Saturday, December 30, 2023

A Happy New Year

 For my New Year Eve's sermon I have immersed myself in the story in Matthew 2: 1-18. Within the narrative of the Magi visiting Jesus and Herod's violence I see vastly different responses. 

The first is glorious. Genuine worship. When these wise men, with obvious wealth and status, are able to enter Herod's palace, they ask: 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?' The king gathers all the chief priests and teachers of the law to give the right answer. Which they do. They know their scrolls and bring out Micah (5:2)  In Bethlehem in Judea.  I don’t know if they quoted the whole section, Matthew does: 'For you Bethlehem, out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people'.  And the king says 'Go and find him'.  

And they do in a weirdly wonderful story with which we we should never become over familiar. Weird because the first visitors were shepherds who fit exactly in the rural picture, but wealthy intelligentia who read the stars, travelling from far off lands, they enter the story too.  They just don't belong. They contrast in every way. Rank outsiders breaking in with their strange gifts for royalty, exploding what could be a cosy local Galilean story into an international one for all kinds of people.  Every kind of person.

That is the wonder. Their worship, their gifts.  Their not belongingness in the story which lays foundations for our not belongingness too. For Jesus the King will not just be king over Jews but Gentiles the world over.   CS Lewis once wrote: Look for Christ and you will find Him. And with him everything else.

It is the wise men's kneeling in worship, outsiders who are brought into the heart of the story that emphasizes the best response to Christmas.  That God has revealed who he is to US!  And as we go into a New Year this is the best response to share. That's why the Covenant Prayer will be said in church tomorrow - a personal commitment for 2024. 

A happy worshipping New Year!  


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

A Sunday preach

I have been asked to preach so little this year so I was surprised to be asked a couple of weeks ago to speak at next Sunday's service.  Dec.31st is a bridge Sunday with the celebration of the miracle of the Incarnation caught up in the beginning of a new year.  Those who practice the Christian Year know how it slows down preparation periods and then lengthens celebration. For Christmas this includes four weeks of Advent, twelve days of Christmas, and Epiphany with the Magi. Many churches, like my local church, tend to begin the Christmas event really early so that Christmas Day is almost an anticlimax before New Year activity takes over.  This runs the danger of reducing the extraordinary, heavyweight doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word made flesh to a side message, alongside a focus on children and festivity.  

What am I going to do?  I am planning the worship service with a friend who will lead communion after I have preached and led prayer.  We agree that the service will have two parts.  The first will include song, Scripture and me. I will focus on Matthew 2: 1-18. It won't be heavyweight though I shall aim to be challenging.  My friend in part two will lead communion and the congregation in saying the Covenant prayer.  This comes from the Methodist Covenant service usually held at the beginning of the year.  John Wesley adapted it from the writings of Richard Alleine in order that believers could make personal recommitments to God at the beginning of each New Year.

Its words are demanding. The modern version (below) emphasizes each disciple's surrender of will 

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

These powerful words will be anticipated in my message, though I am still in the process of preparation. Anyway, I'll keep in touch as you continue celebrations too.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Squeezed in greetings

The last few weeks have been hit by Carol's ill health,  with an eventual diagnosis of Diabetes 2 which could explain her dearth of energy and life force. However, I must squeeze in before Christmas my greeting to kind readers.  I know who some of you are though many are unknown.  I really want to wish you a wonderful Christmas at this very significant time of the year. For us the birth of Jesus marks the beginning of the best news this world can ever see. That there is a God, and we can see his Son in flesh!  In this dark world we need to celebrate this glorious news and that’s why we wish you a very happy, meaningful Christmas!

I try to issue a lighthearted summary of Quicke happenings at the end of each year which I send to unwitting friends. This latest epistle assured readers that we are both still alive. 

Bouts of pestilence and plague have kept us local this year with Carol’s Long Covid living up to its name.  The decline in sprightliness has mercifully seen matching clumsiness, memory mishaps and hearing loss which has kept our marriage together for another year. 

Sometimes one major theme dominates a year. As in the past it was a book, but in 2023 not mine! Contracted to produce 120k words, £170 in hardback, titled: Finding your Voice, Rob was facing his final final deadline for manuscript delivery this Summer. Events had conspired to frustrate his writing as he moved from a highly unsatisfactory University (putting it mildly) to a completely new role as Director of a large journalism and media department at Marshall Univ. in W. Virginia. He had good ideas with a mound of raw possibilities. Underline raw!

Memorably he said to me: Dad, how good it is for a father to be able to help his son!  On Jan 7th my journal records ‘3 hours on Ch 1 Rob’s book.’ Thus began daily fatherly duty. On Jan 12th he arrived via Iceland for an intensive week’s work in my garden shed which thrashed through three chapters. A further exhausting week in March bashed onwards. You need to be spared the intervening daily grind with zoom and google doc. keeping me umbilically involved. Carol mourned my long absences with patchy patience. However, Routledge accepted the ms. and promised speedy publication.  Astonishingly it arrived several days before its Dec. 19th.publication date.  Carol’s frustration with the process communicated with so many friends and neighbours that complete strangers would call out: How’s the book?

Long-suffering readers of my posts will be aware of this saga. It's happy conclusion is a great cause for celebration.  Now, we move towards 2024 I hope to have some fresh thoughts to share.

A joyous Christmas to you, wherever you are!

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A brief follow-up

 We have just heard from Simon who has returned home, exhausted and in pain.  They told him the op. would normally be 20 minutes but his would be longer. Well, it was over 90 minutes during which Simon heard (courtesy of local inaesthetic) of several complications which needed the supervising prof's intervention. The prof commented to his surgical team that it had been very tricky.  We are not surprised with all the complications along the way. 

He was told nothing positive but when he returns to hospital in 3 weeks time they will examine him again.  I guess they cannot really tell for a while and probably have to scan the eye to establish how much bleeding was hidden behind the cataract.  So, we continue in prayer.  

Thanks for reading this personal post from an anxious parent. 


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Recovery of some sight

To interrupt  my posts on life statements  (though  I must admit some difficulty in finding another one!) I am asking all those readers who are pray-ers whether you would please include a prayer for my son Simon. He undergoes some long-awaited eye surgery tomorrow at Moorfields, our national eye hospital in London.  For years he has struggled with different diseases in each eye which have deteriorated at contrasting rates.  Whenever there has been a bleed in either eye they have injected (in his words)| a superglue to stop the bleeding. But each time that bit of sight has been lost.  The downward slope of  unretrievable sight is continuous.

However, on his worst eye the plan tomorrow is to remove the cataract which has grown on a tissue paper surface (his consultant's words) to establish how serious the bleeding has been behind.  The sensitive scanning of his eye condition has been blocked by the wall of his cataract (again, the consultant's words), so they have no idea whether removal of the cataract, without damaging the retina (a dangerously possible outcome), will help the underlying condition.

Our under-pressure NHS has delayed action for many months but on Weds. 29th. November at 8:30 am his surgeon will operate.  So, prayers please.  As an editor whose work with magnified large font just about continues, and as a Dad whose family life has been incredibly diminished, we pray that the Lord of Healing will bless tomorrow's surgery.  Thanks for reading. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Life Statements 3\)

 A few months after my Ordination I was inducted to Leamington Road Baptist Church, Blackburn on September 2nd. 1972.

Being called to your first pastorate tests your faith and your motives in ministry. As I entered my last year in training there was much advice I could call on to ascertain God's leading. But two remarks particularly stayed in my mind. One was the ironical remark of an eminent Baptist minister, a Northerner, who said;' 'How strange it is that the Holy Spirit calls so many ministers to the South-East of England.' That challenged me as an absolute Southerner. I felt it would be unfaithful to limit the scope to the South and, indeed, coveted a church in the North for my first ministry.

A second valuable piece of advice came from my father. It concerned the emotion I should ideally feel when confronted by the right church. He said 'You should fall in love with it!'  Well, I have now fallen in love twice in my life. The first time does not concern us here. But when Carol and I visited Leamington Road last October, for the first Sunday of your interregnum, we both fell in love with the church and tow.  It was the Rev. Peter Lorkin who had suggested me as a pulpit-filler and that happy visit remained in our memories for a long time. At that stage the likelihood of my receiving an invitation to meet the deacons seemed remote. However, when in the Christmas post, I received an invitation to visit Blackburn again my excitement was considerable. After meeting the management committee I returned to Oxford exhilarated. Even though my experience of living north of Oxford was nil, and the scope of Leamington Road sent my knees trembling (and still does!) I prayed that this might be the right situation for Carol and me. In our devotions we  prayed earnestly that God's will would be clear for us.

