby in July we would be well settled instead of facing a move elsewhere.

We asked for a month to think and pray about this golden opportunity.  We had not a single negative thought and were fairly sure that God was in it all.  How could he not be?   Yet we were concerned about presuming this neat next step was truly God's guidance. That month of prayer and questioning woke us up to the extraordinary dynamics of seeking God's will.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Honesty about guidance 4)

My home church at Chatsworth, West Norwood, expected me to preach one Sunday as part of the ongoing process.  I was given a summer Sunday when the minister was on holiday.  At the morning service I gave a serviceable message and the only comment received was that it was short! In the evening service, which used to be attended by as many if not more people, something happened which I have since written about. I preached on John 10: 20 'Many of them said that he was mad.'  While I was preaching suddenly there came a moment of intensity and stillness. Even while I was speaking I heard another voice clearly say: 'Michael, I call you to preach.'

Up until then nothing remotely like this had happened to me. As I have described, guidance in the last posts God's direction had come by means of indirect impressions. Here was something unmistakably direct.  A few hearers commented afterwards that they knew something significant had happened and there were several visible responses to the sermon.  I kept that experience private for many years but came to realize how much it grounded my desire to offer my best as a preacher. 

It was an odd focus for preaching had never been a major part of my church experience.  My father's preaching was always carefully prepared and thoughtful but I didn't see it as a particularly vital part of his ministry.  I had occasionally been captured by a visiting preacher whose presence and words conveyed spiritual power.  But very occasionally.  Little had encouraged this focus during my training. Indeed preaching seemed to be regarded as a mere function of ministry. Why a special focus? It was as though God was saying I want to use it transformationally not merely informationally. So this specific word to me was a surprise and set me on a life-long journey of humility and learning.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Honesty about guidance 3)

The process of testing God's guidance continued with some encouraging experiences and interviews. I needed to gain acceptance by one of the Baptist colleges.  The Principal, of the Baptist college in Oxford University - Regent's Park College - was Dr. Henton Davies. He also happened to be the father of one of Carol's best friends who told Carol to pop in and have tea with her parents while I was speaking to the student group in Oxford.  Boldly, Carol had knocked on his front door and was graciously welcomed in, She told him that her husband was considering training for the ministry. Immediately Henton Davies, a theatrical Welshman, leapt into action: 'He must come here',he commanded.  I think my plans for Regents were already in motion by then but it accounted for a startling follow-up encounter.

I was sitting in Room 32, my office at the top of Baptist Church House in Holborn, when there was a knock on the door. Who should enter but Henton Davies. Fixing gimlet eyes on me he quizzed me about my thoughts on ministry.  I had only seen him as at distance at national Council Meetings and suddenly up-front he was distinctly overwhelming.  As I talked he interrupted: 'What's the word? What's the word? he asked urgently.  When I responded by saying that through different nudges I did feel that God was calling me he jumped up. 'That's it. Call. Call. That's the most important thing'. Then he dropped to his knees on the worn carpet and prayed with passion that I might know the Lord's hand upon me for all God's plans ahead.  I admit that I was worried that others would burst into my office which happened all the time.  But I was also moved at this significant moment and his prayer.

This episode sharpened the guidance issue.  Were all these different experiences and the encouragements amounting to a clear call.  Did I need to be challenged to use this word?  Probably, because call has such a definite ring to it as though something specific has happened.  And much of my story was a series of lower order events.  But, he was right - they did amount to something importance.  And what happened next was specific.....

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Honesty about guidance 2)

In my Baptist Union work I occasionally visited churches requesting student missions to explain what was involved and inspire their support.  On a visit to Wales I stayed with a minister and his wife overnight in order to address the church on the Sunday morning.  However, just before I reached my moment to speak in the service the minister suddenly let rip. He told the congregation with such bitterness and sadness that it was his fifth anniversary at the church and that not one of them cared to notice - indeed nobody cared for him and his wife.  His anger was palpable.  The congregation was stunned. I have never forgotten it. It was an extraordinary public breakdown.

It is very hard to explain why but in that very moment of agonized silence when we heard this man's anguish I sensed another nudge from God as though to say: Yes, this is the reality of pastoral ministry but I am calling you to it.  You can face it with me'.  Was this a genuine divine disclosure?  Of course, I cannot be sure but I do know it was the last thing I was expecting - the very last thing.

I wonder whether the fact of my early resistance because I had witnessed my father's labours and disappointments needed direct confrontation!  Certainly, in the awkwardness and pain of that Welsh chapel I was seeing the worst yet hearing a call.  I remember that I still had to speak a few words about mission to the embarrassed congregation though I knew this was unlikey happen.  On the rail journey home I wondered what it had all been about.

