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LIVING IN A VACUUM (Notes from Knaphill 14)

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I recall reading of a Pastor who was a key figure in the early days of the Revival in Indonesia during the 1960s who inexplicably lost his ministry and declined into comparative obscurity as a result. Seemingly there was no clear reason for this – no moral failure nor proud spirit. One day he was preaching with great effect and moving powerfully in the strength of the Holy Spirit, and the next day all this had deserted him. He became the subject of much negative talk and eventually he just faded into insignificance. For several years, he was inconspicuous until one day, right out of the blue, it all came back to him and God began to use him mightily once again. The only thing he was sure of throughout this whole period was that God was with him, and that God had led him into this wilderness experience. When asked to try and give some reason in the divine mind as to why God had taken him on this journey his response was, ‘I guess God knew that I needed to die a deeper death!’

I have never experienced this kind of Revival (although the Bewdley years were the nearest I ever came to it) and, although God has been pleased to graciously use me in numerous ways over the years, I could not describe myself in the dynamic terms attributed to the Pastor in this story. Most certainly, like many of us who name the Name of Christ, I need to continue to ‘die a deeper death’ – death to sin, to self, to pride, to the wrong sort of ungodly ambition, etc. I have, however, found myself able to identify with the Pastor in this story in terms of my journey into relative obscurity particularly during much of this past year.

When my ministry at Elm Road, Beckenham concluded in 2010 I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never ever exercise that same kind of preacher-teacher-evangelist ministry again. The following five years were spent ostensibly in ‘retirement’ in Dorset, a mixture of caring for Julia’s elderly mother, Julia herself slowly but surely recovering from the ME/CFS that she had suffered from during our last couple of years in Beckenham, and I myself recuperating after major heart surgery. During this time, we both ‘kept our hand in’ so to speak as active members of Dorchester Baptist Church helping with their mid-week café, often leading the day-time mid-week Communion Service and Prayer Meeting, playing a leading role in one of the church’s several Home Groups, serving on the Sunday Prayer Ministry Team, and even preaching occasionally. When Julia (who is 15 years my junior) felt the call of God to return to Ministry I knew immediately that this would be her ministry and that my role in the future would be to support her in any and every way I could without getting in her way or cramping her style.

When Julia accepted the invitation to be the Minister of Knaphill Baptist Church, Woking, in 2015 I was very happy to leave her to get on with it and play a supporting role. However, things didn’t turn out quite the way we had planned. Although, by and large, Julia has been able to ‘do her own thing’ at Knaphill by way of leading the church, conducting worship, preaching and teaching, pastoral oversight, etc., over time I also got drawn in to various things going on in the community and eventually in the church. In one sense this was not a surprise because by nature I am not the shy retiring type and, prior to arriving in Knaphill, God had spoken prophetically to us on more than one occasion to say that he was about to open several doors of opportunity for us in going to Knaphill. For Julia this involved heading up the local Churches Together group and serving as a part-time Prison Chaplain at the local women’s prison.  For me this meant being enlisted as a Committee Member of the Knaphill Residents’ Association, Editor of the Knaphill News (a somewhat glossy quarterly magazine distributed to around 5,000 homes in and around Knaphill), and ultimately being recognised by our church as its Community Minister (because of all the work I was already doing in the community). In addition to all this the South Eastern Baptist Association appointed me as the Network Pastor for the North Downs Network with a measure of pastoral responsibility for the 20 or so churches and 30 or so Ministers in the Network.

I have to say that for the most part I really enjoyed this kind of largely extra-mural activity even if some of it – trying to get the numerically larger churches in the Network to come on board, trying to get the Knaphill Residents’ Association to concentrate on tackling the fundamental problems facing our village rather than spend so much time and effort on organising the annual Village Show – proved somewhat difficult at times. I particularly appreciated the opportunity to get out into the community, meet people on their own territory, and seek to fulfil the kind of ‘salt and light’ (Matthew 5:13-16) and ‘yeast in the dough’ (Matthew 13:33) ministry I believe God has called us to as Christians. I like to think that during this time, for some people at least, I was by God’s grace able to make a difference.

