I heard this morning some desperately sad news. The phone rang at quarter to nine. Alec Taylor was ringing to let me know that our friend Nigel Lacey had died during the night. Since his first heart attack a month ago, we had heard varying reports of his condition. One moment we heard that he was making good progress; the next we heard that he was in intensive care. And then finally this news – half expected and yet shattering.
Nigel had been a preacher for many years. He served a number of churches in the UK before moving in his fifties to Kenya to work alongside Keith Underhill. He was there for three years before moving on to pastor Lusaka Baptist Church in Zambia for a further five and a half years. When he returned to the UK in October 2004, his first preaching engagement was at the God’s Glory Our Joy conference here in the north-west; after the conference he stayed and took the Lord’s Day services for us here at GBCS.
Many of you will remember his preaching on that occasion. His ministry among us was so appreciated that the office-bearers wondered whether he might be the “older man” we had been looking for as a fellow-elder. We wrote to him in February 2005 to ask whether he might consider moving to Stockport to work among us. Nigel wrote back a very gracious letter, thanking us for the approach: “I am sure it would be a great joy to work alongside you and among the brethren at Stockport…” But he went on to say, “I believe that we still need more time to settle completely into the situation in the UK before we can see our way forward..”
As time went by, it was obvious that Nigel’s heart was being drawn in another direction. In October 2005 he wrote again to say that he had accepted a call to pastor Hope Baptist Church, Forest Gate, a small reformed baptist cause in the East End of London, just down the road from Leystonstone where David Last had not long begun his ministry . He asked if I would come and preach at his induction service which was planned for January 2006. That was a great and undeserved honour for me and one I was very glad to accept.
A little later Nigel sent out a newsletter to interested friends telling the story of his call to Hope. He explained that he had received a preliminary approach from that church even before leaving Zambia. Their interest continued after his return to the UK but Nigel was hesitant. He “told the church officers at Hope that they faced a great and demanding mission field in the multi-racial environment of the London Borough of Newham, and they should accordingly look for a younger, energetic pastor whom the Lord would enable to establish an enduring ministry. They persisted, however, and eventually the church issued a formal invitation to us. By that time the Lord had warmed our hearts towards the fellowship and work of that small, inner-city church and by October we were able to accept and commit ourselves to starting our ministry on 1 January 2006″.
Well, who would have thought that that ministry would be so short-lived? Nigel was still short of retirement age when the Lord called him home. Many who had known him over the years judged that his preaching was as powerful than at any time in his ministry. Indeed those years in Africa seemed to have given him a renewed freshness and directness in his preaching: a determination to speak as simply as possible from the heart and to the heart. His leadership had brought new life and vigour to the church in Forest Gate. He was due to baptise three teenage lads the very weekend that he had his first heart attack – all three had been deeply touched by his preaching and his character. And his usefulness within the circle of reformed baptist churches across the UK was growing steadily. The last decade has been a time of great confusion when many leaders have moved away from positions they once held. But many of us saw in Nigel a man we could trust, unwaveringly faithful to the Bible and the reformed faith, a brave contender for baptist principles, a man of sober judgement and great vision, a pair of safe hands. If I were to make a list of the men we could least spare, I would put him in the first three.
I last saw Nigel at the Grace Baptist Assembly in May. He preached for us on a vital theme: “Baptism – Why is it Important?”. I was warmed by his uncompromising determination to speak the whole counsel of God. The preaching was fresh, vigorous, forceful. None of us listening that day would have guessed that within three months his course would be run.
