Friday, September 27, 2013

Red Robin Welcome

Carol told me (!) I really ought to mention what happened when we visited the Red Robin family restaurant last week.  It is near where we used to live and earlier we had dropped in pastorally to see friends nearby.  Though we did not often eat in this restaurant which is large, situated near the movie theaters and always packed with children, we did occasionally visit and got to know some of the staff.  Of course it was well over a year since we were last there.

Carol normally has fish and chips but asks for the fish to be grilled without batter (to avoid any allergy complications).  She put the order in via our waiter - a delightful young man we did not know. The next moment the restaurant manager rushed across the densely crowded floor and flung his arms around Carol and me; reaching for a spare chair, he sat down at our table to catch up with all our news and share his own.  Apparently, as soon as he heard the order for fish without batter he shouted across to the server: 'Are Carol and Michael back?' before charging across to see for himself.   In the pandemonium of a full restaurant and birthday celebrations, he gave us undivided attention with phenomenal recall about my cancer, the family and seminary.  The waitress who used to serve us realized we were there too, and gave us the warmest of hugs (several times).  At least three times the manager snatched time with us (once bringing extra fish for Carol).

Carol said to me: 'What a difference it makes when you receive a welcome like this!'  Then she paused and added, 'That's how the church should behave - to greet and accept people like you really mean it!'  Then to cap it all, on Sunday we visited the church where I was Summer interim two years ago in Elmhurst.  We heard a challenging sermon based on Romans 15:7 'Greet one another as Christ has accepted you, for the glory of God'.  Before the service even began two pastors had hugged us after a year's absence and the warmth of welcome flooded across afterwards.  Of course, Carol had to tell the senior pastor all about Red Robin!  

It's true that the quality of greeting goes far beyond a 'Hi' with a smile. Peter Semeyn in his sermon dared to take a recent survey of the church showing it is 91% white, 90% married and 79% college degree or higher and then challenge the church directly about greeting those unlike the majority.  He was prophetic in his challenge, because it is easier for a restaurant manager to greet some English folk than it is for many of us in church to get close to others.  But Carol is right.  We were taught a great lesson by Red Robin.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Australian Highlights (4)

After all the density of preaching and conference speaking at Perth, some dear friends invited us to spend a week in Sydney.  More than this, they had paid for Carol to accompany me around the world (supporting me too) and they looked after us royally when we visited them.  We were given an apartment in a retirement village where one of our friends lives, with her sister nearby. How much we owe them for all their love and care.

The very best thing of all (and there were many good things) was their insistence that I be completely free of all speaking commitments.  Usually when visiting Australia I have a number of commitments, especially on Sundays. But, for the first time ever I sat in the pews at a church service (Gordon Baptist Church, Sydney) with my only responsibility to worship alongside Carol.

I tell you, the experience of resting in a quiet place where the pace of life was delightfully slow all around did us the world of good.  The retirement village is on an escarpment overlooking a gorge with spectacular views. Down a steep drop, covered by lush vegetation with cockatoos, cookaburras, colorful parrots flying above you reach the river along which early Aboriginal tribes lived.  It is now a national park.  A couple of times I ventured down to the river (to the surprise of some of the residents who regarded me as singularly athletic) and revelled in the blue sky, green river, with white gums trees in sharp contrast all around.  Again, during these precious days, we caught up with friends we have known for many years (and pottered around at a pace that anticipates retirement years ahead).  How grateful we are for generous thoughtful Christian friends.   As we were shortly to discover , these slow days proved vital rest before the speeded-up calendar since returning to Chicago.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Australian Highlights (3)

It is possible that some readers will think we are currently lost somewhere in Australia because my highlights suddenly ceased! My silence since partly resulted from patchy internet access in Sydney (our next stop),  even less access in China (on the way home), and then tumultuous frantic re-entry in the US coinciding with the beginning of term.

Before I went to Perth I posted about the conference I was addressing: 'Beyond Three Points: Preaching at the crossroads' in which I revealed fragments of early thinking, But, by the time I gave the first lecture, I probably brought more recently digested stuff to this conference than I have ever done elsewhere. Reading books right up to the last minute, my talks had alterations scattered like a severe measles outbreak on every page.  Given an hour for each lecture I regret to say that I overan (in spite of Carol time-keeping on the back row).  It is said that if you want to understand something better you should try explaining it to someone else.  I truly think that my work on missional theology was clarified through all this experience, and though attendees were very kind I am sure I received more benefit than they.  My last session took a stab at '5 and a third commandments for missional preaching' which promises much more and really needs future work.  Yes, indeed.

