Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hymns and the elderly

In the middle of this past week, between Carol's celebration and the turmoil of moving my uncle (a task which thankfully was completed on schedule), we shared in the 80th birthday of a remarkable lady who served as Principal's Secretary at Spurgeon's for 25 years.  During my tenure she was at the top of her game, holding encyclopedic knowledge of the college and its supporters.  From day one I relied on her wisdom (and hard work).

Sadly, she now suffers from an unusual kind of dementia that prevents her from speaking or showing expression.  When I have shown her photographs in the last couple of years she recognized people and events, and clearly followed conversation.  But, tragically, she is expressionless....except.....
At her birthday party she mouthed the words when we sang 'Happy Birthday'.  The group then went on to sing some of her favorite hymns.  She joined in soundlessly but word perfect!  'Great is Thy faithfulness', 'How great Thou art', 'Thine be the glory' and 'Just as I am'.  Apparently, the last one was a particular favorite.  Before she came to Spurgeon's she worked for the evangelist Eric Hutchings and this was a great response hymn at his crusades (as with Billy Graham).   Verse, after verse, we all marveled at her total involvement with us.   Someone commented how extraordinary it is that hymns can connect like nothing else.

A day later, when I was clearing my uncle's attic room after many years in this Abbeyfield home, I noticed on his bedside table a radio, magnifying glass, Bible and (have you guessed?) two well-thumbed hymnbooks.  He can still speak (though weakly) but again I saw the power of hymns in his life.  I know it's not just with the elderly that hymns are important spiritually but this week I have seen how powerfully they can work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Family life happens

I had mapped out these weeks following my return from the USA for some gentle times of reflection and some work in my shed/sanctuary.  With my US family actually living alongside us in Cambridge I recognized that some time would be expended on an energetic nine and six year old ...expended is the word1  But it looked a relatively straightforward month.

I had no idea that immediately on my return I would be plunged into heavy duty as the eldest nephew of my only surviving older relative -my 91 year old uncle who lives four hours away.   Taken into hospital twice in rapid succession and needing to find a new residential home, his needs have suddenly entangled us with the  world of doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, social workers, and residential care workers. The next few days we shall be involved in physically moving him from his home of the last 15 years.  He is a kindly private man who will not complain. All my life in ministry I have witnessed others going through this process with elderly relatives - now I can speak with fellow-feeling.

However, today I have exulted in a very different family happening.  Carol has celebrated her Big Birthday in style.  For the first time ever, both our boys and their families were able to join us in our home for a riotous Chinese take-away, cricket on the nearby playing field, water-play in the garden, balloons, banner, cards (over 50 so far!), and gifts.  Earlier we had driven out for a couple of quiet hours in Bury St. Edmunds. As we sat by the bowling green with the backdrop of the magnificent abbey we reminisced about life so far and God's goodness in it.  Family life certainly adds complications but we are profoundly grateful to God for the story so far.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Praying and following through

Today we were back in our local Baptist church in Histon, England.  There is something quite remarkable about being back with the people of God you belong to.  It's not just that you have friends whose stories matter to you because you share in the same small group, or have enjoyed hospitality in their homes.  It's that these friends may have been praying for you and actually following your progress while you are away!
It is so easy to say that you will remember someone and that you will pray for them yet find good intentions are pushed way back off your agenda.  But, to our joy, Carol and I were met with dozens of enquiries from people we knew well (and some we didn't) who wanted to know how the preaching project had fared, how I got on in my speaking commitments, and how well we had both kept on our travels.  It was humbling to be on the receiving end of such genuine interest from people who had actually remembered and prayed for us.  Follow-up like this shows authentic Christian love.
It made me think of my list of intercessions that I return to in the UK - the individuals I try to remember in prayer - and how my follow-up with them will actually reveal how much I cared and prayed.   It's a great experience to be prayed for and supported by people who follow through, isn't it?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

USA Weeks 2 &3 - Collaboration Force 10

These last days have passed as a blur.  The reason why we came here was to launch the first phase of  A New Kind of Preacher/Leader.  I have posted already about my wonderment that my preaching work at Northern is going to form the basis of an initiative funded by the Lilly Foundation.  Rather than focus on preaching (which seems the obvious route) I am going to concentrate on the preacher. Yes, the art and craft of preaching deserves attention.  But I am concerned more about the being of the preacher than the doing. What are the roles that a preacher needs to embrace as a child of God who is called to the improbable task of proclaiming as an ambassador of Christ?

One of the key roles that needs developing is COLLABORATOR.  Too many preachers are solo and isolated. Burnout and disappointment lie around the corner.  Co-laboring with others is pivotal for opening up preaching so that God can use it to transform his community to live together in unity for works of service (Eph. 4:16).  Actually, it begins by co-operating with our triune God, participating in fellowship and mission.

