Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What does the New Year hold?

The new calendar holds many blank pages.  I have hopes for several projects (and, actually, I shall want your help on a couple of them!)  However, this past year of cancer checks and a broken foot has rammed home the truth, so often neglected, that as finite human beings we just do not know what lies ahead, do we?   Yes, we make plans, and we need to, yet the big road trip is dependent on many factors outside our control but not God's.

I have chosen this prayer of Thomas Merton for the preface of a workbook I am writing to encourage preachers to join the Chicago NKP initiative (see earlier postings).   I like its humility and openness and I think it works quite well for beginning 2015.

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end
Nor do I really know myself
and the fact that I think I am following
your will does not mean
that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that my desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.
I hope I will never do anything
apart from that desire
And I know that if I do this
you will lead me by the right road.
In the many uncertainties ahead may we seek to do what God desires in 2015.  All good wishes for a fulfilling year ahead!



Friday, December 26, 2014

Boxing Day Preaching Surprise

On this day after Christmas, facing the first of the turkey leftovers and too many opened boxes of half-eaten goodies, it is traditional in England to rest and enjoy the holiday.  Go for a walk certainly, but mostly put up your feet!

So, I could not believe my eyes when relaxing with my i newspaper that I learned that Pope Francis has turned attention on priests who bore - or even repel- the flock with turgid sermons.  He has approved a nine point guide to better preaching.  Priests should include in their New Year resolutions a commitment to ensure that sermons are no longer 'autoreverential, purely moralistic or indoctrinating. The homily should not be a light entertainment show but should nonetheless avoid sounding like a conference or a lesson.  The priest should appear like a mother talking to her child with sermons grounded in Scripture.

The Italian press has approved of this message, with one paper declaring 'very often today, priests don't put much thought into their homilies - and that's why many churches are empty.' 
The last thing I expected today was a papal challenge about the need to renew contemporary preaching.  But I applaud loudly and feel that one of my New Year resolutions - to give my best to the 'New Kind of Preaching' initiative - is bang on target!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Responses please

To my horror I have realized (very late) that my Yahoo account has been sending out my messages but likes to delete any responses you make!  I have wondered several times recently whether friends ever received my email. My 'Sent File' shows it was definitely sent.  But, to my great embarrassment I have discovered that friends' replies had been wiped out of existence, even while their systems assured them it had arrived.  This explains much of my recent administrative confusion!   Should you be one of the unfortunates who is still awaiting my reply to your reply please try again on:

However, this miscommunication chimed with a seasonal thought.  That the greatest message the world has ever heard that God so loved that he sent his only Son is intended for responses from everyone.  And those responses will always be heard.  As I prepare for yet another set of Christmas services I want to be sure there is no over-familiarity, no jading and fading, no miscommunication!  Rather, an authentic 2014 response.  I am always helped by others' prayers.  This year I am praying a challenging prayer from Alan Gaunt.

Lord Jesus Christ be born in us again,
live in us for the sake of other people.
Let your coming be glorious in us so that its light
may go on increasing and increasing,
filling the world,
till joy bursts like balloons and bangs like crackers,
full of great gifts:
love, truth, peace, health, singing and delight,
rushing through this world,
through every world, through the universe,
brighter than a billion suns.
From your cradle to your Cross,
through your Resurrection, take us with you,
this year, every year:
till we come with you and all creation
to the full glory of God and praise you with him
in the Holy Spirit for ever.   AMEN.

A VERY HAPPYLIGHT-INCREASING,  JOY-BURSTING CHRISTMAS from Carol and me to all my faithful readers.

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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Get well wishes

After nearly 8 weeks of parading my get well cards in the lounge, Carol has called time!  And perhaps as well because they somewhat dominated our living room.  But, as I look now at the pile in my hand, I must express my gratitude to all who sent them.  It takes considerable effort to find a get well card, especially if choosing with a particular person in mind, and then to write a personal message in it and mail it.  I loved my email messages but you cannot handle them in the same way!
Because I was locked down, drugged and immobile, I spent considerable time valuing each and every card. Some showed beautiful scenes. I happen to love trees and landscapes and several drew my eye into glorious countryside and seascape. I especially loved the ones showing a path through woods with sunshine in the distance. Several were humorous and one unintentionally so. Sent from the deaconesses at  First Baptist Church, Wheaton in Illinois it quoted Ps 84:5: Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee. However, the picture showed a stout pair of walking boots, a map, compass and rucksack. For a man wobbling on crutches it seemed somewhat pointed!

Several had Scripture verses that I had time to ponder: Jas. 4:8, 2 Cor. 12:9, Ps 105:5, Ps 115:15, Ps 130:5, Ps.25, Lam. 3:22-23.  Most had personal notes, sometimes even a letter, all of which I read with the greatest of care. My family sent me home-made cards with pertinent illustrations. Elliot drew a hospital trolley!  Some surprised me, like a card signed by all the members of the table-tennis group.  Actually, many surprised me because of the kindness and effort shown.

I think you can tell what these cards have meant to me!  Thank you for so brightening these past weeks.

Friday, October 24, 2014

At last - a surprise breakthrough!

Thank you to my long-suffering friends who have digested these medical bulletins. Hopefully, I am turning the corner. And you can skip this bulletin anyway!

7 weeks after surgery, my hospital visit this week involved another set of Xrays, followed by a consultation with my surgeon.  To our delight (oh, yeah!) he announced my bones were healing appropriately and I was even given a photocopy of the metalwork, resembling an inverted Eiffel Tower.  Cautiously, he advised me to keep my boot/cast on and begin weight-bearing by increments of a quarter of my weight each week over the next month. I was left more than a little puzzled by how to  calculate all this, and (honestly) some disappointment that I would inevitably have a hop-along gait for several more weeks.

Then I was whisked off to the Physiotherapy dept.  Conner (a lively Irish lad) who has overseen my exercises immediately tested my progress.  You know how that happens! Pressing hard (yes really hard) against my foot he measured my resistance in different directions.   He expressed pleasure at my improvement. (I must admit I have practiced my exercises relentlessly in order to impress him!)  But guess what!  He announced I could renounce my boot/cast for ever and begin to walk normally, with the help of crutches.  There and then, with him at my side, I walked the length of the room (though with a touch of bladerunner along the bottom of my right foot).

I need to be careful because walking 'normally' without crutches is still a considerable way off (and driving etc). But what liberation!  And what wonderful timing too.  For the next day I had to address a Thanksgiving Service for a friend whom I was proud to know,  David Ridgeon MBE,  whose stature in Cambridge and beyond brought over 600 to the service in my old church at St. A's.   To reduce all the drama of getting a wheelchair onto the platform etc. to a simple shuffle on crutches was a real answer to prayer.  Well, like the whole process has been!  So, I'm on the way.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Listening with Grampy

Last week I was left in charge of my two older grandchildren while the others went shopping.  Anton, who is just 10 years old told me that his birthday gift was a stereo system and that before he goes to sleep he loves to listen to classical music.  What?  Currently there is an schools' initiative to encourage children to listen to classical music, but his (apparently independent) commitment startled and thrilled me.  I also love to listen to classical music on my personal CD player when my head hits the pillow  So entranced was I by the thought of Anton's new enthusiasm that I made a daring decision.

