Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Week 2014

Being back in Cambridge for Holy Week evokes rich memories.  Yesterday, on Maundy Thursday, I was at my former church to lead a service for older friends, several in wheelchairs,  who are brought in especially to share communion as well as enjoy tea.  It was announced at the beginning that I had begun the tradition in 1982 - and several of the older folk are still going strong (including one at 93!)
Today, Good Friday, I joined a March of Witness down the High Street of Histon (just north of Cambridge).  Several congregations from different churches processed behind crosses to meet on the Library Green for an open-air service.  The Salvation Army band and a music group accompanied us, with songs, prayers, reading, drama and an address.   I was on the edge of the crowd conscious of the busy traffic flow and pedestrian passers-by - often visibly surprised at our presence.  It was good to sound out the gospel message right in the middle of the community.
On Easter Day, I shall be preaching back in my former church - an opportunity that thrills me to the core.  Every preacher longs to be able to proclaim good news on Easter Day....and I'm one!

However, one thing struck me forcibly today.  One of the songs we sang was Graham Kendrick's 'From heaven you came'.   It tells the gospel story and the last verse with chorus ends:
      So let us learn how to serve,
      And in our lives enthrone him ;
      Each other's need to prefer,
      For it is Christ we're serving.

      This is our God, the Servant King,
      He calls us now to follow Him,
      To bring our lives as a daily offering
      Of worship to the Servant King.
I remember a phone conversation with my father one Sunday evening.  He could be astonishingly transparent.  He said that they had sung this song in his church and everybody joined in gustily with loud accompaniment.  He paused and softly said: 'You know I just couldn't sing it.  Those words about 'enthroning', 'preferring other's needs' and 'bringing lives as a daily offering'.  I couldn't do it.  It's too much, today.  We should be so careful!'

I have never forgotten how that cut through my often thoughtless singing, mouthing casually such monumentally demanding words that only Christ can command and by His Spirit begin to make practical in our lives.   This Easter I want to be real in my response.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wedding anniversaries

Later on the same day we landed back in the UK we were at a Silver Wedding anniversary in Caius College, celebrating with a couple who met at the Cambridge church when I was once minister. We were (unsurprisingly) late entering the main dining hall where everyone had gathered for drinks and speeches before the food.  The hall was full of noisy happy chatter. 

Taking off our coats, we began to register who was in the crowd. I was amazed to catch sight of first one married couple I had not seen for 22 years, followed by a second, then a third and then a fourth.   As I greeted them with wonderment that they were instantly recognizable, I marvelled even more how their stories instantly came to mind in that weird way that memory can google search quicker than google (with added colour and emotion)!

It should have been obvious that the happy couple would invite many of their peers who have remained friends to share their night, and that they would have met in the same church and that I would know them well.  But I was surprised that there were, in all, six couples there whom I had married some 25 years ago,  all going strong. 

There wasn't time to talk in depth but it became clear that each marriage had shared in the rough and tumble of family life for the last twenty five years.  Yet, for every couple their Christian faith had remained central to their lives together.  They shared stories of different churches they now belonged to and their passions and commitments to various responsibilities.  I know Christian marriages can fail in our fallen world, but I walked on air as we drove home and reflected on our experience.  Here are six couples who have stayed true to each other with the Easter Lord in prime place.  Thank you, Lord.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Odd anecdote (3)

Our bags are packed and we will soon (hopefully) be in flight.  In the lull of waiting I recall another odd occasion!  Unfortunately my wife remembers more of my student experiences than I would wish.  She claims that from the viewpoint of the congregation one of the most 'worship-disturbing' of all occurred not when I was preaching but when I was playing a harmonium to accompany another student.

The congregation was a small one outside Oxford and my fellow student Colin prepared carefully the whole act of worship which he was to lead from the front.  Because they had no regular musician he was asked to bring one along.  Although I would hardly claim to be regular I agreed.

