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.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Hijacked by a verse 1)

Currently I am studying Colossians and a verse jumped out at me which receives only passing commentary because it seems straight forward.  For though I am absent from you in body I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.(Col 2:5).  The apostle, who is under house arrest, writes this at other times too when he is separated from his readers.

What struck me in our continuing isolation was this contrast between absent in body/present in spirit. I looked up how The Message expresses it in contemporary language: I'm a long way off, true, and you may never lay eyes on me but believe me, I am on your side, right beside you. I am delighted to hear of the careful and orderly ways you conduct our affairs and impressed with the solid substance of your faith in Christ'. It sharpens the contrast between being a long way off and believe me, I am on your side, right beside you. 

I think you can say these words in two ways.  First as a good friend.  When you care for somebody who you cannot be with yet want to encourage them this is a good way to show empathy and demonstrate imaginative engagement. It's the kind of thing we say when we want friends to know that we have heard good things about them and are rooting for them in their situation. I'm right beside you.

But these are words we choose to say to those who are good friends.  We can't imagine saying them to people outside our circle of friendship.  That flies in the face of human nature.  We choose our friends and give encouragement when they are absent.  Does this fill out the meaning of 'being present in the spirit'.  No! Because the apostle Paul is experiencing something deeper.......

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Playing the guitar

Yesterday a couple of friends invited us to their garden for tea. He is also a retired Baptist minister. It was their first time during the lock-out that anyone had spent time with them. It so happened that in that morning while I was moving stuff around in my shed/study I came across a slim yellow volume by a Baptist minister called Bryan Gilbert. (I know - it's a lot of Baptists!)  It is titled: Bryan Gilbert introduces you to Playing the Guitar for the Lord's Work (1970).

I remember these friends had mentioned Bryan Gilbert in conversation many months ago.  So I took this book to show them and he lit up immediately as he took it into his hands.  He told me how he had learned to play the guitar with this very book.  As he saw the basic (many dated) songs in the book with suggested finger style etc. he reminisced about much this book had set him on his way.  Further, they said that Bryan had been a member of their church in Whetstone and were still in touch with him every Christmas.

I had to confess that I had similarly tried to learn to play the guitar with this book but had failed lamentably.  I blamed my stubby fingers!  But the tenor of the conversation remained strongly positive as we marvelled at the thousands of people he did teach and the impact he had through his series on playing the guitar.  Bryan's influence was much wider than this but what a reminder of that time in recent church history when playing the guitar became part of the scene in so many of our churches. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

1000th post

To my astonishment this is my 1000th post since a tentative beginning in Nov 2007.  My son, Rob, pushed me to start this venture at a time when setting up blogs was in fashion long before Twitter etc. At that point I was teaching as well as being interim preacher in the US which gave me a considerable amount of material.  In particular I discovered the value of cooperating with others in the preparation of sermons by inviting their exegesis and life experiences into my posting process. This became so important that I wrote it up in my book Preaching as Worship. I was thrilled by members of the congregation excitedly talking about these preaching blogs.  That's all part of my astonishment about how these posts have worked.

Since returning to England and nudging into retirement there is much less interaction like this.  You may have noticed that increasingly they have had a devotional and journalling style.  It's not that I do not have strong views on issues like 'Black Lives Matter' which hit me hard when engaging with my African American students in Chicago. Before that I came of age as a young minister in Blackburn when I wrote a pamphlet for the Council of Churches which was published to go through neighbourhood letter boxes in order to confront the growing tide of racism in the city....and very quickly I discovered how some in my congregation regarded me as naive and out of touch.  Yes, there are big important social and political issues that deserve comment and bravery.

By and large I have written on an odd mix of personal subjects, sometimes very personal (as with my illnesses).  I continue to wonder about their worthiness to share. I really do!  But I know from the stats that some of you seem to find something of interest. So, I shall push on for a little longer.  The important thing to say is:  Thank You for troubling to click on through the years.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Honesty about faith

Early I admitted my failure to ask my father quite basic questions about his life.  But I do remember him telling me about the day he went forward to profess his Christian faith at West Ham Central Mission.  It was an evening service, packed with hundreds of people.  The preacher was a visiting woman who spoke about the seriousness of following Jesus and the boldness needed to make public confession.  At the end she invited anyone who wanted to make public their commitment to Jesus to walk to the front and stand in front of her.  I guess a hymn was sung as she prayed and waited for a response.

No one in the large crowd went forward.  At this point my father suddenly felt that this was the moment for him to make his declaration.  His faith commitment had been growing especially through the Christian Endeavour Society where he first learned to express his faith.  He had solid trust but he had never shown it. So, he walked to the front.