When I came on the weekend of January 29/30th 1972 there was little doubt in my mind. There was plenty of opportunity to meet man y of you on the Saturday evening and during the Sunday I had a strong conviction that God was leading me here. That conviction has never left us, and has been reinforced by other events. My prayer is that your step of faith as a church entrusting the pastoral oversight to a young man may be blessed as together we commit our future life to the Lord.

Though I wrote this statement down my developing speaking style already gave me freedom as I spoke.  I know that the emotional engagement was high as was the gratitude to God and the humbling awareness that this was it. My first place for actual ministry! I was to write in block capitals: GOD HAS CALLED ME HERE TO SERVE FOR HIS GLORY.  I had to remember that!

Monday, November 13, 2023

Life Statements 2)

 Ordination statement cont.

Since I committed myself to this vocation and began training at Regent's Park College in Octobers 1969 there have been confirmations that this is the right course. The most recent is my call to Leamington Road Baptist Church, Blackburn, which sets a seal on my training for the pastoral ministry.

But there is one thing more I must say to this congregation in Chatsworth. On 3rd. August 1969 Chatsworth took a great step of faith - it invited me untrained, inexperienced and very nervous to preach.  Only I know how great your faith was! Preaching, of all the aspects of the ministry was one where I felt least adequate and there are churches not far from here which, courtesy of the London Baptist Preachers' Association will readily agree. Yet, when I climbed the mount for the evening service on that August date I experienced something which will always stand on a peak. I cannot really describe the loss of self-awareness, the peaceful confidence, not rooted in a careful script but grounded in the humbling strength of the Holy Spirit.  Only those who have known extremes of butterflies, dry throat and a crippling ill-ease which may accompany public speaking can appreciate why this experience is a turning point I can never forget. It gave me for the first time the happiness of preaching the good news unhampered by my own limitations and borne up by the Spirit's power.

I cannot explain why I felt this until I remember the prayers of this people, with me every minute. For those prayers and that day I thank God.

As I read these words I picture this Ordination day in sharp focus.  But, when I describe what happened on 3rd. August I realize how I pulled my punches. It really was true that preaching was part of my calling which I dreaded.  As a lay preacher I had recently visited a Baptist church, travelling by tube.  That day's pulpit experience still makes me shiver.  No one spoke to me at the end and the Treasurer grudgingly flipped me half-a-crown (old money = 25p) to cover my travel!  It was awful. What happened on 3rd. August was so momentous I felt it was too presumptuous as a young man to mention it.  Surely many would think it was the product of an overwrought imagination rather than spiritual reality.  Only many years later did I dare to tell the story how God had unmistakeably spoken to me. Even while I was preaching another voice clearly said: Michael I call you to preach.  As I later wrote in 360degree Preaching: God gave inadequate me a vivid, lifelong commitment to preach. 

I think I was right to keep quiet in 1972 but am sure I needed to go public later. It explains so much of my subsequent life.  It also raises questions about whether God calls specifically for preaching. Is this among the gifts to the church? Good questions.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Life Statements (1)

 Occasionally I have needed to explain myself in a public statement. These have come at critical junctures of new beginnings. I have just found the first two relating to my Ordination and my Induction to my first church. They reveal wrestling and conviction. Please forgive my introspection but reflecting on these has provoked some deep thankfulness to God.  My Ordination was in Chatsworth Baptist Church, Carol's church which had become mine (see romance post!) on May 21st. 1972.

It is not easy to convey the sureness of my conviction that brings me to my Ordination, and yet do justice to the chequered course of events leading here.  There have been periods of confusion doubt and of slipping backwards, and even as I declare here that I believe God wants me to be his minister there is still sheer disbelief that God wants me.

Today I give thanks for those powerful influences for God in my life - the most important of whom are my parents. Their saintly example gripped me as soon as I could think and the effectiveness of my Christian home began in my conversion and baptism by my father in 1959 and continues fittingly as my father ordains me. My younger brother, already a Baptist minister reinforces this testimony to my home.

But the thought of following in my father's footsteps as a 'clergyman' always horrified me, and still does. When I first went to university to read Geography I was determined to be a dedicated Christian, but a layman. However, towards the end of my three year course, as I was drifting into a probable teaching career, I suddenly felt acutely dissatisfied with the way I had decided my future with God, certainly no wrestling. In my indecision I was advised to wait, to take time to work and pray out my future. And in my waiting, quite out-of-the-blue I was asked to consider a new appointment at the Baptist Union Headquarters, working amongst students. This was a God-given opportunity to test my faith and future. Many events occurred within the first few months and throughout I prayed and thought hard.

It took nearly 14 months for me to accept the new direction towards which God was thrusting me. After hours of discussion with friends, of talking with my wife, a heaping up of experiences and sharing in student missions I found my devotional life was giving me less and less room for maneouvre. People  prodded me, unawares but irritatingly on this sensitive spot - the full-time Christian ministry. The Holy Spirit was compelling me to think again and again, as the needling persistent conviction grew that I could never be happy outside the full-time Christian ministry.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Diary Disaster

 For decades my pocket diary (or calendar for US friends) has accompanied my every move. Over the years I have experimented with different sizes and layouts. Occasionally I have mislaid one - but never for long. It has been an indispensable tool.  In ministry it was filled with duties right through twelve months, often with commitments in the next year's space squeezed at the back. Ever since 1987, I have had to log in the three monthly Botox injections that lay ahead to ensure none clashed with major absences. Gradually it became an indispensable guide to email addresses and passwords.  Every December I laboriously recopied them into the next diary. And always it kept personal data for my leaky memory.

The last few weeks have been frantic because my precious diary disappeared. Desperately I have searched in all the obvious places. Where did you last use it? etc. Everywhere I began hopefully. Surely, it had to be somewhere! And every time the search failed. Someone helpfully chided me for not using my phone calendar.

Eventually, I concluded that when I last saw it had to be on my desk among a heap of papers. A big untidy heap. (I hope Carol doesn't read this - she has strong views on the state of my desk. She came me a plaque PLEASE DON'T CLEAN UP MY MESS. YOU'LL CONFUSE ME AND SCREW UP MY WORLD!) Alongside my desk is a large waste bin in which there is often an untidy heap of papers too.  With a heavy heart I realized that the diary must have slipped into the waste bin as the heap occasionally avalanches. In the past multiple pens and even books have slid out of sight.  Usually I would check but woe is me...I failed this time. 

However, life has slowed down with ageing, Appointments, which in Spurgeon's could be four years ahead, are now absent. I am attempting to use my phone diary and am coming to terms with my loss as bravely as possible. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Surprise re-connections - All Greek to me 4)

 Just recently I came across a name from the past.  Prof. G.D. Kilpatrick.  Actually, it jolted me back to my student days in Oxford.  For our university exams, just one set at the end of three years, we were allowed to specialize in one paper. Though an extremely disappointing student of French and German I really enjoyed one particular dead language -New Testament Greek.  I won a university prize for translation which encouraged me to opt for the specialist final examination of NT textual criticism.  This involved studying the various textual possibilities that are sometimes found in old manuscripts and occasionally noted at the foot of our Bible translations.  I was fascinated to find out more.

Unfortunately only two other students joined me in preparing for the exam.  The four of us would meet around a large table in the professor's room as he gave us exercises to work on.. Dr. Kilpatrick was a leading Bible translator with an international reputation, yet he treated us as fellow translators.  I tell you, I had to concentrate in that room! It was all Greek because it was assumed we would automatically translate. The different symbols for important codex manuscripts needed mastering with an awareness of their dating.  It was pretty overwhelming as was the final exam, taken in sweltering heat as I wore my gown (a statutory requirement). The three of us were scattered across the room, heads bent and (in my case) attempts to subdue panic.

And the surprise re-connection? While on sabbatical in Cambridge, the Dean of the vast South Western Seminary for Baptists in Texas attended my church.  One day he asked me whether I would like to accompany him to Oxford because he had been asked by his Seminary to examine an impressive library of books and manuscripts with a view to purchase.  Would they be worth the thousands of dollars asked? And yes, it was the very same room we entered. It was one of those very strange experiences of being catapulted into a space you never thought you would see again.

I am not sure whether the seminary did purchase the collection. I think others were interested!  But how's that for an odd re-connection?

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Surprise re-connections - Spurgeon's 3)

 About the same time that I saw Carol for the first time, a friend who I met in my first year at University, invited me home. Paul told me that his father was Principal of a Baptist College. Of course, I had heard of Spurgeon's but it was in fresh territory in South Norwood.

