Saturday, January 11, 2020

Where's your beard?

Last night I attended the 55th reunion of those who began as students at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1964.  Sadly, only eighteen of us were present and being the oldest in the joint reunions (years 1964-67) we were placed on High Table.  Those who have experienced reunions will know the mixed feelings about meeting up years later - who will we remember (and even more - who will remember us?)  Will we recognize anyone?  At all?

After evensong the reception before dinner thrust us together in a packed room where I recognized no one, but I was quickly into fascinating conversations with men who came to college later than me.  Wearing occupations and life experiences lightly, conversations  immediately sparked all over the place.  Going into dinner I had no idea who I would be placed next to.  Three hours is a long time if you only have small talk:

On one side the (young) college chaplain had been sited with prior notice of my ministry. He proved to be a sheer delight with conversation ranging widely. On my other side was someone I had not seen for 52 years.  He greeted me explosively: 'Where's your beard? You had a magnificent full beard...I don't recognize you! You were always such a happy chap!' Asking about my painting he said that he claimed to still have a picture of mine!  You can imagine how this all led into lengthy enthusiastic conversation in which I caught up with much of his news.  When he asked me what I did on leaving college I used some short-hand: 'I went into the church' I said.  He looked aghast. 'What!  I can't believe that of of all people! You!'  True, when I threw myself into college I had no thought of Christian ministry but it was as though my beard and extrovert pretensions would rule it out completely.  I also wondered how woeful my witness must have been.

The whole evening proved immensely enjoyable with a rolling back of the years that did my heart and memory good.  The next reunion is scheduled for 5 years' time - I wonder how many 80 year-olds will make it?

Monday, January 6, 2020

Who's a good boy?

A friend whose hobbies include collecting medals kindly gave me one some time ago.  Thinking about this last decade and how I have behaved I was reminded of this small medal. It was given at school to reward a boy's good conduct.  Apparently it was initially used from 1843 to 1869, though some schools used it later on.

One side shows a school boy (complete with cap) walking along a country path. Above him it reads: The Good Boy.  He holds a book in one hand - a sign of his schooling.  In the near background (on the left) a beehive is alive with buzzing.  On the right hand side in far distance are houses clustered under a tall church steeple. The coin's other side says simply: A reward for good conduct.  

My friend gently asked me what I thought the beehive and church steeple stood for.  I had no trouble with the steeple and piety.  He then told me that the beehive was a common image for industry.  These two criteria - piety and industry were key to being a good boy in 1843.

How appropriate are these two to being good in 2020?  I guess that industry - a strong work ethic - is still up there as a respected quality.  But for most people the idea that piety - a reverence for God with love, duty and humility - is equally important as industry is deemed utter nonsense.  Today, how you think of God, if you ever do, is considered the private matter for (the few) religiously minded people.

This little coin made me think. I recognize that my work ethic has been part of seeking to live for God and his ways.  I admit that in 2019 it's been patchy and falls far short of a good boy reward but this twin track still matters as I look ahead, doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A very happy New Year

As we enter a new decade (though, because there is no year zero, 2010 is actually finishing off a decade!) I wish you a fulfilling good New Year.  I was struck by some reflections by the theologian Karl Barth on Ps. 31:15 My time is secure in your hands (German trans.)

There is a point where....the question of God's hands becomes quite literally serious - that is where all the deeds, works, and words of God have their beginning, middle and end...these are the hands of our Saviour Jesus Christ. These are the hands which he held out stretched when he called; 'Come unto me, all you that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.' They are the hands with which he blessed the children. They are the hands with which he touched the sick and healed them. They are the hands with which he broke the bread and shared it out to the five thousand in the desert place and then again to his disciples before his death. Finally, and above all, they are his hands nailed to the cross, so that we might be reconciled to God. These my brothers and sisters, these are the hands of God:the strong hands of a father, the good soft gentle hands of a mother, the faithful helping hands of a friend, the gracious hands of God , in which our time is secure, in which we ourselves are secure.
That's a great promise for the New Year, isn't it?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Decade with Gratitude

Looking back I marvel at what's happened since 2010. 10 years begun full-time in the US, shifting to part-time in 2014 to full-time in the UK 2017. Different highlights ping along the way.  Being personal for a moment:
2011 publication of Preaching as Worship - wins a national award! Yippee!
2012 Aggressive Prostate Cancer with major surgery and good outcome. (Spotted by my US doctor in spite of no obvious symptoms and acted upon within weeks!)  Truly, we are grateful - especially since our UK doctor (a very good friend) had identical cancer which was not spotted and died rapidly, aged 62.  Also sold our happy Warrenville home to live in Wheaton and begin fixing-up our Cambridge home (not us personally!)  Milo, our fifth grandchild born - fills the quiver.
2014 Formally finish as C.W. Koller of Preaching with a memorable farewell evening in our Conference Centre with blush-making speeches all round.  It's wonderful to finish well and my seminary community made it happen!  Now appointed an Emeritus Professor of Preaching. Also a Preaching Award from Lilly Foundation requires another book and part-time consultancy developing new courses for ministers. Join Histon Baptist Church, Cambridge - our new Christian family. Break my right ankle/leg by fainting in hospital - complex surgery needed.
2015  Our US family has 6 month sabbatical in Cambridge.  Last older relative - John Davies- dies aged 91.
2017  US seminary relocates and my part-time consultancy comes to an end - a surprisingly good chapter to our lives. I suffer a minor stroke, mercifully at the bottom of the stairs.
2018 Make good recovery in time for a blissful GOLDEN WEDDING celebration.  Our family came together in Jesus College for a glorious occasion that we shall never forget.  This was the highlight of the decade.
2019 Again, illness blights with pneumonia and collapsed lung, followed by Lyme disease.  Yet, the skills of the NHS and loving attention of Carol, accompanied by much prayer, have brought me through.  Brought us through.
We both feel immense gratitude to God whose purposes have been working on through another decade in spite of us.  What a life!  Thank you Lord.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Greetings - slugs and crabs

