Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Surprised by kindness

I hope Christmas proved joyful for you with some good worship, food and gatherings. After a quiet Christmas (interrupted noisily by the family on Dec. 27th) we are enjoying the lull before 2016 powers forward.  Just before Christmas, Carol and I visited a nearby small town and carefully parked our new automatic car in the main car park. Painted 'frozen white' it sparkled.  Returning 2 hours later an innocent looking note on the front windscreen invited me to look at the rear driver's side where Dan had swung into the back panel, crunching it inwards and scraping along the back.  He left his phone number and promise to pay.  When I called him and thanked him for his honesty he apologized for hitting the new car.  He seemed genuinely sorry!

A neighbor recommended a family body repair shop in a village not far away. When I arrived a likeable young man assessed the damage, pulled out a very ordinary looking screw driver and prized the panel back into position. Just like that!  I couldn't believe my eyes.  He said the deep scratches were of a different order and his boss (due back shortly) would need to give me a quote for re-spraying.

His boss took one look, commented that it was 'frozen white' and he would need to mix the exact match.  Soon he was back and with deft dabs and a drier the scratches disappeared. Marvelling I asked him what I owed. 'Nothing' he replied, 'what's a dab of paint between friends!'  Never having met him before you can imagine my surprise and delight.  And when I told Dan what had happened there was even more delight!
What a lovely thing to happen - quite out of the blue.  That of course - something wonderful quite out of the blue - is what happened on the biggest scale imaginable at the birth of Christ, who has come to change everything for the better.  And he makes all the difference as we soon embark on a New Year, doesn't he?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Pub Carolling

Last night Carol and I joined a group from different Histon churches to sing Christmas carols in some village pubs.  We both arrived on time to discover the first pub was quietly unsuspecting of any carolers only to realize we were in the wrong pub!  Further along the road, the Red Lion was rocking with brass instruments leading the way with a loud (and surprisingly) tuneful group. Later on we moved further along to pack out the King Bill (where a group of us often enjoy chicken and chips on Wednesdays).  The publicans Suzie and Mark provided mince pies and stollen for all and sundry as the singing hit the rafters.

What amazed me was the enthusiasm of all the pub-goers who even asked for an encore. Smiles were on all the faces as they lustily joined in.  Apparently, the Histon grapevine had broadcast our presence beforehand and some people had come specially.  Said the man, nursing his pint, seated next to where I was standing "I normally come on Wednesdays but I wanted to be here.'   One of the publicans remarked, 'Thank you for bringing Christmas into here.'  Who can tell what the good Lord stirred as we sung carols in an unlikely setting but we were glad it was not just Jesus stones (last post) that were about in the village.

And that was the other thing - I just wrote 'unlikely setting'.  For me, brought up in a teetotal family the local pub was off-limits and publicans got a bad press in the New Testament too.  Now, I recognize that alcohol can be abused and I respect my many teetotal friends.  But I am glad to have shared joining in with so many pubgoers who may not normally be confronted by the Christmas story - even if it was through loud carol singing!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Jesus stones

This morning in church we heard about 150 Jesus stones.  A few days ago a group painted stones each with the round face of the baby Jesus peering out from his swaddling clothes. A wide range of artistry was on display!  Certainly, each was unique. Varnished and weather-proofed these were taken by members of the congregation last Sunday and hidden around the village of Histon in all kinds of public spaces.  Then the pastor and others went into the village schools and invited the children to find the hidden Jesus along the paths, greens, by trees (who knows where!)  Apparently playgrounds buzzed with anticipation as children prepared to find Jesus in the village.  They were encouraged to bring any stones they had found to church on Friday when they would be given a book and bag of sweets.....and they could keep their stones too.

Well, today we heard some of the stories.  Children running home saying 'We have found the baby Jesus.'  One parent saying (with approval) 'Finding the baby led to the first theological conversation in our house!'  Over 60 children came to church for their books and sweets with great excitement that they had found Jesus.  You can imagine the congregation's delight when we heard the outcome.

I was left marveling at the imagination of the project (thought up by others but adopted so enthusiastically). What a great idea to 'find the baby Jesus' in the village!  How unforgettably it brought to mind the profound truth that Jesus Christ was born among us. In the translation of Eugene Peterson: 'The Word became flesh and blood, and move into the neighborhood' (John 1: 14). Yes, us
We have several village experiences to come, including carol singing in some of the pubs with brass accompaniment later this week. How good it will be to get excited about finding Jesus in Histon.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lament for a tree

Today a silver birch that grew in our neighbour's front garden and stretched over our shared semi-detached houses has come down.  It took fifty years to mature and added great character to our corner of the road.

Our neighbour's (who are good friends) took great pains to explain why they had to take this drastic step. First, they explained how badly pruned it had been over many years resulting, in their words, in a very thick trunk with an ugly dollop of branches on top!  "You've got to admit it is not very attractive!' they said.  Second, its root system was beginning to  damage the pavement.  Third, others agreed that it really would be no loss to the road and the time for action was now!

Part of us is really sad to see it go.  Admittedly it could have been more attractive and the odd way successive generations had hacked at its branches did make for an unnatural tangle of thick stumps mid-air. Yet in its graceless way it did show some beauty. It's sad to hack down living things.  Yet, I remember the Advent warning of John the Baptist that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3: 12).  Sometimes you need to act and the good news is that our neighbours are going to plant a young tree in its place. ( Also, we shall have more light reaching our solar panels!) So, we shall have new young life to watch - and prune more effectively.

I thought of several lessons watching them saw it down in less than a morning.  But I am encouraged by the thought of new life that could be more beautiful still.  And that seems a great lesson as we prepare for the coming of Christ.  

Saturday, November 28, 2015

UK thanksgiving

To our great surprise, quite out of the blue, some English friends invited us to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with them in Oundle. Actually, the six who greeted us all belong to Oundle Baptist Church. Each of them had experienced the US day in one way or another and wanted to transplant it. With anglicized  thanksgiving food (paying special attention to Carol's lactose and fructose allergies)  we enjoyed a great time. A couple of things happened.

First, I met a distant cousin and her husband for the first time!  My father's family tree was left as just a couple of twigs....my father had very little interest in tracing the past.  My newfound cousin was a fount of knowledge who has promised to pass on some detailed research from another cousin (who I also have never met).  Apparently, the Quickes go way back to a notorious highwayman who was nicknamed: Nick the Quick!  What thrilled me most was to find that this (admittedly distant) relative and her husband are keen believers...indeed they helped to plant the Baptist church. I've not been very good looking at my past either - but this was an unexpected thrill.

Second, Carol asked each of us round the table to share one issue for which we are truly thankful.  As we have found in the past on Thanksgiving Day, it is powerfully moving to hear friends share deep positive happenings in their lives. There are many disturbing things happening in our world and we should not escape them in our concerns and prayers.  But there are also wonderful happenings for which we can be genuinely thankful.  That remains true each day.

PS. Our hostess encouraged Carol to bring special Thanksgiving napkins and a central table decoration of a Pilgrim with a pumpkin and turker.....she must have heard about John Lewis.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Table Settings

Readers of my blog will know the erratic variability of its content and timing.  But I just had to mention a fun happening.  This week I went with Carol to the Christmas Evening for John Lewis customers in Cambridge.   A couple of thousand people lined up outside and as we filtered in, drinks and mince pies were on hand.

Various demonstrations were organized through the evening.  On the ground floor one focused on how to set your seasonal table attractively.  We found ourselves in the crowd gathered around an empty table waiting for the signal to be given so that two John Lewis employees could start their display.  They announced it was to be a gold and white display and they threw onto the table a cloth with a distinctive gold stripe.  Tucking it down in front of the chairs they seemed not to notice the tangle on the side nearest us.  With aplomb Carol stepped forward and straightened it out so that it fell attractively. One or two in the crowd applauded her public spirit.

When the white napkins with a gold stripe were placed alongside the plates one was apparently not arranged the right way round.  Again Carol stepped forward, as naturally as could be, to correct the mistake.   The organizers seemed to take it all in good part but, as anyone knows who has witnessed Carol's table displays, they were really pushing their luck by being so slipshod.   As an impartial husband I have to say that the finished result seemed rather drab compared with Carol's normal fare where napkins make statements, and table runners, platters, decorations, candles all add up to design with panache. As she said, she really could not help herself! 

