Monday, December 26, 2016


In our devotional reading today part of a seventeenth century poem was quoted, written by Richard Crashaw (1612-49).
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav'n to earth.

It made me stop and ponder....such profound contrasts contracted and compacted in one truly all-embracing birth.  There is nowhere else and no-one else for whom such words make any sense at all.  But in the incarnation they do. The world's most amazing event occurs.  Share in pondering with me!

Christmas 2016

I hope that your Christmas has brought wonderful times of peace and joy.  On Christmas Eve we took our US family to Ely Cathedral for the 3:00 pm Crib service, which retells the nativity story aided by local children and a donkey.  Warned that hundreds of families attend we arrived two hours early in order to park and spend some time in Ely before the big event.  However, at first we checked in at the cathedral to be warned that families arrive (very)early in order to find seats close enough to see the action.  All of which explains why I was left guarding five empty chairs on the front row right under the soaring Octagon, where the Norman nave suddenly breaks skywards into the fan-light ribs and tall windows of the Lantern high above pillars, arches, stained glass windows of the immense space.  Begun in 1083, with new work completed in 1252 the whole structure takes your breath away.  Indeed, I was sitting right under what many consider is the greatest piece of fourteenth-century architecture in Britain.

For half an hour few others showed up. In that extraordinary space, with wintry sunshine filtering through the windows I reveled in peace in God's presence.  I really did!  Oh, the privilege of minutes spent quietly in such a place.  An empty manger stood on the raised platform right in front of me. The service sheet had these responses:
-When the world was dark and all was very quiet, You came to be with us.
-You crept in beside us and no-one knew, Lord Jesus, come and be with us this Christmas and always.

With an hour to go children dressed up as shepherds and wise men showed up and quiet fled the place.  Excitement grew as a thousand people joined in the carols and heard the ever-fresh story anew.  And, of course, excitement continued with two of our grandchildren sharing the next day with us.  I loved seeing their worship in the cathedral and their enthusiasm at the gift giving and sharing, especially since they had taken so much trouble to bring wrapped presents for us.  Sophie, remembered my love of zebras and the colour purple, and made me a wall hanging with a magnificently drawn zebra under the slogan: Zebra power.  Just right for me!  The US family also presented us with a photo album of our holiday in 2015 when the whole family enjoyed Minehead.  It is impossible not to smile as you turn the pages and see kite-flying, crabbing, castle-visiting and scone-scoffing. I began...I hope your Christmas has given you some moments of peace and joy too.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

December Oddity

As Christmas races towards us and we send out our greetings - as I do now to all my readers who persevere with my erratic and non sequitur postings - I need to explain an apparent recent lack of communication.   As happens towards each year end I have begun transferring dates into my 2017 pocket calendar (no, still not digital!)  I noted a possible preaching tour in the Far East that was first mooted at the beginning of 2016.  Realizing I had heard no more details about the theme and expected work....or anything....I sent an email to the US organizer.  He assured me that the visit to Taiwan, S. Korea and Philippines was definitely happening in May 2017.  So I noted it in my 2017 schedule.

The next day I received an email from the team leader Tom Long (there will be four preachers in all) with a copy of his detailed outline of theme with deadlines for our responses.  Guess when he sent it?   Back in August!  But, mysteriously and very irritatingly, it had been sent to me at a non-existent yandex email address.  I was stunned to read what I was supposed to be working on these last few months. I was living in blissful ignorance (not for the first time). Tom shared in my astonishment that I had been gifted with a mythical email account especially since it is a well-known Soviet server that swallows up all correspondence so that he was unaware I had not received it.  He pondered the image of some Russian operative trying to decipher the code embedded in details about an Asian preaching conference!

Needless to say, the last few days I have been focusing on my contribution and trying to catch up!  However,  Carol with customary flowing pen has been sending out cards to friends with manic intensity.  Many readers of my blog are wisely anonymous but to you all let me reiterate my very best wishes for a joyful Christmas and fulfilling year ahead.  For many these are difficult days...may you especially know that the coming of Christ changes everything for the better.  Just imagine if we could not say 'God with us'!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Silk Screen Printing

Recently, Kettle's Yard (housing a notable Cambridge art collection) held a local 'Open House' in a nearby church which had opened its doors to celebrate our neighbourhood.  At its heart was a print studio where we were invited to create our own silk screen prints of a limited edition print by the artist in residence - Isabella Martin.  She called it A Collaborative Map of North Cambridge 2016 featuring the past, present, future and imagined, green public spaces and waterways.

At different times I have lived on four different roads in the area and my father pastored a church here. The map contains many comments from long-standing residents when much of the area was fields: 'courting in the haystacks', 'coronation party on Green's Road', 'Chivers apple and pears orchards'.  Some went way back - chalk bedrock and mining',  'an iron age fort' and others imagined 'Spiderman on Kendal Way' 'Unicorn on Arbury Road'.....!

Carol and I were guided in our print making as ink was strategically placed on the screen and we dragged a large blade slowly over the surface.  Raising the screen to see the finished products produced gasps of delight.  Mine was blue (102/250) and Carol's was green.  While they were hung up to dry we enjoyed some refreshments and wandered around a small exhibition of some Alfred Wallis paintings.  Living in Cornwall, he was a na├»ve artist who only started painting in his seventies when his wife died.  Oh, the memories they brought back! When I was a student I used to visit Jim Ede at his home Kettle's Yard long before it became a famous art museum.  One term he loaned me an Alfred Wallis picture to hang in my college room.  He said that he liked art to be part of daily living. Now such pictures are in galleries all over the world and sold at huge prices!  What a risk!

Both of us felt exhilarated by our participation (in very small ways) in this collaborative project and enjoyed the moments of creativity.  Another reminder of the power of collaboration!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Thanksgiving hospitality

On Thursday Carol organized a US style Thanksgiving Day in our Cambridge home for six friends.  By US style I mean the full works of turkey, mash potato, green beans and other vegetables with pumpkin pie to follow.  Procuring pumpkin pie proved difficult and this problem assumed increasing proportion as obvious avenues to purchasing it turned into dead-ends. Alas, the success of Thanksgiving seemed to become highly dependent on getting pumpkin pie one way or another.  Then Carol remembered the US serviceman who sometimes works at our local corner shop.  Calling him she asked if her was going to be on the air-force base and could go into the stores for a pie.  To her joy, he said he would try and a couple of days later announced his success.  There was delirium.  Thanksgiving would turn out OK after all!

Our friends arrived and the first course went swimmingly.  Carol announced we were having genuine pumpkin pie and our friends duly showed amazement.  None of them had tried it before.  Carol brought it in on a large platter.  However, as she cut the first slice, one observant guest noted that the pastry crust did not seem to be cooked, nor the very runny contents. Rushing to the bin and fishing out the discarded box with instructions it became clear (too late) that it needed to be cooked for 65 minutes.  There was instant mirth and it turned out to be the day's highpoint of jollity, and continued to echo as sub-theme for the next few hours.  Fortunately, Carol had some back-up desserts and the cooked pumpkin pie made the rounds with a cup of tea later in the afternoon.

The back-ups required ice-cream which I took out of the freezer and dispensed with aplomb.  However, while replacing it I failed to notice that it fouled the freezer drawer. I thought I had closed it firmly but 18 hours later, as ice cream dripped on the floor, I realized my mistake.  Some freezer contents had melted, others were past redemption in their soggy packages.
We shall remember Thanksgiving 2016 for some really good sharing as well as other things!  Hospitality is to be commended but just occasionally it has unforeseen consequences.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Postage Stamps

Yesterday I was preaching at Harston Baptist Church - a village church just south of Cambridge.  It was their 230th. Church Anniversary and the congregation of 70 plus really celebrated (with a great bring and share lunch afterwards).  Because I wanted to emphasize the theme of 'Jesus the King' in my sermon, I told a children's address about my six year old grandson Anton who won a BBC Blue Peter Competition to design a stamp for the Queen's Jubilee.  The prize was to gather with other winners for tea at Buckingham Palace with the Queen.  I think I blogged a post at the time - it was such great fun hearing him tell us of the secret doors in the palace, and how the Queen had come up to him and told him 'Your design is fabulous!' Of course, in retelling the story I emphasized the much more overwhelming experience of meeting King Jesus and living in his story over 230 years.

