Friday, October 14, 2016

Angel in a jeep

Flying out of Chicago early Wednesday morning meant driving through dense early morning traffic to O'Hare airport in order to drop off the rental car. Already at 7:15 am traffic was choked up in slow crawling lanes.  I decided to avoid the busiest route and drive a road less traveled across the suburbs to join the expressway south of the airport.  Unfortunately, I chose the wrong road! Even less traveled than I imagined! Approaching the expressway I realized to my horror that there was no access to it as we drove straight under.  Stopping in a garage I asked (trying to keep desperation in check) which way was the quickest to the airport.   A man in the queue told me to keep driving until a main intersection at which I should turn right and keep going.  He gave me little confidence by indicating with his hand that it was left we should turn.  Help!

Traveling to the intersection and turning left (!) we joined an enormously slow moving line of vehicles. One traffic stop after another we began to lose heart after several minutes with no evidence that the airport was any closer.  In the lane next to us was a young man in a jeep.  Carol wound down her window and shouted across: 'Is this the right way to O'Hare?'  'Yes,' he answered. 'How much further? we asked. 'About 5 miles....twenty minutes or so. I am going there, you can follow me!,
'' We are going to return this car to you know where that is?'  'Yes' he said as he moved off and we tried to nose in behind.

Following as close as we dared he led us through a maze of roads and eventually passing under a bridge he waved his arm pointing across the road where we saw the welcome sign: Hertz car returns.  We couldn't believe he had actually led us there.   With whoops of joy Carol almost forgot my catastrophic mistake of choosing the wrong road in the first place.  But what a marvelous act of a Carol said:  An angel.   In a jeep!  Sometimes really good things happen, don't they?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Re-entering Carol's world

The car that friends have kindly loaned us has become erratic with occasional asthmatic spasms as the engine threatens to give out and (more worrying still) we face braking problems too.  Carol has refused to drive it (are you surprised) which means yesterday I was her chauffeur.  She went back to hospital to see her doctor for an annual checkup and for her mammogram (courtesy of enforced Medicare enrolment!)  As soon as she entered the main doors a chorus of welcomes greeted her from two friends manning the welcome desk.  Carol was a volunteer in palliative care for 10 years and made such good friendships with other volunteers that conversation immediately hit deep pockets as she asked about family members by name and they reciprocated.  I was stunned as memories worked overtime.  They similarly welcomed me but as an attachment to the main attraction.

Appointments spanned 3 hours so there was time for lunch in the hospital cafeteria.  As Carol asked for a tuna sandwich the server lit up in recognition and showered Carol with welcomes. Paying at the till the clerk similarly shone in surprise and gushed warm welcomes.   When you think that Carol only worked there one day a week and finished there 3 years ago it says volumes about her gift of friendship.

But the icing on the cake was a meeting in the corridor as we were leaving when the Senior Spiritual Advisor to the hospital greeted Carol as a long-lost friend and shared how they had never been able to find anyone else willing to visit the dying as Carol had.   'We really miss you - you are irreplaceable,' he said.  Alongside I glowed at the joy of her being remembered well.

Later we visited three friends in their 80's and 90's at Windsor Manor Park residential community.  Again, the sense of being intertwined in Christian friendship in deeper ways really nourished spirit.  I felt great pride in following Carol as she re-entered her US world.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Forum challenges

I am just coming down from the giddy heights of our forum on Collaboration.  Giddy because it brought together so many former students and other friends that reunions broke out on every side.  And giddy because our main guest speaker opened up a vista of collaboration that surprised/overwhelmed/shocked many.

Paul Allen is co-pastor of Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale.  After last year's forum when I introduced the idea of a new kind of preacher, one of the attendees came up afterwards and said: 'Next year you really ought to invite my Pastor, Paul Allen. He really does collaborate!'  And so we did invite him!

Paul told us his personal story having served in several local churches.  He commented how much church conflict seems to be associated with the person and vision of the solo lead pastor.  Several times in his experience as an associate pastor he had witnessed a breakdown of relationships with the 'person in charge' which caused much hurt.  His own vocational vision grew along different lines. He believed that he was best fitted to become a co-pastor who shared ministry equally with others. He would definitely not become a solo pastor!

For 17 years he has developed this pattern in his Hinsdale church.  As associate co-pastors have come and gone each has stepped seamlessly into co-pastoring sharing the preaching equally (only notifying the congregation of the Scripture and theme every Friday....never the name of the preacher!)  Many others have also emerged in lay leadership to share in preaching too. Paul has developed sermon series based on the Christian year to which he invites the co-pastor and other lay preachers to choose texts leaving him an equal number.  He exulted how such collaboration spills happily over into every other area of church life.  With humility he quoted: 'Every pastor is an interim pastor' as he stressed the need together to listen to God and work in love.

He mentioned Ps 77:20: 'You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron' .  Note, he said, how we often think of Moses as a solo authority figure but, it was by the hand (singular) he worked with Aaron and God!

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Between last Wednesday and next Wednesday I shall be jumping between my old life and new.  Last Wednesday was the first time for 16 years that I had been back in a lecture room at Spurgeon's College.  Actually, I had to ask where Lecture Room 2 was because building alterations meant a walk around outside to new entrance (with security cards buzzing me in!) into a transformed former Reference Library.   In spite of many changes with walls knocked down, former entrances blocked and much improved security all round so much was reassuringly familiar. Faculty and staff were generous in their welcome.  The Acting Principal is a former student of mine and though several faculty members have changed there was a happy buzz as old friends were hugged and new friends were greeted.
As always, interacting with students was the most rewarding part of all.  My day with 9 D Min students and 2 PhD students proved lively and encouraging.  Best of all, among the new students present for Orientation Week were two friends,  Chris from my home church in Histon and Erica who was once in the youth group in my Cambridge church.  Oh, how good to see another generation coming through.