Saturday, November 7, 2015


'Thank you for your patience'.  I lost count of the number of times we were thanked on our flight home.  Waiting in airports is highly topical and hearts go out the holiday makers stranded in Egypt. Our trip back from the US was less news-worthy but proved highly irritating.
Having packed up (four) suitcases, cleaned our room, washed sheets ready for the next visitors we prepared to say goodbye.  In Chicago it was a glorious day for travel - clear blue sky and temperatures in70's Fahrenheit.  As a last minute thought  Carol quickly consulted her ipad. A blunt email from United Airlines announced that our flight was canceled.  Period. No explanation. As we tried to find alternative flights for London we discovered that thick fog was causing havoc at Heathrow. Eventually, we managed to secure seats for the next day though relief at being able to travel together was undone by a later email saying Carol had to travel separately via Washington (which ultimately did not happen). Unpacking, remaking the bed etc. we readied ourselves for delay.  Psychologically, it is odd to prep for departure and find yourself in limbo.

The next day at a chaotic airport we were delighted that our packed plane was only 20 minutes late for departure.  Sitting at the departure gate we next heard that the plane had a fuel leak and would not be ready for an hour.  The mantra: Thank you for your patience was heard for the first time!   After a full hour we boarded, with relief that the delay was over.  Taxiing slowly to the runway we came to a halt....for another hour. The pilot announced an electrical fault in the cockpit with their window heaters overheating.  We needed to return to a gate but none were free. Again, sweetly we heard the mantra.  Another hour passed.  Unfortunately, the economy plus seats we had booked on the earlier flight were not available on this plane and the seat in front of me was damaged and flopped backwards into my lap.  Not only did my kneecaps touch the seat in front!  Meanwhile we heard the mantra again as over three hours late in close proximity to the passenger in front we took off.  Of course, we were commended again for our patience and when we finally reached London we were rewarded with a heartfelt: Thank you for your patience.

I noted some things.  First, that pre-empting impatience is quite clever psychology.  It seems expecting people to behave well goes a long way towards them behaving well.  Second, passengers were remarkably equable. The repeated mantra could have really irritated us but somehow it didn't! Third, because the Christian faith makes much of patience as a fruit of the Spirit perhaps we ought to expect it of other believers and thank them for it pre-emptively. How wonderfully positive to assume the best of others!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Climbing 3 - the delight of former students

As I mentioned a few posts back, one great joy of seminary teaching is being reacquainted with former students.  To my joy several returned to share in our forum.  The best news they brought concerned their ministries in the years since.  They shared, often with shining faces, what was happening in their churches. Mixed with much realism were glorious stories. Uplifting!

One student, John, who I hadn't seen for several years brought me a gift.  It was a pack of six Penguin biscuits.  He said that he never forgot how we finished each course with a celebration party and that Carol always brought Penguin biscuits from England.  It was his introduction to these milk chocolate cookies and ever since they have been sweet reminders of the classes!  (Actually, he told me how he had introduced others to the cookies whenever he found them on sale in the US!)   What to be remembered for!

Another student, Kevin, presented me with a book: An Hour of Good News: The story of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.  For 65 years this hour long program, first on radio and then television became one of the most famous pulpits in the US and beyond.  Best known preachers of the day shared in its story and a list at the back of the book includes so many names from the past.  Kevin gave me the book because when I was teaching full-time at Northern the pulpit from this program was donated to our the preaching lab (which doubles up as a prayer chapel). Photographs in the book show the pulpit in use in the TV program. Today, a sign on the pulpit references its past and that many preachers such as Martin Luther King have proclaimed from it.  Over the years each batch of students has been acquainted with the story as they preached their sermons! So, I was given another totally unexpected recollection alongside Penguin cookies!

Before I return to Cambridge we have been busy planning for the next Forum and I leave Northern with encouragement and, of course, continuing need of prayer

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Climbing 2 - Mustard seeds

Yesterday we held a review meeting including participant responses to the New Kind of Preacher Forum. No response mentioned the clicker, roof leaks or car crash outside!  Actually, it was thrilling to see responses to various questions.  One asked: How did you hear about the NKP Program ? and one person wrote: 'Carol Quicke grabbed me by the arm and pulled me over to the laptop to register'. What did you find most interesting/surprising about the information presented today? gained a large number of replies like: 'It wasn't another "technique" conference!  It was refreshingly encouraging to hear a new focus not just for preaching but for our churches', 'Being drawn to God or driven by ministry',  'The idea that God is doing a new thing that we cannot now know, only discern'. 'If I am to be a transformative preacher, I must be a transformed person'.

Of course, there were sections asking what they would like in future forums, where could the forum be improved and who could we invite to the next one.   It was immensely rewarding to see the honest engagement in it all.  We learned much.
The most critical outcome, however, concerned potential new facilitators and participants as we seek to set up more groups.  I think I knew we would not be overwhelmed!  Commitment to a group involves $1000 with a two-year covenant and facilitators have a rigorous training program before leading one of these groups.  But, there are a few good signs.  Lauren and I commented how the Lord always loves to work with mustard seeds where he can give surprising growth.  Our President, Karen, independently reminded us of what can happen with loaves and fishes.  So the next stage of the NKP climb looks ahead to nurturing mustard seeds and multiplying loaves which - of course - is largely out of our control.  The need for prayer remains urgent.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Climbing 1 - positives and negatives

I need to thank everyone who prayed and supported yesterday's launch of the New Kind of Preacher project.  I likened it to beginning a mountain climb.  The project Director Lauren and I knew that one new peer learning group would be there to make a start and a few pastors had said they were coming.  But many more said they wouldn't be there!  In the end the conference hall was surprisingly full with a striking variety of pastors, worship leaders and students.

Tomorrow we share in debriefing with an opportunity to see evaluation forms.  From my perspective, the beginning worship session opened up into a day of daring to perceive what new things God is calling us to see:  See I am doing a new thing: now it springs up do you not perceive it! (Isa 43:19) I particularly appreciated the time of confession as we spent time in the context of a later verse as God chides his people - 'You have not wearied yourselves for me' (v.22) because they have failed to call on him expectantly and constantly.  Worse, God says:' But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses' (V24). Not wearying him with good stuff; drastically wearying him with bad stuff.  I think setting the whole forum within this Scripture - every participant was given a copy in their folder - put us in a humble open-hearted place. Certainly, it did me!

Much happened.  Positively, the sessions, panel discussion, table talks with leaders brought lively interaction. We definitely started to climb! Negatively, three things happened that have never occurred before in that conference hall. First, the clicker to operate my power point slides refused to cooperate.  Many attempts were made to remedy this (I really wanted my presentations to flow because they were being videoed) but all to no avail.  The technicians couldn't explain it.   Second, a violent storm hit the building and rain poured through the previously impervious roof.  People rushed in with giant bins to catch the water.  Third, in the middle of my second session, a woman four times over the alcohol limit crashed her car into the conference center and was only 5 feet away from the front door and our welcome table.  Police, fire and ambulance noisily rushed to the scene.  Since the conference center is on a private road the whole incident seems utterly bizarre.  I have found any advance for the Lord is accompanied by a spiritual battle when negative things occur.  But this ranks as one of the strangest.  Perhaps it means that God's new thing really is beginning to happen!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Next climb up the mountain

I mentioned a couple of posts ago about pitching base camp as the New Kind of Preacher program begins here in Chicago.  Now I am looking up the mountain as the first lap of the climb leads up to the First Annual Preaching Forum on October 24th. It's being held in the seminary's Lindner Conference Center, funded by the generous Lilly grant.  Invitations have gone out.  The Director, Lauren Visser, and I have been working on the details for many weeks. In these final days I know that prayer remains the most vital ingredient.  So, hoping that others may join me in extra praying, I have written a short prayer to focus my own thoughts.

Gracious God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who alone makes your new things happen, we commit to you the First Annual Preaching Forum.
May your invitees come with open hearts and minds, sensitive to your will for their lives.
May your presence be magnified as lead-worshipers prepare and help the forum to worship.
May your voice be heard through the preaching, and your vision seen through the main sessions.
May your encouragement and challenge be experienced in the panel and groups.
May your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Lord, nothing of eternal significance can occur unless people humbly depend on you.  Help every person involved to trust and obey every step of the way.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

And, if you happen to be around Northern Seminary, Lombard on October 24th. we would love to see you there! Details at seminary.edu/NKPForum!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tipping the balance

Yesterday I preached at Northern Seminary's weekly chapel service. Set near the beginning of a new academic year it was good to gather with faculty, staff and students, in a familiar space with many familiar faces. I reflected that this October I have tipped the balance.  When I was ordained as a Baptist minister I believed I would spend my entire life in pastoral ministry serving various churches.   In fact I only served for 21 years (in two churches) before a surprising call to seminary life at Spurgeon's College in London.  I recognize that I have just tipped into my 22nd year in seminary life.  I could never imagine that I would spend more than half of my ministerial life in theological training....but it's just happened.