After the service an older couple came up to me.  He introduced himself as Ian Loe a former student at Spurgeon's College but said he really wanted to comment on my stamp story. 'I don't want to boast,' he said chuckling, 'but I also have been to the Queen because of stamps! I have designed over 550 stamps since the 1970's'.  His wife chimed in: 'He was awarded the MBE for his work!'  Apparently Ian is one of the world's foremost wildlife stamp designers with a particular focus on butterflies. A large volume was recently published of his work. What a delight it was to meet him in a small Baptist church!

Later, over lunch a lady told us that her son had a friend whose boy also entered that same competition. When they showed the winning designs on TV he saw his but a different name had been attached to it.  It required urgent correction to ensure the right designer met the Queen which they achieved in time! Had I been preaching successive weeks I think I could have made a series out of congregational stamp stories!  You just never know a congregation's stories.  That's one of the reasons why I plead for preachers to be good listeners and collaborators!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


On Sunday the preacher's text was 1 Peter 4: 1-11.  He concluded by brief reference to the various outcomes of living for God.  They really do deserve attention (especially the qualifying comments):
          - Be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray
          - Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sons.
          - Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling
          - Use whatever gift you have received to serve others........

Later that day, we discovered an email with an urgent plea for someone to host the local Baptist ministers' wives group meeting on the evening of November 14th.  This is a group Carol has only attended once before, but I noticed she was tapping away on her ipad. 'What are you doing?' I said. 'I'm saying that if no one else volunteers the group can come here.   It will be a squeeze but it would be giving hospitality!'  We chuckled as we remembered the sermon challenge and the rider - without grumbling.

And, because no one else has come is happening!  An immediate opportunity to offer hospitality.  And there had better be no grumbling!   As Carol said: 'You can go upstairs!'

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Happy Day

Yesterday evening, as I went into the room for our mid-week church prayer meeting, the leader Andrew asked me: 'Well, have you done it?!'  I was surprised that he was so in tune with my latest crisis but he had read my last blog and knew the pressure of these last few days. The best part was that I was able to answer, without wishful thinking or fudging (which have characterized recent responses as to how I was getting on!), with a heartfelt  'Yes - I've sent the document off!'  It is heartfelt and I am so grateful to God for energy to keep going and the patience of dear Carol!

It was wonderful to hear someone pray about the manuscript later in the meeting giving thanks and asking that it might prove of value to God. That, of course, is the most important issue - that God might approve and bless all the effort over this last year of planning and writing. As a resource book for the New Kind of Preacher project in the US it will only be of use as God blesses its ongoing journey. A few new peer learning groups of pastors are starting this month.  For the first of two years, as they covenant to work with each other, they will work through the eight modules of my book using an accompanying workbook.  So much depends upon how helpful they find it! Their second year as a group is called a 'freedom year' when they will support each other in seeking to implement one major issue of a New Kind of Preacher!

I am glad to have met one prayer target but now a far bigger one looms ahead.  One of my tag lines has been: 'renewed preaching comes from renewed preachers.'   Renewal is God's gift and we must keep seeking it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Extended essay crisis

The phenomenon of the 'essay crisis' was a recurrent feature of my undergraduate days.  Set weekly assignments to write with deadlines to reach I knew exactly what the targets were.  Always there was much reading material to wade through followed by reflection and then....action, as pen was put to paper.  And that's how it used to be!  Pen to paper.... with every major mistake, paragraph out of order, just plain bad English grammar requiring fresh sheets.

Too often the sequence I followed enjoyed the first parts....absorbing the reading and even reflecting on its contents.  Often I mapped out a structure for my assignment and opened my argument with a confident first page or so.  But then I read it and realized it could do with so much more cogency and flow.  Paper was scrunched into a ball, thrown into the waste paper basket and another start made. Hour after hour, often starting very early in the morning especially on the day it was due.  It is not that I am a perfectionist.  Really. I have always practiced that 'good is good enough' but it does matter that it is at least good!

Why am I recalling those days of 50 years ago?  Because I am in the midst of the same phenomenon. No!? Of course it's not with pen and paper today though I still like to print out sheets for editing by fountain pen. But in other respects it is the same.  I have until Nov 2nd. to complete the last 30 pages of my resource book A New Kind of Preacher/Leader.  I know exactly what the target is. And I am living in the same cyclical pattern...hour after hour.  I have structure but always I want more cogency and flow and liveliness with page-turning wonder etc. etc.!

Carol has been very patient because the essay crisis has already lasted twelve days.  I try and make Sunday a day of rest so that leaves me just three days left.  Who would have thought such excruciating history would repeat itself? Maybe I will let you know what happens next!  It all depends.....

Friday, October 14, 2016

Angel in a jeep

Flying out of Chicago early Wednesday morning meant driving through dense early morning traffic to O'Hare airport in order to drop off the rental car. Already at 7:15 am traffic was choked up in slow crawling lanes.  I decided to avoid the busiest route and drive a road less traveled across the suburbs to join the expressway south of the airport.  Unfortunately, I chose the wrong road! Even less traveled than I imagined! Approaching the expressway I realized to my horror that there was no access to it as we drove straight under.  Stopping in a garage I asked (trying to keep desperation in check) which way was the quickest to the airport.   A man in the queue told me to keep driving until a main intersection at which I should turn right and keep going.  He gave me little confidence by indicating with his hand that it was left we should turn.  Help!

Traveling to the intersection and turning left (!) we joined an enormously slow moving line of vehicles. One traffic stop after another we began to lose heart after several minutes with no evidence that the airport was any closer.  In the lane next to us was a young man in a jeep.  Carol wound down her window and shouted across: 'Is this the right way to O'Hare?'  'Yes,' he answered. 'How much further? we asked. 'About 5 miles....twenty minutes or so. I am going there, you can follow me!,
'' We are going to return this car to you know where that is?'  'Yes' he said as he moved off and we tried to nose in behind.

Following as close as we dared he led us through a maze of roads and eventually passing under a bridge he waved his arm pointing across the road where we saw the welcome sign: Hertz car returns.  We couldn't believe he had actually led us there.   With whoops of joy Carol almost forgot my catastrophic mistake of choosing the wrong road in the first place.  But what a marvelous act of a Carol said:  An angel.   In a jeep!  Sometimes really good things happen, don't they?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Re-entering Carol's world

The car that friends have kindly loaned us has become erratic with occasional asthmatic spasms as the engine threatens to give out and (more worrying still) we face braking problems too.  Carol has refused to drive it (are you surprised) which means yesterday I was her chauffeur.  She went back to hospital to see her doctor for an annual checkup and for her mammogram (courtesy of enforced Medicare enrolment!)  As soon as she entered the main doors a chorus of welcomes greeted her from two friends manning the welcome desk.  Carol was a volunteer in palliative care for 10 years and made such good friendships with other volunteers that conversation immediately hit deep pockets as she asked about family members by name and they reciprocated.  I was stunned as memories worked overtime.  They similarly welcomed me but as an attachment to the main attraction.

Appointments spanned 3 hours so there was time for lunch in the hospital cafeteria.  As Carol asked for a tuna sandwich the server lit up in recognition and showered Carol with welcomes. Paying at the till the clerk similarly shone in surprise and gushed warm welcomes.   When you think that Carol only worked there one day a week and finished there 3 years ago it says volumes about her gift of friendship.

But the icing on the cake was a meeting in the corridor as we were leaving when the Senior Spiritual Advisor to the hospital greeted Carol as a long-lost friend and shared how they had never been able to find anyone else willing to visit the dying as Carol had.   'We really miss you - you are irreplaceable,' he said.  Alongside I glowed at the joy of her being remembered well.

Later we visited three friends in their 80's and 90's at Windsor Manor Park residential community.  Again, the sense of being intertwined in Christian friendship in deeper ways really nourished spirit.  I felt great pride in following Carol as she re-entered her US world.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Forum challenges

I am just coming down from the giddy heights of our forum on Collaboration.  Giddy because it brought together so many former students and other friends that reunions broke out on every side.  And giddy because our main guest speaker opened up a vista of collaboration that surprised/overwhelmed/shocked many.

Paul Allen is co-pastor of Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale.  After last year's forum when I introduced the idea of a new kind of preacher, one of the attendees came up afterwards and said: 'Next year you really ought to invite my Pastor, Paul Allen. He really does collaborate!'  And so we did invite him!

