Friday, March 17, 2023

Still preoccupied

The saga with my son's book accelerated this week as he returned to Cambridge, via Iceland, for another intensive week on the next chapters. Would you be surprised to learn that the project has rather lost its lustre.  Enthusiasm has dialed down considerably. 

Sadly, his enthusiasm has been sabotaged by frantic days at his University, as the demands of ten yearly accreditation, when both federal and state inspectors examine every aspect of the school, have thrust him into mountains of extra work.  When I was at Northern Seminary I remember enduring a similar process when each faculty member was given an institutional task.  Mine was to write an extensive paper which tracked all the changes in our teaching syllabi since the previous accreditation visit ten years earlier.  Boxes of stuff needed examination.  And I was trying to write a book at the same time.  So I do know how miserable things can get.

He worked in the University right up until a couple of hours before flying out, and even though it is spring break he receives daily requests from his Dean. Fortunately, he remains optimistic and we have made some progress this week.  Whether its enough as the deadline nears is still a big question.   As a student I lurched from essay crisis to crisis. Nearing the deadline, pressure squeezed effort into hours of concentration.  I was an early morning person, finishing mid-evening and setting the alarm for 5:00 am for last minute effort. Early mornings are no longer a productive time, but living with a continuous essay crisis sums up my situation well. Still, only two more months! 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

On the substitute's bench

 A first today. The week before I was asked if I would stand by with a sermon for today.  The text was fixed - Psalm 51 - but the scheduled preacher had suddenly been given a hospital appointment for a much needed procedure.  Wisely, he wanted a Plan B, if he felt unwell.

But being on the bench means being match ready.  So I plunged into Ps 51, - an extraordinary psalm when David comes clean before God.  It  is prefaced by an historical note that gives its context as the confrontation in 2 Sam. 16 between the prophet Nathan and David.  David seems to have somehow justified to himself his adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent cynical murder of her husband, Uriah, by orchestrating his death, sending him on a front line suicide mission.  How he could delude himself and appear to live blissfully in continuing relationship with Bathsheba is one of the greatest warnings.  The most spiritual person (just look at his other psalms) can fall so deeply into sin.

It needs courageous Nathan to rebuke him in God's name  Only then does he see the horror.  Ps. 51 is his horrified response. Yes, he's sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but it hits him how he has sinned first and foremost about God. This is deadly serious. You shall not commit adultery, commit murder...he knows he deserves death.  In fact, though he doesn't die, his son does and his kingdom will never recover.

His recognition of his sin, of his need for cleansing, of his offering of a broken and contrite heart is such a powerful preparation for the only hope of cleansing for broken and contrite hearts in the gift of Jesus' sacrifice for us. Only there!  Like all the psalms, which formed Jesus' own prayer book, only Jesus can bring the cleansing we need.

So, I was on the bench ready, wondering if I would be called right up until 6:00 pm on Saturday. Then in answer to my query to the preacher I heard I would not be needed.  Sitting on the bench in church was a strange experience. He did preach a challenging sermon. But at least I have the luxury of a blog to use some of my prep.   

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Pivots (2)

The first pivot turned me from a disinterested schoolboy into an enthusiast for geomorphology.  So much so, that entering my last year at university I really wanted to continue in academics. To my joy, a Christian organization working with colleges in Asia offered me two or three years teaching students. The college was in India at Serampore and I was thrilled to think I could continue my love of geomorphology in a far-off exotic land. Dots seemed to join up wonderfully. 

Then came the second pivot.  An unimpressive small brown envelope arrived in which a duplicated letter had been stuffed.  The old Gestetner machines used wax stencils through which typewriters punched letters.  Frequently, as in this case, some of the type face was worn so that every e or f, for example, was illegible. Additionally, ink splodges marked the paper where the typist had hit keys too hard. This messy letter told me that the whole organization had closed with all its arrangements null and void.  Little apology, no explanation and suddenly my planning was turned on its head. The dots had been disrupted. 

I did just wonder what God was doing in all this.  It had all seemed to work out so neatly. Having nothing else planned, I heard about an experimental full-time job working in the Baptist Union headquarters in London. Termed "Secretary for Student Work' it was all about encouraging students and their chaplains in different parts of the country, plus representing student work more widely, I felt I could do this. It was not what I wanted.  It meant working for the church which I had early rejected as a career choice!  

I have written elsewhere how this sudden shift from one direction into another led me to the biggest decision of my life when God called me into Christian ministry. 

In the men's meeting I invited them to reflect on pivots in their own lives when their direction of travel suddenly changed.  And to reflect on God's working through such pivotal changes.  It led to some interesting questions afterwards.  Perhaps you have some pivots too!


Monday, February 27, 2023

Pivots (1)

Last Friday I spoke to a local Men's Meeting which gathers men from different churches in the area. It was a delight to meet up with several friends. My talk focused on the significance of pivots in our lives. Those moments when something unexpected happened - we met someone, circumstances suddenly shifted, or an event occurred which in retrospect was a changing point. A pivotal point. At the beginning I mentioned that recently I had to write about my life as a Baptist minister and how that forced me to reflect on such moments.