Christmas joy, praise and the very best of wishes to all my readers for 2020.  And I need to add how humbled and surprised I am when some of you mention in your Christmas mail how you have actually read my blog.  So often my ramblings seem inconsequential, even to me, so my surprise at your tolerance is genuine.

This is a wonderful time in the Christian Year. I know how easy the familiarity of the Christmas story can blend in among all the seasonal trappings so that we can almost take the birth of Jesus on the nod,  As though his birth could be anything but utterly unexceptional and cosmic-changing.  It deserves our best reflections - that God could descend to our level and get mixed up in our mess and redeem us. Incomprehensible! And, yes, wonderful!

I love that sentence when C.S. Lewis muses in Mere Christianity  on the wonder of the Incarnation:
What God did about us was this. The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself; was born into the world as an actual man - a man of particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman's body.  If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.  The Man in Christ rose again; not only the God.  That is the whole point. For the first time we saw a real man.
Truthfully I haven't seriously considered what it would be like to become a slug. They are definitely not my favourite garden inhabitants.  Oh, the cost and risk of God's love for us.  Let's reflect and rejoice this Christmas. Blessings on you and yours.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Christmas love

Carol is entering her fourth week of labyrinthitis which began suddenly with severe dizziness and vomiting and now requires weeks of rest as she tries to gain balance by retraining the brain to use her still-functioning right ear.  It's all required immense patience.  I have reminded myself about my sermon on joy in suffering - of perseverance producing character and hope  Well, maybe.... eventually.

Of course, she has missed all the planned seasonal events so far these past weeks.  Our church house-group met without us last week for their Christmas meal. On Sunday morning I was in church on my own again when after the service one of the group asked me to go into the church porch.  It felt mysterious because a couple of other group members were waiting there clearly looking around for others to join us with no one saying anything.  A Quaker waiting experience.

Then, when numbers were complete, one of the group told me that at their Christmas evening they had talked about how they might show their love to us in a practical way.  From behind a screen they produced a very large (heavy) open box covered in bright Christmas paper.  Looking inside took my breath away.  Together they had assembled food and treats with everything tailored to Carol's food allergies.  Chicken, salmon, puddings, drinks, nuts, dairy free chocolate, diet Cokes, candles, baubles for the tree, plus some specials for me like home-made apple crumble deserts with custard. And more. I tell you, I was speechless. It was quite wonderful.  Quite wonderful.

Carol was near to tears when she saw me stagger in and looked in the parcel at the purpose chosen goodies.  She took them out one-by-one marvelling that they were just right.  There was a popular book a few years ago called The Purpose Driven Church.  Well, this was a purpose-driven gift powered by love and such care. Carol said you have to post on the blog: Christmas love because this is so wonderful to receive.  And so appropriate when we remember the greatest Love that came down at Christmas in Jesus.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Turning point 5)

Instead of teaching in Serampore, India, my first year out of college found me living in London, married, and (surprisingly) also wrestling with a call to Christian ministry.  I write surprisingly because this possibility had been the last option I would have considered long-term.  (Maybe that deserves a separate post?) Rapidly my whole life was changing direction all because what I hoped would happen hadn't happened and instead a sequence of events surged ahead which couldn't possibly have happened if my first hopes had not been shattered.

I began this reflection by referring to Rom. 8:38 - We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  The sceptic would say that this turn of events was just how life can turn out sometimes.  No need to bring God into it. And, indeed, I do wonder about the sadnesses in the story.  Like the collapse of the East Asian Christian Colleges organization. Such events can occur out of human errors of different kinds as well as God's seasons of effectiveness.  But faith trusts that all those caught up in this problem would find other positive things were now possible.

Similarly, Peter Tongeman when suddenly taken so ill really suffered yet went on to experience a future full of renewed health with undiminished responsibilities. (Actually, he and his wife were at our wedding). Yet. out of his illness came my big break.  Would I have met Carol otherwise?  Would I have sensed a strong call to ministry otherwise?  Those are unanswerable questions but only leave me with wonder that. though the Rom 8:38 promise raises complex issues in a fallen world of brokenness and illness, by faith we can dare to claim that for those who love God such turning points in our lives are ultimately positive.