Paul told us his personal story having served in several local churches.  He commented how much church conflict seems to be associated with the person and vision of the solo lead pastor.  Several times in his experience as an associate pastor he had witnessed a breakdown of relationships with the 'person in charge' which caused much hurt.  His own vocational vision grew along different lines. He believed that he was best fitted to become a co-pastor who shared ministry equally with others. He would definitely not become a solo pastor!

For 17 years he has developed this pattern in his Hinsdale church.  As associate co-pastors have come and gone each has stepped seamlessly into co-pastoring sharing the preaching equally (only notifying the congregation of the Scripture and theme every Friday....never the name of the preacher!)  Many others have also emerged in lay leadership to share in preaching too. Paul has developed sermon series based on the Christian year to which he invites the co-pastor and other lay preachers to choose texts leaving him an equal number.  He exulted how such collaboration spills happily over into every other area of church life.  With humility he quoted: 'Every pastor is an interim pastor' as he stressed the need together to listen to God and work in love.

He mentioned Ps 77:20: 'You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron' .  Note, he said, how we often think of Moses as a solo authority figure but, it was by the hand (singular) he worked with Aaron and God!

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Between last Wednesday and next Wednesday I shall be jumping between my old life and new.  Last Wednesday was the first time for 16 years that I had been back in a lecture room at Spurgeon's College.  Actually, I had to ask where Lecture Room 2 was because building alterations meant a walk around outside to new entrance (with security cards buzzing me in!) into a transformed former Reference Library.   In spite of many changes with walls knocked down, former entrances blocked and much improved security all round so much was reassuringly familiar. Faculty and staff were generous in their welcome.  The Acting Principal is a former student of mine and though several faculty members have changed there was a happy buzz as old friends were hugged and new friends were greeted.
As always, interacting with students was the most rewarding part of all.  My day with 9 D Min students and 2 PhD students proved lively and encouraging.  Best of all, among the new students present for Orientation Week were two friends,  Chris from my home church in Histon and Erica who was once in the youth group in my Cambridge church.  Oh, how good to see another generation coming through.

Next Wednesday I shall be in Northern Seminary in Lombard with much that is reassuringly familiar in greeting faculty, staff and students.   Again, interacting with students while living on campus and during the Forum on October 1st . will likely be the best part, though meeting up with friends from the churches I served will run it a close second!  With Carol I do not take the privilege of doing our bit both sides of the Atlantic for granted.  At church today, several friends said they would be praying for us and we continue to be grateful especially for prayers for health, strength and wisdom to be used by God aright.   Wildly paraphrasing the psalmist: This is the day the Lord has made and I don't want to mess it up ! 

Friday, September 16, 2016


I've been quiet on the blog front recently, overtaken by a phenomenal amount of holiday hospitality as we have hosted friends from UK, Canada, Australia and USA in a solid (but happy) sequence.  But there is another reason for my quietness  - I have been desperately working to three deadlines.

First, to complete Module 7 (with 3 chapters) of the resource book for A New Kind of Ministry.  Only one more module remains....but then the task of re-editing and including stories from the field begins.

Second, a Doctor of Ministry Workshop Day back at Spurgeon's College on Sept. 21st.  Two years ago I had the delight of being appointed Distinguished Visiting Scholar which blissfully involved me in nothing until now!  But my first duty has arrived.  It's a good one because there are few occasions more stretching than reflecting with practitioners about where theology is meshing with their ministry practice  Of course, I shall hope to turn some of my sessions towards enriching my own work for my further deadline....which is:

On October 1st. we hold our second annual FORUM for the New Kind of Preacher at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. This year we are developing one of the program's main themes - collaboration.  Several people will be speaking, including a pastor for whom collaboration is central to his ministry practice.  For both my sessions I have dared to involve a good friend of mine, Bill Suriano, who is a trial lawyer in Chicago.  Collaboration requires the give-and-take of people who take each other seriously in pursuing a common goal.  In the past Bill (and his wife Dawneen) have been wonderfully warm, direct and insightful in partnering me in both preaching and writing.  I am expecting him to tell the forum just what it's like to collaborate from the pew-side.

Time for registration is nearly concluded....hopefully last minute participants can squeeze in.  For  kind friends who follow my happenings thank you for praying for these two events. I'll let you know more later.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Cold reality!

Last week Carol opened up her ipad to discover she had been hacked. A number of friends had sent urgent messages of warning.  Frantically we changed the password.  Four days later, on Sunday morning before leaving for church Carol checked again.  This time a warning blared in block capitals - FRAUD.  Carol's air miles card had mysteriously been used back in the US to make some extravagant purchases, included a Gucci purchase of $3,400.  We say mysterious because the card was safely in her purse...yet was making waves a couple of thousand miles away.

It took 50 minutes (and made us late for the morning service) as Carol contacted the card suppliers and went through all the security rigmarole.  She wondered if the hacking a few days earlier had opened the way for this fraud?  The card clerk thought it might be so!  Later still she discovered that her main email account was refusing to send any messages.  As a great greeter of others and sender of cheery notes (including some lengthy ones!) she found herself unable to contact the world. Help!

Monday was a vital repair day.  Our pastor, Ron Day, who is an IT expert as well (what a good combination!) invited us at 10:30 to have coffee while he worked on it.  At 12:00 noon he admitted it was beyond him.  Carol and I marveled at the way he and Gill were so gracious on a Bank Holiday Monday.  This truly was Christian grace.  But it meant very lengthy afternoon calls to Apple (in Belfast) was sorted.

Carol commented in exasperation about how many rotten people there are who just hack into stuff, cheat and steal, spoil and add complications to life. Yes, it's an unpleasant lesson.  I have a colleague whose refrain whenever there is trouble runs: 'It's because of sin...and there's a lot of it about'.  Yes!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Collaboration and accountability

Over coffee, a business entrepreneur was talking to me after church yesterday.  He asked about my next event and (of course) I mentioned the New Kind of Preacher Forum with its theme 'collaboration'. (Carol tells me it tends to crop up in conversation with increasing urgency!) He questioned whether this concerned preachers working with others.  When I replied 'yes' he smiled. His next comment was most revealing. 'I have often been amazed that compared with the business world with its high accountability the church has such low accountability. It seems that people in church leadership just don't feel the need to be accountable to anyone.  Perhaps it's because they find it difficult to accept constructive criticism. Some churches seem to suffer from a lot of fear and defensiveness!'   I hasten to add this was not directed at our own church - he made it clear that it was a general observation gained over many years in different churches.

I guess the immediate defense preachers and other leaders would make is that their accountability is to God. True - that is the ultimate accountability!  Some preachers I know have a Spiritual Director who helps make this much more than a pious claim.

However, it was the link he made between   collaboration and accountability that really struck me.  I hadn't really thought about the ways in which working with others, being open to their insights and views, inevitably brings a measure of accountability which working solo can totally avoid.

For example, in sermon preparation, collaboration not only exposes the amount and quality of work a preacher is doing with the text and their spiritual and theological depth but also their willingness to listen and discern what God may be saying through others.  I conclude there is even more need to highlight collaboration! 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Next event

Back from Canada I have been plunged into preparation for my next major happening - the annual Forum for the New Kind of Preacher Program.  Scheduled for October 1st at Northern Seminary in Lombard its theme will be COLLABORATION. Advertising has gone out inviting all preachers everywhere!  Speakers are lined up, including one who will describe how collaboration works in their ministry. I am speaking a couple of times and rounding it off, in hopes that the forum will spawn some new peer learning groups among preachers for the next two years.

Collaboration is both gloriously adventurous and seriously threatening. Gloriously adventurous because it brings the best out of us when we are willing to work together, giving our best to a common purpose rather than caught up in competition and rivalry. It continues to amaze me how Jesus - the most complete human being there has ever been - chose to work with disciples who became friends in spite of their flaws, and who he deemed as so necessary to his mission.

But for many preachers I admit the sound of collaboration is seriously threatening.  It is so easy when you open up to someone else's insights and experiences to feel less secure - especially when you are preparing sermons.  There are so many reasons to ride ahead as lone rangers!

I believe that part of God's challenge on October 1st.  will push  preachers to see past the reasons (and defences) for working solo and open hearts and minds to working with others as never before.  I shall keep you in the picture as it develops.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Time with the next generation

Since returning from Toronto life has been a blur with commitments each day...mostly good ones! Yesterday was my birthday which brought my London family to see us (also to enjoy a Chinese buffet!) which added zip and zest.  I spent a couple of hours with my 11 year old grandson, Anton, while the rest of his family went into Cambridge.  He has just left his junior school and is stepping out into his new career as a secondary school-boy.  Rarely have I had a chance to speak to him alone and I found myself in an extraordinarily imaginative world of big possibilities.