I set off on my Honda C90, which was my first  low-powered motorcycle (later to be replaced by more powerful steeds!). Unfortunately it put-putted as far as Tower Bridge but as I was crossing the Thames into South London it gave up.  I began pushing it out of the traffic. Its spark plug no longer sparked.  I carried emery paper to pep up the plug, for my limited student resources meant I had no spare. I replaced the plug but it kept misfiring allowing only painfully slow progress. At the end I had to push it up S. Norwood Hill, and up the driveway into Spurgeon's. Much later than I hoped I plopped the bike by the  columned entrance to this large house.  I could see extensive grounds beyond and admit I was mighty impressed.

Paul greeted me and took me up the grand staircase, along the corridor opposite a large stained glass window into the Principal's apartment, which occupied the corner of the big house. We entered the lounge with high ceilings and windows overlooking the grounds.  I met his mother and was told his father would be in later. When he did appear much later, he greeted me graciously before throwing himself on the sofa and putting on a vinyl record of Liszt/s Piano Concerto No 1. The image of him in that room with this vibrant loud music has stayed with me ever since. In fact I used it to begin his memorial lecture many years later.

Many of you will know where I am going with this story.  In one of God's twists and turns of my journey, in 1993 I found myself becoming Principal of Spurgeon's!  Going back to this place remains one of the greatest surprises of my life. By now that room where I had heard the Liszt had become my study. My re-connection seems unbelievable still. I treasure this story - it humbles me and speaks of  God's extraordinarily mysterious ways of working.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Surprise re-connections - Romance 2)

 A couple of weeks ago we were with a group when conversation turned to telling stories about how we had first  met up as couples. When it came my turn I told how in 1965 a group of us in Cambridge who belonged to the Baptist Student Federation went to a mission conference in SE London.  Based at Chatsworth Way Baptist Church, West Norwood, it took me into new territory.  The old church building had been bombed in the war and a magnificent building erected in its place with a suite of buildings behind where we were billeted.  

Students came from all over the country. When our group arrived we were welcomed and put in charge of the most glamorous girl I had ever seen in a Baptist Church.  With artful make-up. mini-skirt, gorgeous smile and sparkling personality she shepherded us on a tour of the church.  Our group, mostly men, were captivated.  In the gallery looking down on the pulpit which modelled the arm of God with the preacher cradled in his hand, I espied a glass which seemed oddly shaped.  I asked her whether it was an ashtray or spittoon and received a withering look. Really withering.  At our first conference meal she was serving another table with a tall, handsome man and it became very clear that they were a serious item.

Move on two years, in 1967, I had just begun an experimental job at the Baptist HQ in Holborn. Almost immediately my boss fell ill and I was summonsed to lead a student group to an international conference in Switzerland.  The 6 British delegates met me on Victoria Station.  Who should arrive to join the group but this same gorgeous girl?  Oh, yes!  Much had changed in her life. She had finished her serious relationship and, very sadly, her mother had just died.  Friends had cajoled her to attend this conference with Chatsworth Way BC supporting her financially.  I'm pretty sure my chairmanship of the conference was distracted.  Needless to say that shortly after returning to the UK we were a serious item.

Next year we were married. Where?  Chatsworth Way of course. We lived in W. Norwood close to the church and our reception helped by the church was in the same hall of the BSF conference. This was the church where I received God's call to preach and from where I was sent into ministry.  Now that rates as one of the best surprise re-connections!

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Surprise re-connections - Toronto 1)

When I posted about my old friend Noel recently, I mentioned how I first saw him at the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Toronto, 1980. And how I had been selected as a younger minister to represent the UK. When I returned from that visit, I made a couple of reports, one formal to my sponsors and another informal with slides.  When I recently found the latter in my files I read, with amusement, my account of the Sunday evening visit to a church. Members of my Cambridge Church had recently been to Toronto and they had given me a leaflet about a church they had visited - Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.  

It was on Yonge Street which I found was only half a mile away from my hotel. I decided to walk and gave myself an hour. Only the next day did I discover that Yonge Street is the longest street in Canada. I had at least three miles to walk.  A banner welcomed the Congress and particularly its women attendees for their special service that evening.  I went in gingerly and seeing the rows of hats, sat down feeling lost, only to be slapped on the back by the General Secretary of the Union, David Russell, who was supporting his wife and welcomed me to join them in their pew. 

The church building has (for a Baptist church) remarkable cathedral type architecture. Indeed, I was told it was the Baptist cathedral church of Canada.  With choir stalls and robed choir, powerful organ, sweeping aisles, high ceiling it was packed with 2000 plus.  I understood why my church members had recommended visiting it.

Afterwards we all moved onto the spacious lawns alongside the church for lemonade and cookies and was warmly greeted as an unusual younger man (I think the youngest present) who had chosen to be there!

And the CONNECTION - When I wrote that report I had no idea that in 1983 I would receive an invitation to be this church's guest preacher during a month in Summer. I never dreamed that I would be in Toronto again. With Carol and the boys we began a relationship that continued through the years with many visits to preach, and to give their annual preaching lecture.  Looking back at that report it is startling to realize how dear this place, this people, this lemonade on the lawn (the standard refreshment) would become to me through the years.  Who could have known.  Well, God did, who wove it into my story!  

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Reflection 4)

 3.     LOOK FORWARD   1 Cor 11 has that striking verse 26: Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  Its as though, at this point, these worship instructions answer the question: 'How often and how long do we keep doing this?'. And the instructions say' Keep on doing this (it doesn’t say how often) but keep on remembering until you meet Jesus.  

The little picture, for you and me, concerns the end of our lives when Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life receives us into that inheritance, that will never perish, spoil or fade kept in heaven.  You never stop needing Jesus. 

But its also for the big picture, for the end of the end of old creation and initiation of the new creation when Jesus comes again.  And the pictures like Rev 19,21 of the roar of judgement and Hallelujah at the wedding feast of the Lamb and the new heaven and new earth where no more death or mourning or crying or pain.  Oh, it’s a great stretch to see that lonely figure on the cross as the Alpha and Omega of everything that is.  The one before whom, at the end,  every knee will bow.  But this is the Lord over our future. A Lord whose eternal promises sound out again as we do this to remember him. We belong with him. He promises: I shall never leave you.

And I love the word proclaim in that verse. Because it is a kind of preaching, making impact word. Not just remembering how our story began with Jesus, but how the very act of  remembering in his presence means things happen. Forgiveness, Faith, Hope, Guidance. When I was training to be a minister we had a very strong personality for Principal. And his strongest passion was taking communion seriously. In college chapel nobody was allowed to be absent.  He always spoke about its importance.  And I later discovered that he had been a schoolboy at the Perse School in Cambridge, and it was at the communion service at St. Andrew’s St. Baptist church that Jesus Christ encountered him  for real.  His life was changed.  Let proclaim with expectation as we take communion.

Christ has died.. Humbly we look back and give thanks for Jesus who died for us.

Christ is risen  Joyfully, we look around and give thanks for Jesus who is alive for us and made us his people.

Christ will come again, we look forward and give thanks to Jesus who holds the future - ours and the world's - in his hands. 


Sunday, September 24, 2023

Reflection 3)


      Vital though it is to look back, it is not enough. For remembering at communion is not just a personal moment - though it has to be that.  Jesus rose from the dead, He is alive with us. Not just for me but for us.  The second direction is:

2   LOOK AROUND    Some churches leave a central chair behind the table empty as a symbol that Jesus is here in Spirit. And he is here with his people, a new people, a family of brothers and sisters, living and loving differently because of his life and love.   Communion is seriously personal but it is also seriously corporate. Who we are together really matters.  Jesus says when you come to the altar if you remember a brother has something against you, first go and be reconciled. Matt 5:23  In 1 Cor 11, with the words of institution for use in the church it says you need to examine yourself whether you have sinned against the body of the Lord….his body is the church.  How we are together really matters.  In our tradition we take the bread in a personal relationship, but when the cup comes around we drink together in a corporate relationship.  We are bound together by the death, rising, new life giving Lord like no other community. 

Some liturgical traditions as they prepare for holy communion, or eucharist ,have their prayers of penitence and then the minister says words like this: We are the body of Christ, In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and build up our common life. Then come the words The peace of the Lord be always with you.  And the people say: And also with you.  And then the minister says: Let us offer one another a sign of peace.  Many of you will have shared in services with these words.  Once or twice when visiting churches the person sitting next to me has muttered Peace be with you without even looking at me. And when the service is over they rush off without a glance.