Next Wednesday I shall be in Northern Seminary in Lombard with much that is reassuringly familiar in greeting faculty, staff and students.   Again, interacting with students while living on campus and during the Forum on October 1st . will likely be the best part, though meeting up with friends from the churches I served will run it a close second!  With Carol I do not take the privilege of doing our bit both sides of the Atlantic for granted.  At church today, several friends said they would be praying for us and we continue to be grateful especially for prayers for health, strength and wisdom to be used by God aright.   Wildly paraphrasing the psalmist: This is the day the Lord has made and I don't want to mess it up ! 

Friday, September 16, 2016


I've been quiet on the blog front recently, overtaken by a phenomenal amount of holiday hospitality as we have hosted friends from UK, Canada, Australia and USA in a solid (but happy) sequence.  But there is another reason for my quietness  - I have been desperately working to three deadlines.

First, to complete Module 7 (with 3 chapters) of the resource book for A New Kind of Ministry.  Only one more module remains....but then the task of re-editing and including stories from the field begins.

Second, a Doctor of Ministry Workshop Day back at Spurgeon's College on Sept. 21st.  Two years ago I had the delight of being appointed Distinguished Visiting Scholar which blissfully involved me in nothing until now!  But my first duty has arrived.  It's a good one because there are few occasions more stretching than reflecting with practitioners about where theology is meshing with their ministry practice  Of course, I shall hope to turn some of my sessions towards enriching my own work for my further deadline....which is:

On October 1st. we hold our second annual FORUM for the New Kind of Preacher at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. This year we are developing one of the program's main themes - collaboration.  Several people will be speaking, including a pastor for whom collaboration is central to his ministry practice.  For both my sessions I have dared to involve a good friend of mine, Bill Suriano, who is a trial lawyer in Chicago.  Collaboration requires the give-and-take of people who take each other seriously in pursuing a common goal.  In the past Bill (and his wife Dawneen) have been wonderfully warm, direct and insightful in partnering me in both preaching and writing.  I am expecting him to tell the forum just what it's like to collaborate from the pew-side.

Time for registration is nearly concluded....hopefully last minute participants can squeeze in.  For  kind friends who follow my happenings thank you for praying for these two events. I'll let you know more later.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Cold reality!

Last week Carol opened up her ipad to discover she had been hacked. A number of friends had sent urgent messages of warning.  Frantically we changed the password.  Four days later, on Sunday morning before leaving for church Carol checked again.  This time a warning blared in block capitals - FRAUD.  Carol's air miles card had mysteriously been used back in the US to make some extravagant purchases, included a Gucci purchase of $3,400.  We say mysterious because the card was safely in her purse...yet was making waves a couple of thousand miles away.

It took 50 minutes (and made us late for the morning service) as Carol contacted the card suppliers and went through all the security rigmarole.  She wondered if the hacking a few days earlier had opened the way for this fraud?  The card clerk thought it might be so!  Later still she discovered that her main email account was refusing to send any messages.  As a great greeter of others and sender of cheery notes (including some lengthy ones!) she found herself unable to contact the world. Help!

Monday was a vital repair day.  Our pastor, Ron Day, who is an IT expert as well (what a good combination!) invited us at 10:30 to have coffee while he worked on it.  At 12:00 noon he admitted it was beyond him.  Carol and I marveled at the way he and Gill were so gracious on a Bank Holiday Monday.  This truly was Christian grace.  But it meant very lengthy afternoon calls to Apple (in Belfast) was sorted.

Carol commented in exasperation about how many rotten people there are who just hack into stuff, cheat and steal, spoil and add complications to life. Yes, it's an unpleasant lesson.  I have a colleague whose refrain whenever there is trouble runs: 'It's because of sin...and there's a lot of it about'.  Yes!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Collaboration and accountability

Over coffee, a business entrepreneur was talking to me after church yesterday.  He asked about my next event and (of course) I mentioned the New Kind of Preacher Forum with its theme 'collaboration'. (Carol tells me it tends to crop up in conversation with increasing urgency!) He questioned whether this concerned preachers working with others.  When I replied 'yes' he smiled. His next comment was most revealing. 'I have often been amazed that compared with the business world with its high accountability the church has such low accountability. It seems that people in church leadership just don't feel the need to be accountable to anyone.  Perhaps it's because they find it difficult to accept constructive criticism. Some churches seem to suffer from a lot of fear and defensiveness!'   I hasten to add this was not directed at our own church - he made it clear that it was a general observation gained over many years in different churches.

I guess the immediate defense preachers and other leaders would make is that their accountability is to God. True - that is the ultimate accountability!  Some preachers I know have a Spiritual Director who helps make this much more than a pious claim.

However, it was the link he made between   collaboration and accountability that really struck me.  I hadn't really thought about the ways in which working with others, being open to their insights and views, inevitably brings a measure of accountability which working solo can totally avoid.

For example, in sermon preparation, collaboration not only exposes the amount and quality of work a preacher is doing with the text and their spiritual and theological depth but also their willingness to listen and discern what God may be saying through others.  I conclude there is even more need to highlight collaboration!