Anton told me that he really wants to become a 'Professor of Swords'.   Apparently there are only nine authorities extant who have devoted themselves to the story of swords and daggers - a passion he has shared for a number of years.  And what really interests him is inventing something new which would really make its mark in the world.  For example, a light sabre which really destroys evil.  'If I gave my name to a new weapon,' he said, 'I would only want it to be used to stop bad people!'  Mind you, he would not mind inventing any number of fantastic creations some of which he described in breathless detail....all for the good of mankind you understand.

Part of our conversation took part while walking through fields behind the house.  Unfortunately, since I last walked there thistles have grown so abundant (and up to Anton's height) that the pathway home was almost impassable.  We tried a couple of options without success, eventually beating our way through with my furled umbrella.  Reaching home he texted his friends that he had got lost in a field of thistles with his Grampy!

I know ageing has its downside but there's nothing quite like accompanying a lively 11 year old with the world in front of him, some high ideals, and immense imagination.   I am sure I enjoyed the experience more than he did!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A cemetery farewell

On our last full day in Toronto I walked through the Mount Pleasant Cemetery which is close to our apartment.  Spread over a wide area, containing graves of many of Toronto's good and great, I needed to find the memorial to William Davies with whom I had found a family connection.  The office clerk looked up the details of William Davies (1831-1921) and told me several people were also buried at the memorial.  With a detailed map of the grave's location I set off and, to my great surprise, found that it was very close to the main gates that I have often walked through these past days.

But the real surprise, and a very sad one, was to see that William and his wife Emma who lived 89 and 75 years respectively buried eight children at this site.  Their names are inscribed on the other three sides of the squared memorial.  George (3 weeks), James (32 years), Nellie ( 35 years), Charles (37 years), Samuel (25 years), Philip (23 years), Mary (5 months) and Arthur (29 years). Eight times the parents stood there in bereavement;  William was there nine times.

There is obviously a story behind the deaths off Charles, Philip and Samuel for two died in Nassau, Bahamas in 1890 and the third, Samuel died in New York on his way home from Nassau in 1890.  What on earth happened in Nassau to these young men in their twenties and thirties?   What tragedy lies behind the stark dates?

What struck me was the care that had been taken to give Scripture references to each one.  Some surrounding memorials had descriptive tributes.  Not here - just plain Scriptural testimony that death is not the end! Christ is risen! In the sadness and mystery of short mortality this conviction remains the greatest hope.

Preaching Adventure (3)

Last night I concluded my six sermon sprint at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.  As anticipated, it has been a great time of interaction about sermons....I have received more in-depth response after each service than for a very long time.  By in-depth I mean the willingness of individuals to talk about different biblical texts with personal involvement and insights!
The short series 'The God who makes friends' ended with the greatest theme of all - Love.  God's love for us and his command to love him and each other.  The two texts spell out startling implications of Christ's offer of friendship before the cross, John 15:1-17 and, after his resurrection, his restitution of the failure, Simon Peter, John 21:15-19.  I had never preached these passages before with the theme of God's friendship as central and all the preparation really refreshed me as preacher too.

As guests Carol and I were treated to meals after the services, including a late supper on the concluding night. It was stimulating to share in conversation about the appropriateness of this theme 'The God who makes friends' as people around the table spoke of its personal impact but also its connection with current culture in which deep friendship seems rarer and loneliness more prominent.  One person told me about a recent cartoon showing an empty church with a coffin at the front. The funeral director was saying to the minister: 'I thought there might be someone here. He had 2000 friends on Facebook!'

Anyway, we are shortly returning home, full of gratitude for the friendship of so many and the opportunities to spend some summer in Toronto.  Thank you to all who have been remembering us!

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Toronto Connection

This week I made my way (through temps in low 90's) to Toronto Archive Centre.  Only recently I have realized that one of the great figures on my mother's side of the family belongs within Toronto history.  Isn't that odd?  Only towards the end of my uncle John Davies' 91 years (which I posted about last year) did it become clear how his father came from a Welsh Baptist family and his great uncle, William Davies, emigrated to Toronto in 1854.   Families sometimes have personalities whose exploits go down the generations.  William Davies certainly did!

Born in Wallingford 1831, leaving school aged 12, he was running his own grocery business by the age 20.  When he was 23 he emigrated and three years later founded William Davies & Co in 1857 which specialized in exporting cheese, butter and eggs.  However, his main interest was in meat and in 1861 he opened the first Canadian building devoted to cutting and smoking meat, especially hogs.  The business expanded greatly with large premises in central Toronto.

His biographical entry comments that he was a rugged individualist and remained a Baptist throughout his life making generous gifts to the founding of McMaster University, Brandon College, also supporting hospitals, sanatoria and, of course, Baptist churches.  The biography notes he was the most important pioneer in the Canadian meat packing industry.  Who would have thought it? I was able to find out where he lived and his church connections at the archive centre.

I guess it is the Baptist bit that thrills me and the weird personal connections!  I spent my last sabbatical in Wallingford and preached in the Baptist church there....the very place where my great- great-uncle was baptized before setting off on his adventure.  And here, in Toronto, is another connection.  And what about the 'rugged individualist' tag!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A vine mess! (2)

As one of you commented about my last post - a vine mess!  Unfortunately, that proved to be the least of my problems.  Preaching about the true vine I set up a gloriously positive picture of how believers belong together in Jesus Christ, bearing fruit.  A happy picture of abiding in him!  And it is a wonderful picture.

Yet, as I preached I was gradually introducing the warning that this happy belonging utterly depends on bearing fruit.  If there is no fruit of love in the life of believers then the vinegrower gets to work.  Pruning is the first step to make branches more productive.  But if there is still no fruit then the vinegrower throws away branches to die. Fruitfulness because we are obeying God's commandments to love one another is essential to belonging.  But, apart from him we can do nothing.

In the first part of the sermon my interpreter seemed relaxed.  My sentences were repeated briskly in even shorter Romanian.  Suddenly, as I moved to the work of the vinegrower as pruner a marked change came over him.  To my great surprise he began to speak rapidly long sentences all on his own.  I stood there speechless as he launched into a mini sermon of his own.

Only later did I hear from my father and a church member with excellent English that his earlier translation only approximated to my words.  He was enjoying preaching his own sermon on the true vine.  When he realized my sermon had taken a turn (that I had well and truly signaled but he had failed to mention) he had to explain to the congregation that the preacher (and more importantly, the text) was saying something else.

I don't think this sermon will go down as one of the most effective!   Any stories you have about working with interpreters?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Romanian preaching adventure (1)

My preaching next Sunday on John 15: I am the true vine brought back to mind an incident when I visited Oradea to preach in its famous Baptist church.  My father accompanied me.  In his mid-70s he had mastered the Romanian language sufficiently to be able to preach and at the packed morning service he first gave a greeting.

Because I needed an interpreter I had decided to bring along a visual aid.  I cut out, painted and glued together a lengthy vine with many branches.  Folding it carefully I carried it  safely in my suitcase.  On the Sunday morning I was relieved to find it all still in one piece.  Going up onto the platform with my father (and several other leaders in black suits)  I gently placed the folded vine under my chair.  In the hymn before I preached I reached down and placed it on the seat so that it would be easily accessible when I spoke from the podium.

Moving to the front with the interpreter I began to preach, setting the scene with opening sentences and adjusting to the interpreter (and he with me!)  Early on I turned round to reach for my prized visual aid. To my shock, in the hymn all the platform party had shifted along one chair and my father was sitting firmly upon my vine.  I could see a branch hanging down the side.  Swiftly, I realized the complications of trying to rescue it would create far more commotion than could possible be warranted.  So I ploughed on without it.

Afterwards my father said:  'I thought you were going to use some visual aid, son'.  'Well, yes Dad, but you were sitting on it!'  'Was I?'  he said, with genuine astonishment.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Preaching Adventure (2)

Yesterday I was back in the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto after a twelve-year absence which shrunk in significance as we greeted many old friends and found ourselves in a largely unchanged cathedral setting.  My last post mentioned my delight at being invited to a church that takes preaching so seriously that they actually budget to bring in international preachers during the summer!  Certainly, summer holidays definitely made impact on numbers, especially because it was Canada Day (July 1st) weekend....yet levels of engagement were as high as ever.