People sometimes ask me which I prefer - church or seminary. That's a really difficult question because they are such contrasting ministries.  In the local church Carol and I became embedded in church family and wider community with extraordinarily deep connections as we grew in service together.  At times it was all-consuming, in-your-face stuff.  Highs and lows in rapid succession.  We belonged! At its best it meant living in love together as God worked his purposes out....far beyond our imagining.   I know there were grim times too, when balance between church/home was hopelessly wrong or pastoral tragedy struck.  But living the pastoral role is unlike any other.

In seminary we were embedded in a different kind of community with a longer time-line.  Stephen Olford termed it: 'Ministry to ministers is ministry to multitudes'.  Far beyond the immediate bonds of teaching and caring for students and families preparing for ministry there lies a wide kingdom reach when they graduate to touch hundreds of lives over future decades.  And the joys of hearing outcomes are often delayed for years....yet joys they are as you hear of the part you played!

I guess the fact that Carol could not be as closely involved in partnership these last years (though she has given her best) is the biggest difference between church and seminary and, personally, I admit I much preferred it when we were able to work as a team in the local church.  But ....what a privilege it has all been.  Now setting up base camp for a climb in my 43rd year of ministry!   

Friday, October 2, 2015

Audrey - singing in heaven

In May I posted about 'hymns and the elderly' because of an experience when Carol and I shared in the 80th. birthday of my former secretary at Spurgeon's College. I didn't mention her name though many of my readers will have known who I was referring to - Audrey Jones.  Well, I have just heard that dear Audrey has died and our thoughts and prayers go out to all her friends and all who will miss her.
Audrey served as Principal's Secretary at Spurgeon's for 25 years. 'Served' is the word!  She poured every fibre of her being into the task. When I arrived in1993 she shepherded me through the first months with extraordinary care.  Her encyclopedic knowledge of the college - its students, staff, donors, supporting churches - combined with her pastoral gifting which seemed sensitive to every situation proved invaluable.  She directed me where to spend my initial energies- key people to whom I needed to relate and which opportunities to say 'yes' or 'no' to!  Previously, I had never had a diary kept for me - it was unnerving but comforting as I recognized Audrey's wise leading at every turn.  Administration kept humming and, as people were in-and-out of her office with constant phone calls interrupting, I witnessed a lady expressing pastoral gifts and spiritual wisdom in every relationship.
I hope she knew how much she was treasured.  When she finally retired we tried to give her the best send-off we could with a banquet, gifts and speeches.  But I know she saw her service was primarily for the Lord and what really matters is his great "Well done!" 

Carol and I have so many memories.  In retirement Audrey visited us here in Chicago and I marveled at her continuing energy - especially when she went downtown to the city and we later witnessed her photographs!  In May I mentioned how an unusual kind of dementia prevented her from speaking or showing expression yet at her birthday party she mouthed the words when we sang 'Happy Birthday'.  The group then went on to sing some of her favorite hymns.  She joined in soundlessly but word perfect!  'Great is Thy faithfulness', 'How great Thou art', 'Thine be the glory' and 'Just as I am'.  Apparently, the last one was a particular favorite.  Before she came to Spurgeon's she worked for the evangelist Eric Hutchings and this was a great response hymn at his crusades (as with Billy Graham).   Verse, after verse, we all marveled at her freedom of expression.  Now, we rejoice that Audrey is at liberty to join in the glorious praise of heaven.  And we believe she is, with no holds barred! 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Arriving at base camp (2)

Pitching tents with me were the first facilitators who will be responsible for creating strong peer learning groups for pastors.  In the next few years we hope to prepare tens of men and women who will oversee these groups, which are properly termed: Clergy Communities of Practice.  A growing literature about these groups focuses on key dimensions: on ministry because of shared interest in commitment to God and church; on community so that clergy can build relationships of trust and mutual accountability in the group; on practice as knowledge is developed and tested in their own situations.

We are starting small. What especially struck me as I read the facilitator training manual was the listing of necessary characteristics by 15 criteria.  Some are obvious such as the need for experienced pastors who serve healthy congregations, who have faced difficulties, are theologically inquisitive, emotionally mature, intellectually curious and generous with time and energy.  But what about these?:
  • they are full of grace, continually making room for others and giving love away
  • they are confident in their own gifts but humbly do not see themselves as 'experts'.
  • they are listeners before they are talkers.
  • they are good at asking questions that invite others to explore issues more deeply.
  • they hold a clear and deeply theological sense of what it means to offer hospitality to others.
I couldn't help but examine myself and find multiple challenges!  In climbing the mountain ahead I know I need God's help to overcome inadequacies - especially listening before talking and asking good questions!   I wonder whether you are challenged by the list too?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Arriving at base camp (1)

I am so grateful to friends who have been praying and supporting me as my preaching project in Chicago lumbers on.  These last few days have been like arriving at a base camp at the foot of the mountain.  All the months of planning about the right equipment, supplies and climbers have, at last, brought us to a point of arrival.   On Friday I met with facilitators for the first time to talk about the journey ahead and review our resources. We began (and so much needed to!) with an extended time of listening to God in Scripture.  We are aware how easily you can marshal resources presumptuously!  As the old tag runs - God wants our availability for his plans rather than our ability in our plans.

It was challenging to describe what lies ahead for the very first time.  Hard copy first modules were in hand and first peer group members are known by name.  After months of theory it was like looking out of tent flaps to see the mountain looming ahead. One of the facilitators said at the end of our training day: 'Today I can really see for the first time what the New Kind of Preacher is all about.  It's such a big vision and I am so excited by it!'  It was humbling to sense how words on paper were beginning to come alive.

However, humbling is the word.  Looking out of the tent flaps we can see only the lower reaches of the mountain.  Like those experiences of being in mountain country where the upper reaches are still swathed in cloud and you have only hints of their height and the difficulties of scaling them, there is so much that we cannot see.   As someone else said on Friday: ' When something is really new you have not been there before and you cannot be sure what lies ahead.'

But we are at base camp!  Thank you Lord.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Chicago - preaching again!

It has been a while since I updated you on the progress of the preaching project that should engage me for the next five years, since the Lilly Foundation awarded my seminary funding in order to develop my preaching ideas.  Looking back, I recall initial exhilaration at this opportunity to work further....at the very time that being made an Emeritus Prof supposedly ushered in a quieter life.  My broken leg sabotaged its beginning (1 year ago) and since then progress has been in fits-and-starts.
However, I am off shortly to gear up various meetings culminating in the launch Forum on October  24th.

This preparation work explains laggardly posting (and also the odd unedited first appearance of this one!)  The more I look at the book that I am trying to write and the accompanying workbook the more I realize how much this new preaching project will stretch me and the participants.  At the beginning of the forum I am preaching on Isaiah 43: 19:  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? It's a humbling text because God stresses that he is doing the new thing and asks are we discerning it.  The back-story warns that we can so often power ahead doing things for him while entirely missing what he wanted us to do.  Discernment in waiting prayer precedes God's new things. I know we have not prayed enough so my obvious concern is that this new project might miss what God truly intends.  So, continuing humble discernment in order to join in with him remains the priority.

Frequently, I receive reminders of elements within the project - especially the need for a true understanding of worship in light of Rom 12: 1,2.  Just last week an older musician friend of mine wrote:

BUT I can’t get used to the music teams, when they have  their 2 or 3 songs in the middle, calling it “The worship time” and these are “worship songs”…what, I ask myself is the rest of the service then? Surely it is all worship –even bringing our money to offer, readings,etc. IT’s ALL WORSHIP. In truth I feel generations away from these young Christians, and, of course, I am. But we are still all One in Christ Jesus.

I look forward to letting you know how these next weeks progress!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Stranger at the door

Following my last post someone emailed me a warning about the dangers of letting just anyone in your home. They mentioned the movie 'Paper Moon' about the father and daughter con artists! It's true - you never quite know about people.

Recently, there was a ring on doorbell.  An older man stood there who I didn't recognize.  Fixing me intently he asked: 'What were you doing on January 29th 1966?'  No preamble.  No clues. I have faced some strange questions in the past but this abruptness was startling and disturbing.  Was the past catching up with me?  What on earth did this date mean?  As I admitted I did not have a clue about my whereabouts nearly 50 years ago, he smiled and said it was the day that the new Baptist Church building at Arbury Road, Cambridge was opened.  My father had been pastor and I was a twenty-year old sharing in the event. He had been present at the opening too and now that the anniversary was coming round he was asking whether I might preach at a special service to give thanks 50 years on.

