Friday, October 2, 2015

Audrey - singing in heaven

In May I posted about 'hymns and the elderly' because of an experience when Carol and I shared in the 80th. birthday of my former secretary at Spurgeon's College. I didn't mention her name though many of my readers will have known who I was referring to - Audrey Jones.  Well, I have just heard that dear Audrey has died and our thoughts and prayers go out to all her friends and all who will miss her.
Audrey served as Principal's Secretary at Spurgeon's for 25 years. 'Served' is the word!  She poured every fibre of her being into the task. When I arrived in1993 she shepherded me through the first months with extraordinary care.  Her encyclopedic knowledge of the college - its students, staff, donors, supporting churches - combined with her pastoral gifting which seemed sensitive to every situation proved invaluable.  She directed me where to spend my initial energies- key people to whom I needed to relate and which opportunities to say 'yes' or 'no' to!  Previously, I had never had a diary kept for me - it was unnerving but comforting as I recognized Audrey's wise leading at every turn.  Administration kept humming and, as people were in-and-out of her office with constant phone calls interrupting, I witnessed a lady expressing pastoral gifts and spiritual wisdom in every relationship.
I hope she knew how much she was treasured.  When she finally retired we tried to give her the best send-off we could with a banquet, gifts and speeches.  But I know she saw her service was primarily for the Lord and what really matters is his great "Well done!" 

Carol and I have so many memories.  In retirement Audrey visited us here in Chicago and I marveled at her continuing energy - especially when she went downtown to the city and we later witnessed her photographs!  In May I mentioned how an unusual kind of dementia prevented her from speaking or showing expression yet 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 freedom of expression.  Now, we rejoice that Audrey is at liberty to join in the glorious praise of heaven.  And we believe she is, with no holds barred! 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Arriving at base camp (2)

Pitching tents with me were the first facilitators who will be responsible for creating strong peer learning groups for pastors.  In the next few years we hope to prepare tens of men and women who will oversee these groups, which are properly termed: Clergy Communities of Practice.  A growing literature about these groups focuses on key dimensions: on ministry because of shared interest in commitment to God and church; on community so that clergy can build relationships of trust and mutual accountability in the group; on practice as knowledge is developed and tested in their own situations.

We are starting small. What especially struck me as I read the facilitator training manual was the listing of necessary characteristics by 15 criteria.  Some are obvious such as the need for experienced pastors who serve healthy congregations, who have faced difficulties, are theologically inquisitive, emotionally mature, intellectually curious and generous with time and energy.  But what about these?:
  • they are full of grace, continually making room for others and giving love away
  • they are confident in their own gifts but humbly do not see themselves as 'experts'.
  • they are listeners before they are talkers.
  • they are good at asking questions that invite others to explore issues more deeply.
  • they hold a clear and deeply theological sense of what it means to offer hospitality to others.
I couldn't help but examine myself and find multiple challenges!  In climbing the mountain ahead I know I need God's help to overcome inadequacies - especially listening before talking and asking good questions!   I wonder whether you are challenged by the list too?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Arriving at base camp (1)

I am so grateful to friends who have been praying and supporting me as my preaching project in Chicago lumbers on.  These last few days have been like arriving at a base camp at the foot of the mountain.  All the months of planning about the right equipment, supplies and climbers have, at last, brought us to a point of arrival.   On Friday I met with facilitators for the first time to talk about the journey ahead and review our resources. We began (and so much needed to!) with an extended time of listening to God in Scripture.  We are aware how easily you can marshal resources presumptuously!  As the old tag runs - God wants our availability for his plans rather than our ability in our plans.

It was challenging to describe what lies ahead for the very first time.  Hard copy first modules were in hand and first peer group members are known by name.  After months of theory it was like looking out of tent flaps to see the mountain looming ahead. One of the facilitators said at the end of our training day: 'Today I can really see for the first time what the New Kind of Preacher is all about.  It's such a big vision and I am so excited by it!'  It was humbling to sense how words on paper were beginning to come alive.

However, humbling is the word.  Looking out of the tent flaps we can see only the lower reaches of the mountain.  Like those experiences of being in mountain country where the upper reaches are still swathed in cloud and you have only hints of their height and the difficulties of scaling them, there is so much that we cannot see.   As someone else said on Friday: ' When something is really new you have not been there before and you cannot be sure what lies ahead.'

But we are at base camp!  Thank you Lord.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Chicago - preaching again!

It has been a while since I updated you on the progress of the preaching project that should engage me for the next five years, since the Lilly Foundation awarded my seminary funding in order to develop my preaching ideas.  Looking back, I recall initial exhilaration at this opportunity to work the very time that being made an Emeritus Prof supposedly ushered in a quieter life.  My broken leg sabotaged its beginning (1 year ago) and since then progress has been in fits-and-starts.
However, I am off shortly to gear up various meetings culminating in the launch Forum on October  24th.

This preparation work explains laggardly posting (and also the odd unedited first appearance of this one!)  The more I look at the book that I am trying to write and the accompanying workbook the more I realize how much this new preaching project will stretch me and the participants.  At the beginning of the forum I am preaching on Isaiah 43: 19:  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? It's a humbling text because God stresses that he is doing the new thing and asks are we discerning it.  The back-story warns that we can so often power ahead doing things for him while entirely missing what he wanted us to do.  Discernment in waiting prayer precedes God's new things. I know we have not prayed enough so my obvious concern is that this new project might miss what God truly intends.  So, continuing humble discernment in order to join in with him remains the priority.

