This is my life

Presented to Rotary Club of Chelmsford Rivermead, 28th June 2017.

Over the last twelve months I have invited members of our club to talk about themselves through the lens of ‘service’, bearing in mind the Rotary principle that “vocational service calls on every Rotarian to work with integrity and contribute their expertise to the problems and needs of society”.  Today in my final week as President, it is my turn to talk about myself through the lens of service.

‘About Paul Beasley-Murray’

If you want a summary of what I have done over more than 70 years of life, then the best port-of-call is my web-site.  There you can read ‘About Paul Beasley-Murray’.  My profile is divided into seven sections:

  • The first two sections are about my present role since I retired in 2014. There I talk about myself as a ministry consultant:  my chairmanship of Ministry Today UK and of the College of Baptist Ministers.  I mention too other aspects of my present ministry including my involvement in Chelmsford Cathedral and my role as President of the Rotary Club of Chelmsford Rivermead.
  • The third section relates to past ministry experience: there you learn about my two years in the Congo where I taught Greek and New Testament in the Protestant Theological Faculty of the National University.  I was pastor of two churches, first for 13 years in Altrincham Cheshire; and later for 21 years in Chelmsford. I was also Principal of Spurgeon’s College, which under my leadership became the largest Baptist theological college in Europe.
  • The fourth section tells of my interests beyond ministry. There I state that in Who’s Who? I list as my interests cooking, travel, parties – and grand-children!
  • The fifth section deals with the18 books and over 350 articles I have written.
  • The sixth section speaks of my role as a blogger: since October 2011 I have posted almost 300 blogs – every week I write on some different aspect of ‘church matters’
  • The seventh section headed ‘education’ lists my academic achievements – such as they are!

However, what I want to talk about today is the four ‘significant dates’ which end my profile:

  • Born 14 March 1944 in London (Ilford)
  • Baptised 17 November 1957 in Zurich (Salemskapelle)
  • Married 28 August 1967 in Wrexham (The Old Meeting)
  • Ordained 10 October 1970 in London (Holmesdale Rd BC, South Norwood)

These four significant dates are the key to my life.

Born: 14 March 1944 in Ilford.

That is just a fact of life – I had no role in deciding the day or the place.  It just so happens, for instance, that I was born in Essex – and I guess that I am likely to die in Essex!

For most of my life I have not lived in Essex.  I was a ‘child of the manse’: i.e. my father was a minister and so as a family we moved around with his job. My father’s first two posts were as a pastor in Ilford and then in Cambridge. He then moved into theological teaching and ultimately became an internationally renowned New Testament scholar who exercised a significant role in the Baptist denomination.

Not surprisingly, my father had a great influence on my life.  In our differing ways, both of us – to use the title of my biography of him, have been Fearless for Truth. My mother was a traditional minister’s wife, and was always there for us. In their different ways, my parents gave of themselves to others.  Although not Rotarians, nonetheless ‘service above self’ was a key value in our home.

Baptised: 17 November 1957 in Zurich

On that occasion I did have a choice – for I chose to be baptised. To understand the nature of the choice you have to realise that Baptists ‘believers’ baptism, rather than ‘infant’ baptism. In a Baptist church baptism is the moment when people publicly commit themselves to Jesus.  Instead of a small font, there is a large ‘baptistery’ in which candidates are immersed.  Baptism in a Baptist church is a high point, but also a solemn moment.  When I was baptised I was given as a baptismal text some challenging words of the Apostle Paul: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord: so then whether we live or where we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14.7). In other words, for the Christian life is not living for self, but rather living for God.

I was baptised just a stone’s throw away from the River Limmat, where the great 16th century Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, had killed thousands of my spiritual forebears – he had drowned the women on ducking-stools, but burnt the men at the stake the men. In a very stark way I became aware that to be a Christian is to deny self and take up the cross.

Married:  28 August 1967

That too was a choice – but if the truth be told neither of us had much understanding on our wedding day of the difference tying the knot is going to make.  Now almost fifty years later, we have four married children, and seven grandchildren.

The wedding took place in North Wales. My father preached the wedding sermon. “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5) was his text – the words of Mary to the servants at the Wedding of Cana.  On that day it was made clear to us that Jesus was to be at the centre of our marriage.  Through our marriage we were to serve him.