Following the morning service several spoke about the message. One woman shared her experience of encountering Christ and her 'need to lay aside all her assumptions about how life accept that God's grace utterly baffles the intellect.  It just doesn't make sense to a world that insists on seeing and touching does it? But how glorious it is to be able to say by faith that Jesus Christ IS alive!'

To my joy, in the evening service (yes, the church has the full works on Sunday evenings too!) I was able to repeat this comment within my sermon on prayer.  I say 'to my joy' because I believe strongly in sharing the witness of the congregation whenever possible.  Nothing makes for sermon reality like hearing congregational members' experiences. Usually, I ask permission and check details but time was pressing. And I found out afterwards that she was present!  I said that I hoped I had done justice to her words and that she didn't which she said it was incredibly affirming to have shared in that way!  Actually, many others also shared their own prayer experiences after the evening service.

So the preaching adventure has begun very encouragingly - thank you to all who have been remembering us in prayer.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Preaching Adventure

I shall never forget Summer 1984 when I was invited with my family to spend a month in Toronto.  Why unforgettable?   Because it was on the basis of my preaching a month of Sundays (morning and evening) that we were given fares, accommodation and wonderful hospitality.  On the basis of preaching in the Summer!  Just when many churches close down as congregations relax and take holidays (together with their preachers) this church - Yorkminster Baptist Church - planned its preaching with immense care.  It was humbling and stretching...especially since the famous resident preacher Dr. John Gladstone was present and spent time with me!
I recognize that 'preaching centres' can be created and sustained by a variety of motives - which perhaps deserve a separate posting.  But when a church really cares about the ministry of preaching, with anticipation and eager response, I am sure it encourages the best prayerful preparation.  Certainly, I have worked hard in preparing the six sermons I have to deliver this coming month and (as will be absolutely no surprise) I am really looking forward to being in this church again where preaching has such a high priority.

However, I also need to say that my vulnerability levels remain high - this is a privilege that is undeserved and nothing good will happen unless God is at work.  One of my sermons is based on John 15: 1-17...'apart from me you can do nothing' (verse 5).  That's a vital warning!
You may not hear much from me during the next few days but if you can make a little space in your prayers for me I would be grateful.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Unscheduled interjection!

In Sunday's congregation we were delighted to have three regulars in wheelchairs - young people who are severely disabled but who love God and revel in participating in worship.  Russell is a loud and most frequent interrupter. His favourite question is: 'What's happening now?'  And you never quite know when he might agree or disagree with the preacher.

In Sunday's service I made the mistake of asking a question.  Preaching about Jesus as friend I commented how revolutionary is the thought that Jesus could be your friend.  'Can Jesus be your friend?', I asked.  With a loud voice Russell shouted out 'No!'  His friend in a wheelchair went into hysterics of laughter which so wracked her body that her carer had to spend considerable time  quieting her down.  Of course, the congregation rocked with laughter too.  It was extraordinary standing at the front and seeing the whole sermon begin to unravel with the wrong answer.

One advantage of preaching without notes is that when you preach out of heart and mind, having internalized sermon material, there is greater freedom to respond.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famous preacher at Westminster Chapel, used to speak of the 'divine interchange' between preacher and hearers.  As laughter died down I said: 'You're right Russell.  That's exactly what most people who are going past this church right now would say! No. Jesus cannot be my friend!.   Hopefully, this may have reinforced the point.

I wanted to check the exact interjection from the church recording but it has not been posted on the church web site.  Perhaps it was too sabotaged to go public?  Oh, the joys of preaching!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Planning sermon series (2)

In my last post I mentioned C.H. Spurgeon and the difficulty he found in choosing texts and themes. It is worth quoting him further.
Much hard labour have I spent in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion....I believe that almost every week I make enough outlines of sermons, if I felt at liberty to preach them, to last me for a month, but I no more dare to use them than an honest mariner would run to shore a cargo of contraband goods.
What is the right text? How do you know it?  We know it by the signs of a friend. When a verse gives your mind a hearty grip, from which you cannot release yourself, you will need no further direction as to your proper theme. Like the fish, you nibble at many baits, but when the hook has fairly pierced you, you will wander no more.
In my wrestling over the last couple of weeks or so I am glad to report that a hook has pierced me - I have been caught by a theme. The Friendship of God. I was struck in reading through John's gospel how open Jesus' gift of friendship is, and I came across the comment by Luther: 'John's theme is not the calling of the apostles into office; it is their congenial association with Christ.'  How could a sermon series help us experience Jesus Christ as friend?
So, the hearty grip of this theme thrusts me into texts such as John 1: 35-42, and other texts about Jesus' gift of conversation in prayer, his desire for loyal companions, his sharing of vulnerability,  his choice of us and his relationship of love with us.  I am so grateful for this hearty grip.  There is much hard work ahead but I had a run through of the first sermon today....with a surprising interjection.  I will report on that shortly!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Planning Sermon Series (1)

In other places I have written (at length) about the process of sermon conception - how the choice of text and theme happens.  For the majority of world preachers the choice is set by lectionary readings.  But for many of us in other traditions the choosing is open (and more complicated!)
C.H. Spurgeon wrote about the great difficulty in obtaining texts because of the embarrassing riches of Scripture: 'I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject and that is the main part of my study' (Lectures to my students VI).   The main part of my study?!  Could it be that demanding?   Certainly, there should be a spiritual struggle when faced by an blank page on which anything might happen and particular hungry sheep need to be fed!  And he had an awesome national presence!

These last few weeks I have been faced by an unusual blank page.  I need to plan out a mini-series of six sermons to preach in Yorkminster Church in the heart of Toronto during the first weeks of July.  The temptation to raid my sermon store and select some past sermons that seemed to 'work' is always strong.  I remember hearing one itinerant preacher who said he had preached his star sermon well over 100 times!  Actually, I heard it and can still remember its powerful message - so there can sometimes be value to repeating good stuff. That option, of course, is only open to the traveling preacher.

However, I also know how vital it is to be freshly committed to listening to new words from God if I am to be fresh on this occasion. So I have been struggling....turning all kinds of possibilities over and praying that some might come alight.  I'll share more in my next post.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

No chips!

Enjoying time with our London family has led to several adventures, especially at meal times.  Planning for seven of us to find the right equation of child friendly accommodation/food/expense requires effort.  Carol organized for everyone to come to Porlock and have meal in the pub restaurant next door but, sadly, our 4 year old was unwell and we had to cancel it.  However, the next day dawned more hopefully.  The family arrived and at the mealtime (having stoked up a good appetite at the play park) we tried to repeat the meal at the next door pub.  But a coach party was booked in and they turned us away!
So we drove to the nearby sea at Porlock Weir.  The fish and chip shop was doing good business with families eating on picnic benches overlooking the harbor.  We joined the queue and shuffled slowly forward. 'It will be half an hour', said one of the servers.  By now we had already invested too much time not to stay the course.  We got within five people from the counter when the news rang out: 'We've run out of chips!'   What?  A chip shop that runs out of chips?

Now, very hungry, we drove the 8 miles back into Minehead where the family is staying.  A large family restaurant (holding 350 customers) now seemed the likely target.  But, yes you've guessed, they also were so full the wait would be interminable!

Dropping with fatigue and hunger we walked down the main street to find another fish and chip shop. I said to the girl behind the counter: 'Here are 7 very hungry people" and she said: 'Have you come from Porlock Weir?  We've already had one couple here!'   We sat on the High Street munching our fare with immense gratitude.  We used paper plates but nothing edible was left!

Just to cap the experience, our friend (who owns the flat) is also Chair of Somerset County Council and she was planting a tree in the nearby park at 7:45 pm.  As soon as we had finished our fish we dashed round to meet her coming away from the ceremony.   It completed a somewhat frustrating day!  I am sure you have had days like that....but running out of chips?!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Unremitting encouragement

We are staying in the Somerset village of Porlock on its main street leading to the notoriously steep Porlock Hill. On Monday the West Country Cycle Race passed our front door as it completed its third day of racing.  Our friends (who own the holiday flat) were out early with chairs set on the pavement in order to cheer the cyclists on.  As soon as competitors came into sight they leapt up and starting applauding.  My friend shouted out: 'Good one, mate!' (that was his favourite greeting) and 'Food's just round the corner!' (which referred to refreshments at the foot of the hill).  After about one and a half hours their son came into view and to their joy stopped to greet them affectionately and share a word.  Now it became clear why they were the only couple on the high street giving applause!