You can imagine why I omitted this when I wrote up my application for ministry!  It was too odd and I didn't want to add to speculation as to which minister this was and which church.  But the more I have seen God at work the more I have taken such moments seriously.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Honesty about guidance 1)

Looking at my 'Weird life' I realize that the problematic issue of 'guidance' emerges at different stages.  I say problematic because in my work with students this was one of the (obvious) hot topics - 'How can we know God is guiding us?'  Good question! I am always careful to say how much God's guidance comes through a complex mixture of internal and external dynamics.

Reflecting on my story I have tried to be honest about God's guidance into ministry itself, and into the churches I served.  Being honest means including some details that never made it into application papers and interviews.  My first appointment after university to teach at Serampore College in India (which I described in an earlier post) seemed to be a God-directed step.  I am pretty sure that in conversation with Christian friends I would have claimed that God had opened up this opportunity. He had guided me. But when the organization collapsed and threw me into confusion I think I began to realize how presumptuous I had been.  How easy it is to presume God is endorsing our next steps?

I think that led to more caution as I approached the next major challenge - about Baptist ministry. The first time anyone mentioned this was on a student mission when a friend asked me whether I had ever considered it.  Without hesitation I answered no - in no way.  I had seen first hand in my father's ministry the personal cost of being open to a congregation's needs and of leading a voluntary organization where division of opinion seemed the norm.  Who could possibly want that?  No, I was emphatic that as a Christian I would serve God in other ways.

However, having lost the Serampore opportunity, my first (surprise) job in the Baptist Union landed me in a very Christian world. Working with students and chaplains inevitably involved me in pastoral work, speaking at conferences, giving a devotional word and sometimes even preaching.  With all this Christian stuff surrounding me the possibility of ministry began to niggle away with more persistence.  I still resisted the idea but a deacon counselled that I should at least do a little serious testing. I became involved with the London Baptist Lay Preachers' Association speaking to mid-week meetings and even doing some lame Sunday preaching. Niggles and nudges were increasing.

Then something happened that in retrospect seems bizarre and which never made it into the more formal explanations of my journey into ministry......

Friday, June 19, 2020


That's what friends said a few moments ago when we told them that the hospital had called me with details of the neurological department's reopening.  And, yippee, I have been given the first appointment next Thursday morning for my dystonia injections.  Sadly my consultant is still very unwell so I have a new specialist to see but I am so grateful that the sojourn is coming to an end.

It will have been 33 weeks since my last injection and the experience has been extraordinary - as I have shared in past blogs.  After 16 weeks I should have been markedly deteriorating, not only listing to the right as my head and body turned but also in considerable pain.  In the past this has disabled me almost completely. The co-incidence (God-incidence) that I was put on a Parkinson drug because of an entirely different problem from the Papworth sleep clinic seems to have been part of the remarkable story through all these weeks.  My twisting and pain have been minimal and though I need treatment I believe that prayer and these patches have held me upright and well.

So, gratitude again for all your prayers and support and for the ways that God can work things together for good.  Yes, yippee

Hijacked by a verse 2)

The second way of saying this as Christ's friends to each other.  That because we belong to Jesus together, with the Holy Spirit uniting us in different deeper ways, we experience a deeper spiritual bonding. 'Being present in spirit' means much more because there is a bond that is not just natural but owes everything to the Holy Spirit.  We didn't choose the others! They are given to us because we all belong to Jesus Christ who chooses us to be his family together.  This means all kinds of people with whom we might otherwise have little in common are bound together spiritually.

I remember one occasion receiving three people into church membership in Cambridge.  One was a professor and his academic wife. The other was rarely seen without a grubby yellow Cambridge United scarf and often with his yellow hi-viz jacket.  He was the road sweeper, frequently with his cart along our road. There was real joy on the three faces and afterwards the professor said to me: 'That's what heaven is going to be like, isn't it?  All sorts of people belonging together!' We say the prayer: 'Thy will be done on earth as in heaven' don't we?...we should expect every kind of difference to be within the kingdom now.

In Colossians this bonding is closely connected with prayer for prayer holds us together across distance sometimes so strongly that we can feel the strength of prayers of others at a distance. I'm on your side, right beside you.  Love is also vital because knowing and sharing the love of Jesus is the most powerful uniting force of all.

Like many churches our zoom times continue to emphasize our separateness in our own homes.  But this spiritual bonding through prayer and love holds us together like no other force. When the Holy Spirit is involved the experience of encouragement, empathy and imaginative engagement happen at a deeper level. And that gives such hope about the future for the church.  Unlike some other organizations that wonder if they will survive we have this extraordinary dynamic that holds us together going forward.