He came in and sat down, producing photocopies of the original service sheet with my father's name on it.  Memories came flooding back of this important event in my father's ministry and the many answers to prayer that came to fruition that day.  Apparently, they are inviting anybody who was around at that time (!)  So this proved to be a welcome stranger who, the longer I was with him, the more I sort of remembered him!   Of course, I said 'yes' to celebrating memories and the ongoing story on the last Sunday of January 2016 - another privilege of older age!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Unlocking memories

Carol and I were sitting in our front room when Carol noticed a man and his young daughter staring up at our house.  He was pointing, walking to one side, pointing again, crossing the road opposite and pointing again, all the time talking animatedly.   Could a bird of prey have landed on our roof?   One of our solar panels become detached?   Or a small fire have started upstairs?

Carol threw open the front door and asked the man if she could help: 'We noticed you outside and wonder what it going on?'   To our surprise his face lit up with obvious joy. ' Oh,' he said excitedly, 'I am just showing my daughter where I used to live when I was seven years old.  I have so many memories - of me sitting on a toy truck outside the front here,  of my brother and me playing here.'  When Carol invited him and his daughter (around 10 years old) inside he was in ecstasy. 'Can we really come in.  Oh, gosh!  This is just wonderful  How sweet of you!'

Then began a whirlwind tour down memory lane.  At every point, upstairs and downstairs, he had memories which tumbled out as a torrent.  He described where his Mum and Dad slept and spent a time marveling where he and his brother had beds side by side.  On the landing there used to be a cupboard with the hot water tank. 'It's gone' he said. 'That's where we used to put our towels to warm them up and sometimes our pajamas when it was really cold.'  At every window he paused with memories about how he had once looked through the same space. 'Oh, to think that you have let me in so that I could share all this with my daughter' he said (several times!)  He now lives abroad and was flying home the next day but he told us being let into No. 14 Brierley Walk was the highlight of his visit.

Reflecting on his enthusiasm Carol remarked how happy all his memories seemed to be and how good it is to live in a house where previous families had good times.   Remembering good times is a very good exercise indeed.  Scripture is packed full with commands to remember the stories of our past.  It's good to be enthusiastic about good memories, isn't it?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A crafted surprise

Carol and I have just returned from holidaying in Somerset where we spent a week staying in the same block of flats as our London family.   Our separate flat gave us some breathing space from our three grandchildren (let readers perceive between the lines!) Times spent together proved energetic and eventful.  Hopefully they will remember happily sharing in a Civil War re-enactment with cannons and rifles, finding ammonites on a fossil beach, as well as slurping ice creams and cream teas.  Yes, some days it rained but it didn't stop them from swimming in the (cold, cold) sea!   For us, as grandparents it proved another wonderful occasion for getting to know the next generation.

When they arrived in the car-park outside the apartments we helped them unload multiple bags of clothes and provisions.  Then Anton (aged 10, soon to be 11!) announced that he had something for me.  Something he had thought up and created himself.  He then presented me with a black paper cross on which he had very neatly pasted a sequence of brightly colored patches of tissue.  The result was striking.  He had remembered going into my prayer shed some time ago and seeing on the wall above my kneeler in my prayer corner an icon, a crown of thorns and one or two crosses (including a delicate wooden one from Jerusalem).  He had asked about them and I said that they helped remind me of Jesus' love for me when I knelt to pray.  He had stored this in his mind and determined to surprise me with his personal gift.  I really treasure his thoughtfulness for several reasons....and I think you can probably guess why!  What an addition in my prayer corner!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Threescore years and ten (4)

Just one more thing before I forget.  When Carol sprung the surprise birthday eve party and friends spoke to me 'before I am dead' I learned several things.  People were being kind (in view of my age) so they said positive things! Modesty prevents me from sharing much as friends spoke of my ministry in Cambridge and at Spurgeon's.  But it was mightily interesting and encouraging to hear things from their view-point.  How rarely do we hear from others about our work and influence!  Truly, the instruction: Don't wait until he's dead' deserves attention
However, one comment really caught me out. Ron (my current pastor) and his wife were present. Ron had overlapped his final year as student at Spurgeon's College with my first year as Principal.  He had been there three years already and he shared his discouragement and how utterly dispirited he felt about going into ministry.  Now, he had shared that with me before but what he said next completely surprised me.

Apparently, for my first time preaching in the chapel I took the story of Abram's call, telling the students to begin reading the story in Genesis 11:27.  Ron said that they quickly looked up their bibles to see the background to Abram's call in Gen. 12:1-9.   Then Ron remembers my three points (which he repeated later):  God speaks, God disturbs, God promises.  'This was a transforming moment,' he said,' that turned my dejection around. It was a whole new beginning and I was renewed in my call to ministry'.

You can imagine (even those of who are not preachers) just what it means to be told this news 22 years later! I was humbled. But I was also reprimanded.  I have recently written three chapters of a book with the working title: ' Beyond three points - preaching for the twenty-first century' in which I critique the too familiar practice of hanging spiritual truths on predictable three pegs. I argue that there are other ways of presenting gospel truth.  However, Ron's reminds me sometimes three points can really make impact!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Threescore years and ten (3)

Coincidentally, one of the gifts that Carol gave me was a wall plaque.  She is rather particular about keeping walls uncluttered (as with the rest of the house apart from my garden shed which she has given up on!) but she has already put the plaque on the wall facing our stairs.  Every time I descend I am greeted by these words: THIS IS THE DAY.

Carol says she wanted me to have it as a challenge about seeing each day as a gift and using it well.  Though it was bought in a thoroughly secular shop (!) it has echoes of another psalm too:  This is the day that the Lord has made (Psalm 118:24) which is all together much more positive than Psalm 90!  You know how that verse continues 'let us rejoice and be glad in it.' Only after I had posted my last reflection did it dawn on me that I now had a daily reminder to number my days aright!  Preachers are always looking for ways to reinforce and apply messages and this is the perfect one.

Carol also found another text (though I am very unsure which translation it comes from). Live happily with the woman you love through the fleeting days of your life, for the wife God gives you is your best reward down here for all your earthly toil (Eccles. 9:9)  Probably she would have preferred to have hung that up as a plaque if it had been available!.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Threeschore years and ten (2)

I mentioned that Carol called my birthday biblical.  That's because of the KJV translation of Psalm 90:10 - The days of our years are threescore and ten.  I remember in my first pastorate in Blackburn I had a very sad first couple of years as five key church leaders died aged between 57 and 66.  This target of threescore and ten seemed to be set too high.  Of course I have conducted many funerals for eighty and even ninety year olds but my early experience emphasized just how precious life is and how easily we can take a span of even 70 years for granted.

In reflecting on reaching 70 I definitely do not take the years for granted.  Twice I have undergone life threatening illnesses needing radical surgery. And ever since my dystonia disease was diagnosed in 1987 I am aware of living between three-monthly injections, without which I revert to being physically twisted in serious pain. All this might rather seem too gloomy, but it fits the mood for Psalm 90.

This psalm gives a very sober view of human vulnerability from God's point of view. Verse 10 goes on: and if by reason of strength they be four-score years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.  Yet, amidst grim news there is a vital prayer and a promise.
  • The prayer : 'Teach us to number our days aright, that we might gain a heart of wisdom' (verse 12). No day is to be wasted. Start valuing time and life and you will learn more about living well in God's purpose.  I need to make sure that every day that's left counts for God!
  • The promise:' May the favour of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us - yes, establish the work of our hand (verse17).  Establish is a God word here. The God who has all the time in the world compared with me, calls me to count the days so that within them my little bits of work can really belong, sure and firm, in his long-term plans.
So, onwards into my 71st. year!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Threescore years and ten (1)

This week I celebrated what Carol calls my biblical birthday (more later).  In my youth I remember attending 70th. birthdays with a mixture of wonderment that people had lived that long and boredom that there were so many other old people present.  Well, having reached the same point I feel even more wonderment but absolutely no boredom!

Carol organized a surprise (and it really was) party on my birthday eve. Yes, eve - that's partly why I was not expecting it.  Around 7.30 pm she announced that we needed to bring in extra chairs from the garage as she set about organizing an extravagant array of desserts and drinks.  Apparently she had been quietly making preparations for some time but I in my normal oblivious state remained totally unaware.   Sadly, our house will not allow us to cater for larger groups but when 14 friends began arriving I was really delighted.  What's more Carol had the idea of inviting them to represent the last 35 years of my life. Before candles were blown out on my cake she invited certain friends in the circle to speak to the different connections with me.  As she bluntly put it: 'Don't wait until he's dead!' It was potentially cringing all round but people generously rose to the occasion with words that touched me.  I heard things I had forgotten or just did not know! (more later)

In reply I mumbled a few words of appreciation for them and expressed gratitude for their kindnesses.  It was only later, talking with Carol, that I could succinctly say what this occasion meant. First, I told her how on this particular birthday I looked back with wonder and thanks at the journey the Lord has brought me on.  It has been a full life with extraordinarily varied content.  As a Baptist minister  I am immensely grateful for God's purpose taking me through such experiences.  Second, I told her that she had been his greatest gift transforming the last 48 years in wonderfully rich ways.  Yet again she demonstrated her love and social gifting in organizing this surprise for me....I know how vastly impoverished my ministry and life would be without her.   So, thank you to all who remembered - 29 cards are on display - and very big thanks to God and to Carol!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Graduation Joys

Last Saturday proved to be a glorious Summer day for a delightful experience.  I returned with Carol to speak at Spurgeon's College Graduation.  We parked in neat rows on the main lawn and, grabbing gown and hood, headed towards the brightly decked crowds of graduands and families, posing for photographs and whooping with delight each time they spotted new friends.  After lunch we were driven to Croydon Minster in double-decker buses (by drivers who lost their way and needed local advice!)  Painstaking arrangements were sorted for seating and procession and we all lined up outside the main entrance for the Mayor to arrive.  A buzz of excitement circled around.