For six weeks I have not ventured down the garden to my shed/sanctuary.  Wobbling on crutches over grass has not seemed a good idea.  But with the help of Luca and Anton, with well positioned chairs for me to overcome steps at either end, I ventured forth.  The shed was in need of airing, but we all sat down as I reached for an LP to play on my stereo.  Both sets of eyes opened wide. What was I doing.  Vinyl revolved, the stylus lowered, followed by a slight crackling from the speakers.  'Look,' said Luca, 'it's gradually moving towards the middle.'  They had both declared that they like Elgar (good choice!)  So I had put on his Symphony No. 1 which is one of the best English symphonies of all time.  It begins softly with a solemn drum beat.  Suddenly, a wonderful tune bursts out.  I confess I had set the volume high! Their faces were entranced.  Yes, really! Anton stood up and started conducting the orchestra, arms wide open to the majestic sound.  'This is wonderful, Grampy',  they said.   The telephone rang shortly afterward and interrupted the concert, but not too soon to rob me of an unforgettable moment bonding with my grandchildren. We need to seize and treasure such moments, don't we?

Monday, October 13, 2014

25,277 and counting!

A friend sent an email today which contains a calculator to help work out how many days we have been alive.  You submit your birth date and instantly the number appears together with the day on which you were born, for me a Monday, as well as other details like the number of weeks lived so far.  Again, for me 3611.

It really is an eye opener!  That over 25,000 times I have woken up with a clean sheet of life to be lived.  Some of these days have passed very rapidly;  others drag (and I've had a few of those these last weeks!)  As I think about that number and marvel at how many days have already passed I realize how I should treat this statistic as I look ahead.
  • To regard each day as a gift to keep me grounded with thankfulness to my Creator. 
  • To see each day as opportunity to grow wiser, building on lessons and experiences from the past.
  • To treat each day as valuable because I never know how many more there might be. There is a limit!
When the psalmist wrote: Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90 12) it was set in a context of living every day wisely, even though they quickly pass. Their total length may be seventy years, or eighty if you have the strength, says the psalmist.  But what really matters is that we slow down and recognize that each one counts as gift, opportunity and so valuable!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Hope, fed-upness and hope

Looking at yesterday's posting I realize I could easily come across as someone who has risen gracefully above disappointment, and that Hope has utterly vanquished any frustration I might feel. That I am a poster boy for spiritual serenity!

I just need to put the record straight. I do believe in the bigger picture of God's hope with all the purpose that brings to the life of faith.   But I have also been downright fed-up.  Yes, honestly, the combination of continuous dull pain, strong drugs, confinement to chair and crutches, inability to access my study for nearly six weeks, has made me really really fed-up.  And the unanswerable question about why this stupid accident had to happen sorely circles around  - especially in the early morning hours. 

So my experience of the progression of suffering - perseverance -character - hope is not a straight forward, shining journey.  It continues to be a choppy one with ugly doses of fed-upness!  I think that is probably how the development of continuous perseverance works to deepen character through bouts of fed-upness that are not allowed the last word.

Wonderfully, today, just as I needed to put the record right about my fed-upness Carol heard from her consultant that her colonoscopy yesterday proved to be clear of cancerous polyps.  And that good news has made such a difference to my own journey of hope.  Oh yes!  Thank you, Lord.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cancellation and Disappointment

Today we had planned to stay at Heathrow Airport overnight before flying out to Chicago tomorrow.  Everything was organized with an action-packed month ahead full of good things.  The Evangelical Homiletics Society annual meeting Oct 9-11,  sessions working on the Lilly preaching initiative, lectures at Moody Oct 30, 31 were to be interspersed with events on a wild social calendar.   Carol, the social secretary, had booked up nearly every day in order for us to catch up with friends - mostly eating together!   You can imagine the fun we had planning it all.

The reality hit hard this week as we realized how far short we have fallen of fulfilling these grand hopes.  I still have more than two weeks in my wheelchair (with heavy painkillers) until my next X rays which (hopefully) will allow me to start the next phase of recovery of bearing weight on my damaged foot.  And, compounding the dour mood, today Carol has to undergo a rerun of the colonoscopy in hospital after a failed procedure last month.

Perhaps inevitably, we have reflected on how disappointing this turn (actually twist) of events has been.  Yet, we also acknowledge that coping with disappointment positively is a vital lesson of growing up.  Remember how utterly crushed we were by disappointments in childhood?  Oh, the gross unfairness and the railing against the world that would never be the same again!  I can still remember some of those times.  But we also recognize that we can develop the positive progression that Paul outlines in Rom. 5: 3-5.  'suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us'.   It's true - such hope does not disappoint us. God's hope always looks beyond, putting troubles we face along the way into kingdom perspective.  Roll on, God's solid future!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The carer

Over the last four weeks I have indulged in some personal reflections following my freak accident. Early on I rightly commended the nursing care I received in hospital and gave thanks for the patience and tenderness of care I received.  But I really need to make special mention (and this is not just because she may likely read this post herself) of Carol, who has suddenly become my arms and legs...and much much more. 

I have lost count of the times that Carol has come to my aid, night and day, as she had prepared meals, changed and washed clothes, coped with going up and down the stairs with food and drinks, positioned crutches and wheel chair for expeditions to hospital and doctors' visits, answered the phone, organized medicines, cancelled flights and plans, and been an omnipresent source of strength and encouragement. Those who know her will not be surprised that she has somehow also found energy to give meals to visiting friends on several occasions.

Some moments have pushed the envelope.   A few days ago I woke at 5:45 am and reached for the glass of water by my bed in order to take the next round of drugs.  Clumsily, and very noisily, I knocked the glass over and anointed everything on my bedside table (and underneath).  As Carol shot awake and clambered out of bed to remedy the situation I was reminded of our marriage vows.  When I was asked to repeat after the minister the words 'for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health' Carol gave a running commentary under her breath (which only I heard)!  'For worse... for poorer.. in sickness'.  She was smiling as she said it  - at least in my memory she was!  I confess that over 46 years I have given her more than my fair share of grief yet every time she has come up trumps.  Truly, I thank God for her love, grace and humour - we have at least four more weeks ahead with me on crutches and I pray my spectacular carer will keep on going.   

Friday, September 26, 2014

Keeping balance

I have found out just how useful a second leg is!  It will be no surprise to those who have attempted to master crutches just how complicated every move becomes when you cannot put weight on your right foot.  I was given a hospital leaflet briefly explaining the process. Its two diagrams showed an athletic man swinging forward on crutches.  However, this totally (and I stress totally) failed to prepare me for the high tension wobbles that threatened to wreck my very move when I tried. Indeed, I failed to leave hospital on the planned day because my physiotherapist was so dismayed by my lack of balance. I still fail to impress.

However, on a later visit a physiotherapist told me that the trick for moving around corners is to imagine I am negotiating around a large 50 pence piece (sorry there is no six-sided US equivalent!) Each tiny shift around its sides requires many segments of immense concentration and effort. I am retraining myself to see the hazards lurking in the simplest of moves and to employ the 50 pence strategy.