I wondered if their enthusiasm would be less once their son was on his way.  Not a bit of it. They continued their encouragement right to the end.  And for a time I joined in.  I noticed how nearly every cyclist returned the greeting with a smile, sometimes a wave and even a word: 'Thanks!  Cheers!' before they pedaled just that little bit faster!

That reminded me of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us in the communion of saints (Heb. 12: 1).  Everyone deserves encouragement don't they?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Reflecting with leaders

Yesterday I led an Away-Day for the leaders of a village church near Cambridge.  They asked me to take the theme 'Leadership'.  I knew nothing about the church and when I learned it would last for six hours with only five leaders present I was rather daunted!

Obviously, we needed to start with their situation and issues so, after opening devotions, I used my preferred low tech tool - a flip chart - to note down responses.  Unsurprisingly a couple of leaders spoke about how too much of their time is spent on tasks. Without wanting to be caught in activity, they found themselves almost completely task-oriented.  Indeed they felt that the perception of them held by others in the church is that they are the people who do what's needed in order for the church to function.  Other issues included the need to develop the prayer life and teamwork of the fellowship.  I wondered how many leaders in other churches would list similar concerns!

To try and provide some meat I worked with them on a definition of Christian leadership that emerged piecemeal, giving time for reflection every couple of words or so.  It's not something I had done before but it turned out to connect with some of the earlier issues in practical ways.   It is not properly scrubbed up for public notice but it runs like this:
A Christian leader is a person with a distinctive gift mix who belongs within a sacred missionary community (set within contemporary culture) which is called by God to worship, to pray with discernment, and to collaborate contagiously in order to move people onto God's agenda.
I think this gives us plenty to work with!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Slight oversight

I am preaching in Toronto in July and woke this morning with a niggle urging me to check arrangements.  I planned the flights in February and details seemed too sketchy in my memory.  Eventually locating the itinerary I set about organizing the long-term car parking and overnight stay in London the night before.  We have developed a routine at Heathrow and I went into autopilot.

Suddenly, I noticed that we were leaving from South Terminal.  Since there is no South Terminal at Heathrow I was thrown into momentary panic.  Concentrating on the details I realized I had failed to see that it was not LHR but LGW in small letters at the top.   Yes, it's Gatwick on the other side of London rather than Heathrow.

Thankfully I had not gone ahead with further arrangements but am convinced of two things.  First, I need to check the small print carefully as my capacity for such oversights is increasing!  As Carol pointed out I could have booked us flying out from anywhere once I took my eye off the ball.  Second, I am profoundly grateful for that niggle.....often I would leave it until nearer take-off !  Those niggles are sometimes essential for sanity - I think they are part of God's gift of friendship that cares about little details as well as big.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Guess who's coming to dinner?

I promised some friends that I would post about a recent church experiment.  A few weeks ago the congregation was invited to enter into a highly risky process.  Either they would volunteer to host a meal in their home or (more easily) put their names down as guests.   We heard that there were several hosts and so signed up to eat, having given a frightening description of Carol's allergies and the limited food options available to her.  (Actually, Carol thought we should not participate because of the strain this list puts on all hospitality giving!)

However, last Sunday we were given an address at which to turn up at 5:30 pm (deliberately early to include families with younger children).   The address was entirely new to us.  Guided by the sat nav we located our hosts, who had prepared for five guests without a clue who we might be.  They opened the door with peals of was a couple we had shared a meal with in our home once before.   We had no idea this was where they lived and were overjoyed to meet them on their patch.  In the next few minutes a single lady and another couple turned up to similar joy and surprise.  The whole enterprise had really lived up to its name: Guess who's coming to dinner?   I remember an old movie with that title starring Sidney Poitier and the embarrassment when he turned out to be the surprise black guest.

Well, there was no embarrassment!  Far from it!  Kind weather allowed us to enjoy a splendid three course meal (our hostess really went to town and especially catered for Carol) on a veranda which overlooked a magnificent vista which included 5 acres of rolling grassland and trees around a lake.  As the sun dipped we walked around the lake marveling at the friendship which had been kindled out of such a combination of unknowns.  We later discovered that our enthusiasm was replicated in many other surprise dinners. I guess the risk was less because we regularly worship together and we should be better at being friends because we belong to God's family!  But to have shared so happily like this kind of proved that point!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Donating a table

After 13 years of enjoying our circular IKEA dining table we are replacing it with an oblong one.  This week we called a local charity called Besom which works with Social Services by providing household contents to needy people.  The organizer said he would collect it later that morning.  As he walked in he greeted me: 'Great to see it fifty years since we were students together?'  I was dumbfounded.  Martin was a member of the student Baptist society in Cambridge University and even went on one of our summer missions to Dorking.  An engineer and inventor he worked in the north-east and then came back to work in Cambridge.

Did I remember him?  Yes, his voice and face triggered some happy recall. He told us he had married while a student and that his wife had come on the mission too.  In fact, when we were teamed up together to go door-knocking I was placed with his wife.  Apparently, I commented afterwards how wonderful it was to be partnered by her because she made such ready conversation with strangers.  Later, his wife came by to greet us.

We had no idea that donating a table to a good cause would open up a long-dormant relationship....this is the wonder of Christian life that you can keep bumping into people who have stayed the course of discipleship and in very different ways kept serving right through their lives.
Heaven will be like this!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Remembering Sidney

I often post random thoughts and happenings (of very mixed value too!) but today I was thinking of Sidney.  When I was in seminary in Oxford I was placed with a friend as interns at the Baptist Church in Cowley in order to learn about practical ministry.  It was set alongside a shopping centre on a large housing estate which provided labour for the vast motor manufacturing plant on the east side of Oxford.  Far from the dreaming spires!  Sidney Crowe and his wife Ivy had been in ministry there nearly 30 years, and he retired after 31 years while I was there.  So much of his life with these people!

What did my friend and I learn from Sidney?   It seemed definitely nothing helpful about preaching!Even his best friends would agree that he was tediously predictable with a bucket load of mannerisms including his habit of adding the phrase 'and so on' to sentences. On one occasion he added it memorably: 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit and so on'.  You can imagine what critical students made of that!

But what we did learn has stayed with me ever since.  His people loved him and Ivy in such depths of relationship that they hung on every word he said to them because they treasured them as leaders and under-shepherds.  At their leaving it was clear that his pastoral love and care stretched far beyond the church fellowship into the community of Cowley.  A photographic display showed him involved in peace-making in an industrial dispute and taking a key role in community affairs.  People lined up to testify to the ways they had been like Jesus to them at every turn of their lives  Carol and I knew something of this in their wonderful support in a couple of miscarriages.

And you know what this means?   I believe in improving preachers with all my heart and that continues to be my mission.  But preaching must be put into perspective. Sidney showed me that pastoral care and community building are essential and average preaching  can glow in its presence. And, conversely brilliant five star preaching without love and relationships may dazzle as communication but it has no long lasting glow with Christ's people.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Helping my son

The end of last week immersed me in long international phone calls with my son, Rob, who lives in New Jersey.  Sadly, the pastor of his church had suffered a heart-attack and he was asked to step in as preacher.  This was both a surprise and an ordeal.  The last time he preached was in 1999! Rob threw himself into preparation.  He is an associate professor of radio journalism at William Paterson University, so he has plenty of creative energy and communication skill.  Looking back we went through three major phases.
  • initial surge of creativity around the text that he felt compelled to preach on - John 14: 1-6.  He poured out insights about Jesus' promise 'Let not your hearts be troubled'.  The extraordinary way he was promising this for us when he had yet to face so much trouble on our behalf.  And, in particular the metaphor of 'many rooms' wouldn't go away.  What did this mean for the future and how did it spark ideas for current 'rooms'?  It was wonderful listening to his mind and heart.
  • the next major call came as the embryo sermon was being fashioned.  Much of it was already being written out.  At great speed he dashed through the outline.  It took him nearly 20 minutes but....guess what?  it would have taken 40 plus minutes in its present form and it comprised three different sermons.   He had to begin the difficult task of editing down to the key point and ensure that it was presented clearly without clutter.
  • the next major, major call came with a completely re-written sermon.  Since his early draft Prince had died and gave him a startling opening instead of his earlier thoughts.  I marveled at the way he had cut out so many precious ideas and stories yet retained such life and passion.  He called it 'Four Rooms' with reference to a dentist's room, his standing in a demolished room hours just hours after the Indian tsunami, the church community and its pastor, and...of course, the eternal promise of God's presence. Each linked well with a glorious conclusion.
At the end he commented: 'Phew!  Preparing sermons is really hard work, Dad!  How many hours it takes! I appreciate so much more what goes on behind hearing a sermon. I really do!'   I rejoice that it appears to have helped the congregation from the many comments made, and his wife gave a positive assessment (though I guess wives generally do!)  I felt it was a privilege to help out transatlantically. The first time I  have used my teaching with my family!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Story telling

Before the week has gone I must mention an exhilarating experience in church last Sunday. The scheduled preacher was unable to preach so the music group opened up the service for anyone to speak about God-experiences in their lives.   The music leader confessed he was apprehensive about whether any would speak (and some of us wondered about length, content, etc. etc!)

