Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Decade with Gratitude

Looking back I marvel at what's happened since 2010. 10 years begun full-time in the US, shifting to part-time in 2014 to full-time in the UK 2017. Different highlights ping along the way.  Being personal for a moment:
2011 publication of Preaching as Worship - wins a national award! Yippee!
2012 Aggressive Prostate Cancer with major surgery and good outcome. (Spotted by my US doctor in spite of no obvious symptoms and acted upon within weeks!)  Truly, we are grateful - especially since our UK doctor (a very good friend) had identical cancer which was not spotted and died rapidly, aged 62.  Also sold our happy Warrenville home to live in Wheaton and begin fixing-up our Cambridge home (not us personally!)  Milo, our fifth grandchild born - fills the quiver.
2014 Formally finish as C.W. Koller of Preaching with a memorable farewell evening in our Conference Centre with blush-making speeches all round.  It's wonderful to finish well and my seminary community made it happen!  Now appointed an Emeritus Professor of Preaching. Also a Preaching Award from Lilly Foundation requires another book and part-time consultancy developing new courses for ministers. Join Histon Baptist Church, Cambridge - our new Christian family. Break my right ankle/leg by fainting in hospital - complex surgery needed.
2015  Our US family has 6 month sabbatical in Cambridge.  Last older relative - John Davies- dies aged 91.
2017  US seminary relocates and my part-time consultancy comes to an end - a surprisingly good chapter to our lives. I suffer a minor stroke, mercifully at the bottom of the stairs.
2018 Make good recovery in time for a blissful GOLDEN WEDDING celebration.  Our family came together in Jesus College for a glorious occasion that we shall never forget.  This was the highlight of the decade.
2019 Again, illness blights with pneumonia and collapsed lung, followed by Lyme disease.  Yet, the skills of the NHS and loving attention of Carol, accompanied by much prayer, have brought me through.  Brought us through.
We both feel immense gratitude to God whose purposes have been working on through another decade in spite of us.  What a life!  Thank you Lord.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Greetings - slugs and crabs

Christmas joy, praise and the very best of wishes to all my readers for 2020.  And I need to add how humbled and surprised I am when some of you mention in your Christmas mail how you have actually read my blog.  So often my ramblings seem inconsequential, even to me, so my surprise at your tolerance is genuine.

This is a wonderful time in the Christian Year. I know how easy the familiarity of the Christmas story can blend in among all the seasonal trappings so that we can almost take the birth of Jesus on the nod,  As though his birth could be anything but utterly unexceptional and cosmic-changing.  It deserves our best reflections - that God could descend to our level and get mixed up in our mess and redeem us. Incomprehensible! And, yes, wonderful!

I love that sentence when C.S. Lewis muses in Mere Christianity  on the wonder of the Incarnation:
What God did about us was this. The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself; was born into the world as an actual man - a man of particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman's body.  If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.  The Man in Christ rose again; not only the God.  That is the whole point. For the first time we saw a real man.
Truthfully I haven't seriously considered what it would be like to become a slug. They are definitely not my favourite garden inhabitants.  Oh, the cost and risk of God's love for us.  Let's reflect and rejoice this Christmas. Blessings on you and yours.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Christmas love

Carol is entering her fourth week of labyrinthitis which began suddenly with severe dizziness and vomiting and now requires weeks of rest as she tries to gain balance by retraining the brain to use her still-functioning right ear.  It's all required immense patience.  I have reminded myself about my sermon on joy in suffering - of perseverance producing character and hope  Well, maybe.... eventually.

Of course, she has missed all the planned seasonal events so far these past weeks.  Our church house-group met without us last week for their Christmas meal. On Sunday morning I was in church on my own again when after the service one of the group asked me to go into the church porch.  It felt mysterious because a couple of other group members were waiting there clearly looking around for others to join us with no one saying anything.  A Quaker waiting experience.

Then, when numbers were complete, one of the group told me that at their Christmas evening they had talked about how they might show their love to us in a practical way.  From behind a screen they produced a very large (heavy) open box covered in bright Christmas paper.  Looking inside took my breath away.  Together they had assembled food and treats with everything tailored to Carol's food allergies.  Chicken, salmon, puddings, drinks, nuts, dairy free chocolate, diet Cokes, candles, baubles for the tree, plus some specials for me like home-made apple crumble deserts with custard. And more. I tell you, I was speechless. It was quite wonderful.  Quite wonderful.

Carol was near to tears when she saw me stagger in and looked in the parcel at the purpose chosen goodies.  She took them out one-by-one marvelling that they were just right.  There was a popular book a few years ago called The Purpose Driven Church.  Well, this was a purpose-driven gift powered by love and such care. Carol said you have to post on the blog: Christmas love because this is so wonderful to receive.  And so appropriate when we remember the greatest Love that came down at Christmas in Jesus.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Turning point 5)

Instead of teaching in Serampore, India, my first year out of college found me living in London, married, and (surprisingly) also wrestling with a call to Christian ministry.  I write surprisingly because this possibility had been the last option I would have considered long-term.  (Maybe that deserves a separate post?) Rapidly my whole life was changing direction all because what I hoped would happen hadn't happened and instead a sequence of events surged ahead which couldn't possibly have happened if my first hopes had not been shattered.