It will get better and I am sure the stress on my arms and shoulders will build up muscle (eventually).  But a curious thing happened as I looked out of the window while typing this.  I found myself marveling about the people I could see walking, cycling and even jogging down our road. Truly marveling.  Every one of them seems to stay upright without any trouble, without apparently giving any thought to the balance required.  I smiled to myself at the absurdity of projecting my wobbles onto ordinary everyday walking. But, we do take so much for granted don't we, and I shall need to remember this when I have the use of my right foot again. Oh, the lessons I am learning!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Wheelchair compassion

My brother called me recently.  His wife has been unwell for some time and needs a wheelchair whenever she leaves the house.  As I shared my news that I had joined the ranks of wheelchair users, he described his amazement at the level of compassion people showed whenever he wheels her out.  'It surprises me, how genuinely caring and sorry people seem to be.' he said. 'I'm sure you will find that too!'

Three days ago I had my first outing around the block where we live.  As soon as we left the front door our neighbours came out to greet us and it was true - there was sadness in their eyes.  Indeed, the man almost seemed to well up.  As they said how sorry they were and how they hoped the healing would improve they really seemed to mean it.

The next day we were more adventurous and went to a major store, with a Subway next door.  As I was parked at a table by Carol, trying to protect my right leg which inconveniently lies horizontal, I found myself next to two ladies. "Oh, love,' said one, ' whatever's happened to you?'  As Carol was buying our rolls (it took 15 minutes!) I found myself drawn into their counselling as they expressed their sorrow and told me how patient I should be (and what herbal drugs I should take!)  True, in the big store there was less kindness in all the busyness but even there a store manager went with us to the car pushing our shopping cart for us because she said that I looked rather tired (and I was)!

At times it seems that compassion is in very short supply in our world but how wonderful it is to report from my own little experience (so far) compassion is alive and well, and adding a glow to the pain and awkwardness of disability.  Thank you, all you compassionate people out there.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

'God is cunning...'

I have now been out of hospital for over a week.  Implications of my injury are beginning to sink in.  One doctor told me I suffer from one of the worst bone breakages!  It will take 10-12 weeks for bones and tissue to heal around plate, screws and pins, but up to another 9 months for me to be able to walk 'normally'.  So, my visit to the US has been cancelled as have many other plans!

My life follows the oddest of routines around taking pills, flopping on the bed, attempting physio exercises,  interspersed by brief intervals wobbling on crutches and balancing on my bottom up and down stairs.  Pain continues undiminished though, of course, I remain incredible stoical as does Carol so suddenly thrust into a carer's role.

Several visitors have come and brought sunshine.  On Tuesday, Dave (God's greatest taxi driver) whose Christian story has cropped up several times in the past twenty years of ministry - always eventfully - came to ask me about taking part in his baby's thanksgiving service.  Before setting off on his day's taxi work he sat on his sofa and prayed: 'Lord, please use me today!'   Arriving at my house he realized I did not have a wheelchair nor a stool for the shower.  Immediately, he said he would drive across the city to the Red Cross centre and collect them for me.  While at the centre, another couple called him and (would you believe it) they needed a wheelchair and stool too.  So, he bundled all this equipment in his taxi, drove first to this other couple who couldn't believe his speedy service, and then came on to me.

The equipment has revolutionized my life.  I needed the chair for visiting the hospital physio that same afternoon and the stool enabled me to have my first shower for two weeks (to the relief of all visitors!)   As Dave had a bowl of soup with us, he told me about how he had prayed to be used that morning but how he had no idea that this would involve him so directly with my needs in this way.  'You see, you never know when you pray like that what God will do..  God is cunning and he works out ways to use you!'  I think we would normally choose words like wise and caring....but I truly thank God and Dave for working together so practically for me.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Freakish Week (4) Prayers in the mix

In all the camaraderie and positive spirits there was only one very visible flicker of spiritual life - one young Muslim man followed through his prayer rituals, often able to leave the ward for prayers in the hospital chapel but occasionally praying in bed accompanied by chanting on his ipad.

I say only one flicker but, of course, I hope there were several others!  On my first morning a friend, who also serves on the chaplaincy team came to visit. I was already behind curtains but his powerful prayer was certainly heard by surrounding men.  He was followed within minutes by another chaplain; then by a deacon from the church and later by my own pastor, whose strong voice committed me to the healing power of Jesus Christ.   I am sure some of this ministry would have been witnessed by those around.

Anyone who knows weakness and pain values kind words of friends, but when they pray for you they open up a tangible dimension of God's grace and love. I admit that I found praying by myself difficult but what a help these praying friends were not only in focusing prayer on me, but bringing signs of spiritual life into our ward.

I know many others were joining in prayer at a distance too.  What difference did all these prayers make?   I shall never know the full reach as Carol and I were given peace and strength but I particularly marvel about the operation itself.  The surgeon warned me that the swelling was so severe that I would likely undergo two operations: the first would pin the bones in position using an external frame in order for the swelling to reduce for a second op. some 8-10 days later. Even on the morning of the op. he thought it unlikely that he would be able to do more than the first holding surgery.  I was given an epidural (which allowed me two hours of live experience!) so I stayed awake for the drilling and screwing.   Afterwards, with obvious delight (and some surprise) he announced he had skipped the need for the first op and completed the whole process in spite of some swollen tissue.  I have no doubts that this was an answer to prayer.

Since, I have seen an Xray of the plate, 12 horizontal screws and two vertical pins holding my ankle together.  I congratulated the surgeon who has brought my messed up bones within half a millimeter of their prior state.  And I praise the Lord who has really been healing through it all.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Freakish Week (3) Experiencing camaradarie

Around me, as I lay in bed, were men of very different ages, backgrounds and personalities. Thrown together at the most basic level there were few secrets between us.  The most personal details were discussed behind flimsy curtains.

Next to me was a born extrovert in his mid-fifties who had suffered an horrendous accident some days before.  Though unable to walk, he commandeered a commode on wheels which he learned to propel (remarkably fast) by his one undamaged big toe;  passing by each bed he had personal words for each man.  It was remarkable not only how positive and encouraging he was with such apposite words but also how well everyone responded, especially the quieter men who seemed grateful to be recognized and included.  He explained to me his philosophy meant that you had to make the very best of what you are given.  'You must move on' he said.

Next to him in the opposite corner an elderly man with knee surgery was having immense trouble coping. With failing appetite and limited ability to respond to nursing care he seemed to sleep a great deal.  Our extrovert took pains to encourage him at every turn.  Applauding every tiny step, calling the nurse (several times) in the night, and sharing his positive spirit with contagious companionship made all the difference to this man who turned out to have great humour.

It was extraordinary to witness how this group of men who had nothing in common before they were thrown together into pain developed bonding with such strong mutual support. In my six days I heard few moans, witnessed considerable bravery and stoicism with such brightness of spirit. Every time someone faced a procedure they were wheeled out of the ward to the sound of good wishes and greeted with concern as they returned.  I know it would have been different without that extrovert and his power of positive thinking. Of course, one challenge I faced from this is to ask what positive influence I would have shown in his absence!   Isn't there a word about being salt and light?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Freakish Week (2) Nursing care

On Ward C8 I seemed to be the only one who had to remain immobile.  Physiotherapists worked busily to keep others active.  Two men had been smashed up by motor-cycle accidents, another as a pedestrian in a car accident.  Others were recovering from hip and knee replacements.  Exercises, practice lessons with crutches and zimmer frames were going on all around me.

