Sunday, May 22, 2016

Reflecting with leaders

Yesterday I led an Away-Day for the leaders of a village church near Cambridge.  They asked me to take the theme 'Leadership'.  I knew nothing about the church and when I learned it would last for six hours with only five leaders present I was rather daunted!

Obviously, we needed to start with their situation and issues so, after opening devotions, I used my preferred low tech tool - a flip chart - to note down responses.  Unsurprisingly a couple of leaders spoke about how too much of their time is spent on tasks. Without wanting to be caught in activity, they found themselves almost completely task-oriented.  Indeed they felt that the perception of them held by others in the church is that they are the people who do what's needed in order for the church to function.  Other issues included the need to develop the prayer life and teamwork of the fellowship.  I wondered how many leaders in other churches would list similar concerns!

To try and provide some meat I worked with them on a definition of Christian leadership that emerged piecemeal, giving time for reflection every couple of words or so.  It's not something I had done before but it turned out to connect with some of the earlier issues in practical ways.   It is not properly scrubbed up for public notice but it runs like this:
A Christian leader is a person with a distinctive gift mix who belongs within a sacred missionary community (set within contemporary culture) which is called by God to worship, to pray with discernment, and to collaborate contagiously in order to move people onto God's agenda.
I think this gives us plenty to work with!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Slight oversight

I am preaching in Toronto in July and woke this morning with a niggle urging me to check arrangements.  I planned the flights in February and details seemed too sketchy in my memory.  Eventually locating the itinerary I set about organizing the long-term car parking and overnight stay in London the night before.  We have developed a routine at Heathrow and I went into autopilot.

Suddenly, I noticed that we were leaving from South Terminal.  Since there is no South Terminal at Heathrow I was thrown into momentary panic.  Concentrating on the details I realized I had failed to see that it was not LHR but LGW in small letters at the top.   Yes, it's Gatwick on the other side of London rather than Heathrow.

Thankfully I had not gone ahead with further arrangements but am convinced of two things.  First, I need to check the small print carefully as my capacity for such oversights is increasing!  As Carol pointed out I could have booked us flying out from anywhere once I took my eye off the ball.  Second, I am profoundly grateful for that niggle.....often I would leave it until nearer take-off !  Those niggles are sometimes essential for sanity - I think they are part of God's gift of friendship that cares about little details as well as big.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Guess who's coming to dinner?

I promised some friends that I would post about a recent church experiment.  A few weeks ago the congregation was invited to enter into a highly risky process.  Either they would volunteer to host a meal in their home or (more easily) put their names down as guests.   We heard that there were several hosts and so signed up to eat, having given a frightening description of Carol's allergies and the limited food options available to her.  (Actually, Carol thought we should not participate because of the strain this list puts on all hospitality giving!)

However, last Sunday we were given an address at which to turn up at 5:30 pm (deliberately early to include families with younger children).   The address was entirely new to us.  Guided by the sat nav we located our hosts, who had prepared for five guests without a clue who we might be.  They opened the door with peals of was a couple we had shared a meal with in our home once before.   We had no idea this was where they lived and were overjoyed to meet them on their patch.  In the next few minutes a single lady and another couple turned up to similar joy and surprise.  The whole enterprise had really lived up to its name: Guess who's coming to dinner?   I remember an old movie with that title starring Sidney Poitier and the embarrassment when he turned out to be the surprise black guest.

Well, there was no embarrassment!  Far from it!  Kind weather allowed us to enjoy a splendid three course meal (our hostess really went to town and especially catered for Carol) on a veranda which overlooked a magnificent vista which included 5 acres of rolling grassland and trees around a lake.  As the sun dipped we walked around the lake marveling at the friendship which had been kindled out of such a combination of unknowns.  We later discovered that our enthusiasm was replicated in many other surprise dinners. I guess the risk was less because we regularly worship together and we should be better at being friends because we belong to God's family!  But to have shared so happily like this kind of proved that point!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Donating a table

After 13 years of enjoying our circular IKEA dining table we are replacing it with an oblong one.  This week we called a local charity called Besom which works with Social Services by providing household contents to needy people.  The organizer said he would collect it later that morning.  As he walked in he greeted me: 'Great to see it fifty years since we were students together?'  I was dumbfounded.  Martin was a member of the student Baptist society in Cambridge University and even went on one of our summer missions to Dorking.  An engineer and inventor he worked in the north-east and then came back to work in Cambridge.

Did I remember him?  Yes, his voice and face triggered some happy recall. He told us he had married while a student and that his wife had come on the mission too.  In fact, when we were teamed up together to go door-knocking I was placed with his wife.  Apparently, I commented afterwards how wonderful it was to be partnered by her because she made such ready conversation with strangers.  Later, his wife came by to greet us.

We had no idea that donating a table to a good cause would open up a long-dormant relationship....this is the wonder of Christian life that you can keep bumping into people who have stayed the course of discipleship and in very different ways kept serving right through their lives.
Heaven will be like this!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Remembering Sidney

I often post random thoughts and happenings (of very mixed value too!) but today I was thinking of Sidney.  When I was in seminary in Oxford I was placed with a friend as interns at the Baptist Church in Cowley in order to learn about practical ministry.  It was set alongside a shopping centre on a large housing estate which provided labour for the vast motor manufacturing plant on the east side of Oxford.  Far from the dreaming spires!  Sidney Crowe and his wife Ivy had been in ministry there nearly 30 years, and he retired after 31 years while I was there.  So much of his life with these people!

