Monday, January 15, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 23) Taking personal stock of year 1*

(*please skip if you are not following the story).  Just before Christmas I had brought the first year's story to a close with that astonishing prayer target of 50 new members allied with a church text for the new year: All things are possible...

Anyone reading so far might assume that this year (1980) of such apparent good news filled my ministry with an immense glow of blessing.  How wonderful for such a relatively small group of people to come together in prayer and commitment so that such striking events could happen!  Surely, I must have felt exhilarated.  But, honestly, did it seem a glorious God adventure?

It seems counter-intuitive that Carol and I looked back on this first year as one of the worst years of our ministry.  What?  I guess part of it was being in double bereavement with the tragic death of my mother who had just moved to be close to our family, and also how much we missed friends and excitement of our previous church with its immense resources of people and weekly exhilaration of worship. Our two boys took to the move badly at school and I could understand their pain. In contrast with all we left behind, St. Andrew's St. had very few people our age and an ethos which took some adjustment (to put it mildly). One of the senior trustees, an academic, called everyone by their surname (including me!) and that spoke volumes about the church's formality.  Coupled with so few resources it all seemed daunting.

Yet, it was this very lack of human resources that pushed me so hard into ministry practice in two areas especially:
preaching really had to make a difference.  If people were to learn to practice prayer together, my preaching needed to be clear, specific and encouraging.  If people were to be won to Christ, I had to preach for a verdict. Nothing generic and aimed just for the head but preaching which God could use to make things happen to whole lives and a whole community.  It was many years later that I wrote: 360degree leadership - preaching to transform congregations but here my conviction about leading through preaching was birthed.
-  expectant corporate prayer - this grew out of preaching and was the single most important happening in church life. In my previous church where spiritual life bubbled along I never saw an urgent need for corporate prayer.  But now I learned a lesson for life because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, when you are truly desperate without a clue where to go next you are in a good place to grow in dependency.  And we did!   It's never comfortable to be truly desperate....that's why this first year was a difficult one.  But it proved to be so necessary for the unfolding story.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second test over!

I am very grateful for kind friends who have followed by path since the mini-stroke.   Today, I was able to preach for the first time for several months - indeed I led the whole service from beginning to end (just like my early days in solo ministry) at Emmanuel United Reformed Church in central Cambridge.  Again, Carol sat on the back row looking somewhat anxious, especially when the lectionary reading included 1 Cor 6:12-20 about sexual immorality. What was I going to say? But again, because of the many prayers, I felt able to fulfill the task without losing my way and, much more importantly, telling out gospel news. 

Beforehand I asked the elder what specific issues should be included in the prayers of intercession and he asked me to pray for the whole fellowship as it moves in a few weeks' time to join in with another central Cambridge congregation.  This was a first for me but it requires little imagination to recognize what patience, love, mutual understanding, and prayer will be necessary as two families become one.

As a footnote, it was mightily encouraging to connect with a few old friends after worship, including a church history professor who was a fellow student in the Cambridge University Baptist student society over fifty years ago.  Only old people can know the thrill of memories activated after decades and there is no greater joy than when they are Christian memories!  Growing old has some perks.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Overcoming getting stuck!

The weekend away-day gave me an opportunity to brush up on some of my US enthusiasms.  Because the church's theme emphasized 'journey' and recognized that churches should be on the move whenever God is involved with them, I linked some of  John 15 themes with the 'journey' of four stages that I believe churches should grow through.

Initiation - marks the beginning of new Christians' faith commitment to Jesus Christ and a local church.  It is an exciting time.  Remember A.W.Tozer's words: 'Give me a new Christian before he has met too many other Christians and heard too many sermons.'  It's a great time developing the personal relationship - Jesus and me.

Integration - moves onto a stage of belonging to others where the group requires thinking 'Jesus and us'. However we might feel about each other (and every human group has its likes and dislikes) when Jesus call us to be branches in the Vine he chooses us rather than we choose him (v.16). And he chooses us together, to belong as brothers and sisters.  Only on this stage together can we practice discipleship and prayer properly.  Discipleship in the gospels involves learning with others and certainly corporate prayer cannot work any other way.  We need to belong in deeper ways as a cluster of branches.

Character formation -  this third stage takes the serious journey towards 'maturity' (Eph. 4:13) and expects a church to be modeling the qualities that were listed on the flip chart.  Growing together means we are becoming nicer, more humble, kind, patient and loving.  Those around us should be helping us be better people. Valuing others higher than ourselves practices maturing love as never before.

Missional living - dares to express how a whole people together model what it means to be a new kind of community - a holy nation, royal priesthood.  Like living stones, so practicing the kingdom way, living differently such good lives among neighbours that they 'may see your good deeds and glorify God' (1 Pet. 1:12).  Missional people realize they do not decide the mission agenda but God does. His mission is already underway in the neighborhood.  He longs for us to be a community of witness because we live so differently together as we join in with him on his mission.  And this living differently means joy and friendship of a quality just not possible outside Christ.

Some churches are stuck at an early stage - but Christ's invitation to belong to the vine encourages us to push on in the greatest journey in the world.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

First test over!