In contrast I lay in total stillness, commanded to lie motionless and utterly dependent on nursing care.  Many of my readers will know what utter dependence means!  It was strange that within seconds of a nurse bending over your bed you knew how kind and caring she or he was. Early on, one nurse who called me 'My lovely' (!) expressed kindness tangibly in everything she did.  I hoped that she would be the one to answer if I pressed the buzzer!   After 24 hours she was the one who brought the bowl of warm water and began to wash me so gently and respectfully.  My back which had been pinned down ever since the accident was lifted and as she bathed it I felt incredibly grateful.  Really, it was a ministry moment of bliss!

To differing degrees all the nurses expressed care and concern.  Not one person seemed unmotivated to care in spite of huge pressures from patient needs, constantly demanding buzzers and (especially at night) staff shortages. I thought of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5 22-23) and how many of these qualities express just such high quality caring: love, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.  The Christian's motivation is of the highest order - belonging to Christ and living by the Spirit.  I couldn't help thinking how challenging it is to apply that sentence to believers: 'not one person seemed unmotivated to care in spite of huge pressures'.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Freakish Week (1) If only....

Routinely, every 3 months since 1988, I have visited hospital for botox injections to keep my neurological disease in check. Last Tuesday, my latest shots seemed to go routinely.  I had planned out the rest of the day which included visiting a gravely ill friend - I wore my best trousers!  Suddenly, during the last injection a wave of nausea hit me.  Who knows why.  Unconcerned,  I stood and went to the window to take deep breaths. My consultant thought it would be good for me to lie down but I was sure it would quickly pass.  Then, for the first time in my life I fainted.  Alas, as I fell heavily, my right ankle caught in a medical cart and snapped at right angles.  I thought I could see bones sticking through. It certainly felt like that.

Rushed down into A and E it was confirmed that I had broken several bones and would need an immediate binding up in plaster. As they cut my trousers Carol, who by then had been brought by kind friends to the hospital,  commented 'If only you had worn jeans today!' X rays confirmed complex breakages which require plates, screws and pins.   However, until the extensive swelling subsided no further action could be taken.  My bed, to which I had been rooted for 10 hours was wheeled up to the trauma unit C8 where I slid into a 12 bedded male ward, full of suffering. 

'If only' is, of course,  is a tempting response.  'If only I had not stood up, if only the medical cart had not been there, if only I had a clue about what fainting means......'  One of the growth points (of many I need to learn these next days) is to realize: first, nothing should ever be treated casually as just routine.  Life is fragile and each day we should be thankful for the gift of life and alert.  Second, when things go wrong, don't burn up with recriminations which will only stoke up frustration, but accept that the good Lord can work a good purpose through everything that happens to us.  Ps 16 has again been special: 'I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken '(verse 8).   

Sunday, August 31, 2014

NKP proposal - What's that?

This week a proposal is being submitted to the Lilly Grant Foundation in the USA from Northern Seminary.  It bears the initials NKP.   Like many visions it took weeks to take shape.  Indeed, a few weeks ago it had no specific name though large bundles of possible content.

NKP stands for 'A New Kind of Preacher'.  Note, not a new kind of preaching which might suggest a focus on the act of preaching -its technique and design - but on the person of the preacher.

Ever since I wrote Preaching as Worship I have believed passionately that the twenty-first century needs a new kind of preacher.  In the recent past preachers have all too often been lone rangers, who have tended to focus on individuals and operate by delivering 'sermon packages', working with familiar preparation routines in predictable ways, frequently separated from others planning gathered worship.  These ‘sermons in a box’ have often been disconnected from God’s big picture for his church community and his world mission.  Much preaching has often been viewed therefore as a separate free-standing segment of ministry under the preacher’s control.  Sadly, some preachers feel this is a weekly burden by which their total effectiveness is judged.  A recent US survey has revealed widespread disappointment among both preachers and hearers that so much preaching seems to achieve so little.  Unsurprisingly, some preachers can feel defensive and anxious about their preaching.

NKP aims to nuture by forums, peer learning and fresh resources a new kind of preacher who sees this bigger picture and dares to open up their lives to its implications. 

You can imagine my excitement about NKP because it will allow ideas in my last book to be fleshed out on a bigger scale in the metro-Chicago area with preachers of both genders with differing ethnicities, cultures, contexts, and denominations.  Well, after all the conference calls, prayer (oh yes) writing and editing we need to wait and see if the proposal is accepted.   I shall be sure to let you know.  And if it is, it means a busier five years ahead for me!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Classical surprise

As I shared once in a past post, we sometimes play table-tennis and enjoy a cup of tea at a community session held in a local Methodist church.  Over the last two years we have developed several friendships (though with sadly little improvement in table-tennis skills).  This week we played a couple of games to our usual standard (!) and retreated to the kitchen hatch to order our teas and a dairy-free bun.  In front of us a man with a guitar slung round his shoulders was also ordering tea and cake.  Carol, as is her wont, started talking with him and asked him what he played. 'Oh, classical' he answered. 'It would be wonderful if you could play for us!' she cheekily asked. 'OK', he replied, 'where shall I sit?'  'Sit with Michael and me' she invited.

As he unpacked his guitar we learned that his name is Tom and playing the guitar is his profession.  To the amazement of all, but especially us sitting so close, he began playing some Bach, followed by yet more Bach - 'Jesu joy of man's desiring'.  The classical guitar makes such delicate sounds as each plucked string enriches gorgeous harmony.  The beauty held us captive, with neighboring tables joining in. Here was an expert musician so generously sharing his skills with us. I asked him about his repertoire.  He mentioned many of the greats and the joys of transcribing their music for the guitar.  Recently, he said he had grown fond of Chopin.  Then he began to play a piece that I last heard my father play on our family piano decades ago.  So evocative!

Soon he left to play at a concert elsewhere in the village. 'You know so much of this music began in the church', he said. 'It's wonderful to be able to bring it back in'.  Surprises by definition are unexpected. Tom's visit and willingness to give, just like that - expressing the beauty and power of music - stand out as a highlight this week.  Oh, I like surprises like this! 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Odd anecdote (5)

Changing the tone abruptly, my old memory bank has been jogged (uncomfortably) ! My last odd anecdote about knocking the main front lamp in church as I handed back flags to standard bearers has reminded me of my years in the Boys Brigade aged 11 to 16. I enjoyed playing the bugle immensely and belonging to the band took us not only on regular church parades through the streets of Gloucester, but also brightened up town processions and fetes in the area.

However, there was much to distract as you paraded through the crowds. On one memorable occasion, I think somewhere in the Forest of Dean, we led a procession and I was given the task of marching at the front of the buglers to give them notice of impending action by throwing my bugle aloft in my right hand before pressing it to my lips.  This clear signal was intended to bring all the buglers simultaneously into crisp united rhythm with the drums. Readers will anticipate what happened!  Distracted along the way I realized too late that our big entry was upon us.  In movement so swift that no one could possibly follow, I ended up with a mournful solo squeak before the ragged ranks eventually caught on.  The bandmaster sighed deeply.