The harmonium operated by foot pedals pumping air into the pipes. If the instrument was well-worn (which was generally the case)  then both legs needed to be in continuous vigorous pumping motion, that later became the template for certain gym apparatus to trim leg muscles.  Swell boards either side of the knees controlled the volume.  Though a number of organ stops appeared to offer a range of possibilities, in most cases the variety of bearable sounds was limited with occasional notes refusing to sound at all.

On this memorable Sunday evening I seated myself on a circular leather stool having first adjusted the height.  I was aware that this gave out an extraordinarily loud squeak when I moved to pump the pedals and tended to squeal whenever I shifted weight, especially getting on and off.  I was at the front, immediately facing the preacher with my back to the the congregation.  

The first hymn alerted my wife and the preacher to the unusually noisy stool and whether I was more vigorous than past organists I do not know but the squeaks and squeals set up giggling in the ranks.  Great effort was made during the following prayer and reading to conquer the inner shaking.  I could see Colin struggling and had no idea how close Carol was to complete meltdown.  At the next hymn I tried to reduce that noise level by keeping as still as I could.  So concentrating was I on noise reduction that I completely failed to realize the congregation had finished the hymn when I launched into a further verse as people were beginning to sit down.  Unfortunately, this provided the coup de grace.  I btought my mistaken recital to a sloppy discordant end hoping for silence, the stool misbehaved in monstrous fashion as I returned to my seat.  Giggling that had been repressed by handkerchiefs and immense willpower now let rip.  Colin was creased up in mirth and Carol could no longer control herself  with tears running down her face.

I know how hard he concentrated to get through another two hymns before the end.  I really apologized knowing how miserable it is to be sabotaged as a preacher, and to have engaged in such a shameful act is a scar on my memory.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fresh/Old look

Another advantage to seeing our New Jersey family is that Rob can bend some of his considerable IT expertise towards helping my feeble skills.  Alert readers will notice that this blog is now renamed as and much of the material which languished (appropriate description) on my web-site of that name can now be found under the different pages in my blog.  With the loss of my main computer in Wheaton last year I also lost ability to edit these webpages. 
Rob informs me that it's quite cool to use your blog as your main web site and anyone now logging into will be re-directed here.
I have never been sure that the effort of posting is truly worthwhile.  Some of you make kind comments and surprise me mightily by mentioning you have read something or other!  As I shall share in future emails, I might still have some interesting opportunities ahead as Emeritus Professor and will value your partnership and input if these come to pass.
As a disclaimer:  much of the transferred material from my old web site is woefully out of date.  I have actually published since 2009 and (if I had the energy) there is a great deal of new oral/visual material on-line which could be added.  Anyway, at least I can access it now to try and keep more up-to-date!

Closure, Gift Card, Knoxville, New Jersey

Breathless is the word for the last two weeks!  Our 'recognition' evening left us with gargantuan feel-good.  How wonderful to close full-time working life on such a high!  Actually, several older friends have since commented how important good closure is and rather lamented what happened to them (oh dear).  We remain so grateful to all who shared with us and it took some time to read through the greetings and cards properly.  Alas, in our excitement we opened all the cards and later found a lonely gift card without a name on it!  Embarrassingly we thanked one set of friends profusely who then told us they had not given it!  So, somewhere among our generous friends there is a donor who needs to know how grateful we are (in spite of appearances)!

Simultaneously, while living in the after-glow, we undertook the exhausting task of emptying my store room (25 large boxes and innumerable carrier bags),  closing down my office leaving a remnant library, and filling the final boxes for removal to the UK.  It demanded a relentless pace with no breaks.  Fortunately, meal times allowed us farewells with dear friends, but each morning brought full-frontal countdown pressure until, last week, we stepped onto a plane to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I gave the Craddock Lectures at Johnson University (and preached twice to the university).  Suddenly from a freezing Chicago morning we were in the 80's, enjoying great Southern hospitality.  It was new material which brought its own pressure but after two nights we were back in bitter cold for the last gasp packing.   

