Saturday, March 22, 2014

At a finishing post

Last night's retirement occasion for Carol and me was a spectacular surprise in every way.  In the week before we had received a constant stream of apologies from friends who could not attend.  When we went into the Lindner Conference Center at 6:15 last night I was amazed to see the main conference arena set out with tables, tablecloths and flower arrangements (oh yeah!) filling the room. In front of the windows looking out onto the lake there were tables of refreshments for the multitudes.  We looked at each other amazed at the organizers' faith!   A handful of friends were there!  But, by the time we hit 7:00pm and the program started the room was amazingly full.

My two Deans called it my 'Recognition' evening and had organized a program which brought greetings and tributes, prayers and song with such warmth and over-generosity of spirit.  For me the highlights were many because everything that took place was thoughtful and kind.  Let me mention just a few (and forgive inevitable omissions):
  • hospitality - so many people worked to make the center look beautiful and welcoming with staff bustling around to make everything work. 
  • tributes - Lauren Visser spoke movingly for the students and beautifully not only summed up my teaching philosophy but modeled it,  while David Fitch with brilliant wit (and wildly over the top as you might expect) expressed his thoughts with seven headings including a crowd stopper of ....
  • Carol.  It was so important that Carol be honored because she is vital for my ministry and right from the opening welcome from Dean Karen, and greetings from an absent President, she had deserved pride of place as the love of my life, my best friend and the most loyal co-worker imaginable.  I was thrilled about the love expressed for her throughout the evening.
  • Letters from the past.  Bob Price wove together letter tributes ranging over my past ministry and surprised me by making it  42 years celebration rather than just my time at Northern.
  • Ninja - Adron Robinson shared this nickname from his doctoral class, apparently given me because of my smiling delivery of comments after each of their sermons and the students' surprise to find they had somehow amidst the smiles had been critiqued with cuts to the body!  
  • Emeritus Professor.  Jim Stellwagen, Chair of the Board, presented me with a plaque and I am thrilled with the honor and continuing connection.  Thank you.  
  • FRIENDS'  The most wonderful aspect of all was the presence of friends from so many aspects of our lives in the US who had taken trouble to be there and joined the line to speak to us, gave us cards, wrote in a book their greetings and, collectively, gave us memories we shall always treasure.
Someone in the seminary said that this was the happiest occasion they had experienced in that Conference Center, and we certainly felt it could not have been a warmer kinder evening with so much laughter.  Our deepest thanks to everyone who contributed.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Anticipating the finishing post

I interrupt the anecdotes (mercifully!) to announce a particular finishing line that I shall shortly cross.  Carol and I are returning to Northern Seminary for my official farewell (and the final emptying of my office and store room).  March 21st will mark the formal closure of 14 years' teaching at Northern.  Since 2000 when the C.W. Koller Chair of Preaching was inaugurated with me the first occupant, Carol and I have lived an exhilarating adventure. In addition to teaching which I have revelled in, and writing books which I have revelled less in (!),  we have been thrown into some amazing church experiences.  Three times I have been interim preacher in remarkably contrasting churches and each time been gifted with another wave of friends.  Lectures and conferences have taken us to well over 30 different States, as well as internationally, where again we have made lasting friendships.

The seminary is graciously setting aside an evening (March 21st)  for us to say goodbye to faculty, staff, students, neighbors, churches I have served and so many friends who have enriched our years.  The exact arrangements are a surprise but to my great joy I have just discovered is that the evening will include a Service of Thanksgiving.  Giving thanks to God is top priority!

I plan to go on with some preaching and freelance teaching commitments (so long as Carol deems me intelligible!) but this date gives opportunity for thanks as full-time work draws to a close.  Actually, two months later, May 21st marks the 42nd anniversary of my ordination and ever since 1972 I have been engaged full-time in Christian ministry.  So, a big thank-you to the Lord who has made it possible and so many of you who have shared along the way.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Odd anecdote (2)

Unfortunately, I discovered early on how easily a preacher can lead people astray.  I was student pastor at John Bunyan Baptist Church in Oxford, where frequently I had to lead the whole act of worship.

After the opening hymn there was a prayer of praise and confession.  It was the habit of this church(and I remember it being fairly common practice then) for these prayers to close with the whole congregation reciting the Lord's Prayer.  The pastor gave the lead to the familiar words.

On this occasion with a high degree of confidence and loud voice I led my people:
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be Thy Name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil ....

At this point I sensed the prayer was shorter than normal and the congregation was dividing - a small number were following me (though hesitantly), another group was saying something about 'Give us today our daily bread' and the majority were stabbing at words without direction. If it had been set to music there were the makings of a round as different phrases sounded over against each other.  However, it wasn't and in some panic I reached for the end:  'For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.'  The congregation avoided eye contact with me for several minutes, and I with them.

I know the Lord's Prayer can be said meaningfully together when led properly   Ever since I have taken care to keep set words like these clearly in front of me. Another learning experience!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Odd Anecdote (1)

Recently a friend passed on a collection of stories from a Church of England vicar about various happenings in his ministry.   Some of them were highly amusing and they triggered all manner of memories from my own ministry some of which should probably be kept hidden (and will be).

My students sometimes ask me what my most embarrassing preaching moment has been.  I look back to my days as a seminary student when I was chosen to preach at a large, prestigious church in the South of England. For their Annual College Day they operated a rota system between several seminaries including my Baptist one.  The lot fell on me.  I received a sheaf of instructions through the mail, giving precise service details - where I should stand and what I should say throughout the highly liturgical service.  I was also instructed to wear my gown and academic hood.

I tried not to be stressed out but I was still very inexperienced and certainly hadn't met quite so many instructions before.  Trussed up in my only dark suit, tight-fitting white shirt, gown and hood I managed to get through the service until the moment I ascended the small pulpit.  I was hit head-on by a brilliant shaft of sunlight. Able only to grimace at the sombre congregation I launched into the first sentence: 'There is one word which strikes us with so much famillach, so much framillary, so much FRAMILARRRLYUGH.' Each time I stammered it out I gave increasing emphasis and made less and less sense.  On the fourth desperate attempt I gave up all together and lamely said, 'Well, you know what I mean?'   There was not a flicker of response anywhere as the sun picked out the beads of sweat on my forehead.  I plunged onwards.  As I reached the bottom of page 1 I turned over to find page 3 upside down. Stupidly I tried to move on while surreptitiously shuffling the pages only to discover all four were out of order. Reaching the eventual sermon conclusion was a moment of sheer relief, felt even more by the congregation than for me. 

This experience was near the beginning of a long learning curve that I am still on.  However, I resolved I would never use the word 'familiarity' in the first sentence of a sermon!