Let's offer one another a sign of peace. Look the people around you in the eye.  We are in this together and it is a big deal. We are the body of Christ.  (We then broke into sharing the peace - stopping the interactions took leadership from the worship leader!)  I still had one section of the reflection left.



Thursday, September 21, 2023

Reflection 2.


How best to we remember Jesus in Communion.  The most obvious way is to

1.      LOOK BACK.  Some Christians call this the Lord's Supper and it is possible to go back to that upper room where Jesus first takes bread and wine. Mark tells the story vividly of a group of disciples blind to impending disaster, bickering about self-importance, with Judas right there just thinking this is another Passover meal, when Jesus takes bread and says: This my body, This my blood.  But this supper table is not the place to look, for when Jesus takes bread and wine he is taking us to the Cross. As though we must climb up the sides of the hill called Golgotha to see a hideous sight where the best man who ever lived, hangs in agony, rejected by the crowds,  with a gash in his side and thirst in his throat, separated from his Father (Father why have you abandoned me) with an unimaginable burden crushing him. The man who said: Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friend. You are my friends if you do what I tell you. He is giving us everything by sacrificing his life as a Lord who offers friendship in relationship with him as Lord.  

It is an overwhelming spiritual truth that nobody could put us right with God unless he helps us.  And he does it his way giving his only Son to take away the sin that separates humankind from God by the power of love sacrificed in death.  And he does it for me and you.   Remember me says Jesus because I am suffering to win new life for you. 

In my ministry occasionally people have said: I can’t take communion at the moment. I am in a bad place and it doesn’t feel right. But there never is a right place. None of us deserve this.  The most amazing truth is that when we truly grieve, truly with repentance that looks to the cross…this is precisely where Jesus wants to meet us.  It’s profoundly serious and personal. 

The old spiritual goes Were you there when they crucified my Lord. Well, of course not. Yet Jesus did this once for all for all of us. So yes, I was there.  Because God so loved the world, this death has cosmic reach.   Let’s quietly hear the words in Stuart Townend’s song that we shall sing;

Behold the man upon a cross

My sin upon his shoulders

Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice

Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there

Until it was accomplished

His dying breath has brought me life

I know that it is finished.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A reflection on Communion


My computer surgery and death messed up various plans. A couple of weeks ago I was asked by our minister to offer a reflection leading into Communion last Sunday, and I began to jot down early thoughts on my trusted computer. Which, alas, turned out less trustworthy.  Among files lost were these early notes. My practice is to prepare a stereo script (for eye and ear) and then internalize its main thrust.  Needless to say the process was somewhat abbreviated! I chose two readings: Mark 14:33-36; 1 Cor.11:23-29. I so rarely speak in church nowadays so I thought I would give you a flavour!

In reflection I began by describing the first time I saw communion. I was around 9 years old.  My friend and I finished children’s class early and went to find our parents in the main church building. Through a chink in the nearly closed doors we witnessed an extraordinary sight. Everyone was so quiet. No prayer, no singing. 'Here', my friend said, 'they're eating something'. 'Let me look' I said, and those few seconds are imprinted on my memory. The utter strangeness, the mystery of people eating in church. Even at 9 years old I realized something special was happening for God.  And it was. 

Jesus only asked us to do two pieces of ritual. One is Baptism – the public entry into belonging with him and his church. We have celebrated that with one of our young people the week before. Two is Communion , when repeatedly we do something for Jesus together.  It doesn’t demand special equipment, just bread and something to drink. But it's practical, involves us in doing something together. Jesus commands: Do this to remember me. And, yes, he commands!

I split the reflection into three parts. They are well-worn: LOOK BACK, LOOK AROUND and LOOK FORWARD.  Onto the next posts. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Computer Surgery

I regret to announce that my laptop went into surgery last week.  Well, not immediately.  Clearly unwell, I left it for extended diagnosis. It felt strange as I walked away from my constant companion of 6 years with a certain amount of dread.  Which turned out to be appropriate as the consultant announced it would require major surgery and have to stay in for a few days.  While under the operation procedure it sadly perished.  Apparently the battery had expanded to mess up the internal organs.

I was promised that all the key personality traits and knowledge could be transferred to a new machine which I collected late yesterday.  I am trying not to expect too much.  Signing back in to some essential programmes has proved highly stressful with password amnesia.  Indeed, accessing my blog took a painful 30 minutes, as attempts became ever more desperate.

Unfortunately, the dead computer was strongly tied in with my seminary past.  Two distinct systems divided responsibilities of accessing and storing data.  Finally, severing from this past has mightily disrupted the new machine with all kinds of stuff still to be found, including my sermon preparation for next Sunday and notes for my Tuesday teaching (which began last night).  It has added an unwelcome frisson to my life. 

But I was also challenged.  Just how much had I come to be dependent on a machine which is vulnerable? And how much did I need all this data going back 23 years?  Good questions.  I am chastened and am trying to simplify though (very) kind friends have said they would like the blog posts to continue. Well, for a little while, anyway !

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

About Noel 3)

Though it was clear that Noel was highly regarded in the Baptist World, I had absolutely no idea that he was going to become President of the BWA 1985-1990. Whenever he visited England he would stay with us as the unassuming friend he had become.  I am not quite sure how it worked but he must have been behind me becoming a member of the Doctrine Commission and therefore a regular member of the annual meetings held on every continent in sequence. I became part of a little travelling British gang. I learned so much and on each occasion  he always spent time with me.

 Owing to the many visiting academics who visited our Cambridge Church I had begun what became a very significant relationship with Baptists in Australia.  Several concurrent years I was the annual convention state speaker in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and at other mission events.  Such a privilege. But never  Perth and W. Australia which lay so far away from what became our main centre of gravity in Sydney.  Noel lamented this absence.  

When I became seriously ill in 1986/87 he came and stayed in Cambridge with us. He grew even closer in friendship. I found him an exceptional mentor.  When I was asked to submit my name for Principalship of Spurgeon's College in 1993 he was a wise supportive guide. (However, when I asked his advice on my move to the US he was less convinced it was right!) 

Eventually I did visit Perth to speak at the college and spent time with Noel in his home.  The icing on the cake was the later invitation to fly out and preach at the 50th anniversary of the college's foundation. Renamed Noel Vose Seminary it was memorable in many ways, not least because Noel and his two successors were present to join the celebrations.  I think you can tell from just this snatch overview how much I valued him and friendship seemed to go both ways.  Indeed his biographer included  Noel's over-generous assessment of me with warm words about Carol, Simon and Robert. 

How good it is to recall influences like these in our lives.  And it was his dedication to me inside one of the G.H. Morrison's books of sermons that began this memory trail.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

About Noel 2)

When I wrote yesterday's post I had no idea how much joy it would give me. I hadn't really thought about the circumstances of how I became friends with Noel for years. Maybe never.  Not properly. Now I see more clearly that it was one of those wonderful moments when God gifted me in quite a remarkable way.  I hope that you can look back to the beginning of some friendship which became a vital part of your life.

Immediately we met, Noel and I clicked.  Of course I was intrigued by this significant BWA figure on my doorstep but none of that mattered.  His biography speaks of his humility and goodness.  I love that definition of a Christian: 'Someone with whom it is easy to be good."  Even though he was 24 years older, was Western Australian through and through, he became a close friend to the whole family.  Our teenage boys loved him and so, eventually, did their wives. While he studied for a term in Cambridge his wife, Heather was studying in Paris. This gifted couple had begun lives as Baptist pastor and wife, with pastoral  experiences I could easily identify with. 

In 1959 he was appointed as the Founding Principal of the proposed Baptist Theological College of W. Australia and the adventure of building a college from scratch began in 1963.  By the time I met him, his role and influence was well established but, honestly, he wore these credentials with such modesty they were invisible.  All we saw was a loving man of God who was willing to share love with us.  And I know this may sound over the top but he remained a dear friend in our story right up until his death in 2016.

That following Christmas, 1980, I sent him our annual letter which playfully summarized some of our family happenings through another year.  He wrote in appreciation and said how every year he invited a group of neighbours after Christmas to share in breakfast. Though some were not believers he wanted to give thanks for the season with them.  Hospitality and evangelism were two of his big themes.  However, he began a tradition which continued the next three decades of reading aloud our Christmas letter! 

It's impossible to do justice to the difference Noel made to my subsequent life and ministry but I must write at least another post.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

About Noel 1)

In my last post I mentioned Noel Vose who became a great friend and mentor.  His story in my life is entangled with several happenings. In 1980 the Baptist Union Council selected four 'young ministers' to be delegates to the Baptist World Congress meetings in Toronto, 1980. 20,000 delegates, representing 30 million Baptists from across the world held their main meetings in the Maple Leaf Gardens, home to the famous hockey team. As my first experience of the BWA it was utterly overwhelming.