In spite of this I was later promoted as Lance-Corporal and was sent on a training course.  One exercise involved learning how to drill the company...'.by the left, quick march', etc!  New officers had to take turns.  I remember the hall was large with a well polished floor.  I guess 40 or 50 fellow officers formed the ranks. It had been carefully explained that as they marched down the hall we needed to give adequate time to command 'About Turn'.  This seemed so obvious for ranks to be able to turn and march back in orderly fashion.  Whether it was the legacy of my bugling faux pas I am not sure, but I regret to say that I left it far too late.  In panic, I shouted just as the first rank was trying to avoid the wall giving the second rank little other option then to slide into them.  Total disorder followed with about a quarter of the lads on the floor.  The commanding officer sighed very deeply.

I think moments like these have helped hone (!) my leadership skills - certainly the ability to cope with public embarrassment.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A third question - What a difference this would make to the church?

When people are serious about doing God's will they become seriously involved with other believers.  This transforms relationships in church!

  • No more singleness and brokenness.  Too often when churches talk of 'family church' they think of events that include children with parents, but which can (sadly) exclude even more those who live on their own.  No, family church means everyone belongs equally.  Like most families there will be disagreements, rivalries and worse.  But the ties of family bonding made possible by Jesus Christ create a new level of relationship where healing and belonging hold everyone together.
  • No more loneliness.  Sometimes I meet people who are starved of human contact. They speak of day-long loneliness with only the TV to keep them company.  When we are brothers and sisters in Christ we have such opportunities to belong that can fill our days.
  • No more selfishness.  You know that verse 2 Cor. 9:6?  Therefore as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. Doing good means doing good.  Not just talking kind words but doing acts of kindness.  Brothers and sisters who genuinely care for each other show it.  This is one of the reasons why many of us believe in small groups.  We are just about to join one in our new church and immediately you do, it gives specifics to mutual family responsibility.  Doing good becomes very practical.
  • No more ignoring anyone.  I learned a lesson as a new church member, just 14 years old.  I was out on the main street of Gloucester with my mother when we bumped into an older lady who was a church member.  I was impatient to get on with shopping and showed my irritation by visible teenage truculence.  As soon as we moved on my mother spoke in a way I have never forgotten. 'You should never, never ignore people and treat them as rudely as you did.  They belong in the church family and even if they are older and you feel there is nothing you share in common - you do.  You belong together in Jesus!'  
This question of Jesus leads to his profoundly new reality, hardwiring us into a mass of new relationships with unbelievable consequences ....if we let him!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A third question - the radical answer.

I really need to get back to that bombshell question of Jesus (Mark 3:33), left hanging in the air: Who are my mother and my brothers? As Jesus looked at those seated around him we guess the disciples were close.  Actually, Mark records he had only just called them (verses 13-19).  This turns out to be one of those questions that Jesus has to answer himself.  We would have given the obvious family ties answer and missed the point.  Who could have guessed what he says next?

His reply is devastatingly radical. Devastating because it alters mass relationships among the people of God in the deepest of ways. Listen to his answer: 'Here are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother'

We should understand that Jesus loved his mother taking great trouble on the cross to care for her, and some of his family became devoted followers with key leadership roles in the early church. This answer does not slight his family but rather claims the reality of a new kind of family.  As he looks at his followers who unite around him, he applies the high language of family, of blood ties, of group-belonging to describe how closely God's believers are bonded together.  Jesus is the divinely common denominator of a new community that is created not by human will but by God's gift (John 1:12).

This ushers in a revolution of belonging. Other social political experiments have attempted this. Communism sought to inspire equality of brotherhood. But there has never been an initiative like this.  Such is the power of God's grace in the ministry of Jesus that he dares to name and begin a world movement that overrides age, gender, singleness, race and culture, likes and dislikes.  His love forges believers into brothers, sisters, mothers of his family whether they choose these others or not.

And that's the crunch point.  Once we take God's will for our lives seriously we are pitchforked into belonging within the most cross-cultural, inter-generational, variegated bunch of people you could ever imagine.  And this 'belonging' involves being as close as brothers and sisters. What?  I need to think what a difference that would make to my local church.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lights Out!

This week began with the 100th year commemoration of the First World War.  Like many others we put out the house lights at 10:00 pm and lit a candle. Several memorial events were televised that day and through these last few days grainy black and white photographs of young men in the trenches have confronted us in news events and documentaries.
Yesterday, some dear friends from Wheaton - Tony and Marian Payne - visited us for the day. I mentioned that the main American war cemetery lies just outside Cambridge and they asked to see it.  We arrived late afternoon at this extraordinary site.  A massive white wall holds the names of over 8,000 US servicemen whose bodies were never recovered.  In immaculate rows down the hillside are the graves of over another 6,000.  For much of the time we just walked in silence.  The sense of loss is overwhelming.
The Great War generation tended to keep quiet about their experiences. My grandfather never opened up to me even though, as a teenager, I was keen to hear.  My father requested his 80th. birthday meal in Wantage, Oxfordshire.  All the (small family) was present and afterwards he pressed us to go with him into the nearby parish church.  None of us had ever been to Wantage before.  He gave no explanation.  We reached a memorial on one wall with the names of all the local lads who perished in 1914-18.   He pointed to two adjacent names - both Quickes.  'They were my uncles', he said. 'Both went out as teenagers and died on the battlefield.'  To see your family name and sense my father's sadness brought it so close.
One preacher at Westminster Abbey on Monday said that the main focus as we look back should not be remembrance so much as repentance as 'we reflect on the failure of the human spirit that led to an inexorable slide into war'.  This week the world seems as violent as ever.  Our repentance coupled with prayers and commitment to peace-making remains vital for our world.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

All Age Service

This morning I was at Histon Baptist Church for a family service.  Why the need to post anything about that?  Over the years I have been to tens of these and even tried to lead some myself.  There are obvious challenges when all ages are present, especially when the very young wander freely and expressively. To capture and hold a congregation, with ages from a few months to 80's plus, sharing gospel news in ways that do not patronize children nor irritate adults, is an art that very few of us have.
But, today, the speaker was John Hardwick who happens to be a member of the church. His web-site spells out his gifting as author, song writer, creative communicator.  As someone who specializes in children's work he was clearly on their wavelength, but what thrilled me was the contagion of his worship leading.   Several things hit me:
  • song writing, often based directly on Scripture verses,  combining words and actions in such lively and authentic ways.  Leading with the guitar he engaged all age groups.  One long-standing Anglican said to me afterwards: "It couldn't have been more different from our early morning traditional liturgy.  But I loved it - it was real.'  How refreshing to be able to say that. 
  • memorable communication - telling good news can be so hackneyed and sometimes (especially when children are present) trivialized.  Here was thoughtful, energetic (oh yes), very creative communication which involved children, juggling, flags and plenty of interspersed music.  He presented the wonder of the 'biggest family on earth'.  His 5 'P's' were clear: Peter, Pentecost, Paul, Philip and....People, when he had the whole church on its feet as we each in turn shook hands with two people. 
  • love for children - it is obvious how the love of God motivated John and especially focused  his skill to excite children about Jesus. Afterwards, we spoke and he commented sadly about some church congregations where children are never addressed.  No one should ever underestimate the power of children to learn and to share the gospel.
John may be bemused that I was stirred to write this.  He has many commendations on his web-site and certainly doesn't need mine. But what struck me was the joy I experienced in worship today.  Yes, it was noisy.  Yes, there were songs I didn't know.  Yes, I felt awkward because actions don't come easily to me (and I was not alone).  But when you share in all-age worship like that you do participate in something not found anywhere else on our planet.  Truly..the biggest family on earth.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Walking Etiquette

On my birthday yesterday, we went to St. Ives (Cambridgeshire). Walking along the busy Market Street, past Oliver Cromwell's statue (he once lived there) I came to a green area beside the river. It is likely this is where John Wesley preached in 1774 where he noted in his journal he found hearers 'very well dressed yet well-behaved'.  I wondered about his past experiences with well-dressed people!