Frequently, I receive reminders of elements within the project - especially the need for a true understanding of worship in light of Rom 12: 1,2.  Just last week an older musician friend of mine wrote:

BUT I can’t get used to the music teams, when they have  their 2 or 3 songs in the middle, calling it “The worship time” and these are “worship songs”…what, I ask myself is the rest of the service then? Surely it is all worship –even bringing our money to offer, readings,etc. IT’s ALL WORSHIP. In truth I feel generations away from these young Christians, and, of course, I am. But we are still all One in Christ Jesus.

I look forward to letting you know how these next weeks progress!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Stranger at the door

Following my last post someone emailed me a warning about the dangers of letting just anyone in your home. They mentioned the movie 'Paper Moon' about the father and daughter con artists! It's true - you never quite know about people.

Recently, there was a ring on doorbell.  An older man stood there who I didn't recognize.  Fixing me intently he asked: 'What were you doing on January 29th 1966?'  No preamble.  No clues. I have faced some strange questions in the past but this abruptness was startling and disturbing.  Was the past catching up with me?  What on earth did this date mean?  As I admitted I did not have a clue about my whereabouts nearly 50 years ago, he smiled and said it was the day that the new Baptist Church building at Arbury Road, Cambridge was opened.  My father had been pastor and I was a twenty-year old sharing in the event. He had been present at the opening too and now that the anniversary was coming round he was asking whether I might preach at a special service to give thanks 50 years on.

He came in and sat down, producing photocopies of the original service sheet with my father's name on it.  Memories came flooding back of this important event in my father's ministry and the many answers to prayer that came to fruition that day.  Apparently, they are inviting anybody who was around at that time (!)  So this proved to be a welcome stranger who, the longer I was with him, the more I sort of remembered him!   Of course, I said 'yes' to celebrating memories and the ongoing story on the last Sunday of January 2016 - another privilege of older age!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Unlocking memories

Carol and I were sitting in our front room when Carol noticed a man and his young daughter staring up at our house.  He was pointing, walking to one side, pointing again, crossing the road opposite and pointing again, all the time talking animatedly.   Could a bird of prey have landed on our roof?   One of our solar panels become detached?   Or a small fire have started upstairs?

Carol threw open the front door and asked the man if she could help: 'We noticed you outside and wonder what it going on?'   To our surprise his face lit up with obvious joy. ' Oh,' he said excitedly, 'I am just showing my daughter where I used to live when I was seven years old.  I have so many memories - of me sitting on a toy truck outside the front here,  of my brother and me playing here.'  When Carol invited him and his daughter (around 10 years old) inside he was in ecstasy. 'Can we really come in.  Oh, gosh!  This is just wonderful  How sweet of you!'

Then began a whirlwind tour down memory lane.  At every point, upstairs and downstairs, he had memories which tumbled out as a torrent.  He described where his Mum and Dad slept and spent a time marveling where he and his brother had beds side by side.  On the landing there used to be a cupboard with the hot water tank. 'It's gone' he said. 'That's where we used to put our towels to warm them up and sometimes our pajamas when it was really cold.'  At every window he paused with memories about how he had once looked through the same space. 'Oh, to think that you have let me in so that I could share all this with my daughter' he said (several times!)  He now lives abroad and was flying home the next day but he told us being let into No. 14 Brierley Walk was the highlight of his visit.

Reflecting on his enthusiasm Carol remarked how happy all his memories seemed to be and how good it is to live in a house where previous families had good times.   Remembering good times is a very good exercise indeed.  Scripture is packed full with commands to remember the stories of our past.  It's good to be enthusiastic about good memories, isn't it?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A crafted surprise

Carol and I have just returned from holidaying in Somerset where we spent a week staying in the same block of flats as our London family.   Our separate flat gave us some breathing space from our three grandchildren (let readers perceive between the lines!) Times spent together proved energetic and eventful.  Hopefully they will remember happily sharing in a Civil War re-enactment with cannons and rifles, finding ammonites on a fossil beach, as well as slurping ice creams and cream teas.  Yes, some days it rained but it didn't stop them from swimming in the (cold, cold) sea!   For us, as grandparents it proved another wonderful occasion for getting to know the next generation.

When they arrived in the car-park outside the apartments we helped them unload multiple bags of clothes and provisions.  Then Anton (aged 10, soon to be 11!) announced that he had something for me.  Something he had thought up and created himself.  He then presented me with a black paper cross on which he had very neatly pasted a sequence of brightly colored patches of tissue.  The result was striking.  He had remembered going into my prayer shed some time ago and seeing on the wall above my kneeler in my prayer corner an icon, a crown of thorns and one or two crosses (including a delicate wooden one from Jerusalem).  He had asked about them and I said that they helped remind me of Jesus' love for me when I knelt to pray.  He had stored this in his mind and determined to surprise me with his personal gift.  I really treasure his thoughtfulness for several reasons....and I think you can probably guess why!  What an addition in my prayer corner!