Delegates stayed in hotels throughout the city, and each day began with prayer in the hotel with fellow guests.  On my own, I quickly made friendships, some of which lasted for years.  Each day, we then travelled to the Maple Leaf Gardens for morning Bible Study, after which sessions detailed the wide ranging work of the BWA departments and commissions.  I was involved with the Commission on Doctrine which met later in the afternoons and was to turn out to be a significant dimension of future ministry in writing and ecumenical dialogue. Of course, at the beginning I had no idea of what lay ahead.

In the evenings there were major worship and preaching sessions with a wide range of speakers.  At one of them an Australian preached.  I was sitting far away in the stalls with thousands around me.  A large screen showed gave his headshot so I had some idea what he looked like.  I remember vividly how he illustrated sin by the way delegates continued to take flash photos even though they had been instructed not to!  Though there was a noticeable drop in the number of flashes still they happened. 'You see, you just cannot stop doing it" he challenged.  He said much else of substance.  I noted his name Noel Vose in my bulky congress notes.

A few months later, back in St. Andrew's Street Baptist Church, Cambridge, I was leading our evening Sunday service. It was a dark, miserable evening. Congregations in the morning service were small but in the evenings only a smattering of people met in the building holding 900. I know some people felt its death was nigh. At the very back a solitary stranger appeared. When the service was over I shook his hand and realized that a few weeks earlier I had witnessed him at a distance in the Maple Leaf Gardens.  Noel was studying at Tyndale House and thought he would try a local church.   

I couldn't believe it. Neither could he!  We arranged to give him a meal that week and quite extraordinarily we began such a warm, deep friendship that from that point on he became one of those special people that the Lord gives us.  He was truly the best kind of gift God could give.  I have often wondered how he might have gone to another church on that dismal night.  But no.  God was in it!

Friday, August 25, 2023

Farewell to George H. Morrison

I know....who is George Morrison?  In the sad task of saying good-bye to the last of my preaching books I want to show respect to some past great names before their collected books go. I admit I knew nothing of this Scottish preacher until my friend and mentor Noel Vose was visiting us.  Noel deserves many posts himself for if I am remembering old friends he deserves to be up the front.  However, not to sidetrack, Noel on one of his visits from Australia accompanied me to a used book shop where retired clerics had dumped their books.  Often piled up haphazardly at bargain prices (but who would want most of them?) Noel espied an old volume of George Morrison's sermons.  I confessed I had never heard of him.

Noel bought it, plus one or two others, and said I needed to familiarize myself with him. He lived 1866 to 1928. Early on he became assistant editor on the New English Dictionary at Oxford which drilled into him the power of words and on completing his Divinity course at Glasgow University he became assistant to the famous minister Alexander Whyte, whose lifestyle and ministry greatly impacted him.

He served churches in Thurso and Dundee before his most significant ministry at Wellington Church, Glasgow from 1902 until his sudden death in 1928.  Several issues hit me in his biography.

  • He completely devoted himself to his churches and their communities. Nothing mattered more than caring for the sheep and preparing sermons, ever asking the question: 'What is there for my people to live on?'  Rigorous in his study he visited every afternoon for several hours and kept an accurate record of every visit he paid. The last year he lived he paid 1200 calls of his nearly 2000 members. He said that the secret of a happy ministry was to be constantly moving among the homes or our people.
  • He was not strong and suffered serious illnesses. One of his friends said "illness and loss have been mighty factors in the shaping of George Morrison...the cruel fellowship of pain and sorrow had given him great thoughts of God and Christ.'
  • His modesty. Though he became famous through his preaching and writing he 'retained the modest spirit that will learn from the humblest friend, and never forgets anything of any value that may be dropped by the poorest talker. In private life the same gentle and generous man speaks to you as speaks to you from the pulpit, and in the quiet kindness of friendship though you never feel you deserve that.
This gifted hard-working man who devoted himself to the local church took preaching seriously. Every day he read a sermon from a wide range of preachers for the good of his soul and when it came to his own sermons he gave his very best with a simplicity of language (though dated to our ears), a sincerity, and uncomplicated style.  

I think Noel wanted me to know him because his life speaks of many qualities that I so admire.  Not one of the big names but worth knowing.  The few books I say farewell to will not appeal to many of today's readers but I am grateful to have had them on my shelf.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

A couple of personal bits

Friends have asked me about a couple of things, still hanging.  Has my son's book, which dominated much of 2013, progressed or not?  And is my brain upset sorted?

The book, with much huffing and puffing met the deadline at the end of June.  Itself a minor miracle. It then bounced back as 8,000 words too long!  The publisher demanded a culling within the following couple of weeks.  In anguish, Rob managed to cut parts, some of which he says were the best bits.  In each chapter he included two live examples drawn from the audio world, Intended to be highlighted in boxes, they sprinkled some magic dust. Actually, some of them were very good stories.  But the culling meant half had to be cut. Such is the writer's lot when they miscalculate length.

Anyway, he heard last week that the cuts were accepted and now the process of editing etc. whirrs into action with publication planned for early next year.  This is quite wonderful.  Readers of some of my earlier posts will have detected my doubts and weariness in ever meeting the deadline. So this is one bit of personal news that genuinely thrills me. 

And about my brain. Today, my neurological consultant ordered some specialist blood tests for detecting brain flow and is changing my injection routine in hopes of minimizing more dramatic head happenings.  I saw her with my left arm swathed in bandages from a fall on Sunday which owed everything to tripping over a folding chair rather than renewed brain trouble.  But I don't think she was too reassured about my general state.  However, I remain positive. There's so much to be grateful for.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

A serious Thursday

My mother suffered a near fatal cerebral haemorrhage in her thirties and then suffered massive brain damage causing her early death at 57 years. I remember her telling me that I should beware a sudden severely piercing headache with peculiar sensations in my skull.  Her grave words struck me on Thursday.

After a quiet breakfast I was hit by violent head pain which travelled up inside my skull.  I had never experienced such a walloping before. At first I hoped that paracetemol and some quiet rest would blunt its sharpness. When it wound up instead of winding down, I shared my problem with Carol (resting upstairs) who called 111 where Kelly listened attentively to my symptoms. I was told to wait for a clinician to call and shortly after Dr. Patel listened to me, drew the conclusion I might have a brain bleed and said he was requesting an emergency ambulance. 

Within 10 minutes the ambulance was with me. The paramedic greeted me with the words: 'We thought you were dead!' I felt I was a disappointment but nevertheless she agreed I needed a hospital scan immediately. Carol sat with me in the ambulance and accompanied me as I was examined, taken for a CAT scan and then waited for the outcome.  Carol had asked our church payer chain to whirl into action which it did mightily. We both said how much we felt supported by prayer. 

The consultant hadn't yet seen my scan when he interviewed me.  Having rehearsed my drama once more he left to examine the scan.  You can imagine the utter relief when he returned and announced there was no sign of a brain bleed.  Wonderful!  But what caused the pain?  He reckons that maybe my dystonia (a form of Parkinson's disease) is misbehaving.  So, more patience is needed and who knows whether we shall ever know. Except that God's does know!  A happening like this reminds me of my vulnerability, my need to praise God for the gift of each and every day, and his gift of faith so that I can trust every day too.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Unwitting gifting

The last post jogged my memory. I was 9 or 10 living in Gloucester and passionate about camping. I had read a book with idyllic pictures of camping life and had set my heart on having my own ridge tent. With concentration, scraping every penny from pocket money and birthday money, the day eventually arrived when I had enough to buy a 6 foot by 6 foot by 6 foot canvas tent.  It was the basic model. No ground sheet nor waterproofing. But proudly I erected it in the back garden and slept on the back lawn that night. 

I needed to add vital extras, sleeping bags, stove, utensils etc. which took more effort over many months. But first on the list was the need for a ground sheet.  Again, I saved enough money to buy it and proudly bore it home in its plastic bag.

At the same time, my father's church was hosting a massive refugee appeal which went across the city, resulting in piles of donations in our main hall. The organizer spoke powerfully at its launch and its impact involved tens of volunteers.  I remember the excitement caught us all up.  And somehow my brand new, wrapped ground sheet was caught up in the donations.  I need to make it clear to you that this was not my intention.  I was shocked to the core. 