Cantering into 2018 brought my first speaking engagement for several months.  Yesterday I gave the keynote address for Oundle Baptist Church Away Day at the beautiful Madingley Hall (set in magnificent grounds just outside Cambridge). Ever since my mild stroke Carol has been concerned about, as she puts it 'my lack of sharpness'. Unsurprisingly therefore she was apprehensive when I fulfilled this commitment yesterday. Sitting on the back row she promised to keep a close eye on me because 'It's worse because you don't use notes and you could go all over the place.'

Thankfully I report that I passed this first test helped by the prayers of many and a most attentive church group.  At first I used a flip-chart to record their responses to the question that the conference organizer had asked me to address.  'What are some key characteristics of fully-fledged Christians who are at the centre of the church?' It's a good idea to find out where people are when you are in a new context.  Their replies went onto a second sheet.  I didn't keep a record but the long list included:
Be filled with the Spirit, Unity, Welcoming, Kindness, Loving, Humility, Selflessness, Spirit power (such as healing), Commitment.... and so on.

It was extremely helpful because I then illustrated (with felt tips) belonging to the True Vine (John 15) and highlighted characteristics that Jesus identified: discipleship (v 5,6,), prayer (v.7), love (v 9,12), joy (v.11), friends (v 14) and fruit-bearing. There was much overlap in the lists, though the theme of prayer was missing.  When Jesus says: If you remain in my words and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you (v 7) he is referring to expectant corporate prayer which only happens when disciples practice the discipline of wishing together.  I need to comment further....but let me say how thrilled I was to be back in action.  Thank you for all your prayers.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christians awake!

My memory flashed back today to a childhood Christmas (I think I was 9 years old) when I awoke with excitement and started unpacking the bulging stocking but, at the same time, was startled by loud singing from the stairs.  My father had bought a second-hand wind-up gramophone player in order to surprise us that Christmas morning.  And he had also bought a used 78 record which was unfortunately scratched. 

However, at full volume, with accompanying clicks and hissing from the worn surface he played a carol to greet us which he deliberately chose for our wake-up call.  Though we were certainly awake with happiness this centered us on the reason for the deeper joy that holds fast in every circumstance.  To awake and salute the happy morn whereon the Savior of the world was born, rise to adore.....that's the very best news.   

Christians, awake! Salute the happy morn
whereon the Savior of the world was born;
rise to adore the mystery of love,
which hosts of angels chanted from above;
with them the joyful tidings first begun,
of God incarnate and the virgin's Son.

I have not sung this for some time but today it was an earworm from the past that filled me with joyful memory.  And how odd to recall those old 78's, steel styluses that scratched so easily, the need to keep winding up the machine.  Wow, technology has moved on but the message is unchanging.  Yes, this is a day, like every day to begin 'Christians awake!'

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas friendship

Carol and I were eating in Wetherspoons (notice our economical lifestyle!) and sitting in a nearby booth was a young mother with her toddler beside her.  She looked utterly miserable.  Her whole demeanour spelt loneliness and sadness. Not a positive flicker crossed her face.  We ordered our meal and had almost finished while all the time she was in my sight line. Her utter isolation seemed to increase each minute as around her families enjoyed pre-Christmas meals.

And then it happened.  Another young mum came in, hugged her and her child, and with her own child sat down opposite.  The transformation was total.  Now her face was alight with happiness, her body energized and her conversation bright with laughter.  She was completely changed.  Her friend had come and the contrast was dramatic!

Genuine friendship is transformative.  Being with a friend enriches us like no other relationship.  And at Christmas when we marvel at the Word becomng flesh, of God immersing himself in our messed-up world, I thrill to the claim that through this baby God will make friends in the most powerful way possible.  Who can ever forget the Lord's words:  You are my friends! (John 15:14)  His relationship with us goes deep and it works like friendship to the nth degree. Many of us rejoice in family and friends this Christmas but the fact that Jesus has come to make friends lights up lives in the most extraordinary ways.  And he invites his followers to be friends together.  I hope my face shows it, especially when I worship tomorrow!   A very Happy Christmas to you!

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Cambridge God Adventure 22) 50 new members - seriously?.

The day after the prayer meeting the figure 50 loomed large.  How would the wider fellowship see this prayer goal?  Was it borne out of passing enthusiasm?  In the following days as we entered 1981 it seemed as though the number 50 revealed a true hunger among many of us to go on with our nagging prayer agenda.  Expectations were raised by past answers to our corporate prayer - now for God's new thing.

But I know that some in the church viewed it absurd....especially when it was published in the monthly church magazine.  If we remembered it at the end of the year (and I think many assumed it would be buried in memory with covering embarrassment) it would be a sign of our presumption and failure to read the signs of a declining church.  Sheer spiritual overreach.

However, we entered 1981 with something else too. At our December Church Meeting in the concluding Any Other Business my wife Carol stood up.  (I was in the chair and you can imagine my dread!) She shared something with the meeting she had never mentioned to me though I think that her conviction had grown out of the meeting itself.  She proposed that we have a Church text for 1981 which would be a weekly focus throughout the year.  Though we had never had such a text before the church agreed with the idea unanimously.  Significantly the chosen text was: ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE... (Mark 9:23).  Every Sunday this text was printed on our bulletin as as reminder that when we truly trust in the Lord and seek to discern his will so many good things could happen.  Even 50 new members!