I’m due to go away on holiday two days from now. I’m going away sobered and saddened. I’m sad for Margaret Lacey and for Nigel’s children and grandchildren. I’m sad for the church at Forest Gate. Nigel had been their pastor for such a short time. Yet they had come to love him dearly. One of the deacons sent out an e-mail this morning with the news. His words reveal something of the grief that that church is feeling. He wrote:
“Our Brother, Friend and Pastor Nigel Lacey went to be in the immediate presence of the Lord this morning (Tuesday 14 August) at about 3:00am… There is so much to say about our dear pastor, brother and friend. We will miss him deeply. We knew him as pastor for the relatively short period of just under 20 months. But in that time he, along with Margaret, gave himself fully to the work of the gospel among us. We knew that he loved us and wanted to see us mature in Christ and serving the Lord. He loved the falterers and the halting, the young, the old in the faith and he was well received by all. His output was an example to us all (although we saw only the tip of the iceberg). He was a great encourager of gospel endeavour at home and abroad. He brought a freshness of approach and thoroughness to the work at Hope. He showed immense patience and gentleness and kindness to us all. All this in a sinner saved by grace. We pray for Margaret and will want to be a good support to her. We pray for those in the wider family, particularly those whose standing in the Lord is unknown. We pray for our church that we will have the confidence that the Lord’s plans for us are good and not for our harm. We pray that we will truly learn what it means “to look to the hills from whence comes our help.” The news has not sunk in as yet but we trust that grieving “but not without hope” is not a mere platitude. I cannot at all put into words the love we had for Nigel. We had so many hopes in the Lord (and we trust we will continue to have them)…”
But beyond my sadness for the family Nigel loved and the church he served, I’m sad and troubled for the cause of the gospel in the UK. It is a fearful providence when the Lord takes away the men who seem best fitted to lead his people. I was troubled when twenty years ago the Lord removed Victor Budgen and Dic Eccles – perhaps the two most gifted leaders among the reformed churches in the north-west. I was troubled when ten years ago, the Lord removed Bob Sheehan, the most outstanding of the younger reformed baptist leaders in the UK. I am troubled today knowing that the Lord has removed a man whom we hoped would provide us with leadership for another ten or fifteen years.
The Bible teaches that it is one of God’s most terrible judgements when he takes away real leaders from his people and leaves them in the hands of the immature or incompetent. Isaiah wrote: “Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water; the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counsellor and the skilful craftsman and the expert in charms. And I will make boys their princes and infants shall rule over them. And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbour…” (Isaiah 3:1-5).
I know of churches all across the UK which are crying out for leadership. I hear the same story from one church after another…”We’ve been looking for a pastor for three years, four years, five years… and we just can’t find anyone who’s able and willing… Where are the men with preaching ability and leadership gifts?
The answer is they’re increasingly hard to find. Amos prophesied a day when the Lord would send a famine on the land, “not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the word of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). There are signs that such a famine is coming on our land at the present time.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve devoted so much time and effort over the years to our “study weeks”. They are just one little thing I can do to encourage men who want to preach. In God’s kindness, they have played at least a small part in preparing some men for Christian leadership. In fact, for a number of men, study week has been an important stepping stone towards full time ministry. I’m so grateful for that.
But in the end it’s only God who can make leaders. We can encourage, train, appoint. But only God can make a Moses, a Joshua, a Nehemiah, a Simon Peter. Only God can make a Calvin, a Bunyan, a Spurgeon, a William Gadsby or a Nigel Lacey. Let’s give ourselves to prayer now that God will raise up in Nigel’s place a dozen men as leaders for the future. And what a joy it would be if some of those men were raised up in our congregation over the next few years.
And for myself, Nigel’s homecall is one more reminder that I must make full use of the time I have, whether it’s short or long. The Saviour said, “I must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; the night is coming when no man can work..” (John 9:4). I believe Nigel was ready. We didn’t know it but he had fought his good fight, run his race, finished the work God had given him to do. Will I have finished my work when the Lord calls me?
In one of the last letters he wrote before leaving Zambia, Nigel spoke of a funeral he had just taken, the funeral of a fifteen year old girl called Tenji whom he had baptised not long before. He wrote: “Her funeral service and the burial were memorable occasions. The church was packed with probably 100 people outside, unable to get seats in the sanctuary. Our teenagers sang a hymn, which I did not know, but which Tenji had very recently discovered and declared to be among her favourites. A couple of verses that so impressed me were:
O how I long to reach my home,
My glorious home in heaven!
And wish the joyful hour were come,
The welcome summons given!
O how I long to be with Christ,
Where all his glory beams!
To be from this dark world dismissed,
Which his dear name blasphemes!
Well Tenji and Nigel are there together now in that glorious home, where all Christ’s glory beams. What joy for Nigel to meet up with her and many others who found Christ under his ministry! All his labours here in this world are amply rewarded now.