Monday, December 15, 2014

Visit to a village church

Yesterday, we shared in the service of Framlingham Baptist Community church which meets in a local school refectory. There is no current minister so it was led by various members.  A music group accompanied the powerpoint screen songs. The informality was obvious from the outset as we sat around tables with tea and coffee (which cooled off during the first group of songs!)  After several members of the congregation gave spontaneous prayers of thanks, the main leader (an architect) led a time of reflection in which he went round many members of the group (there were about fifty of us) and gave thanks by name for every story of blessing present.   It was amazingly personal yet sensitive with concern for confidentiality. Communion in the middle of the service was preceded by a catechism where the whole congregation answered a number of questions about the meaning of the Lord's Supper.  The Advent sermon which followed proved to be highly imaginative with video and visuals.

As we came away, Carol and I commented on the extraordinary level of friendship and welcome that this village church had given us visitors.  Perhaps being seated around tables with coffee at the outset encouraged such warmth.  But what struck me most was the high quality of participation.  I estimate that nearly half the congregation was involved either in leading or through prayers or stories during the service.  I know that humans cannot discern levels of 'worship in spirit and in truth' (John 4:24) but here was a congregation that seemed to really belong together on God's mission.  In honesty, meeting around tables with coffee is not how I prefer to begin worship.  But, at times, it's good to have my preferences and prejudices rebuked!  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writing Bible Study Notes

Way back, thirty years ago, I used to write bible study notes, sometimes daily for IBRA, Scripture Union and sometimes weekly with a column in the Baptist Times. Such studies are helpful for disciplining daily study, though much depends on finding the right match.  As John Owen commented: 'In the divine Scriptures there are shallows and deeps; shallows where the lamb may wade, and deeps where the elephant may swim.'  Sometimes I have felt mismatched like a sheep in the deeps.

At the moment I am trying to finish a series on Ephesians for the Scripture Union series called Encounter with God that wants to inspire by theological depth and pastoral warmth.  It's quite a challenge.

However, a bizarre thing occurred. It just so happens that one of my Baptist Times series was on Ephesians. It ran for 36 weeks from June 14 1984 until April 4 1885. How on earth do I remember those dates?  Well, as I was thinking about all the hard work I had once put into this weekly column I wondered what had become of it.  In one of our bookcases there was a plastic basket of artists' materials.  I cannot remember looking at it since moving into our Cambridge house (or long before then).  I haven't a clue why I rather idly removed the top box of oil crayons three weeks ago.  But to my utter astonishment, a bundle of yellowing newspaper columns jumped out. Attached to them was a letter from a lady who had faithfully cut them all out and sent them on to me.  Everything else in the basket was art materials.

I  read the studies recollecting vaguely my work ! Each is 600 words in length and, as you can guess with 36 columns, I was able to deal with the whole book verse by verse (with illustrations too).  However, Encounter asks me to do a very different task.  I only have twelve studies with around 300 words each. And, what really makes it demanding is the requirement to focus on a key theological theme in each block of text. In fact, instructions to writers insists that they do not write commentaries!   So, I am encouraged to do a new thing...and what is glorious and the continuing gift of inspired Scripture is seeing truths with fresh eyes and deeper experience. I want to complete the task by it's plenty of wading/swimming to go. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving in England

Having celebrated Thanksgiving in the USA for the last fourteen years, Carol decided to carry on the tradition yesterday with (as you might imagine!) great verve.  In the past, we have so enjoyed this day filled with spirit of thankfulness. The table was set early with requisite table decorations and food was organized including turkey, mash potatoes, fruit salad, salad, green beans, pies etc. etc. From the outset Carol bounced with thankfulness. Early, she called one friend who is suffering from serious cancer to surprise him with thanks for all his friendship and help through our lives. Other thankful phone calls followed. She invited our 91year old neighbor in for coffee and mince pies and promised she would take over a spare meal later that evening.

Monster preparations continued through the day because our three friends were at work until late, so our thanksgiving meal could not begin until 7:30 pm. But when they all arrived, they were inducted carefully.  Carol read the full story of the first thanksgiving (aimed for children!) and each of us shared particular thanks during the past twelve months.  As we have always found, such sharing led us to profound places of reflection.  None of them had been to a thanksgiving meal before and as they left around 11:20 pm to face a full days' work today, they told us how much they appreciated every aspect - especially the food and the story.  'I never knew what lay behind the US thanksgiving celebration' said one. 

All this combined with happy thanksgiving messages flowing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic from US family and friends throughout the day.  It was something of an experiment and I am glad that Carol made all that effort.  Pausing to give thanks is really worthwhile!

Friday, November 21, 2014

NKP - Hallelujah news!

It was way back on August 31st that I posted news that a proposal was being submitted to the Lilly Grant Foundation in the USA from Northern Seminary bearing the initials NKP.  These stand for 'A New Kind of Preacher'.  A programme focusing less on the processes of preaching than the person of the preacher, especially in relationship to the worshipping community.  By forums, peer learning groups and new resources NKP proposed to open up the lives of preachers in the Metro-Chicago area to fresh opportunities of collaboration. 