A couple of days ago we completed the 850 mile road trip to see our family in New Jersey which is always wonderful as grandchildren Elliot and Sophie treat us like equals!  Tomorrow, the next lap with flight back to Cambridge demands yet more strategic packing. So, not much happening......
a big thank you to all our friends, both sides of the Atlantic who are part of our special circle who have followed our progress. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

At a finishing post

Last night's retirement occasion for Carol and me was a spectacular surprise in every way.  In the week before we had received a constant stream of apologies from friends who could not attend.  When we went into the Lindner Conference Center at 6:15 last night I was amazed to see the main conference arena set out with tables, tablecloths and flower arrangements (oh yeah!) filling the room. In front of the windows looking out onto the lake there were tables of refreshments for the multitudes.  We looked at each other amazed at the organizers' faith!   A handful of friends were there!  But, by the time we hit 7:00pm and the program started the room was amazingly full.

My two Deans called it my 'Recognition' evening and had organized a program which brought greetings and tributes, prayers and song with such warmth and over-generosity of spirit.  For me the highlights were many because everything that took place was thoughtful and kind.  Let me mention just a few (and forgive inevitable omissions):
  • hospitality - so many people worked to make the center look beautiful and welcoming with staff bustling around to make everything work. 
  • tributes - Lauren Visser spoke movingly for the students and beautifully not only summed up my teaching philosophy but modeled it,  while David Fitch with brilliant wit (and wildly over the top as you might expect) expressed his thoughts with seven headings including a crowd stopper of ....
  • Carol.  It was so important that Carol be honored because she is vital for my ministry and right from the opening welcome from Dean Karen, and greetings from an absent President, she had deserved pride of place as the love of my life, my best friend and the most loyal co-worker imaginable.  I was thrilled about the love expressed for her throughout the evening.
  • Letters from the past.  Bob Price wove together letter tributes ranging over my past ministry and surprised me by making it  42 years celebration rather than just my time at Northern.
  • Ninja - Adron Robinson shared this nickname from his doctoral class, apparently given me because of my smiling delivery of comments after each of their sermons and the students' surprise to find they had somehow amidst the smiles had been critiqued with cuts to the body!  
  • Emeritus Professor.  Jim Stellwagen, Chair of the Board, presented me with a plaque and I am thrilled with the honor and continuing connection.  Thank you.  
  • FRIENDS'  The most wonderful aspect of all was the presence of friends from so many aspects of our lives in the US who had taken trouble to be there and joined the line to speak to us, gave us cards, wrote in a book their greetings and, collectively, gave us memories we shall always treasure.
Someone in the seminary said that this was the happiest occasion they had experienced in that Conference Center, and we certainly felt it could not have been a warmer kinder evening with so much laughter.  Our deepest thanks to everyone who contributed.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Anticipating the finishing post

I interrupt the anecdotes (mercifully!) to announce a particular finishing line that I shall shortly cross.  Carol and I are returning to Northern Seminary for my official farewell (and the final emptying of my office and store room).  March 21st will mark the formal closure of 14 years' teaching at Northern.  Since 2000 when the C.W. Koller Chair of Preaching was inaugurated with me the first occupant, Carol and I have lived an exhilarating adventure. In addition to teaching which I have revelled in, and writing books which I have revelled less in (!),  we have been thrown into some amazing church experiences.  Three times I have been interim preacher in remarkably contrasting churches and each time been gifted with another wave of friends.  Lectures and conferences have taken us to well over 30 different States, as well as internationally, where again we have made lasting friendships.

The seminary is graciously setting aside an evening (March 21st)  for us to say goodbye to faculty, staff, students, neighbors, churches I have served and so many friends who have enriched our years.  The exact arrangements are a surprise but to my great joy I have just discovered is that the evening will include a Service of Thanksgiving.  Giving thanks to God is top priority!

I plan to go on with some preaching and freelance teaching commitments (so long as Carol deems me intelligible!) but this date gives opportunity for thanks as full-time work draws to a close.  Actually, two months later, May 21st marks the 42nd anniversary of my ordination and ever since 1972 I have been engaged full-time in Christian ministry.  So, a big thank-you to the Lord who has made it possible and so many of you who have shared along the way.