Moving on beyond the crowds milling around on the river bank,  I found a quiet path continuing on beside the river which eventually led into tranquility through ancient forests, meadows still rolling with medieval troughs and ridges from oxen ploughing, and glorious glimpses of sunlit countryside beyond. Occasionally, along my hour long walk I met walkers coming in the opposite direction.  Every time we approached each other, we looked each other in the eyes and greeted one another with a 'Hello' or 'Hi'.  The contrast with the crowds on Market Street could not have been greater.  I began looking out for exceptions. Surely not everyone walking that path would politely acknowledge me.  Well, true enough, several cyclists didn't ,and a group of young people ignored me.  But 99% of my journey was punctuated by smiles and cheery greetings.

It's something mysterious about country walking in Britain (and probably elsewhere too).  Begin to walk for the sake of enjoying a beautiful world and you seem to have more time for people too!  The very act of stepping out brings you into a world where people slow down enough to notice things...including other people slowing down to notice things. I resolved that I need to do some more of this mutual noticing!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cambridge connections!

We always thought that being back in Cambridge for much of the year would bring us extra passing traffic.  So many people visit Cambridge for conferences and other events we hoped that old friends would pop by!   Yesterday looked a free day.  But out of the blue I received an email from my colleague at Northern Seminary - Cherith Fee-Nordling.  She was speaking at the CS Lewis Conference here in Cambridge.  Hurriedly, we found some free time in her schedule and invited her to our home for a meal.  Great conversation followed - all the more so because we had no idea she was down the road. What a surprise!

She invited us to the evening conference session in St. John's College Chapel which took the form of a two hour Choral Concert on the Christian Virtues.  This was based on the conference theme with spectacular singers belonging to the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute Chorale.  Only I could go with Cherith.  Looking through the glossy programme notes I discovered that the Founder of this Chorale and the Director is John Dickson.   Sitting next to Cherith in the (uncomfortable) choir stalls I looked at his photograph and blurted out: 'It's John Dickson!'  Back in the 1980's John and his family had been on sabbatical in Cambridge and attended my church.  Since then, I had met up some ten years ago at a church conference in New Mexico.  But we had lost contact.  I couldn't believe it as the choir processed down the aisle and this elegant man in black led us through the evening - could it really be him?

I told Cherith I just had to try and see him at the end!  But, of course, there were crowds surrounding him. Different groups demanded him in the centre of their photographs.  Patiently I waited. Then he turned and saw me, and immediately threw his arms around me, announcing to all and sundry that I had been his Cambridge pastor.  He was just as astonished to see me as I was him. And just as thrilled.  Quickly, his wife joined us and then a couple of friends from Louisville whom we visited over twenty years ago.  It was the most exciting reunion - all the more for being totally unexpected. Such joy!  We are determined not to lose contact again - yet the wonder of Christian fellowship is that we are going to be surprised over and over again in God's kingdom.  You really cannot get over the bonds that bind us in Christ. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A third question - family ties (2)

A bombshell question
When Jesus' mother and brothers arrive to take charge of him, the message reaches Jesus who is surrounded by a dense crowd that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him.  They invoke the natural family ties that bind them together.  It's as though they are saying: 'We're here for you'.

The question that Jesus then asks is so extraordinary we might guess something dramatic is going to happen.  There has to be some explanation. Who are my mother and my brothers? (verse 33). It seems bizarre with his family actually outside that he should question something so basic.  We are born into families - that's a given for better or worse.  Who would think to question such a fact of life. We don't know how noisy the crowd and how far outside Jesus' family is standing.  But,  perhaps they have heard him say this too.  Isn't it deeply offensive to your own flesh and blood?  If you have children, imagine your reaction if they asked this! Doesn't it really prove that he is 'out of his mind'.

The story informs us that after this question Jesus looked at those seated in a circle around him.  We don't often get told details like that.(Actually, I wish we had more descriptions of Jesus' voice and movements, don't you!)   It seems as though Jesus is slowing the pace down. This bombshell of a question hangs in the air.  Its shock sinks in!   Probably the immediate circle may be the disciples whom he has just called in the previous verses 13-19.

Something is happening that the church should never forget.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A sad day...yet

Yesterday was a sad day.  I was back in the church where I once belonged as an older teenager - Arbury Rd. Baptist Church, Cambridge.  It was the funeral service for one of my fellow youth group members, Les Bowyer who died very suddenly aged 71.  The church was packed, for Les was deeply loved by so many - a laid-back character of humour and kindness who served his heart out in this same church for well over fifty years.  Rightly, the minister asked us to celebrate his life and we did.

But my mind also went back to my first funeral service in that church when one of my best friends died. I cannot remember the medical cause but I recall the shock news when his parents found him on the kitchen floor.  His name was Brin and he was Les' older brother.  I recall sitting there numbed by this first experience of sudden death's brutality.   Les was due to be married shortly afterwards and he asked me to step in as best-man instead of his brother. Oh, how poignant!  All this came flooding back.

Further, my last funeral service in this church had been at Christmas 1979 for my mother who died aged 57 falling down the stairs.  I confess that sitting there yesterday I was taken back to emotions of emptiness and sorrow in losing the most influential person in my life.  I remember giving a tribute to her.  Odd, isn't it how clusters like these come back so sharply to memory.

And there is no denying the deep sadness.  That's not to be suppressed. But what rang out so powerfully yesterday were words from 1 Pet.3-9 praising God for the 'living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead'.  The minister emphasized the last verses: although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice....   In this stirring of sadness, I hold on (and am held) by the one I do not see, and he makes all the difference, doesn't he?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A third question - family ties

I confess my dipping into different questions of Jesus has been spasmodic, with lengthy intervals between them - the last one was in May! But I think that's how they happened in the gospel story.  Those who would grow to know Jesus were on a long learning curve. Interestingly, he does not ask the crunch question: 'Who do you say that I am?' until much later (Mark 8:29).  Along the way, would-be followers have many other questions to face first. And so do we.  It's almost as though they are learning more and more about the implications of following Jesus before they are confronted by his ultimate challenge about declaring who he is.

One of the most radical implications that exploded in the faces of disciples on their learning curse concerned family ties.  Belonging to families is complex.  Rarely do relationships run smoothly as families develop.  We can idealize family life with mother, father and 2.5 children happily living ever after but too many have suffered horror stories of broken dysfunctional families.  We were given a rather cynical fridge magnet: Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.  We do not have choice about the family we are born into and family life for many is full of disappointment.