Caroline and I married as students – we had just finished at Cambridge, and were en route for Manchester where I was to do a PhD and train at a Baptist College; Caroline was headed to do a Dip Ed, and then go into teaching history.  We had no money to put down on a house – all we had were our student grants.  We reckoned that we would always be poor, so what the point in waiting to get married? Baptist ministers are not well paid – indeed, a church secretary once told me that my role was “to set an example of holy poverty”. But God has more than provided – and today, thanks to a working wife, we have more than enough. However, we have always been clear that money is not just to be kept – it is to be given away.  So when we were redeveloping our church here in Chelmsford, we – like others – were giving 20% back to God. That was a challenge!

Ordained: 10 October 1970 in London

Unlike the Anglican custom, where the bishop ordains ordinands en masse in his cathedral, amongst British Baptists ordination is a very individual service which takes place in the ordinand’s home church.  My ordination was more individual than most, because I was not ordained with a view to being a pastor, but with a view to being a missionary.  Indeed, the very next week Caroline and I together with our one-year old child Jonathan set off for Africa – we went by boat from Antwerp to Matadi, an amazing experience.

With the passing of the years my ordination has increased in meaning for me.

  1. In the first place, it has served as an anchor: the world of ministry can be rough place, but when I have been tempted to doubt my calling, I remember the day that God’s people recognised my call to ministry.
  2. Secondly, although my missionary service only lasted two years, the missionary nature of that ordination service ensured that there has always been a missionary edge to my ministry. After Africa, we returned to England.  As a pastor I knew that I was in the business of winning men and women for Jesus and his church – and one of the privileges of my ministry has been to see 100s of men and women coming to faith.
  3. Thirdly, my ordination reminds me that I was ordained to serve. As you may know, the word minister comes from a Latin word meaning ‘servant’. Although I believe that all Christians are called to serve God and others, ministry in its narrow ecclesiastic sense can be a demanding form of service. On call every day, ministers have only one formal day off a week, and even then if somebody is dying on your free day, you are there.  Unlike most people, you have no weekends and few evenings to yourself.  Not that I ever complained.  There was scarcely a day when I did not thank God for not having called me to serve in this way.

Service above self

Let me end with a brief reflection on the Rotary motto, ‘service above self’.  I wonder whether you realise that this motto is rooted in the teaching of Jesus – and that without Jesus this concept of service would never have gained traction? Most people fail to realise the extent to which our culture has been Christianised, and that even in today’s post-Christian society, our language still reflects Christian values. We speak, for instance, of ‘civil servants’, while our most prominent politicians are called ‘ministers’ and the most powerful person in the land is called ‘the prime minister’: i.e. the ‘chief servant’!

Today, a ‘servant heart’ is deemed to be admirable, but until Jesus came the idea of serving others was not a commonly admired virtue.  For the ancient Greeks, to serve others was undignified and not worthy of any man with spunk – rather we should simply serve our own desires. In spite of the Old Testament teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself,  many Jews of Jesus’ day felt it was  wrong to serve one’s inferiors.

Jesus, however, reversed all human ideas of greatness and rank. Service for Jesus was the place of true greatness: “The greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant” (Luke 22.26: see Mark 10.42 and Matthew 20.25-27).  It hs been said: “At no place do the ethics of the kingdom of God clash more vigorously with the ethics of the world than in the matters of power and service…. In a decisive reversal of values, Jesus speaks of greatness in service rather than greatness of power, prestige and authority…. The pre-eminent virtue of God’s kingdom is not power, not even freedom, but service…. The pre-eminence of service in the kingdom of God grows out of Jesus’ teaching on love for one’s neighbour, for service is love made tangible” (James Edwards).

On another occasion Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10.44; similarly Mark 9.35 and Luke 9.48). From the perspective of Jesus’ hearers this was a preposterous idea. The idea of a slave being first was as absurdly paradoxical as a camel going through the eye of a needle (Mark 9.25) – and probably induced smiles and shaking heads from Jesus’ audience. Greeks too would have been baffled by these words of Jesus. For instance, Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias 491E asked: ‘How can anyone be happy when he is the slave of all?’  But Jesus in one of cultural history’s dramatic reversals asked, in effect, ‘How can anyone be happy unless one is the slave of everyone else?’ (so Frederick Bruner).

‘Service above self’ has its roots in the teaching of Jesus.  In the words of John Wesley, to serve others means to: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as every you can”!