Far be it from me to comment on my address, except it was short and amplification meant I couldn't easily be heard at the back (where Carol sat)! But several things thrilled me to the core:
  • stories.  Time was taken to tell the story of each of the 55 students before they received their awards.  The range of experiences, of sacrifice, of achievement and of service was deeply moving and I could not have been closer as I shook hands with every single one, looking into their eyes and receiving their smiles.  It took over an hour but it was the highlight of the day, especially as families and churches celebrated with each in extravagant fashion. Wonderful.
  • singing.  The large church rocked with spectacular singing. Both old and new hymns took off with such enthusiasm.
  • network.  It never ceases to amaze me just how many connections spark into life in such a gathering. Of course, I met friends I had not seen since leaving Spurgeon's fifteen years ago, but many other meetings astonished me.  For one couple it was fifty-seven years ago that we were last together as students. I always marvel at the experience of belonging within the people of God. There's no sell-by-date.
So, a happy occasion and a genuine privilege.  Thank you to Spurgeon's for inviting me back and to the Lord for gracing the day with his joyful presence.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Farewells and chocolate drinks

At the beginning of this week we said goodbye to our US family after six amazing months living near us in Cambridge.  I have mentioned elsewhere the welcome impact of our two US grandchildren Elliot and Sophie. So often their presence was delightfully unplanned as they popped in from where they were staying next door. In particular they enjoyed chocochinos from my new drinks machine. Sitting round the table for elevenses, clutching their hot chocolate drinks and cakes these moments became a delightful routine in the last few weeks since they left school.  I say 'routine' but the surprise conversations with dramatic butterfly-lateral-thinking meant nothing was ever routine!  How we valued their breathtaking imaginations and confidence.

Well, like all grandparents whose children live a long way distant, we are now coping with inevitable sadness that the end has come. However, Rob our radio academic surprised us by leaving a CD to be played once they had left.  Of superb studio quality with editing that skillfully uses music, it contains a series of face-to-face interviews with all the other family members. Rob asked them about the highlight of the months together and quite independently (because the interviews were recorded over time) they each gushed about the holiday at Minehead - crabbing and just being together.  Bless them, they each said very kind words about us both which actually caused even more tears then their actual departure.  We are truly thankful for family life and are immensely grateful to kind people who let them to stay in their houses for two lots of consecutive three months.  Oh, it was good.  Now, down to the writing grindstone without the patter of tiny feet and heads around the door suggesting time for chocolate drinks.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Death vanquished!

This past week has been dominated by my uncle's funeral with its preparations, travelling and the service itself.  His last instructions were clear -his funeral was 'to speak to people of God'.  And so it did!

The cremation took place beforehand with the family and a few church friends present.  All our grandchildren were present too.  Elliot (aged 9) asked respectfully: 'Is his body in there?' as the coffin was placed at the front.  Luca (aged 13) sat next to me on the front row and told me this was his first time at a funeral.  Milo (aged 3) directed us all in through the main doors at the beginning, holding his fingers to his lips with a loud 'Sssshhhh'!  Simply and trustingly with a powerful reading of Psalm 130 we committed John to his Lord.

When we moved to the church we found a congregation of around 60 had gathered to sing some of John's favourite hymns and to hear his chosen Scripture story of the compassionate father, as the preacher called it (rather than the prodigal son!) Again the children sat around us.  It is the tradition of that church to have an open microphone for people to pay tribute.  It was startling to hear a series of carefully crafted vignettes open up John's story to us in fresh ways.  The first spoke of his gifts of financial book keeping, and deep love of other books too. He mentioned how John's skills with New Testament Greek enabled him to be a Wycliffe Bible translator at one period in his life.  A couple of others spoke about his missionary service in Bangladesh and his bravery in the face of the savage civil war in 1971 when the British were told to leave, but he insisted on staying.  A representative of the missionary society told us that when the hospital heard of his death there was acclaim for 'Mr. Davies', still remembered for his courage and love for them.  Another spoke about his war service and code-breaking. Others remembered his participation in their house group, and yet others talked of the quality of his prayers.  Some of the immediate family spoke too with personal memories of how he had been brother, uncle, and great uncle.  We had put up some photographs tracing his life which also spurred memories.

The preaching ensured that the service certainly spoke to people of God so that John's wishes were upheld.  In his modesty he would not approved of the tributes but I think we got the balance right.  After all we were thanking God for John as well as for his promises to us.  And we entered the victory of death vanquished. Afterwards one of my sons said to me: 'I just wish we could have sat down and spent much longer with those people who knew things about him we didn't. ' Yes, a long life well-lived.  Thanks to all those kind readers who remembered us through these days.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Death interrupts

It's an obvious fact.  Death interrupts.  My last blog rejoiced in a family holiday. On our journeys home I went to see my 91 year old uncle (with his hymnbook at the beside -see earlier posting) as did my son and grandson the following day.  We found him alert and (as always) incredibly tuned into our family details.  Though single, he really took such knowledgeable family interest in us all. We all remarked how well he seemed to be adjusting to his nursing home environment.

Early, on June 4th. he died during the night.  Suddenly, as his next-of-kin, we were thrust into bereavement with its web of practical issues, returning immediately to Bristol to start funeral and legal processes.  With his death Carol and I are now the oldest members of our tribe and as we sorted out his few possessions and looked through his funeral wishes Carol really didn't need to say: 'You realize the next time this happens in our family it will be us!'

So, these last few days have been tiring with emotions (that can surprise), travelling, emptying his room, appointments, signings, and mounting paperwork.  I had plans to work hard on a book and had set stiff targets after our holiday.  But death interrupts...and how!

Wonderfully, John had deep Christian faith.  He left instructions that his service was to show people God, and he chose old hymns with such positive choruses.  I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene....with the chorus:  How marvelous!  How wonderful! ..is my Saviour's love to me!   And, When we walk with the Lord, in the light of his word....with the chorus: Trust and obey for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.  When we share in his service next Thursday we shall rightly be positive too because of the resurrected Savior!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Half-term wonder

This last week we have experienced family togetherness as never before.  Forgive me using my blog for such a inward-looking reflection, but I must record how for the first time ever both sets of grandchildren (with their parents of course) were able to spend a week's holiday together.  That's eleven of us!  (I know - a small tribe compared with some but capable of decibel levels and energy output far beyond their numbers). With one family living in New Jersey, USA and the other in London UK it is rarely possible to spend more than a day or two together.  But not this time.

Carol and I look back on this past week with immense gratitude.  Why? Partly because bright dry weather every day allowed us to make the most of staying at the seaside in Minehead, Somerset;  partly because the five children ranging in ages from 13 to 3 happily co-existed day after day; and partly because the beach was opposite which allowed daily visits for hours at a time, looking for crabs, treasure, damming streams and flying kites.

But mostly we are grateful for the sheer miracle of family togetherness. When it works, it's glorious! My oldest son commented wistfully that it was just like holidays in his youth.  Rather old fashioned because the main interests were all outdoors enjoying nature and engaged in physical activity.  There were no funfairs, amusement arcades, expensive children's activities. Yet, every day enthusiasm reigned on the beach, visiting a castle and climbing down the ravine at Watersmeet for a cream tea.  Good old fashioned fun by the sea, with tension from work falling off shoulders and laughter bubbling up instead.

We organized it in order to celebrate that we both have big birthdays this year. We could think of no better way than family togetherness.  And so it proved to be!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hymns and the elderly

In the middle of this past week, between Carol's celebration and the turmoil of moving my uncle (a task which thankfully was completed on schedule), we shared in the 80th birthday of a remarkable lady who served as Principal's Secretary at Spurgeon's for 25 years.  During my tenure she was at the top of her game, holding encyclopedic knowledge of the college and its supporters.  From day one I relied on her wisdom (and hard work).