When Jesus is ministering, surrounded by so many people that he (and his disciples) have not even been able to eat, we read the story of Jesus' family coming to take charge of him. It provides one of the very few episodes when we hear about Jesus’ family dynamics.  The full story is found in Mark 3:20-35.  

Now it’s dangerous to psychologize Bible stories, read into them motives, and assess mood from the twentieth century. They are in Capernaum (maybe even Peter's house) and Jesus is under pressure when his family (probably back in Nazareth) hear of his situation. v21. When the family heard about this, they went to take charge of him for they said: He is out of his mind. Maybe they think he is so over-extended he is getting beside himself.  Such is his commitment to work, teaching, healing, and antagonizing powerful people, they fear that he will kill himself by neglect if they don’t take charge of him. The word take charge can be translated: arrest!  They want to protect him. Protect him from himself.  But maybe there are other tensions too.  Some members of his family are not sure about the state of his mental health. John 7:5 says that even the brothers of Jesus didn’t believe that he was the Messiah. Maybe they are going to get him before he makes a laughing-stock of himself.  After all, they have claims on him. They are family.

In the middle of this scene where there is intense hostility from certain teachers of the law who accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan, we find his family coming to make their natural claims on him. What happens next opens us up to one of the greatest revolutions of Christian faith.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Retreat Prayer

A few people who attended the retreat I led have asked for a copy of a prayer I used.  It is written in the Celtic tradition by David Adam.  With simplicity and directness it asks God's help for all our senses to be alive to him.  Prayed slowly I have found it truly opens me up to sensing the world more clearly but, deeper than that, who God is now.

Give to me O God
A clear and watchful eye

Give to me O God
A firm but gentle touch

Give to me O God
              A good receptive ear

Give to me O God
A clean discerning taste

Give to me O God
A subtle sense of smell

Give to me O God
              An openness to others

Give to me O God
              An awareness now of you

Give to me O God
Each thing that is needful for my body

Give to me O God
That which will renew my mind

Give to me O God
That which will strengthen my spirit

Give to me O God
Healing for my sickness

Give to me O God
Repentance for my sin

Give to me O God
Yourself above all else

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Odd anecdote(5)

Many Baptist churches find their new pastor by a process which includes 'preaching with a view'.  The first time it may actually be preaching with a squint to be followed by interviews with prayer and a second more formal visit.  In my last year at seminary a church in Northampton invited me to preach with a squint.

With great excitement I prepared for this occasion knowing that it might result in a call to my first church.  I arrived on the Saturday and met some of the leaders and was shown around the church and its area, and was told much about the church family.  The more I heard the more enthusiastic I became.

On Sunday morning at their main service the church was packed to the seams.  It was a parade service and the church's Scouts and Guides processed to worship with their band leading the way.  At the beginning of the service the four standard bearers marched to the front. Once all the uniformed young people were in their place,  I had to take the flags and place them to the side of the front platform in specially designed holders.  With such a mixed age range I sought to lead and preach appropriately though I have no recollection of my theme.  I remember something else!

At the conclusion of the final hymn before the benediction was given, the standard bearers came to the front again for the flags to be returned.  In the silence I swung one of the flags out of its support through the air only to hit a china lampshade which I had totally failed to observe was in the flight path.  To my chagrin the contact sounded out loudly like an out of tune bell, though it had surprising resonance.  Dust that had lain undisturbed for years filtered down through the air.  Convulsions of laughter rippled through the ranks of Scouts and Guides into the congregation.  Only the most deaf were unaware.  I gave the benediction against a background of sniffles and sneezes caused by the dust.  I have never had so many smiles at the door afterwards.  As one person said: 'Nobody has ever done that before - it takes some skill to hit that one lamp!'

In spite of this the church was willing to give me another go though, in the end, the Lord led me to the North of England.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Belonging in the fabric

This last weekend was so full with several events in addition to the prayer retreat.  Often American friends have questioned what we have missed while away from the UK.  Apart from the obvious like our family, friends and health service (!) we have sometimes spoken about missing the sense of belonging that is so subtle, it's almost like being woven into fabric that you do not realize is part and parcel of your life stretching back for decades.

This weekend we enjoyed a great celebration of two friends' 40 years of marriage as they also hit 60 years. They invited 120 people to share in a magnificent hog roast lunch in a barn which was then cleared for an afternoon celidh, followed by cream tea.  I commented a few weeks ago about the thrill of sharing in a silver wedding celebration and discovering several couples there who I had married when minister in Cambridge, and whom I had not seen for over 20 years.  What memories came flooding back!

Well, on Saturday this memory rush happened again, in spades.  Our two friends have been embedded in the Cambridge church so it was no surprise that we knew many of the guests.  But what joy it was to re-connect with surprises on every hand.  I said to Carol that one of the greatest thrills of all was to see friendships that had begun at the church (which we had no idea had happened), but which have held strong through the years, with friendships crossing  generations.  As we drove home, we both gave thanks for the experience of belonging in the fabric of these friends lives. We hope never to take this 'fabric' for granted!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Summer reflection

The retreat last weekend gave me plenty of time to think, pray and wander around Fulbourn village and nature reserve, where the event was held. I had prepared some reflections on Matthew 6:28: Consider the lilies of the field, see how they grow.......  In the first session I focused on the need to stop and stare at the wonders around which show us our Creator. (In the second session we thought about what it means to 'consider how they grow').   As somebody has said: 'One can peer into the hand of God in this world by examining flowers'.  Their beauty (unmatched even by Solomon) with such extravagance, profusion, detail speak volumes about creation that God intended to be good (Gen 1) and which he reclaims in new Creation with Christ.

At one point I retold a personal story.  One of the English spiritual classics is a collection of Private Prayers by Lancelot Andrewes.  I took an abbreviated copy of these prayers when I was away speaking at a conference in Canada.  Afterwards, the organizers gave Carol and me a few days' quiet retreat in the mountains.  We stayed in a remote cottage on a lakeside. A canoe was tethered at the water's edge.  On the first morning I paddled the canoe some distance from shore for a quiet devotional time.  I took out my prayer book.  Many of the prayers are set out with spaces in between the words to stop you rushing through them.  I opened it on the Tuesday morning prayers with a section entitled 'Commemoration' :
O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord.
that didst gather together the water into sea,
that didst bring to light the earth,
that didst bring forth the shoots
of herbs and fruitbearing trees.
The depths, the sea, lakes, rivers, fountains.
Earth, islands, mountains, hills, valleys, arable, meadows, woods,
The green things, grass, herbs and flowers for food, pleasure, healing.
The trees bearing fruits, wine, oil, spices.

I shall never forget bobbing up and down on the water, with eyes wide open, looking all around me and marveling in God's creation all around me.  Especially, the green things.  Just so many different greens!  Hopefully, your eyes are open too.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Summer reflections

Next week I am involved in leading a morning's retreat to help people take time to reflect on life with God.  The group has been following a programme through the four seasons, and for me (unsurprisingly) the theme is 'Summer'.

I need only speak for two short sessions so that participants enjoy maximum time for personal reflection and engage in a variety of activities to help them focus prayerfully and develop spiritually.   For me, this is an unusual opportunity.  How do I best encourage people to spend the  morning reflecting on Summer in worthwhile ways?