On the final Sunday, the organizer spoke about the boy who had given up his new groundsheet for the sake of the refugees.  How this was such an appropriate donation!  Fortunately, I was not identified! It's all a bit hazy but I guess the deed couldn't be undone so I swallowed my disappointment.  It was strange to be seen as an example of generosity when I had failed to be generous and rather resented what had happened.  But I tried to be positive.  Looking back I realize that I gave him a great preacher's story which would touch peoples' hearts.  And I truly hope it was useful to a refugee family somewhere.

How odd to have that memory jogged! 

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Fun Regifting

We enjoyed giving lunch to a couple of friends last week who brought an attractively wrapped parcel of chocs with them.  I thought the glossy paper wrapping and ribbon bow was rather over the top.  

After the meal I unwrapped it to offer the contents around and finish off the meal in style with our coffee. A tight cellophane sleeve enveloped the chocolates in their plastic box and as I cut it, twenty-five pounds fluttered out. It had been cleverly concealed. I was truly astonished, but my surprise was nothing compared with our guests'.

Hurriedly they explained that they had been given a number of gifts as they were leaving their church and they thought they would share this one with us. The bonus gift made sense. Pocketing the money they were clearly racking their brains about who the original donor might be.

We laughed as we enjoyed the chocolates (apart, that is, from poor allergy-affected Carol).  Regifting is a great idea but this was a novel hazard.

Monday, July 24, 2023

An Enquiry

I have shared the anguish of parting with my books on a past couple of occasions and though the bulk of my books has already been given away, some outliers remain. I am grateful that my friend Ian Randall has just been able to resettle a small collection of my Baptist history and doctrine books, 

Yet, I keep finding books that were particular treasures of others who bequeathed them to me.  One is my father's facsimile copy of William Carey's: An Enquiry into the obligation of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathen.  First published in 1792, this copy with the same type setting and f's instead of s's was re-produced in 1934 to celebrate the Centenary of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS). As was common, the title page which the religious state of the different nations of the world, the success of former undertakings, and the practicability of further undertakings, are considered.  It became the charter for Protestant missions and produced the BMS.

It's a remarkable read. To think this Baptist minister in Moulton, Northamptonshire, could summarize the biblical imperative of mission, describe earlier missionary movements and give a ;Survey of the present State of the World  with statistics in 22 packed pages.  He set sail for India in 1793, acting on his convictions. His stats for India beyond the Ganges was: Extent - length miles 2000, breadth miles 1,000; number of inhabitants 50,000,000; religion - Mahometans and Pagans

I love the way he concludes the book:  We are exhorted to lay up treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, not thieves break through and steal.  It is also declared that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. These Scriptures teach us that the enjoyments of the life to come, bear a near relation to that which now is; a relation similar to that of the harvest and the seed. It is true all the reward is of mere grace, but it is nevertheless encouraging: what a treasure, what an harvest must await such characters as Paul, and Elliot, and Brainerd and others, who have given themselves wholly to the work of the Lord. What a heaven will it be to see the many myriads of poor heathens, of Britons amongst the rest, who by their labours have been brought to the knowledge of God. Surely a crown of rejoicing like this is worth aspiring to. Surely it is worth while to lay ourselves out with all our might, in promoting the cause and kingdom of Christ.

I am glad this book is now being lodged in the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.

Monday, July 17, 2023

My opera friend

It just so happens that someone has just visited us whom I had not seen for many years which continues the music theme. In the early 90's I led daily Bible studies for the conference of European international Baptist churches, gathered in Interlaken, Switzerland.  You can imagine the delight Carol and I felt to be back in the country where we had first met (also at a Baptist conference!)  The organizers had chosen a musician to lead our worship who remains utterly bewildered that he was ever asked!  As a member of  Welsh National Opera Kelvin Thomas sang opera at heady musical heights and taught at Cardiff University.  However, he also founded a Christian choir, worked with other Christian groups and as a Baptist was known as a gifted all round musician.

The more we grew to know him the more I realized what a gem he is. Our friendship developed - one Christmas we visited his choir Cambrensis as it filled St. David's Hall and I even spoke!  When he was singing at the South Bank, London he used our home as a base.  He was the soloist for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King - a music spectacular with a violin smashed in anger and Kelvin acting out George III at his delusional worst. (George's worst that is)! One night we attended this highly unusual piece and afterwards met Sir Peter.  I marvelled that Kelvin had one foot in this contemporary classical music and one foot in orchestrating contemporary Christian songs for Cambrensis.

As you can imagine, we had much to talk about and chuckle over as we reminisced about the past. About how our very different worlds had collided because of our togetherness in Christ. That's exactly what happens in his kingdom.

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Proms

A group of older friends mentioned that the Proms were starting today. Stories began to flow.  One friend described how for his first date with a young lady (now his wife) he bought tickets for the Proms, but his car burst into flames destroying the tickets.  Strangely, she could remember the seat and row numbers so they still turned up and after much explanation were allowed to wait to see if those seats remained empty. When they did, they claimed their first date together. 

I contributed two stories. The first was my father's cycling as a fifteen year old from the E. End of London to the Royal Albert Hall because he had never heard classical music and wanted to sample it as a promenader for 1 penny. (I think that was the current cost for standing on the main floor). The beauty of the music made him weep and that began his love for classical music which he passed on to the rest of the family. 

For my sixteenth birthday he decided I needed my own initiation into the Proms.  The Royal Albert Hall inspires visitors but especially this teenager. We were seated in one of the lower boxes. Playing that night was someone about my own age.  Jacqueline de Pre was to become famous as a world renowned cellist. Little did I know that we were present for one of her first Proms as she played Elgar's Cello Concerto. The conductor was Sir Adrian Boult, already famous, and a hush fell as soloist and orchestra prepared to play. Baton was raised and just then in the corridor behind our box a loud voice called out in conversation.  The door to our box had come open. Sir Adrian stopped and looked up at us with his baton pointing, accusing us of interruption.  Hundreds of eyes swiveled in our direction. It was excruciatingly embarrassing.  Of all the things that could happen. Why our door, and such noise at that precise moment?

The performance soon erased discomfort.  I still have an LP of her playing that concerto. It remains one of my favourites.  I was glad that group reminisce brought the memory back.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Chess Massacre

 It is always a joy to see our London grandchildren. Last weekend they visited, the two older lads now at six feet two inches and, though much smaller, the 11 year old holding his own!

At one point he brought out his travelling chess set. Apparently he belongs to an intergenerational chess club and enjoys its meetings when they learn fresh moves and then challenge each other in games. I last played in the early 70's when a neighbour in Oxford shared regular evening contests.  David and I were surprisingly equal in skill, which meant the bar was pretty low for both of us.  To put it politely we had mastered few impressive strategies and played it one move at a time with only hazy hopes for the next move.  It made for surprisingly long games with deep pauses for thought.  

I knew that playing with Milo was risky.  Not only had he triumphed before my eyes by beating his older brother in short measure but the rest of the family was obviously amused. I recognized humiliation was round the corner. As we began, I was white and moved first, I tried to be unconventional.  He admitted this slightly threw him, though he still managed to check my king in four moves.  I could wriggle out of that and, with relief, plundered some of his pieces.  However, the net was inexorably closing.  Other members of the family gathered around....they knew what was coming. Out of the blue he exclaimed CHECKMATE.  And that was that!

He explained how visualizing two or three steps ahead was really helpful and he was very gracious in victory. It was one of those delightful moments when the next generation shows what it can do.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Country lanes

In the 60's my uncle, who had worked at quite a high level for Rabone-Chesterman in Birmingham, (manufacturers of measuring equipment) felt called to the mission field. He came to live with us as he prepared for his new life, which turned out to be the Administrator for Chandragona Hospital in Bangladesh.  He wanted a toehold in property here while he served away and his search for a place coincided with the need for our family to find a new home within the area, because my father's church appointed an associate minister who was moving into the church house.

It turned out to be a glorious experience. We found a cottage in a very small village to the south of Cambridge, called Hildersham.  Called the Corner Cottage its thatch, crowning white dung and wattle walls, was picture postcard rural England. I loved my tiny room tucked under the rafters with its window looking down the hill and I reveled in the walks with our dog Snowball in the lanes and fields.  Often accompanied by my mother, these country walks were rich in sights and conversation.  Within a few weeks of meeting Carol I brought her home (on my motorcycle - another story!) and, as a born and bred Londoner  living off the South Circular, she fell in love with it too.

Why trouble you with these details? Because on Sunday I was preaching in Linton Free Church which is in the next (much) bigger village to Hildersham.  I had never been to this church before and was interviewed in the service beginning with a question about whether I had lived in Hildersham.  When I reflected (briefly) on my few years living there with my joys of being in the countryside you could see the congregation warmly agree. I know how fortunate I was and how grateful I am today for that time in my life.