Sadly, she now suffers from an unusual kind of dementia that prevents her from speaking or showing expression.  When I have shown her photographs in the last couple of years she recognized people and events, and clearly followed conversation.  But, tragically, she is expressionless....except.....
At her birthday party she mouthed the words when we sang 'Happy Birthday'.  The group then went on to sing some of her favorite hymns.  She joined in soundlessly but word perfect!  'Great is Thy faithfulness', 'How great Thou art', 'Thine be the glory' and 'Just as I am'.  Apparently, the last one was a particular favorite.  Before she came to Spurgeon's she worked for the evangelist Eric Hutchings and this was a great response hymn at his crusades (as with Billy Graham).   Verse, after verse, we all marveled at her total involvement with us.   Someone commented how extraordinary it is that hymns can connect like nothing else.

A day later, when I was clearing my uncle's attic room after many years in this Abbeyfield home, I noticed on his bedside table a radio, magnifying glass, Bible and (have you guessed?) two well-thumbed hymnbooks.  He can still speak (though weakly) but again I saw the power of hymns in his life.  I know it's not just with the elderly that hymns are important spiritually but this week I have seen how powerfully they can work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Family life happens

I had mapped out these weeks following my return from the USA for some gentle times of reflection and some work in my shed/sanctuary.  With my US family actually living alongside us in Cambridge I recognized that some time would be expended on an energetic nine and six year old ...expended is the word1  But it looked a relatively straightforward month.

I had no idea that immediately on my return I would be plunged into heavy duty as the eldest nephew of my only surviving older relative -my 91 year old uncle who lives four hours away.   Taken into hospital twice in rapid succession and needing to find a new residential home, his needs have suddenly entangled us with the  world of doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, social workers, and residential care workers. The next few days we shall be involved in physically moving him from his home of the last 15 years.  He is a kindly private man who will not complain. All my life in ministry I have witnessed others going through this process with elderly relatives - now I can speak with fellow-feeling.

However, today I have exulted in a very different family happening.  Carol has celebrated her Big Birthday in style.  For the first time ever, both our boys and their families were able to join us in our home for a riotous Chinese take-away, cricket on the nearby playing field, water-play in the garden, balloons, banner, cards (over 50 so far!), and gifts.  Earlier we had driven out for a couple of quiet hours in Bury St. Edmunds. As we sat by the bowling green with the backdrop of the magnificent abbey we reminisced about life so far and God's goodness in it.  Family life certainly adds complications but we are profoundly grateful to God for the story so far.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Praying and following through

Today we were back in our local Baptist church in Histon, England.  There is something quite remarkable about being back with the people of God you belong to.  It's not just that you have friends whose stories matter to you because you share in the same small group, or have enjoyed hospitality in their homes.  It's that these friends may have been praying for you and actually following your progress while you are away!
It is so easy to say that you will remember someone and that you will pray for them yet find good intentions are pushed way back off your agenda.  But, to our joy, Carol and I were met with dozens of enquiries from people we knew well (and some we didn't) who wanted to know how the preaching project had fared, how I got on in my speaking commitments, and how well we had both kept on our travels.  It was humbling to be on the receiving end of such genuine interest from people who had actually remembered and prayed for us.  Follow-up like this shows authentic Christian love.
It made me think of my list of intercessions that I return to in the UK - the individuals I try to remember in prayer - and how my follow-up with them will actually reveal how much I cared and prayed.   It's a great experience to be prayed for and supported by people who follow through, isn't it?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

USA Weeks 2 &3 - Collaboration Force 10

These last days have passed as a blur.  The reason why we came here was to launch the first phase of  A New Kind of Preacher/Leader.  I have posted already about my wonderment that my preaching work at Northern is going to form the basis of an initiative funded by the Lilly Foundation.  Rather than focus on preaching (which seems the obvious route) I am going to concentrate on the preacher. Yes, the art and craft of preaching deserves attention.  But I am concerned more about the being of the preacher than the doing. What are the roles that a preacher needs to embrace as a child of God who is called to the improbable task of proclaiming as an ambassador of Christ?

One of the key roles that needs developing is COLLABORATOR.  Too many preachers are solo and isolated. Burnout and disappointment lie around the corner.  Co-laboring with others is pivotal for opening up preaching so that God can use it to transform his community to live together in unity for works of service (Eph. 4:16).  Actually, it begins by co-operating with our triune God, participating in fellowship and mission.

Being a collaborator is a demanding role as it develops to involve others.  It requires active listening with willingness to change, seeking God's agenda rather than ours.  Plenty of love, patience and time are essential to co-labor with others.  I call this post: Collaboration force 10 because those of us involved in leading this new initiative have found ourselves needing to model collaboration in an intense blur of planning meetings during my (too) short stay.  So much good has emerged.  On Wednesday this week we have called a meeting of partners to help us further flesh out the vision.  All kinds of details have become clearer.

I am so grateful for the face-to-face collaboration that has been possible.  All the conference calls and emails across the Atlantic cannot facilitate force ten collaboration like we have experienced!  We are on the way!  Thanks so much for your prayers and interest.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

USA Week 1

I look back over this last full week with wonder.  Every day we enjoyed meals with different groups of friends, including a couple of large groups who brought pot-luck suppers to share.  Among the highlights was a reunion with our First Friday group (which now actually meets on the second Saturday each month!) 15 gathered for a pot-luck supper.

Conversation among us was lively = noisy (as it always is!) The last part however was memorable. Time was spent going round the table as each of us shared a particular blessing for which we wanted to give thanks to God. I was struck by the seriousness and intensity as people took turns. A couple of people paid moving tributes to their spouses and families; others spoke about the quality of friendship and prayer support that the group had provided - several of us have been ill recently with three of us men undergoing cancer surgery. Another group member has just become engaged and he told us the story of his proposal on bended knee at the arboretum. Apparently, he shared his desire to marry a few years ago for support, and he gave thanks for the long-term prayers of members of the group.   Another gave heartfelt praise that his relatives who live on a farm in Rochelle had survived the tornado that had ripped the roof off their house and flattened farm building three days earlier. Another, told us how his daily devotions with his wife every morning had transformed his working days.

When we concluded with prayers for each other I marveled that we belong so securely to this group of friends.  As we drove home we said: 'This is real Christian fellowship - and the Atlantic cannot get in the way.'

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter

Landing back in the USA two days ago, Carol and I have just celebrated Easter with the community at First Baptist in Wheaton (where I once served as interim).  The service began with dramatic video of a bleak landscape, one early morning.  A low drumbeat and musical murmur suggested something might happen, yet the camera moved very slowly towards a low hill in the distance.  Eventually, we could see a soldier standing guard alongside a large circular stone.  The beat increased.  The stone became center stage.  Suddenly, with crashing splendor the stone rolled back with brilliant light cascading from within the now empty tomb.  Christ is risen- He is risen indeed. Alleluia.  The choir and congregational singing lifted the roof:  Jesus Christ is risen today.

It was wonderful to be back with so many friends who hugged us with enthusiasm. And what a day to celebrate. For Easter changes everything.  In my recent reading I came across this prayer (by Ted Loder) which I make my prayer today.
O God, let something happen to me,
something more than interesting
or entertaining
or thoughtful.
O God, let something essential happen to me,
something awesome,
something real.
Speak to my condition, Lord,
and change me somewhere inside where it matters,
a change that will  burn and tremble and heal
and explode me into tears
or laughter
or love that throbs or screams
or keeps a terrible cleasing silence
and dares the dangerous deeds.
Let something happen in me
which is my real self, O God.  Amen.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Joined-Up Preacher

This week I am back in Chicago to help the next phase of the Lilly preaching project for which I have responsibility. (I have posted on this before!) Two conferences have been planned in April as pre-launch events, the second one focusing on preparing facilitators for the peer-learning groups that will be formed in October after the major launch forum.

I have eight sessions to address at this conference which will (hopefully) build up the vision for the New Kind of Preacher/Leader that lies at the project's heart.  Already, along the way, I have become convinced about the need to use the hybrid term 'preacher/leader' that I popularized (or at least tried to) in my book 360degree leadership (2006).  Frankly, without combining leading with preaching I think the big vision we have of preachers building missional communities is doomed to failure!

At the same time I have begun writing a work-book which will provide a resource for the peer learning groups.   It has proved more complicated than I first imagined.  So many aspects that I  seek to bring together in the preaching/leading ministry will push boundaries into worshiping, collaborating, community building and living as missionaries in the twenty-first century. One key advantage I have is that I can rely on others collaborating with me in fleshing out the vision, and co-editing the work book.   My workbook's working title is: The Joined-Up Preacher.  We talk about joined up writing....well, this is joined up preaching/leading.  I look forward to keeping you in touch as the project unfolds further.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

28 questions

I have just filled in a questionnaire 'How I preach.'  Abe Kuruvilla has a website homiletix.com where he has published answers garnered from a variety of preachers, and he's adding me to the list.