I asked him whether part of him had felt sorry for the woman preacher because nobody was going forward and he admitted that he had!  The fact that she had spoke so clearly and was suffering the embarrassment of no response at all was in the mix of factors that spurred him to the front.  How honest this analysis of motive was! And how true of a man whose spirituality throughout all the time I knew him always seemed to resist any spiritual hyping up!  He never fitted easily into any Christian labeling. He knew the Holy Spirit works in different ways with different personalities.

Much later when the evangelist David Watson was leading a city-wide campaign in Cambridge I remember his wonder that when the evangelist making his challenge to respond publicly he would often appear to dampen down emotion by interjecting a piece from the Riding Lights drama group.  By the time he gave the public appeal it almost seemed an anticlimax.  Yet people would surge forward. 'It's like Elijah pouring water on the altar,' he said, 'and it shows the Holy Spirit truly at work.'

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Reflecting on parents

One of the most interesting aspects of A Weird Life was trying to unpack the contrasts and commonalities in my parent's lives.  My father was born into an East End aspiring working class family, leaving school at 14 to work as a lowly clerk in the East Ham Council office.  But every spare moment he seemed to want to break out of his limited background.  He cycled to Europe on holidays and gobbled up languages beginning with French and German. He discovered classical music and art and much else in a kind of self-education programme.  Utterly unconventional, all this made him something of an outlier - his own man-  whose views would often surprise. And maybe make for some insecurity too.

In contrast my mother was born into a comfortable middle-class home with a successful business man father (a dominating character too).  Nothing would seem more conventional - her education followed smoothly through school where her academic skills flourished and she was among the first women to enter Bristol University to study psychology and economics.  Attractive with considerable confidence, she was well prepared for a successful life ahead.

It still strikes me as highly unlikely that these two people ever connected.  He an East Ender, seven years older and she from such a comfortable background.  But what they had in common was that they both had come to faith in lively Baptist churches. My father was immensely influenced by West Ham Central Mission which was internationally known for its ministry throughout the East End of London. Here his faith was stretched which led to his baptism and eventually to his call to Baptist ministry.  My mother moved home a couple of times and it was in Tyndale Baptist Church, Bristol, also a significant community, that she too made Christian faith commitment in baptism.  They were both open to God doing fresh things in their lives and that included finding a life partner. 

I think they were both taking risks but I am convinced that nurture in their local churches had paved the way for everything that was important in their future lives together.   I can't help giving thanks for lively local churches and the life preparation they can give us - including preparing unlikely couples for each other!

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A Weird Life

I mentioned that title in my last post - 'A Weird Life'.  I do not believe that I have some special anointing of weirdness.  Brought up in a Baptist minister's family has some immediate strangeness but many others have endured that!  What qualifies as weird, however, is the sheer amount of God in my story partly because of my background but mainly within the rest of the story so far.  The percentage of Godness is extraordinarily high. I know this high percentage may put off even some of my own grandchildren from reading it. But I will invite them to make the effort because my life cannot be understood without this living God dimension.

Many lives have twists and turns which from a secular standpoint can be explained without recourse to God.  I think some of my twists and turns can only be explained by recourse to God. God-incidences can often be explained away but when they keep happening and they lead to a full life it can add up to a weirdly wonderful life.

My father once said to me: 'Even if Christianity was proved to be false,it is still the best way to live.'  Of course he had no doubt about the truth of Jesus Christ's mission for the world but his point was that many things happen along the Christian way because to take Jesus seriously really is the best way to live.

I think I might summarize one or two issues emerging in this story in future posts.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Too late, but...

Just before lock down my daughter-in-law asked me what my mother was like. What a searching question I thought.  My mother died in 1979 aged 57 in a tragic accident long before either of my daughters-in-law could have met her.  And it was searching because I realized with a shock that I have never properly reflected on her nor my father.  I mean properly reflected on their stories and contrasting life experiences.  I owe so much to these two people and yet I have devoted so little time to thinking about who they were.

Two things struck me.  First, how little I knew about them for sure.  Yes I have birth and death certificates and a few photographs and bits of memorabilia along with my own experiences of them growing up.  But so many critical issues about their lives are blanks.  Second, I realized how little I had troubled to ask them about themselves while I could.  It would have been so easy on the walks we had together or relaxing at home to have asked key questions about the different stages of their lives, the decisions they took, and what perspectives they had on their own upbringing.

Sadly, it's too late to ask but I have resolved during these past weeks to make space for reflection with what material I have!  Indeed, beginning with their stories I have also attempted to reflect on my own early years - and Carol's.  It's been an adventure in recovering and assessing memories.  Gradually, with a target of a page each day, the story has been building through the weeks.  I call it 'A Weird Life' for reasons that I might share in a future post.  The only people likely to read it are my own family - it's personal with little serious research and inevitable flaws.  But when people ask what I have been doing the last ten weeks, this is one of the answers.  For me its been an exercise in appreciation.