Well, as you can guess from the heading....we heard today that the proposal has been accepted and the grant awarded!   Wonderful! The newly-appointed administrator (appointed in faith!) sent me a sound presentation - to an accompanying drum roll the slide show announced this good news.  It's for a five year programme which must become self-sustaining by its conclusion. Like all new ideas it will involve considerable hard work to bring it to birth. It's a truism in leadership that it's not the beginning enthusiasm that counts but sustaining momentum to the desired outcome. Remember the warning about building a tower and not being able to finish it (Luke 13: 28-30)?  But, as you can guess, I am really eager to give it my best as I work on through my quasi-retirement.  It's a wonderful opportunity to flesh out ideas from my last book in one of the most diverse church settings in the world.  Yes, I'm excited and grateful. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Walking on papier mache!

I remember as a child making papier mache models with newspaper and paste.  When they dried hard they could be painted and appear remarkably solid.  This analogy came to mind this week as I have passed another milestone in my recovery from foot surgery.  The physiotherapist pronounced himself very pleased with my progress and announced I could now walk without crutches. Actually, this announcement was made dramatically. As he met us in the patients' waiting area to summons us into the treatment area, I reached for my crutches (as I have done for ten weeks!) ' Oh', he said, 'you don't need those any more.  Try walking without them.' With that, my crutches disappeared and I found myself standing unaided.

This is where papier mache comes to mind. My right leg looks solid but using it for the first time it felt unconvincing as the real thing - more a newspaper paste substitute.   I went through a series of exercises with him which involved, among other things, standing one-footed on my damaged leg with my eyes closed, and also balancing on a rubber hemisphere.  In spite of wobbles, he judged me fine to walk away and he discharged me.  What?!

In the few days since I have entered a brave new world of walking with a highly suspect leg.  Weirdness and pain are likely to be around for some time as I learn to walk unsupported. Friends have spoken about faith needed to start this trek - one man told me he had so lost confidence he just couldn't walk at the beginning.  Certainly, my leg has to much more to do to convince me. But, as you can imagine, this turn of events has Carol and me rejoicing. Thanks for following these bulletins...hopefully there will not be many more!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

50 years' on

Today I wandered down memory lane as Jesus College Cambridge brought together students who matriculated in 1964 for a celebration lunch.  On arrival we were given a name tag and copy of the college photograph from 50 years ago. I was startled to see my youthful self on the second row, peering through glasses with my hair standing upright.  Scanning my peers in the photo I remembered a surprising number but wondered who they might be amongst the crowd of grey-haired men in front of me.

We moved to set places for a sumptuous meal (eel, duck, etc. etc.)   To my joy I found myself placed between the two other geographers in our year.  I had recognized both of them in the photo and fifty years on they had weathered well.  One was a top sportsman gaining blues for cricket and football who continued into top head teacher roles. The other became head of geography in another significant school.  The banter we shared surprised me by our depth of recollections about each other. We shared about our journeys since with a quality of interest sharpened in some mysterious way because we belonged together 1964-7.

The passing years are marked by some sadness.  Several of our friends have died and the next reunion planned for 2024 is some way off! But the predominant mood was one of thanksgiving for the opportunities we have been given and lives lived so far. To be able to look back with thanksgiving is a real gift and today I received a surprising present.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Teacher encouragements

Over the last two months of enforced inactivity, some great encouragements have come from former students.  I asked Eric if I could share his story.  He is an associate pastor in a mega church with responsibility for leading worship in a satellite contemporary service which is fed a livecast (video) sermon from the main sanctuary elsewhere. (Yes, there's a debate there!) Eric assumed it would work as usual, but on this occasion there was a picture with no sound. He found himself in an uncomfortable position. Let him describe it:   
I find 400 squirrely people not knowing what to do and some are starting to leave.  I pop up on stage and break the ice by stating the obvious and bringing  a little chuckle to the room.  I ask the congregation to discuss a question (pertaining to the topic of the morning) and promise to report back with the plan for what we will do for the remainder of service.  I make my way to the staff and tech team who are running in circles.  I say, “Hey!  I have a Bible and I’m sure it says to preach the Word.  I’m going to go share/preach something.”  This calms the staff and as I walk up to stage I literally think, “Lord, I have forsaken the preaching swim and jumped into the deep end of the pool.  You have to give me a message!” 
The Lord was faithful and planted a message in my mind from Colossians 3.  Through the experience I was reminded how important it is to remain in the Word (so you have something to say when called upon), to shepherd your flock, and remember that God works in his church in amazing ways.  For the first time in quite a while, I felt as if we were being the church—which took the chaos of the moment to provide this gift.
Eric kindly thanked me for teaching him about the 'preaching swim' and also about depending on God in deep water! Oh how stories like this gladden my heart.  Any other former students out there...please keep in touch.