Of all the seasons, I love Summer the best. There is so much to enjoy!  All kinds of thoughts come into mind don't they, with various key words.  Light, light days.  My old Dad used to say in Spring: ‘The days are getting longer.’  Of course they weren’t but when daylight extends through afternoon into mid evening it does seem we have much more day.  Warmth which I greatly treasure – short sleeves, shorts, the outdoor life without getting cold.  And with that summer holidays – the season for relaxation outdoors with swimming, beaches, children on holiday from school.

And all this adds up to a season of Fullness - of flowering and profusion in the garden.  Light, warmth, and a time of fullness when the world is at its lushest. Those of us who have gardens, even if they are tiny, marvel at how often the grass now needs to be cut and the amazing blooms everywhere that need to be deadheaded and irrepressible weeds to be dealt with.

But something odd may happen to spiritual life.  I heard last week of someone who runs spiritual retreats but who has taken the decision never to plan them from May to August.  Apparently, people just don’t come.  I wonder.  Do we find it easier to find time and be quiet when it’s darker and colder?  Are we actually so busy outdoors that giving time over to reflection just doesn’t happen.  I am grateful that being asked to do this retreat has stopped me from rushing through this season and hopefully you may stop and pause too.

Friday, June 27, 2014


By now a bewildering range of people, whose email trails happened to have crossed mine, have received a begging message from me (in tears) needing money urgently in Ukraine. Many of my contacts over the last nine years seem to have been besieged.
Yes, I have been well and truly hacked.  Somehow my account was accessed and the computer security system was compromised which then gave them free reign (even though I had only changed my password again last month!)
So, multiple apologies if you have been troubled.  My minister (an IT expert - how useful a pastoral gift is that?) and one of my sons (also with nerdish tendencies) came to my rescue to stop the rot and download a new protective system.  I have devised new passwords that are so cunning I have already forgotten them!
Carol intrigued me as she mentioned the kind of people I am likely to have mixed with over these last years.  We would expect them to be kind and compassionate (touched by my tears) but also very bright and not taken in by the scam for a second.
May your systems remain free of corruption and your passwords also be cunning yet memorable!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Now that's the church!

Thanks Paul for your comment on my last post: 'Now that's the church.'  In his book The Road to Missional (2011) Michael Frost writes about the role that film trailers play in cinema. When trailers are shown before the main feature they are tasters 'usually including the best special effects or the funniest scenes or the most romantic moments, depending on the film, of the forthcoming feature. Now, watch those around you in the theatre at the end of each trailer.  If it has done its job, usually one person will turn to the other and say, "I want to see that movie."

He goes on to write: This is a great metaphor for the missional church. If it does its job well, people will see what it does and say, "I want to see the world they come from." The church is to be like a trailer for the New Jerusalem, a taster, with all the best bits on full display. If we believe that the world to come is a place of love and mercy, we are to be a trailer of that love and mercy, a free sample for those looking to buy into the whole thing....our mission is to create foretastes of such this way we both demonstrate and announce the reign of God through Christ.

The inclusion of Russell and Jenny should be no big deal but often the world makes it so.  Yet, from our very first service Carol and I warmed to the way this church so lovingly embraced them, wonderfully overcoming awkwardness and complications. Trying to include a wide range of people always tends to make us uncomfortable - too often we prefer to worship in a personal comfort zone.   The paradox is that whenever a people step out with Jesus to welcome all others we experience a quality of togetherness with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is truly an experience of the reign of God.

I should love to hear similar stories from you when you could honestly say: 'Now that's the church!'

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Left hand of fellowship

In local Baptist churches when new members are welcomed in (generally during a Communion Service) the minister represents the whole fellowship by giving 'the right hand of fellowship'.  It's a public welcome into a very significant group of people who are not only your new church family but fellow ministers in 'the priesthood of believers'.

Today, Carol and I were received into membership at Histon Baptist Church, near where we now live. Together with another couple (from Canada) we were invited to stand at the front by the minister, Ron Day.  As we were getting to our feet there was a loud noise from a severely disabled young man in a wheel-chair near the front of the church.  The minister interpreted his interjection as an offer of help. 'Yes,' he said to Russell the wheel-chair bound man. 'You can help give a welcome to our new members.'  His carer carefully wheeled Russell alongside us at the front. Ron spoke to us and moved along the line with words for each as he shook hands. 'Now', he said, 'Russell who is one of our members would like to welcome you too.  You had better move to him'.  Russell, wracked by involuntary movements, offered his twisted left hand to each of us in turn.

It was a profoundly inclusive moment.  Russell and Jenny (also in a wheel chair) are there every Sunday. This one simple gesture with Russell ensured we all understood more of what it means to belong to a church family where everyone counts, and a priesthood where everyone can share in ministry.
I shall never forget his left hand of fellowship!  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Science, Faith and Christian Ministry

On Thursday I was back at Spurgeon's College for my first College Conference in 14 years.  Conference is the fellowship of Spurgeon alumni, faculty and significant others which meets annually to induct a President from among their number, who chooses the theme for a day's lectures.  This year the President is Mike Elcome (a friend and neighbour) who was a science teacher before becoming a Baptist minister.  So, bravely, he took the theme science and faith.  I say bravely because many with non-scientific backgrounds find the subject intimidating and, sadly, the subject often descends into battles between evolution and faith - a contemporary phenomenon.

Unfortunately. Carol's rush into A&E for 10 hours meant I only shared in half the day. (I gladly report she is making progress, though slow, from a serious allergic reaction).  But I was there long enough to rejoice in renewed friendships and expressive worship which happily reminded me of my service in the college in the 90's.  However, many issues hit me as worthy of further thought including:
  • Celebrate Science.  I heard this plea at the end of Mike's address which encouraged us to see science and faith working in partnership.  Yes, big expected themes sounded out such as the rejection of 'The God of the gaps' and the complementary 'narratives' of science describing the 'how' and theology the 'why'.   Evolution was carefully considered with Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute.  But the overriding theme called for renewed willingness to integrate science into life.  Mike made several proposals including turning the old 'Harvest Festival' into celebrating local projects like water treatment plans or even hospitals and research establishments.
  • Beware naivety.  The challenge to pastors was acute as we heard how sometimes our 'church mindset' makes the world seem so small.  Too often we cause confusion with little meaningful response to a markedly changing world and simplistic reading of Scripture
  • Tell stories. Mike mentioned giving a children's talk the week after the Higgs-Boson, the God particle was in the news.  He asked if anyone in the church could explain what this was all about. A diffident man eventually got to his feet and proceeded (to everyone's surprise) to give a brilliant, understandable and succinct explanation which Mike says he could never have managed to do!  Apparently, this man was a research scientist who worked at Cerne, Switzerland.  Mike wondered whether he had ever been noticed in church before?  How much this resonated with me in my concern for more collaborative preaching that incorporates the mission of congregational members so that the church mindset becomes a 'kingdom mindset'.
I was reminded of Torrance's: Preaching Christ Today: the gospel and scientific thinking (1994), written by a scientist/philosopher/theologian before aggressive new atheism.  He praised the impact of Einstein's special/general relativism with its overthrow of dualism, bringing the conceptual and empirical together.  How he exults in Science's discarding of the rationalistic, historical scientific method opening up ways to view Jesus' humanity and deity and the power of the cross! Oh, how big our world is and how glorious the gospel.