Some of the questions are to be expected: Who or what made you want to preach in the first place?  Tell us your sermon-prep routine. Average numbers of prep hours per sermon? Who critiques your sermon, besides yourself? Use of Greek and Hebrew?  One word that best describes how you prepare to preach? And how you preach?  Any props used regularly?
Other questions are less likely: Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?  What do you listen to while you work?  Exercise routine? Sleep routine?  Spiritual disciplines?  Favorite food?

I liked the way that he ensured a more holistic approach by including questions about personality type and both physical and spiritual disciplines. 'How I preach' is intimately bound up with who I am and my experiences so far on my spiritual journey.  One question asked: How has your preaching improved over time?  I had to respond honestly that I couldn't be sure - I hoped that I was more mature and helpful but there's really only one Judge of whether I have been a faithful ambassador!
At the end of the questionnaire he asks if there is anything else you'd like to add. I am sure there are other issues that I should face.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Away Day (2)

I have just returned from a very lively Away Day.  The attendees included several friends from the past when I used to be minister in central Cambridge. What thrilled me most were the young people present - three from Southend and another from Woodbridge.  To see their animated faces was a delight.  Afterwards the Southend trio came up to share their excitement about preaching. 'How much we need good preaching today!' said one. Oh yes!

I had a couple of lecture slots and a sermon to preach.  In the first session I opened it up as I mentioned in my last post. I anticipated a range of concerns including:
 personal, communication, congregation and culture.  Actually, these proved to cover most comments.

A very interactive session began, unsurprisingly, with congregation - the difficulty of knowing a congregation when itinerant, or of knowing a group too well to be able to challenge small groups who need encouragement.  How do you cope with breadth when a congregation has university theology professors at one end?  (Treat them like hungry sheep, says I!)  Because lay preaching is often itinerant there must be 'research' about the congregation if at all possible.  Mind you,that's true for all of us when visiting another pulpit. Communication emerged strongly too as preachers expressed concern about being relevant, having appropriate illustrations and using technology properly.  Questions of body language when delivering sermons opened up into debate, including the value of preaching without notes with connectedness. Culture change emerged in concerns about the lack of bible literacy, the changing communication styles and emphasis among young people on authenticity.  Said one young person: 'When a preacher seems to be honest and vulnerable then it connects with us."  And that led to observations about the need for personal integrity.

Were there surprises?  We spent some time on the lectionary.  About half those present were lectionary preachers which allowed us to consider some of the pros and cons of lectionary preaching.  Of course, lectionary preaching not only keeps lay preachers fresh (preventing continual reuse of favourite sermons) but means the local church has a more balanced diet through the year.  Other issues, like biblical interpretation were also raised.

I was encouraged by the serious intent in my afternoon session as we developed issues further.  Actually, I witnessed serious intent throughout and felt much encouraged.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Away Day

My next task is to take an Away Day for area lay preachers on Saturday.  The theme is: 'Issues facing today's preachers.'  It's a very long time since I addressed such an audience.  I am trying to learn from experience how best to deal with such an opportunity.  So, guess what, I am using a flip chart at the beginning to list their issues! (My last time doing this in Devon ended up with an almost unstoppable flow of issues that went onto three pages!)

I wonder whether as lay preachers they will have some different concerns, especially if they are itinerant going from pulpit to pulpit?   Being an occasional preacher is such a contrast with those who are in pastoral charge week-in-week-out.  I expect a range of issues to emerge such as:
  • personal - confidence, building experience, developing gifting
  • communication - how best to prepare and deliver sermons
  • congregation - dealing with very different contexts with all that is involved in planning worship etc.
  • culture - are there changes that make preaching more or less difficult?
But, I could be really surprised what this group says!  If you are a lay preacher reading this I would love to hear from you. As always with any group, I expect some unlearning will have to take place as well as (hopefully) fresh understanding.  Apparently around 30 people have signed up.  I'll let you know what happens.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Herding Cats (3)

In dealing with leadership I was concerned to measure the impact of Baptist understanding of church with its emphasis on the gathered community of believers in Christ, where no one person or group can claim to be the authoritative channel of revelation.  Rather, the whole community under Christ's authority is responsible for seeking his will.  Obviously, some individuals have key roles like ministers, but all leadership forms should accompany and implement church meeting decisions that should not just be based on counting votes but seeking the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).  Spiritual discernment together.
Wow, can that be complicated!  At the core of this complex authority structure is the huge claim that we are being made a new humanity in Christ, which is a work in progress.  We are a living experiment working out Ephesians 4: 1-16.  No longer as immature as we once were, pleasing ourselves, forcing our own preferences, we are growing together by the grace of Christ to become 'mature' in community.  Faith in Jesus Christ involves a calling to maturity, to shared responsibility with others in his new creation.  This is a challenge of the highest order.  God gives it and, by triune grace, he empowers it.

While speaking at the conference I realized how I could sum up the negative and positive of this way of understanding church. What is the biggest disadvantage to Baptist leadership, with the gathered church seeking God's will together?  It's IMMATURITY.  Bluntly, many of the critical problems arise because we are still 'infants tossed back and forth by the waves' (Eph. 4: 14) enslaved to selfish individualism with childish attitudes.
And what is the biggest advantage:  a gathered church's MATURITY.  When a people is growing together in unity, 'speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ.' (Eph. 4:15). More grown-up in our attitudes to each other.

Isn't Christian leadership about being more grown-up in Christ, helping a church to be more grown-up too?  So many issues on the list required learning how to be more grown-up together.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Herding Cats (2)

Just back from Devon I have to report great joy in meeting with a lively group of ministers and spouses.  I especially loved meeting friends from the past, most of whom I had not seen for over 14 years while absent in the USA.  And, as always seems to happen, I learned as much trying to lead the sessions as I gave out.  (Actually, I tried to give out too much....a classic mistake of overload.  I should know better!)

At the outset we engaged in some heart-storming about particular leadership issues they identified in their own situations.  The shared context of Baptist ministry meant many of these issues resonated widely. Carol with her highly legible poster skills wrote these up on a flip chart to summarize the range of concerns:

Authority - given to ministers yet frequently questioned.
Perceptions & Expectations of congregations - sometimes conflicting
Culture change - people don't behave like they used to
Growing people into leadership.
Coping with 'lovely' people who are not leaders and 'unlovely' people who are
Encouraging acceptance of youth in leadership
Building teams
Coping with powerful families and awkward squads
Changing communication - sermon effectiveness?
Women in leadership
Focus on doing at expense of being
Formation of people
Developing vision
The role of the church meeting - if only there were fewer!

Sadly, having given reign to this list (and it could have been much longer) I could only respond in general terms.  As one minister said: 'We really needed a week!' Perhaps some of these issues resonate with you too.  But they grounded the sessions in greater reality and helped me realize one thing in particular.  I'll post on it shortly!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Herding Cats

Next week I am addressing the SW Baptist Ministers' Conference in Devon.  I mentioned a few posts ago that the conference title is: Herding Cats: Issues in Baptist Leadership.  It's not a very flattering description of Baptist congregations (!) but it does recognize that a strong sense of independency, reinforced by the practice of gathered church, often makes Baptists less like sheep and more like cats. In the first session we shall have some heartstorming (which I much prefer to brainstorming) about particular issues faced by conference members.

Meanwhile I asked a couple of  Baptist ministers what they would identify as key leadership issues. One thought for a minute and replied that the number one issue is 'team-building'.  'I had no idea just how much investment I had to make to build a team of leaders in my church.  The amount of time and effort to ensure team members pull together is huge.  Frankly, there's so much jealousy, lack of confidence from some, and the need for me to pre-empt problems before they explode in public'.  Another minister immediately identified 'burn-out' as his major issue and proceeded to tell me how many hours in the average week he finds himself working....and how difficult it is to find a way through.

I shall be listening carefully during the conference. I think some issues will emerge that are more difficult for Baptist ministers because of our church structures with authority residing in the church meeting and plenty of scope for immaturity.  However, I am convinced that other important issues are easier for Baptist ministers for exactly the same reason of church structure, when there is maturity.  I really hope to encourage some fellow ministers along the way.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Final Sunday

It's been a good experience preaching a sequence of sermons in a local church.  On Sunday I reach the last of the chosen questions.