Being a collaborator is a demanding role as it develops to involve others.  It requires active listening with willingness to change, seeking God's agenda rather than ours.  Plenty of love, patience and time are essential to co-labor with others.  I call this post: Collaboration force 10 because those of us involved in leading this new initiative have found ourselves needing to model collaboration in an intense blur of planning meetings during my (too) short stay.  So much good has emerged.  On Wednesday this week we have called a meeting of partners to help us further flesh out the vision.  All kinds of details have become clearer.

I am so grateful for the face-to-face collaboration that has been possible.  All the conference calls and emails across the Atlantic cannot facilitate force ten collaboration like we have experienced!  We are on the way!  Thanks so much for your prayers and interest.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

USA Week 1

I look back over this last full week with wonder.  Every day we enjoyed meals with different groups of friends, including a couple of large groups who brought pot-luck suppers to share.  Among the highlights was a reunion with our First Friday group (which now actually meets on the second Saturday each month!) 15 gathered for a pot-luck supper.

Conversation among us was lively = noisy (as it always is!) The last part however was memorable. Time was spent going round the table as each of us shared a particular blessing for which we wanted to give thanks to God. I was struck by the seriousness and intensity as people took turns. A couple of people paid moving tributes to their spouses and families; others spoke about the quality of friendship and prayer support that the group had provided - several of us have been ill recently with three of us men undergoing cancer surgery. Another group member has just become engaged and he told us the story of his proposal on bended knee at the arboretum. Apparently, he shared his desire to marry a few years ago for support, and he gave thanks for the long-term prayers of members of the group.   Another gave heartfelt praise that his relatives who live on a farm in Rochelle had survived the tornado that had ripped the roof off their house and flattened farm building three days earlier. Another, told us how his daily devotions with his wife every morning had transformed his working days.

When we concluded with prayers for each other I marveled that we belong so securely to this group of friends.  As we drove home we said: 'This is real Christian fellowship - and the Atlantic cannot get in the way.'

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter

Landing back in the USA two days ago, Carol and I have just celebrated Easter with the community at First Baptist in Wheaton (where I once served as interim).  The service began with dramatic video of a bleak landscape, one early morning.  A low drumbeat and musical murmur suggested something might happen, yet the camera moved very slowly towards a low hill in the distance.  Eventually, we could see a soldier standing guard alongside a large circular stone.  The beat increased.  The stone became center stage.  Suddenly, with crashing splendor the stone rolled back with brilliant light cascading from within the now empty tomb.  Christ is risen- He is risen indeed. Alleluia.  The choir and congregational singing lifted the roof:  Jesus Christ is risen today.

It was wonderful to be back with so many friends who hugged us with enthusiasm. And what a day to celebrate. For Easter changes everything.  In my recent reading I came across this prayer (by Ted Loder) which I make my prayer today.
O God, let something happen to me,
something more than interesting
or entertaining
or thoughtful.
O God, let something essential happen to me,
something awesome,
something real.
Speak to my condition, Lord,
and change me somewhere inside where it matters,
a change that will  burn and tremble and heal
and explode me into tears
or laughter
or love that throbs or screams
or keeps a terrible cleasing silence
and dares the dangerous deeds.
Let something happen in me
which is my real self, O God.  Amen.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Joined-Up Preacher

This week I am back in Chicago to help the next phase of the Lilly preaching project for which I have responsibility. (I have posted on this before!) Two conferences have been planned in April as pre-launch events, the second one focusing on preparing facilitators for the peer-learning groups that will be formed in October after the major launch forum.

I have eight sessions to address at this conference which will (hopefully) build up the vision for the New Kind of Preacher/Leader that lies at the project's heart.  Already, along the way, I have become convinced about the need to use the hybrid term 'preacher/leader' that I popularized (or at least tried to) in my book 360degree leadership (2006).  Frankly, without combining leading with preaching I think the big vision we have of preachers building missional communities is doomed to failure!

At the same time I have begun writing a work-book which will provide a resource for the peer learning groups.   It has proved more complicated than I first imagined.  So many aspects that I  seek to bring together in the preaching/leading ministry will push boundaries into worshiping, collaborating, community building and living as missionaries in the twenty-first century. One key advantage I have is that I can rely on others collaborating with me in fleshing out the vision, and co-editing the work book.   My workbook's working title is: The Joined-Up Preacher.  We talk about joined up writing....well, this is joined up preaching/leading.  I look forward to keeping you in touch as the project unfolds further.