And I admit this setting with a local audience allowed some self-indulgence.  I chose two pivotal points. The first occurred in 1961 when my father moved from a church in Gloucester to Cambridge. As a sixteen year old I found myself at a new school - the County - now Hills Road Sixth Form College.  My school career in Gloucester had been uninspiring, as was my academic record.  But suddenly I was plunged into a completely different ethos.

Because I had failed Latin and French O levels the Head Teacher, Mr. Eagling, told me to retake them and the Deputy Head, Mr. Laing, offered to teach me Latin at lunchtime. As soon as I mentioned these names heads nodded with smiles of recollection. This is what I meant about the setting allowing self-indulgence. Several men had been there around my time. Actually, one man said he failed both Latin and French and the same thing happened to him!  

They also laughed at my mention of some characters there.  Martin began the same time as me and sat behind me. I thought we might be friends as newcomers but that failed totally. Later when I read his autobiography did I see just how much Martin Amis, son of Kingsley Amis, truly hated the County. A year below me was Syd Barratt of Pink Floyd fame. A delightful charismatic figure he was a brilliant artist and our paths happily crossed when I did A level art. 

But it was two teachers above all: George Barlow (history) and Peter Bryan (geography) who set the nods and smiles going.  Peter gave me a passion (that's not too strong) for physical geography.  For the first time in my life I was captivated by a school subject, and the field trips to Wales and Yorkshire. To be able to look at landscapes and understand the influences on their formation just thrilled me.  So strong was my focus  that Peter said I should study with one of the leading geomorphologists, Bruce Sparkes, at Jesus College, Cambridge.  It's an extraordinary pivot that took a fairly disinterested schoolboy into genuine passion for a subject on a surprising journey......

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Diligent and honest

A few weeks ago I noticed a donation in my bank account.  Most of the entries were debits but this credited me with over 100 pounds  A cryptic explanation alongside mentioned a church that I had preached at many months before, with a note about church flower expenses.  Somehow, the details for paying my expenses directly into my account had been used to pay the florists who provide church flowers.

I contacted the church and the surprised Treasurer replied with the church bank account details for reimbursement. She said the florist was also called Michael so wires crossed. I immediately returned the money and in her reply she congratulated me for being diligent and honest. It worried me that she had maybe experienced dishonest Baptist ministers!  Perish the thought!

I received a Christmas present with a note saying it was a joke. It's a wallet with imprinted words on its face including my name.  With wealth and power Michael comes great responsibility.  Oh yes.  With diligence and honesty of course.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Music, if you please

The saga with my son's book continues until May. In an effort to supercharge its writing, he visited us for eight days in mid-January (which I mentioned in the last post).  An exhausting trip from New York to London via Iceland!  I wondered how many days he would miss owing to jet-lag causing a shrinkage in our writing time.  However, he bounced into life quickly and suggested that we should target 5-6 hours every day! 

I had turned my garden study/shed/sanctuary into a serious work space, shoving books and papers to the side.  On one side tall IKEA racks hold my CD collection next to my old record player, speakers and vinyl collection, started 60 years ago.  He announced that he cannot work without music.  I am the opposite. Direct opposite!  Silence is essential for creativity.  But on the first day as I entered the study I found he had selected Holst's Planets and the CD was letting rip with Mars. 'Wow, Dad', he said,' I know nothing about classical music.  All my life has been spent with music. but classical music is a closed book. Can we play some of these while we work?'

How could I resist such a request?  I told him I would select some of the CDs and vinyl that his family loved.  Like his grandmother who loved Mozart, especially the piano concerti like No. 23.  I found the vinyl record she loved (with Alfred Brendel playing) and so gently, powerfully,Mozart wove his magic.  'Hey, Dad,''he said, ' I'm bidding for that very disc on eBay!'  And so he did.  JS Bach's double violin concerto, Elgar's cello concerto, Dvorak's New World Symphony were all new.   All, totally new!   How did he miss hearing them in our home when they were my constant companions, plus tens of others?  Well, in his own room he had his own (loud) music.

I am not sure listening to music really helped my writing, but I shall long treasure opening up some wonders to my son.  So this is a hard writing season but there have been some delights along the way. 

Monday, January 23, 2023


The gap between posts is widening. I know.  My most recent excuse is the emergency my son faces. His book project of 110,000 words has been struck by misfortune.  When he signed the contract he had the prospect of a 6 month sabbatical from his U.S. University, Sadly, the university has removed sabbatical privileges for all faculty while, at the same time, firing many faculty and staff as the institution has lurched into decline. Pleading for two extensions until May 2023, he has exhausted his publisher's patience. So, only 4 months remain in which to complete the manuscript.

Twenty-five years ago I would only have been able to wring my hands in sympathy,  However, when I joined Northern Seminary in 2000, my Seminary President informed me that the institution expected me to write a textbook on preaching that would be widely used  The writing/re-writing process over the next two years scarred me and left me battle hardened.  So, instead of hand-wringing, out of this hard-won experience I have committed myself to share the writing task.  My son came over from the US just under two weeks ago and we disciplined each day for work on the book.  And it took some discipline! 

My daily habits of doing the crossword, napping, reading are suspended. My blog posts are suffering too, as is Carol.  I have just shared a zoom session with him as we slowly move on.  Will we be successful? The jury is out. Hopefully, I shall keep some blog presence.