Deciding which verse best begins a Scripture text (and where to end) is sometimes complicated. I am preaching the famous questions: But what about you? Who do you say I am? (Mark 8:29) yet I believe it makes sense to begin the story with the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida (Mark 8: 22-26).  The fact that Jesus has a two-stage healing with this man at first only able to see 'people looking like trees walking' invites us into the complex world of seeing in and out of focus.  For me, that prepares for the way in which Peter  says the right thing about who Jesus is, but his picture is way out of focus.

As I work this week my sermon's main impact will be:
By the grace of God this sermon will say - it is not straightforward seeing who the real Jesus is but he will ask us specifically;
this sermon will do - challenge hearers to commit to the real Jesus!
I think all of us can get Jesus out of focus, can't we?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Next Sunday I will focus on Jesus' disturbing question: 'What were you arguing about on the road?'(Mark 9:33) I find it challenging because some Christian arguments are necessary, even unavoidable! Look at the story of the early church in Acts and you can see huge tensions in chapters 6 and 15 which could have blown the church apart.  No group of humans going through change can avoid conflict.  You know the maxim: 'Whatever your hand finds to do, others will do it differently'.   I think coping with conflict is a vital part of Christian togetherness.
However, this question  is asked disciples who are arguing about who is the greatest.  Now that's a different matter. My planning so far is summed up by a main impact:
      By the grace of God this sermon will say - that our arguments sometimes reveal our pride.
      This sermon will do - rebuke self-importance in the kingdom.
The worship service concludes with communion. Jesus provides us with the perfect way to consider who we are as a community who can have no pride in his presence.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

For reflection

I am not sure whether these will work without hearing the sermon!  But this is what is included in the worship bulletin for further reflection. 

Read Luke 6:43-49 while imagining that you are standing with Jesus’ disciples (v20) in that level place (v17).  After teaching about love for enemies (v27-36) and judging others (37-42) Jesus teaches about the trees and their fruit and the story of the two builders. Listen to the question ‘Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do the things I say?’(verse 46) in context.
  1. Our words reveal our character.  How might good words reveal Christian character?  Can you describe a good example in your experience?  
  2. Some people have called this question ‘Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do the things I say?’ some of the saddest words uttered by Jesus in the New Testament. The disciples do not answer him.  What sort of answers could be given today? 
  3. Consider the implications of standing before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) and God’s testing of the building materials of our lives (1 Cor. 3: 10-15).  If someone asks you what it means practically to build with gold, silver and costly stones how would you answer?  And what does it mean to build with wood, hay or straw?  
  4. Are there ways in which we can encourage each other to be accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ in our daily living?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Next Sunday

I received considerable verbal feedback from last Sunday at Histon Baptist Church and am busy preparing for next Sunday.  It really helps to have engaged with my church family.

On Feb. 8th the question comes from Luke 6:43-49: "Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do what I say?"(verse 46)  It is set in the middle of a block of teaching we call 'The Sermon on the Plain'.  Jesus is addressing his disciples and you cannot help but feel an immense sadness.  I see a poignant challenge for today.  I shall link Jesus' story of the two builders (rock versus sand) with Paul's contrast of building with gold, silver or wood and straw (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

So, the sermon's main impact is: By the grace of God this sermon will say that our words and deeds show who we are more than we realize;  this sermon will do - challenge hearers about how we are living our lives in Christ's way.  I also have to produce some questions for further reflection.  If they seem to make sense (and sometimes people have complained about my obtuseness!) I may post them shortly. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

A tender moment

Yesterday, I began my short sequence of sermons at Histon Baptist Church. ( I am hoping to include some of my sermon outcomes elsewhere on my web-site!)  For the first time my New Jersey family was in the congregation.  My two grandchildren usually leave with the other children part-way through.  Sophie (aged six) went off happily and later produced a brightly coloured picture of King David.  However, I saw Elliot (nearly nine) stay seated between his parents.  To their surprise as well as mine he announced that he wanted to stay in church to hear Grampy preach!

From the platform I could see him learning forward, all concentration, as I began to retell the story of Jesus stilling the storm.  It went through my mind how little of my sermon would connect with him.  Much was heavy stuff about facing the worst fears with 'the Lord Jesus in my boat.'  After twenty minutes or so, and the final song, I went to the front door in order to greet members of the congregation.  Suddenly, I felt a presence at my left hand side. Standing right close to me, not saying a word was Elliot.  I paused, looked down, and said how glad and surprised I was that he had stayed in church.  He said not a word but just remained close by.  I have no idea what was going through his mind.  But his wanting to identify with me in this way seemed very precious.  Another gloriously unlikely grandfather moment to savour.  In church too!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Needing help (2)

Secondly, I would really value insights about leadership in Baptist churches.  I realize that many readers do not have a Baptist background and will happily switch off.  But for any who do have experiences, please share your ideas and stories. 
In early March I am addressing a conference of Baptist ministers in SW England.  The title is 'Herding Cats: Issues in Baptist leadership'.   The title immediately suggests that certain issues/problems may especially occur because of Baptist congregational polity!  Does the way that Baptists organize their life together complicate leadership in any way?  Sometimes congregations seem so full of independent folk that 'herding cats' is not too far off reality!  Are there particular issues that Baptist leaders need to aware about?
However, I also believe that there are some very positive aspects for leaders in the Baptist context. In many ways we are privileged because our theology of the gathered church gives major responsibility to communities which are able to move in God's will strategically in their own neighbourhoods.
There is much to think about over these next four weeks - I shall be grateful for input and shall keep you posted.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Needing Help (1)

Sometimes I unashamedly use my blog to ask for help. Two needs this week, please! First, sermon collaboration.  It's been a long time since I have preached a sequence of sermons in one place.  My own local church at Histon has asked me to preach through February. This gives me an opportunity to receive help along the way for my thinking and preaching.  Already I have met with the worship coordinators and shared the 'main impacts' of my four sermons. They will collaborate with me in planning congregational worship.

I am taking advantage of this sequence to deal with some more questions that Jesus asked. (Those with longer memories will know that I have dipped into this subject in the past and written posts about them).  With over 100 questions in the gospels there is plenty of scope!

On Feb 1st. I shall look at the two questions that are inextricably linked in the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41):  'Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?'  In preparation, I sum up the sermon's main impact:  By the grace of God this sermon will say - Jesus meets us in our fears when we have trusting faith; the sermon will do - encourage hearers to know Jesus' presence when they are afraid and to trust him with their lives. As always I shall be so grateful for feedback within the local church as well as from thoughtful readers.  I shall use my email address: mquicke@faculty.seminary.edu

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Post Christmas blues

Is it possible that God might be somewhat disappointed about some of our church worship in January?  We spend so much of December preparing for and celebrating the Christmas story. We claim it is a really big deal: Love came down at Christmas, the Word becomes flesh, Peace on earth and goodwill to all people. And the rest!

Yet, in January, in many of our churches we hear no more.  The story goes dead! Preachers launch their sermon themes for the New Year without so much as a backward glance. Churches get on with their own agendas. It seems anticlimactic.  Of course, some in the world church celebrate Epiphany right through January.  I was reminded of this vividly last Sunday, when we concluded the service with prayers around the nativity scene, remembering that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is foundational to the good news that God so loved the world.

Epiphany deserves more time, don't you think?  Its stretch through January deliberately paces us to slow down in order to celebrate the revelation of Christ as Saviour of the world as the Magi visit and God's mission to the world with his church is anticipated. Too often the wonder of the incarnation seems lost in the busyness of New Year activity.  As I prepare for next Sunday's worship at Oundle I shall try to ensure that the glory of the incarnation at least makes an appearance!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Eight minutes

I gratefully add my visit to Little St. Mary's yesterday to my list of worship experiences.  Arriving 30 minutes early I joined the clergy preparing themselves for high mass, with three celebrants donning magnificent gold-trimmed robes and others with surplices.  My place in the procession was described to me, as were various points of the liturgy that particularly affected when and where I preached. After a short preparation service behind the scenes, incense was lit, the procession began and the ancient service carefully followed through the printed order for high mass in the full church. Not a word was out of place!

I preached for 8 minutes according to Carol!  After a service rich in Scripture and prayer, filled with awe and reverence, the  warm and friendly congregation gathered for refreshments.  One commented that my homily had been very Baptist because I had drawn out issues from each of the four lectionary readings. 'It was very Baptist to stick so close to the readings,' he said. Another member high fived me and said, 'Today you are Father Michael!'

How rich is the Christian family!  The contrasts between sharing in liturgy unchanged for hundreds of years and engaging in Baptist worship are many. You can say that again! Yet, there could be no doubting the integrity and care of those taking part, nor the commitment to serve the city - particularly in its care for the homeless. Next Sunday I shall feel more 'at home' at Oundle Baptist but I was so glad to experience this authentic worship yesterday.