The church is experiencing renewal with some wonderful stories as people come to faith and new families join in.  It was a special Sunday worship experience. All together a memorable time.


Sunday, July 2, 2023

College Reunion

Yesterday Carol and I went to the annual Jesus College Garden Party.  When you arrive you are given name cards with the year when I matriculated - 1964.  On the list of attendees I searched for others from the same vintage and found only one other name.  I remembered Andrew but had never seen him since we graduated in 1967.

In the marquee as we chose some delicate sandwiches and scones (though Carol found nothing dairy and fruit free) Carol suddenly called me from across the tables and pointed out this man next to her  He had seen her name badge and asked where I was.  It was long time no-see Andrew. He rushed up to me saying that he just had to talk with me because he had been thinking of me the previous week. Really?

Once he had chosen his food he followed me out to the lawns where seats were placed in circles of eight. I commented how little he had changed. White hair yes but so much like the fresh-faced teenager I met all those years ago.  He reminded me of the big beard I had back then.  And why had be been thinking of me?  Well, he was reading the biography of Jim Ede who bequeathed his art collection Kettle's Yard to the city. The book brought back memories of how I had introduced him to Jim in our first year, setting off his life-long love of sculpture - practicing as well as admiring. 

Jim ran a generous open house for any student who would like to see his art collection.  Just knock on the door and wait.  I couldn't believe my fortune when I heard about his work and welcome and took full advantage, benefitting from his wisdom and encouragement.  He was a joy of a man. Could I remember that I introduced Andrew to him?  Only vaguely.  But as we chatted together all the memories of him loaning us valuable paintings and even a sculpture for our college rooms and being a positive presence came flooding back.  It was exhilarating.  I guess that happens at the best kind of reunions.

Strange isn't it how old memories come to life like this.  I hope you've experienced some happy surprises thinking back


Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Last Funeral 4)

Two days before the funeral I heard that the vicar was not allowed to bury Robin on his farmland as it was unconsecrated land. So, as a Baptist though unable to officiate in the church I was given this unusual responsibility. At least for me it was unusual. My last funeral but the first time I was involved in a private land committal. When we processed out of the church behind the wicker coffin I squeezed into the hearse as we drove to the farmyard.

There the coffin was loaded onto a trailer behind a temperamental tractor which managed to start up, after problems the day before.  To hold the coffin in place, 5 grandchildren clambered onto the trailer. They were needed!  I joined one of the families in the 4x4 as we pitched up and down on the rough ground as we started driving over the fields. Through one large one, then another with the children holding the coffin from falling off the trailer's open rear.  Parking, we then walked through to the corner of what will soon become a wildflower meadow.

The rain held off, birds sang sweetly and we completed the sad task of saying farewell prayers and making the committal.  I had been told that two of his dogs were nearby.  Sure enough their grave was clearly marked and very close. Reuben and Briar were greatly loved by Robin, especially Reuben, a black Labrador.  In one of those strange near death experiences, Robin suddenly spoke and told the family gathered around him that Reuben had come to be with him.  That he was there in the room.  It is extraordinary what can happen when someone is dying and comfort comes.

As we turned back to join the guests I felt a wave of sadness.  Someone asked me a few days ago which I found the more difficult to conduct - weddings or funerals.  I remember at theological college being told that weddings were more difficult because they marked the beginning of a relationship in the knowledge that ahead they faced all the complexity of making marriage work.  What a responsibility! Well, yes.  But for me coping with the grief of the bereaved has always been much more difficult.

I end this chapter of responsibility with gratitude to God that I have survived this ministry. Real gratitude. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

Last Funeral (3)

Yesterday, in boiling heat, I took part in my last funeral.  As expected Robin Page's funeral had a packed church with seats in the surrounding graveyard, as speakers relayed the service. I mentioned earlier that he was a colourful, controversial, local character with a high national profile.  Obituaries in most daily papers described his highly active life as countryman, farmer, pioneer conservationist, TV presenter, friend of royalty, journalist, author, broadcaster, political activist, campaigner, international naturalist - specially Africa, National Trust Board member and so on and on.  Robin had asked me to take his service but since he also wanted it in the parish church, as a Baptist minister I was prevented from leading, which the delightful vicar took over.

A friend of the family and another character conservationist was asked to give the tribute.  He took this extremely seriously, phoning me at length about the content of his address.  Initially there was a misunderstanding because he thought he was giving the main address and I was saying a few words at the beginning!.  You can see where this is going can't you?  It was well-crafted with humour and good content. When he had asked me how long he should be I had gingerly suggested around 10 minutes.  Well, it took 25 minutes but the congregation applauded him.

The difficulty was that in my address I too was reflecting on Robin before going onto a particularly relevant theme (he loved his sheep) of The Good Shepherd who moves Psalm 23 into reality at Easter. As you can imagine he had beaten me to several details.  So, I asked the Spirit to wield an editor's blue pencil while I was speaking and cut out sections but keep the essentials. Not for the first time!  And, nobody noticed the slicing and dicing. 

His first hymn was his favourite: In the bleak midwinter.  with that last verse: If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb.  Years ago, in one of his columns he had written that even if his funeral is in the middle of a heatwave in July he wanted it sung.  Well, one month out!

Perhaps, since this is my last funeral and this service marks the end of this responsibility in my ministry I can post one or two more details.  You don't have to read them.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023


Interrupting thoughts on funerals I am glad to report that I preached my first sermon this year last Sunday. Yes, it's been a lean year for preaching. Carol has agreed to monitor my levels of competence as I shuffle through my late 70-s.  She deemed it acceptable though, because it was Trinity Sunday and doctrinally somewhat heavy, she said she would have liked more illustrations.

Interestingly, my son saw me preach on zoom.  Before I began I greeted everyone on zoom by a wave which pleased him as a personal gesture.  He commented on the way I had preached on the Acts 2 sermon and brought out the power of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But he said he could remember one of the illustrations and picture it.  On our back lawn, worn in places by the boys playing football, the verges were full of tall grass, brambles, weeds.  Our contribution to wilding.  I found a deflated football flat in the weeds. To my astonishment a little further on I found another. Even more astounded I found a third.  I cleaned them up, stuck them in a bag and was ready for the Pentecost Children's talk.

As I pulled them one out of the bag one-by-one and dropped them splat on the floor the point became obvious that they needed air.  Filled with air they would have bounce and purpose again.  This led to connecting with one aspect of the Holy Spirit is that he is the breath of God. But the point of my illustration was that we needed to see the fuller picture that Jesus gave in John 16 of the Counsellor being being sent once Jesus was ascended as God to work everywhere, all the time just like Jesus.  

Oh, how difficult Trinity Sunday can be!  But understanding more of who God is shouldn't be easy! Worshipping him should! Someone said to me afterwards that most Christian heresies have come from people oversimplifying God. Anyway, I passed Carol's test to be able to preach again.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Last Funeral (2)

In panic I immediately said 'No, I'm sorry but I can't.'' It's painful to recall what happened when I was first asked to take a funeral.  I felt  so desperately unprepared and overwhelmed. In my defence, I need to explain that this was within a couple of days of moving to my first church in Lancashire. With Carol and our one month old baby we had been transplanted from warm Oxford to a cold Blackburn. Visitors were surprised that we were huddled around the gas fire.  Everything was new. Family life, our new town, and first ministry. Yet, among my new responsibilities, this request to take a funeral totally threw me. Didn't I expect that to be part of my job? Well, yes, but somehow, in my training for ministry which had given me plenty of experience in leading worship and preaching, preparation for leading funerals had been an absent theme.  

It was a local undertaker who called me, welcoming me as the new minister, and and asking me whether I was free later in the week to conduct a funeral. He blithely assumed that I had some competence. I excused my panicked negative answer by saying that I had not yet begun officially. My induction service was still a couple weeks away. I didn't reveal I had never taken a funeral service before. I couldn't disclose my sense of dread at having to cope with finding the right language and expressing the right kind of help for something I had never attempted before.  Never mind the mechanics of learning how burials or the crematorium works. 

Of course I couldn't delay involvement for long!  My church served as a community church for north-west Blackburn which meant nearly 50 funerals every year.  The undertaker was soon on the phone again and this time I shared my inexperience and nervousness.  Arthur was an old hand, and he took me under his wing, explaining that many funerals would begin with prayers around the open coffin in the home.  That I would lead this short time of reflection before indicating the coffin lid should be replaced and the cortege leave for the church service.  