I began this reflection by referring to Rom. 8:38 - We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  The sceptic would say that this turn of events was just how life can turn out sometimes.  No need to bring God into it. And, indeed, I do wonder about the sadnesses in the story.  Like the collapse of the East Asian Christian Colleges organization. Such events can occur out of human errors of different kinds as well as God's seasons of effectiveness.  But faith trusts that all those caught up in this problem would find other positive things were now possible.

Similarly, Peter Tongeman when suddenly taken so ill really suffered yet went on to experience a future full of renewed health with undiminished responsibilities. (Actually, he and his wife were at our wedding). Yet. out of his illness came my big break.  Would I have met Carol otherwise?  Would I have sensed a strong call to ministry otherwise?  Those are unanswerable questions but only leave me with wonder that. though the Rom 8:38 promise raises complex issues in a fallen world of brokenness and illness, by faith we can dare to claim that for those who love God such turning points in our lives are ultimately positive.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Turning point 4)

I had only been in the job a couple of weeks when I was summonsed by Head of the Union. The head of my department (dear Peter Tongeman) had been taken very ill with peritonitis and he desperately needed immediately replacement as Chair of an International Student Conference in Switzerland - scheduled only a few days ahead.  Peter's responsibilities were immediately thrown into my lap - chairing all the sessions, preaching a sermon, and leading the group of British students (already selected from different student societies) by train and ferry to Zurich.

I was peculiarly unprepared.  Mercifully I found my passport (only used once for a brief visit to Paris). I was to meet the British party under the clock tower at Victoria Station. Given a folder with travel and conference details, plus all the tickets, none of my party was known to me.  On time members arrived and coming last, with an admirer lovingly carrying her bag, was Carol Bentall.

And this was the critical moment of the whole turning point in my life. The moment I saw her I knew she was the person I was going to marry.  No hesitation. Mind you the initial conversation was unpromising. Sweeping into the group she asked: 'Who is in charge?'  Knowing this was my opportunity I pronounced: 'I am'. to which she answered, looking me up and down, 'What you?'  It did take her some time to share my conviction about our future which received no encouragement while we were actually in Switzerland.  On our only free afternoon she went off with a tall, handsome Swede!  (Why do I remember that?!)

The whole experience was extraordinary. Sessions were noisy and controversial.  It was the era of student revolt and all that.  I am sure my inadequacies were exposed at many turns.  But, returning to England I knew my life had changed.  Courtship was serious - engaged after 3 months, married after 11 months. Interestingly, friendships made at the conference venue, the International Baptist Seminary in Ruschlikon, have continued to the present. Carol and I were to return several times variously as conference helpers, on sabbatical and, indeed, for a holiday exchange with the President.

I must round off this slab of indulgence before it runs away with me.  But one more post is required.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Turning points 3)

I remember friends promising to pray that I might find what I should do when I finished in June and somehow I heard that the London HQ of Baptists in Britain was looking to make an experimental appointment.  At that point there were around 30 Baptist student groups (societies) in different universities and they wondered if they could appoint a recent graduate full-time to liaise with all these groups, to help link Baptist chaplains and to raise the profile of student work in the denomination.  One of the immediate tasks (August, September) was to oversee the student commendation scheme when churches sent in names of students leaving them for different universities, to sort them into lists mailed to the relevant chaplains. The job was financially experimental too. It was assumed that any recent student would live at home or with relatives and all they would need would be money for traveling to work and food.  A kind of upgraded pocket money.

Feeling unreal about the whole prospect, I was interviewed and appointed.  The General Secretary of the Baptist Union said I had to be introduced to the Assembly Meetings at Westminster Chapel in April. Travelling by train I suddenly had a massive nosebleed which continued too long and left me feeling unable to move any facial muscles  Hundreds had gathered in the multiple galleries of this great London church and I found myself in the large pulpit area for the whole session. I felt acute panic that the nosebleed could erupt at any point.   When the moment came for me to be introduced to the President with kind words, a handshake and applause my exposure was total and my composure automaton-like. ' A sober nervous young man' would be the verdict!

I discovered some relatives of ours in the East End in Plaistow who allowed me to sleep on an air bed in the living room after everyone went to bed.  London was bewildering as I began journeying on the Tube to Holborn.  Everything was strange.  I shared Room 32 at the top of the HQ building with two (much) older men who led the Stewardship Dept.  I was given a typewriter but no secretarial help.  I began this weird new existence in July totally unaware what a turning point I was encountering.