As I shared in all this, with two conference panel discussions and many conversations I felt so privileged to be part of this preaching world the other side of the world and to be given space and time to think through hot issues. I have just finished a brand new DMin intensive week and I know how much Perth helped frame that.  Next month I am giving the Broadus Lectures at Anderson University, South Carolina  and for that too I sense the surf rising as I tackle the theme: The Dangerous Act of Preaching.  I am grateful to be alive wrestling with all this stuff and I really hope it will encourage a new generation of preachers.  Thank you Perth for pushing this button!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Australian Highlights (2)

I last saw Katherine when she was a student reading English at King's College.  I baptized her with others and can recall her vivid testimony, luminous personality and early intense commitment to mission.  She belonged with a group of students to the Cambridge Baptist Student Society - called The Robert Hall Society after a famous former minister of the church.  Numbering around 35 they were drawn from many university colleges as well as the teaching hospital.

Why is Katherine an Australian highlight?   Because in Perth, 22 years later I met her again. Instantly recognizable and as vivacious as ever,  she is now a significant leader for Operation Mobilization in W. Australia, having worked for OM ever since she left Cambridge - mostly based in St. Petersburg, Russia. Now with her husband Lloyd who is also a strategic leader for OM they live in Perth overseeing the sending out of missionaries from Australia.  She had just returned from Siberia with 45 stories of Christian converts which she now has to write up for a wider public. 

The thrill of meeting her was twofold.  To see her and hear about her own story was so encouraging. Her faith is still contagious, and her high octane personality seems undimmed.  Much in the passing years can blunt the gospel edge, but not for her and her husband.   Yet even more suprising was to learn that all but one of the 35 students who were with her in Cambridge are strong in Christian faith and service too.  Indeed, they are supporters of Katherine's mission work, keeping in regular contact via facebook.  Nearly all of them are exercising Christian leadership wherever they are.  A few I knew about, like Prof. Stephen Holmes of St. Andrew's University who is both Baptist minister and leading theologian.  As she rattled off the names they all triggered memories.  Wonderfully, they are all active Christians linked today in this extraordinary network.   Katherine said that looking back on those days in Cambridge she considered them the determinative influence on her Christian life.  What joy to learn about this generation of students!

There is no way that humans can organize a network of commitment like that!  How good to be reminded that when God works he gives vision, energy and love to keep enthusiastic young people, still enthusiastic 22 years on.   And, we pray, for decades to come!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Australian Highlights (1)

The last two and a half weeks have blistered past with so many extraordinary sights and memories (and very limited internet access for postings!)  Our first stop in Perth proved exhilarating, though nine sessions in four days fairly pushed me.  Our hosts were magnificent with superb accommodation looking across the Swann River to the Perth cityscape.  After preaching in two contrasting Perth churches on our first Sunday, I launched into giving plenary addresses at the Biennial Conference which (very happily) coincided with the 50th. anniversary of the Baptist seminary, now called Vose Seminary after its founding Principal Noel Vose.   

Noel has been a real friend of our family since 1981 when he undertook sabbatical study in CambridgeUK where I was minister.  Two and a half years ago he was gravely ill but he recovered well and at nearly 92 he was wonderfully evident as the conference began.  Carol and I never thought we would see him again so you can imagine the mega thrill of sharing several conversations with this marvelous man of God.  I cannot exaggerate the joy of meeting him. Later, at the 50th. Anniversary Service he spoke for 5 minutes and typically avoided saying a word about himself or his key role with the early vision, but rather commended  the value of reflecting on history for deepening spiritual life. 

At the end of the evening we engaged in our last conversation which included some reflections on our personal histories together.  Eventually, when the time came for us to leave (nearly everyone else had gone) he concluded with these sparkling words: 'Well, the next time I’ll see you will be in heaven'. No one has ever said that to me before with such warmth and conviction.  He made it sound such a glorious certainty! It broke through the sadness of knowing that our paths would not cross again humanly, with shafts of joyous, hope-filled faith and assurance.  We left him, profoundly grateful for his friendship to our family and all the guidance and time he shared with us, and with big smiles that we will meet again in God's future. What an positive benediction! Wowee, Noel!