What he couldn't explain was how to help people in grief. The sensitive pastoral process from the first visit to the family. Whenever I knew the family, and the deceased my relationship with them helped immensely, especially when it was clear that the person had Christian faith.  But often, when I didn't know the family, I felt so inadequate coping with the overwhelming sadness, listening to stories about the loved one, bearing with grief, anger, sometimes denial.  Gently working towards planning the service.  I confess that this dimension of ministry has never become easier   I wonder how many other ministers feel that same?

Monday, May 29, 2023

Last Funeral (1)

Before Covid struck, in 2019, a long-standing friend asked me to take the funeral for his wife.  Visiting the family, working on the service, preparing my words was an experience that from one point of view was familiar. All my ministry, visiting the dying and bereaved with responsibility for the funeral and pastoral aftercare was a significant dimension of my work.  This 2019 service with a full church and a large turn out from the regional Guides organization (of whom she had been leader), expressed Christian hope with celebration for her life.

But, from another point-of-view I felt something unfamiliar as though this marked the end of the road for taking funerals.  Sadly, I know that attending them would continue ever more frequently.  Yet, the process of undertaking pastoral responsibility for them seemed too much to bear.  

In January, a friend asked Carol and me to visit him. It was clear that he had something serious to share.  Recently he been diagnosed in the last stage of cancer with only a few months to live.  Deliberately, he did not seek further details about how long.  He would live each day as fully as possible.  And, yes, he asked me whether I would take his funeral.  Perhaps you can imagine my tension, feeling that this aspect of my ministry had closed...yet.

Carol, unawares of this inner tension, which in fairness I had never clearly defined, lovingly answered that she was sure I would.  Those who know Carol will not be surprised at her being spokesman!   Of course, she was absolutely right. 

Through these last months I have been visiting him as he became increasingly frail. On Saturday, surrounded by his family, he died.  As we spent time with his widow and sister yesterday, I recognized the familiarity of praying and preparing, yet also knew the unfamiliarity that this will definitely be my last funeral. 

It will be a big funeral.  Robin Page is a local controversial character with a national profile. I need to share some more details about his action-packed life in another post. He truly added to our lives. So, importantly prayers and love go out to his family at this sad time. But this moment in my life has brought me to a whole set of  pastoral reflections. 

Monday, May 15, 2023

Coronation connection.

The coronation of King Charles III on the previous weekend with all its pomp and circumstance had some highlights including the child's welcome in the name of 'children of the Kingdom', and the stress on not being served but serving others.  The Archbishop's message emphasized the same theme very effectively.  As is true of so many of us living in the UK, we have many differing views which we have shared these last few days since.

But imagine my surprise when my daily devotion began on the Monday after the coronation with the story of King Solomon with headings to readings in 1 King's chapters 1-4:  Coronation Day, Walking in Faithfulness, Good Governance for all, Long to reign over us. Each section resonated not only with details of the anointing (with Zadok the priest given prominence in 1 Kings, and later by Handel) but several of our current aspirations as a new reign begins.

What astonished me most was that this choice of Scripture, with its commentary work, was commissioned from a writer of Encounter notes over a year before we had any idea of King Charles' coronation.  Indeed, I was asked several weeks ago to write some notes for early 2025!  18 months away!

One of the delightful aspects of working on spiritual tools is the way that sometimes (and it is only sometimes) they connect so dramatically and appropriately. God's word strikes current affairs.  However, we should remember that His word is living and open hearts and minds should always hear his voice when the immediate connection is far from clear. Prayerful listening will always find personal relevance. 

Friday, April 28, 2023

Surprise repeat


Frequently I receive downloads from the US Preaching magazine.  I confess I don't often read them in detail but yesterday's reported on a poll from the Wall Street Journal which found that 39% of Americans say that religion is very important as compared with 49% in 2019.  This is a marked decline from 62% in 1998. That is a disturbing statistic.

Anyway, the paragraph below had a preacher's illustration entitled: Strength from weakness.  I couldn't believe my eyes. 

I recently came across a story Michael Quicke told in his blog a few years ago: “Last weekend I went to an organ recital in Histon Baptist Church. I have been attending for three years and have never once heard it played. Forlornly shuttered away on one side, it has been replaced by the music groups who accompany our worship services. Apparently, no one in the congregation is proficient enough to play it!

However, last Saturday, Dr. David Rowland, the Director of Music at Christ's College Cambridge and also (most propitiously) the father-in-law of our Youth Minister, gave an organ recital. After opening remarks, he sat at the organ with his page-turner at his side and launched into the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. I could not believe it. This instrument took off with amazing timbre and volume. I have heard this played so often, but here in my own church was a glorious surprise. I was astounded at its quality and said so to my neighbor, who agreed.

After this colossal piece, David explained the concert was in aid of refurbishing the organ.' Isn't it odd to give a recital on an organ that needs refurbishing', he asked. ‘Well, yes, but I have practiced to try and compensate for where pipes no longer work. Some of the pedals are inactive. Some of the keys stick. It requires a heavy touch, and you cannot be sure whether it will run out of air...but we shall see!’ As he continued to play Vivaldi, Franck (and Couperin on the harpsichord) I marveled that he had so compensated for the instrument's faults that the music worked beautifully with barely a hiccup. At the interval, one of the visitors said: ‘A really good musician can really make even a poor instrument to work well.’ Certainly, he did.

And it doesn't take much of a preacher to see a parable here about how in our own weaknesses, God can also work out His glory. We can make far better music for Him than we realize!”

I read it with amazement.  Written a few years ago, the Editor Michael Duduit had found it and even repeated it. What an encouragement to a slowing-down blogger to keep going!

Friday, April 21, 2023

A recital

This week I was pushed to give a recital. No, it's not what you might guess.  I was at hospital for my regular botox injections when my gifted consultant Jane Anderson (who has cared for me since I returned to Cambridge ) introduced a younger doctor sitting next to her.  She explained he was shadowing her and shortly would be operating his own neurological clinic.

She introduced me as one of those who was included in the very first clinical trials in the UK for this botox treatment, and then asked me to share my history. Going back to 1986 when, at first, no one could diagnose my severe disability, I briefly sketched how it was eventually diagnosed as dystonia with no treatment available.  Twisted in body, wracked in pain, after months of failed trials with different drugs, I was examined in the National Neurological Hospital, Queens Square, London as to whether I could be chosen as a test case for botulinum injections.  I realized to this young doctor this was living history. What he has come to accept, and practice, as the main procedure for dystonia was as yet untested. I was a genuine Guinea pig!

It was strange retelling those first steps with this experimental treatment because it not only seemed to be fresh news to this doctor how the botox story began, but it also forced me to reflect the sheer wonder of going through a process that gave me back my public life.  How grateful I am for the successful outcome. I know I have told the story elsewhere. To do it justice needs a large space in the story for prayer, Carol's advocacy and several God-incidences.  But, having this surprise opportunity this week awakened me again to the gratitude I owe to God, Carol, praying friends and the medical profession. I should never take it for granted. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Hope you had a joyous Easter

As I look back on these last days of worship with glorious sunshine (as compared with a very wet Bank Holiday today) several moments stand out.

On Thursday evening a group organized a communion service with Taize worship. Taize (should have a grave accent!) is a Christian community founded in 1940 by Brother Roger. His vision was to draw together a monastic community with both Catholic and Protestant brothers in ́́Burgundy France. It would become a place of pilgrimage, of encouragement, silence and work. Since, it has drawn young people  in their thousands (actually over 100,000 each year) for prayer, Bible study, sharing and communal work.  Its worship style consists of repeating simple songs, specially written to accompany periods of silent meditation and prayer.  

Our Thursday service was beautifully prepared around a central table on which stood a large loaf, wine in a jug, a chalice, and a bowl of water with a towel.  A series of candles were lit at stages throughout the service and at the end we all lit individual candles, passing on the flame to our neighbour. The order of service contained music, prayers, set in sequence so that the service proceeded without extra words.  Its power lay in the silences and prayers with the music shaping worship by its repetitive biblical words.  We really could meditate. At the end we were instructed to leave the worship space quietly without conversation as we thought ahead to the darkness of Good Friday.

Moving out of the building without the buzz that usually ends worship times took the silence much further. I went straight to the car and it was dark.  The next day, when sharing with others someone said that for them the most striking moment was the tearing of the loaf apart and the pouring of the wine into the chalice.  How in the silence the reality of sharing communion with Jesus came powerfully into experience.

Yes, to find such quiet for contemplation was one of the profound moments this Easter. I hope you benefited from some too.