To our surprise seven people spoke clearly and effectively about their lives.  One works with Street Pastors in the tough work of caring for troubled people in central Cambridge 10:00 pm - 4:00 am.  She described her work and encouraged us to join her.  Another told a remarkable story of a day when she was nearly killed by a herd of cows. Psalm 91 had begun the day in her Bible reading notes, and to her utter amazement was repeated after her ordeal by others who had no idea at all how this particular text was sharply relevant it was to her! Psalm 91 was then read: 'If you  make the most High your dwelling- then no harm will befall you'.  A couple of speakers shared particular texts which had challenged them, one was connected with a song we sang.  Another, a Malaysian academic living in Cambridge talked about the previous evening when he had difficulty finding somewhere for a quiet meal in a Chinese restaurant only to discover (to his delight) he was seated next to someone just visiting Cambridge that day. He had not seen him for 10 years since they had been in seminary together.  He marveled at a genuine God-incidence! Yet another spoke about an 83 year old lady who had just told him how she longed to know what God wanted her to do next, and how her father had been actively doing God's work well into his nineties.

With vitality and realism each story was told, honestly, eagerly and with embedded Scripture.  Afterwards at least two other people said to me that they had stories to share too. It  raised (at least) two important questions for preachers:
1) Just how many stories of God events that past week could have been told by that one congregation?  They had truly witnessed God at work in genuine life experiences.
2) How wonderful it would be to collaborate with the congregation on the way of sermon preparation so that appropriate stories would form part of the sermon?  How much would these genuine life experiences of hearers help ground the gospel.

Of course, my students know this is exactly what I push in my teaching and the new project A New Kind of Preacher!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Effective? Yes or No?

Yesterday someone talked with me about those criteria for effective preaching.  He commented that having read them he thought he ought to give up right now!  He also said that they seemed to cover everything that you could ask about effective preaching.

Today, I went through the pro forma on line response that over 300 other professors of preaching will have worked though.  After each criterion they gave a box for additions, deletions, comments.  I admit that I made a few comments along the way.  But the one that really made me think was Criterion 6.

6. Effective Communication: The effective preacher preaches sermons which clearly communicate the central idea through use of simple language and illustrations so as to convince the listeners of the message. Effective preaching is “persuasive” in that it “convinces or convicts the hearer.” The effective preacher “effectively communicates a
sense of God's presence and authority.”

Those who know me will not be surprised that I want to tease this out.  So I sent a little plea:
"I am always concerned to rate effective communication in terms of its impact upon congregations - their thinking, behavior, relationships, mission etc.  I recognize it is very difficult to evaluate this but the reality of changed hearers matters. Transformed hearers even better!  This is easier to see when a preacher is in pastoral relationships beyond the itinerant.
I see the word 'effective' as key and this is the main criterion for asking the big question - what happens for the kingdom?"

Yes, what happens indeed?

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Complicated communications

Someone asked me how I was going to cope with the three social media outlets I have suddenly acquired: my blog, my  page and facebook itself.  The answer is.....poorly!

For example, I need to ask for help regarding the criteria for the next search for the 12 most effective preachers in the English speaking world.  This project was last held in 1966 by Baylor Univ. and Truett Seminary and they are asking whether the criteria they used in 1966 (developed from 333 professors!) still apply. Since most of my blog readers will not read this on the facebook page yet I know they would have useful comments I realize that I need to post these criteria here also!  So, anyone interested, please scan the 7 criteria and let me know your views.

1. Biblical/Exegetical: “Effective preaching is based on solid biblical exegesis.”

2. Relevance: The sermon “is pertinent to their ordinary daily struggles to live the gospel.”

3. Preacher's Persona: The effective preacher preaches sermons which reflect his/her own life experiences and commitment - “passion” as well as “integrity” in his/her sermons.

4. Theological/Orthodox: The effective preacher preaches sermons which are faithful to Christian tradition - expressed doctrinally “within the parameters of the Christian faith.”

5. Sermon Structure: The effective preacher preaches sermons which are structured with a clear introduction, main body, and conclusion.

6. Effective Communication: The effective preacher preaches sermons which clearly communicate the central idea through use of simple language and illustrations so as to convince the listeners of the message.

7. Delivery/Style: The effective preacher preaches sermons which are delivered skillfully with appropriate poise, body language, gestures, eye contact, and voice quality. 

I  only have a few days left to submit my response.  Any omissions, additions?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Little details - some homecoming problems !

While away in the US we parked at the airport's long-stay car park.  Booking early greatly reduces the price and allows you to arrive and return under your own steam. So, I paid 116.38 pounds up front and put in my registration number so that entrance and exit would be straightforwardly registered on camera.

Tuesday morning, landing tired after missing a night's sleep, we happily reclaimed our car which purred into action immediately.  However, the exit barrier refused to budge unless I paid 551.72 pounds.  What?  Hurriedly I pressed the assistance button. Apparently I had given incorrect registration details: AL15 instead of AJ15.  How did I make that mistake? They are not even next to each other on the keyboard.  Carol sighed!  With considerable concern we waited until the office sorted out the truth! Fortunately, they eventually located my payment and with immense relief the barrier was raised. Carol commented that she hoped the rest of our homecoming would be trouble-free.
Entering the house all seemed normal until I opened the freezer for a dollop of ice-cream and found a tub of unpleasant liquid with black blobs floating in it!   The freezer instruction book instructs buyers to tape over the freezer plug to safeguard against accidental switching off.  In her desire to save electricity Carol had swiped our untaped over freezer out-of-play.  I sighed. The smell of decomposing goodies, including a large beef joint, was overpowering.  Refuse bins filled up with evil-smelling matter as windows remained wide open.

So far that's it! It is sometimes said that 'the devil is in the detail' - certainly it felt like it! Trying not to neglect little details we now settle down to undertake some bigger finishing the resource book for the New Kind of Preacher project!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The other place

In their rivalry Oxford and Cambridge Universities each can refer to the other as 'the other place'.  Returning from US to Cambridge yesterday really felt like 'the other place' too.  Our Chicago stay flew by with each day so full of activity with work and friends it really seemed we were back at home there. And now we are thankfully back with friends at home here. Thank you to all our friends both sides of the Atlantic who have supported us in prayer and interest.

I like the Gerald Locklin poem which sums up some of the two place syndrome:

                                                    where we are
                               i envy those 
                              who live in two places:
                              new york, say, and london;
                              wales and spain;
                              l.a and paris;
                              hawaii and switzerland.

                              there is always the anticipation
                              of the change, the chance that what is wrong
                              is the result of where you are. I have
                              always loved both the freshness of
                              arriving and the relief of leaving. with
                              two homes every move would be a homecoming.
                              i am not even considering the weather, hot
                              or cool, dry or wet; I am talking about hope.

Of course not everything went to plan.  I will post soon about our discovery back here!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pascal Greeting

       Christ is risen!

       He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

This responsive Eastern greeting is sometimes accompanied by a threefold kiss.  No matter how it is given, let’s rejoice together today.  As C. S. Lewis wrote:  ‘Among times there is a time that turns a corner, and everything this side of it is new.’  This is THE corner for humankind.

