Saturday, June 20, 2015

Death vanquished!

This past week has been dominated by my uncle's funeral with its preparations, travelling and the service itself.  His last instructions were clear -his funeral was 'to speak to people of God'.  And so it did!

The cremation took place beforehand with the family and a few church friends present.  All our grandchildren were present too.  Elliot (aged 9) asked respectfully: 'Is his body in there?' as the coffin was placed at the front.  Luca (aged 13) sat next to me on the front row and told me this was his first time at a funeral.  Milo (aged 3) directed us all in through the main doors at the beginning, holding his fingers to his lips with a loud 'Sssshhhh'!  Simply and trustingly with a powerful reading of Psalm 130 we committed John to his Lord.

When we moved to the church we found a congregation of around 60 had gathered to sing some of John's favourite hymns and to hear his chosen Scripture story of the compassionate father, as the preacher called it (rather than the prodigal son!) Again the children sat around us.  It is the tradition of that church to have an open microphone for people to pay tribute.  It was startling to hear a series of carefully crafted vignettes open up John's story to us in fresh ways.  The first spoke of his gifts of financial book keeping, and deep love of other books too. He mentioned how John's skills with New Testament Greek enabled him to be a Wycliffe Bible translator at one period in his life.  A couple of others spoke about his missionary service in Bangladesh and his bravery in the face of the savage civil war in 1971 when the British were told to leave, but he insisted on staying.  A representative of the missionary society told us that when the hospital heard of his death there was acclaim for 'Mr. Davies', still remembered for his courage and love for them.  Another spoke about his war service and code-breaking. Others remembered his participation in their house group, and yet others talked of the quality of his prayers.  Some of the immediate family spoke too with personal memories of how he had been brother, uncle, and great uncle.  We had put up some photographs tracing his life which also spurred memories.

The preaching ensured that the service certainly spoke to people of God so that John's wishes were upheld.  In his modesty he would not approved of the tributes but I think we got the balance right.  After all we were thanking God for John as well as for his promises to us.  And we entered the victory of death vanquished. Afterwards one of my sons said to me: 'I just wish we could have sat down and spent much longer with those people who knew things about him we didn't. ' Yes, a long life well-lived.  Thanks to all those kind readers who remembered us through these days.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Death interrupts

It's an obvious fact.  Death interrupts.  My last blog rejoiced in a family holiday. On our journeys home I went to see my 91 year old uncle (with his hymnbook at the beside -see earlier posting) as did my son and grandson the following day.  We found him alert and (as always) incredibly tuned into our family details.  Though single, he really took such knowledgeable family interest in us all. We all remarked how well he seemed to be adjusting to his nursing home environment.

Early, on June 4th. he died during the night.  Suddenly, as his next-of-kin, we were thrust into bereavement with its web of practical issues, returning immediately to Bristol to start funeral and legal processes.  With his death Carol and I are now the oldest members of our tribe and as we sorted out his few possessions and looked through his funeral wishes Carol really didn't need to say: 'You realize the next time this happens in our family it will be us!'

So, these last few days have been tiring with emotions (that can surprise), travelling, emptying his room, appointments, signings, and mounting paperwork.  I had plans to work hard on a book and had set stiff targets after our holiday.  But death interrupts...and how!

Wonderfully, John had deep Christian faith.  He left instructions that his service was to show people God, and he chose old hymns with such positive choruses.  I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene....with the chorus:  How marvelous!  How wonderful! my Saviour's love to me!   And, When we walk with the Lord, in the light of his word....with the chorus: Trust and obey for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.  When we share in his service next Thursday we shall rightly be positive too because of the resurrected Savior!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Half-term wonder

This last week we have experienced family togetherness as never before.  Forgive me using my blog for such a inward-looking reflection, but I must record how for the first time ever both sets of grandchildren (with their parents of course) were able to spend a week's holiday together.  That's eleven of us!  (I know - a small tribe compared with some but capable of decibel levels and energy output far beyond their numbers). With one family living in New Jersey, USA and the other in London UK it is rarely possible to spend more than a day or two together.  But not this time.

Carol and I look back on this past week with immense gratitude.  Why? Partly because bright dry weather every day allowed us to make the most of staying at the seaside in Minehead, Somerset;  partly because the five children ranging in ages from 13 to 3 happily co-existed day after day; and partly because the beach was opposite which allowed daily visits for hours at a time, looking for crabs, treasure, damming streams and flying kites.

But mostly we are grateful for the sheer miracle of family togetherness. When it works, it's glorious! My oldest son commented wistfully that it was just like holidays in his youth.  Rather old fashioned because the main interests were all outdoors enjoying nature and engaged in physical activity.  There were no funfairs, amusement arcades, expensive children's activities. Yet, every day enthusiasm reigned on the beach, visiting a castle and climbing down the ravine at Watersmeet for a cream tea.  Good old fashioned fun by the sea, with tension from work falling off shoulders and laughter bubbling up instead.

We organized it in order to celebrate that we both have big birthdays this year. We could think of no better way than family togetherness.  And so it proved to be!

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.