What did my friend and I learn from Sidney?   It seemed definitely nothing helpful about preaching!Even his best friends would agree that he was tediously predictable with a bucket load of mannerisms including his habit of adding the phrase 'and so on' to sentences. On one occasion he added it memorably: 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit and so on'.  You can imagine what critical students made of that!

But what we did learn has stayed with me ever since.  His people loved him and Ivy in such depths of relationship that they hung on every word he said to them because they treasured them as leaders and under-shepherds.  At their leaving it was clear that his pastoral love and care stretched far beyond the church fellowship into the community of Cowley.  A photographic display showed him involved in peace-making in an industrial dispute and taking a key role in community affairs.  People lined up to testify to the ways they had been like Jesus to them at every turn of their lives  Carol and I knew something of this in their wonderful support in a couple of miscarriages.

And you know what this means?   I believe in improving preachers with all my heart and that continues to be my mission.  But preaching must be put into perspective. Sidney showed me that pastoral care and community building are essential and average preaching  can glow in its presence. And, conversely brilliant five star preaching without love and relationships may dazzle as communication but it has no long lasting glow with Christ's people.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Helping my son

The end of last week immersed me in long international phone calls with my son, Rob, who lives in New Jersey.  Sadly, the pastor of his church had suffered a heart-attack and he was asked to step in as preacher.  This was both a surprise and an ordeal.  The last time he preached was in 1999! Rob threw himself into preparation.  He is an associate professor of radio journalism at William Paterson University, so he has plenty of creative energy and communication skill.  Looking back we went through three major phases.
  • initial surge of creativity around the text that he felt compelled to preach on - John 14: 1-6.  He poured out insights about Jesus' promise 'Let not your hearts be troubled'.  The extraordinary way he was promising this for us when he had yet to face so much trouble on our behalf.  And, in particular the metaphor of 'many rooms' wouldn't go away.  What did this mean for the future and how did it spark ideas for current 'rooms'?  It was wonderful listening to his mind and heart.
  • the next major call came as the embryo sermon was being fashioned.  Much of it was already being written out.  At great speed he dashed through the outline.  It took him nearly 20 minutes but....guess what?  it would have taken 40 plus minutes in its present form and it comprised three different sermons.   He had to begin the difficult task of editing down to the key point and ensure that it was presented clearly without clutter.
  • the next major, major call came with a completely re-written sermon.  Since his early draft Prince had died and gave him a startling opening instead of his earlier thoughts.  I marveled at the way he had cut out so many precious ideas and stories yet retained such life and passion.  He called it 'Four Rooms' with reference to a dentist's room, his standing in a demolished room hours just hours after the Indian tsunami, the church community and its pastor, and...of course, the eternal promise of God's presence. Each linked well with a glorious conclusion.
At the end he commented: 'Phew!  Preparing sermons is really hard work, Dad!  How many hours it takes! I appreciate so much more what goes on behind hearing a sermon. I really do!'   I rejoice that it appears to have helped the congregation from the many comments made, and his wife gave a positive assessment (though I guess wives generally do!)  I felt it was a privilege to help out transatlantically. The first time I  have used my teaching with my family!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Story telling

Before the week has gone I must mention an exhilarating experience in church last Sunday. The scheduled preacher was unable to preach so the music group opened up the service for anyone to speak about God-experiences in their lives.   The music leader confessed he was apprehensive about whether any would speak (and some of us wondered about length, content, etc. etc!)

To our surprise seven people spoke clearly and effectively about their lives.  One works with Street Pastors in the tough work of caring for troubled people in central Cambridge 10:00 pm - 4:00 am.  She described her work and encouraged us to join her.  Another told a remarkable story of a day when she was nearly killed by a herd of cows. Psalm 91 had begun the day in her Bible reading notes, and to her utter amazement was repeated after her ordeal by others who had no idea at all how this particular text was sharply relevant it was to her! Psalm 91 was then read: 'If you  make the most High your dwelling- then no harm will befall you'.  A couple of speakers shared particular texts which had challenged them, one was connected with a song we sang.  Another, a Malaysian academic living in Cambridge talked about the previous evening when he had difficulty finding somewhere for a quiet meal in a Chinese restaurant only to discover (to his delight) he was seated next to someone just visiting Cambridge that day. He had not seen him for 10 years since they had been in seminary together.  He marveled at a genuine God-incidence! Yet another spoke about an 83 year old lady who had just told him how she longed to know what God wanted her to do next, and how her father had been actively doing God's work well into his nineties.

With vitality and realism each story was told, honestly, eagerly and with embedded Scripture.  Afterwards at least two other people said to me that they had stories to share too. It  raised (at least) two important questions for preachers:
1) Just how many stories of God events that past week could have been told by that one congregation?  They had truly witnessed God at work in genuine life experiences.
2) How wonderful it would be to collaborate with the congregation on the way of sermon preparation so that appropriate stories would form part of the sermon?  How much would these genuine life experiences of hearers help ground the gospel.

Of course, my students know this is exactly what I push in my teaching and the new project A New Kind of Preacher!