May your worship today be filled with joy as we celebrate living on the other side as resurrection people!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Easter surprise

This week was all planned out tying up (some) loose ends before we fly back to England on March 28th.  Because it is Holy Week we aimed to share in worship services along the way culminating in a glorious Easter Day.   However, last Sunday, at First Baptist Church Wheaton (where I was interim preacher 2000-2002) we learned that the pastor's sister had just suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which meant he needed to fly to be with her.  As Carol was talking with him and his wife she said they seemed so anguished she felt moved to offer me as a substitute preacher should he not be able to return in time!   She says she knows my heart so well that she was sure I wouldn't mind!  I dare not pause too long to analyze just what this means for our relationship!

Yesterday he called me and asked me to stand in for him.  I am utterly surprised! Suddenly from sitting in the pews in the same church these last two Sundays I have been catapulted to lead the people on the best Sunday of the year.  Surprise and great privilege. I grieve over the reason but now(so completely out of the blue) am entering the preaching preparation process.  Of course, I only have myself to blame.  If I keep banging on about the importance of preaching and have even launched a facebook community page.....I should be prepared to step up, especially on Resurrection Day.   

Monday, March 21, 2016

That picture!

Several people have asked me about this picture which appeared without real explanation in the last post.  It shows our new banner which will appear in publicity for a New Kind of Preacher.  Instead of showing a traditional one-person isolated and up-front who is solely responsible for producing a sermon (often judged as good, bad or average!) it represents a preacher who is thoroughly involved in the community.  Obviously they are all worshiping but it is not necessarily the blue figure in front that represents the preacher!  Actually, the preacher belongs with the people and is a witness from among them.  They are not separated but joined-in.  Hence the rather untidy and chaotic swirling of colors and interaction.

The New Kind of Preacher program intends pushing preachers into deepening relationships with God and their community.  It revolves around five interactive roles that preachers need to express:  Lead-worshiper, proclaimer, collaborator, community-builder and missionary.

What are your reactions as you look at this picture?  Does it convey anything of this vision that I have?  Or does it speak in other ways to you?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Oh no, Facebook at last

I am startled to hear myself say this:  I have joined the Facebook community!  After years of resistance, because I know how easily you mount up huge amounts of traffic (and lose vast numbers of minutes), I have relented.  Why?

Because I need to spread the good news of the New Kind of Preacher program that we are launching in the US.  It is clear that one of the chief ways is to create a Facebook presence.

One of the greatest challenges emerging from the colloquium was the way that other seminaries have developed a very strong online presence for their preaching programs.  I confess that I felt rebuked at my technological dinosaur tiptoeing into the twenty-first century I move as a snail.
If you do want to visit my NKPfacebook page and give some encouragement to me and 'like' my page please visit here:

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Blown over

Lightening the tone I have to report another surprising mishap as a follow-up to my earlier disintegrating chair incident.

The wind squalls these last couple of days have been ferocious. Many people have been filmed attempting to open doors against the wind or bending double against its force or worse.... I set out to mail a package at the local post office. Crossing the campus, buffeted yet safe, I walked around the hotel that borders seminary property.  In its lee I was sheltered as only minor gusts disturbed me alongside one side of the hotel.  However I was totally unprepared for turning the corner.  Stepping out from the protection I was caught in a wind tunnel as violent winds channeled along the front of the building. Suddenly, in spite of my bulk!, I was off my feet, blown out of control, falling flat on my face off the sidewalk into the road. Helplessly, with the postal package in my right hand I made an excruciating landing on my left hand.  Such was its suddenness that I lay there in shock for a few seconds.  The wind raged about me threatening to bundle me up and blow me across the parking lot.  Struggling to regain my feet was extraordinarily difficult.
Nursing my wrist that felt broken (though a few hours later it seems just a strain) I stumbled on, determined to reach my goal.  Arriving at 3:10pm well after the posted lunch break of 12:30-2:00 pm I saw a small knot of angry people grouped around a handwritten notice that the office was closed until 3:40 pm.  So, all-in-all not a great success.  To do her credit Carol first expressed sympathy before peals of laughter about my chair disaster followed by being blown over.  Who would have believed it?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Homework delivered

Back from Grand Rapids I am glad to report that homework was acceptable!  The colloquium was organized with numbered tables so that on different days we met with completely different participants.  This made for six fairly intense table discussions on a number of pre-arranged subjects. My aim to stay positive in my posts means that sometimes I stay mum after such events!   However, this proved to be highly encouraging time. On our return journey of nearly four hours, we had time to reflect.  I rejoice in some highlights:

  • the warm introduction of Lauren the new Director to the 'powers-that-be' and my joy at meeting colleagues from so many seminaries across the US.  Some are old friends, others entirely new.
  • acceptance of me as the only 'retired participant'. A pioneer of the whole scheme (John Witvliet) congratulated me on my 'failed retirement'.  He said he was responsible for four failed retirements where professors found themselves back in vital service at Calvin College.  I rather like the term: failed retirement!  Not sure about Carol!
  • levels of honesty about areas of failure and concern that provided a surprising safe space to share our own inadequacies. 
  • flexibility in continuing program design that seems to  have built-in expectations that  beginnings are often rocky and original plans need adaptation. Oh yes!
We are still far behind many established players but we have hope that it's worth persevering. So it was worth flying across the Atlantic!

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Tomorrow Lauren Visser, the Director of our Preaching program (A New Kind of Preacher) and I (as the Program Consultant) are traveling to Grand Rapids for a colloquium organized by the funders.  They have set homework for all participants which includes reading two papers: Leading change through adaptive design and Learning as we go: making evaluations work for everyone.  We have been set the task of analyzing our own programs in the light of these papers especially the latter which urges non-profit organizations to evaluate their work continuously from the inside.  It makes for uncomfortable reading when you are pushed to answer how much time has been given to answering questions about whether resources are adequate and strategies need improvement.  And about short-term and long-term outputs with expected impact.

I guess that most non-profit organizations struggle to maintain rigorous evaluation. Certainly, we do.  So, three days of examination, panels, and reporting lie ahead. And I feel a little like a student facing exams.  Humbling but, hopefully worthwhile all round.  Thanks for prayers and interest.  I'll report back! 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The trust factor - a lesson learned the hard way!

I remember an earnest Sunday School teacher many years ago taking a chair and asking us whether we would be willing to sit on it. 'Do you trust it to bear your weight?' he asked.

Last night a couple of good friends visited our apartment with a chocolate cake for Carol.  We sat around our table with expectation as the cake was cut (and ice-cream was added).  Suddenly, with great drama, I began sinking at the table.  Carol could barely hold back hysteria as I gently disappeared from sight. She said my face showed utter astonishment, like encountering some out-of-body-experience.  I sank to the floor with the chair in pieces around me.  I had not been swinging on it or misbehaving in other ways.  Actually, it looked one of the more recent pieces of furniture in the apartment.  But there it was in fragments with me awkwardly splayed on the floor.

I never thought for a moment it wouldn't support me.  My Sunday School teacher went on to talk about trusting Jesus Christ as a friend you can depend on.  Well, I certainly want to do that....but the broken chair speaks of a lower order of trusting in things and methods to work for you.  Sadly, I see some of us trusting in things and methods in the church. Of course, I particularly think of preaching when, sometimes, preachers just assume that such-and-such a method will work.  They put their trust in it....when it can be so fallible.  We need to put our trust in God and be open to his ways, which are not ours!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Back in action (2)

 I am not underestimating that joining one of these peer learning groups is tough. It's not just that pastors have to pay (!) and commit to a demanding two year program of reading and meeting together but they have to be open to God reshaping their ministry in a personal, spiritual, collaborative framework that really makes a difference in their churches. Really! It is this willingness to be vulnerable - to unlearn some ingrained habits and embrace new ones within a group of peers (all open to God's new thing) - that asks so much of participants.

In the preparation session I used a quote that hit me between the eyes two weeks ago!  Something that rings true in deep places.  The image of journey is commonly used to describe our traveling through life from childhood to old age.  It's well applied to the Christian faith too as we move on (hopefully) from first commitment to greater maturity. Traveling is how life works. What struck me as I read some words from Meister Eckhart, who was a 14th century German mystic, was the complementary truth that there is no stopping on the Christian way.   Just ponder these words:
There is no stopping place in this life.  No, nor was there ever one for anyone – no matter how far along the way they’ve come. Then, above all things: be ready for the gifts of God and always for new ones.

This sounds rather activist but that is the last thing that Eckhart calls us to. Rather he invites us to move on ready for anything that God gifts us with. As the verse of the contemporary song Blessed Be Your Name sounds out:
                     You give and take away
                     You give and take away
                     My heart will choose to say
                     Lord, blessed be your name