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.