At the beginning of this year, however, I had a strong sense that God was calling me to step away from all these activities. It was a strange feeling that I felt quite unable to put into words or (until now) write about. At the South Eastern Baptist Association Ministers’ Conference in January the Bishop of Dover (one of the guest speakers) invited us (in one of the sessions) to say what it was that we felt passionate about at this present time. My response was, ‘Doing nothing!’ Everybody laughed thinking that I was making a joke, but that was honestly what I felt like at that time. By this I didn’t mean dropping out, running away, quitting responsibility, etc. For me it was more of a stepping back from things to (eventually) step forward again into something new.

None of the things I was doing were easy for me to give up. For example, I had been a Distance Learning Tutor and then an Online Tutor with Spurgeon’s College for several years, and still felt a sense of loyalty to the college and responsibility for my students. The fact that the college (for sound academic reasons) had to embrace ‘anonymous marking’ (even though many of the courses related to ministerial training where personal contact was important) made my decision somewhat easier. My role as Network Pastor for the North Downs Network of SEBA had proved both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. It had been good to play my part in bringing a small group of Ministers (around 12 or so) together on a regular basis to share and pray together but frustrating that many of the Ministers appeared to want nothing to do with the Network. After a couple of years, I felt that I had achieved all that I could in this direction, and could see the sense in letting this go. The rightness of this was confirmed by the Association who confessed that all nine Networks in SEBA were experiencing the same problem and that they were themselves considering a rethink in strategy. Of all my activities, working out in the community with the Knaphill Residents’ Association was what I enjoyed most.  I made some good friends whilst on the committee as we tried to work together for the regeneration of Knaphill. I enjoyed editing the Knaphill News and playing my part in continuing to update it and make it something worth reading. Most of all (combining my role on the KRA Committee with my role as Community Minister at the church) I enjoyed getting alongside the shopkeepers and locals, listening to their woes and trying to help where I could. Yet again, however, I eventually became aware that I was fighting a losing battle with the Woking bureaucrats who seemed dead set on undermining the viability of Knaphill as an urban village as they put all their time and money into the expansion of Woking town centre.

The hardest thing about dropping out of all these things was that I found it impossible to give adequate reasons for doing so. I am sure that most people simply saw me as a ‘quitter’ and felt that I should have ‘stayed in post’ and continued to fight for positive change. To try and say to people (even my fellow Christians) that God had called me to let all this stuff go seemed like a feeble excuse, especially since I was not replacing these activities with other activities. In the end I simply gave up trying to explain why I was backing off from my various activities and, in effect, choosing to do (what appeared to be) nothing. The inner conviction was so strong that I could do nothing else. It was as though God had picked me up and put me in a vacuum.

For me this experience, as unsettling as it was, was a prelude to something new and exciting that God had in store for me in the future … although I didn’t have a clue what that ‘something’ was. I suppose, on reflection, I felt (without pressing the examples too far) in some ways like Jesus must have felt during his 40 days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-30), or like Paul must have felt during his three years in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:11-24).  For both Jesus and Paul this time in the wilderness was the prelude to a prolonged period of dynamic ministry.

When Julia received a call to become the Minister of Abbey Baptist Church, Reading, in late Summer this year (nearly eight months into this living in a vacuum experience for me) the whole thing began to make sense. The one thing I had felt really led to take on (in direct contrast to everything else God was saying to me) during this period was to return to academic study by signing up for a Professional Doctorate in Theology and Practice with the University of Winchester. It was not so much academic honours that I was after in doing this but the opportunity to give myself to disciplined study, especially in the areas of Church as a Missional Community and Community Hub Church. In Julia’s call to Abbey I immediately saw how that related to what I was researching, with Abbey being right in the heart of the historic Abbey Quarter in the town centre with the potential to play a key role in the significant work of God involving all the churches, that is already underway in the town. I also saw that, although Abbey were calling Julia to be their Minister, and not me, God clearly has something dynamic for me in Reading as well. When I had major heart surgery four years or so ago I prayed the night before the operation and asked God for 10 years more, not just of life but of dynamic ministry. I believe God answered that prayer, which was why it seemed so strange that God seemed to be pulling me out of everything I was doing only part way into this period. Clearly God hasn’t finished with me yet, and I am believing that he has ‘kept the best wine until last’ (John 2:10). I still haven’t got a clue how this is all going to pan out for me … but I am excited about what he has in store for me, what he has in store for both of us!

Jim Binney

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