I don’t think I’m going to preach a brand new sermon this week. The Lectionary Gospel and Epistle are both fascinating: both Luke 7:36-8:3 amd Galatians 2:15-21 (especially if you take the latter in its context from verse 11 onwards) raise the question of table fellowship being used as a sign of who is included in or excluded from the people of God. In the case of the Luke reading, I don’t think I can yet improve on a sermon I preached three years ago on it, despite yesterday reading the chapter on the incident in Michael Frost‘s recently reissued expanded edition of Jesus The Fool. (Highly recommended, BTW.) When it came to Galatians, I again dug out Tom Wright‘s book from last year, Justification, which inspired my recent sermon about justification based on Romans 5:1-11. However, this time, much as Wright enlightened my understanding of the text, I didn’t come away feeling I had something to share with a congregation in a sermon.
So I thought I’d point you to something else on the web. Someone else, actually. Last year while I was on sabbatical, I blogged about my encounters with the extraordinary George Kovoor, current Principal of Trinity College, Bristol. Well, George has just launched his own website, Kairos Global, and I commend it to you. At this stage it’s rather sparse, but you can start to gain a feel for the ministry of this remarkable man. The lead article that begins on the home page will certainly give you a flavour. There are also a couple of videos, showing five-minute extracts from longer presentations. One is also available on YouTube, so by the magic of WordPress I reproduce it below:
I can’t say I can work out what he’s doing broadcasting on TBN Europe in the company of the Creflo Dollars of this world, but Jesus didn’t worry who he mixed with (any more than the late Rob Frost worried about broadcasting on God TV) and at least it gets some sound teaching out there.
I think George’s site will be well worth watching, especially if it is updated frequently. If his admin can put on some of his talks, whether text, audio or video, in full, it will be invaluable for all of us who care about the evangelisation of the West – and, indeed, the entire world.
Oh, and for something lighter, you can always join the Facebook group George Kovoor Is Mad.
I met George Kovoor outside his office at 7:45 am for breakfast. One moment we were heading to a student common room to eat, the next we were going out for a fry-up at Asda. It was an exhilarating meeting. He told me about the impact of the context-based training at Trinity, where groups of students are based with a church long term. One congregation has grown from forty to a hundred and ninety in two years.
I heard too about the recovery of morale at a college that had slipped into the doldrums in recent years, and the exciting recovery. Certainly, there is a buzz around the place, and no-one had a bad word to say to me about George and his leadership.
I had wondered why he was so keen to meet with me. He is keen to make use of alumni to promote the work of the college. I told him the amazing story of how God provided the money for me to study there. I’ve told it briefly once or twice on the blog. I don’t have time to do so now, as I’m typing this late at night. However, George would like me to recap it for the college mailshot. If I do PhD research, he is keen for me to do it through Trinity and knows exactly which tutor would be right as a supervisor.
We covered other things too that are best kept private, much as they excited me. I could get him into trouble, and that’s the last thing I’d want to do for a visionary leader in God’s Church.
George is such a vastly different person from me, one of the few people I have met of whom the description ‘larger than life’ is worthy. Yet he is sensitive to people of other dispositions. Meeting with him has been an exhilarating experience, and that is why I have written about him for three consecutive days.
Final lectures followed this morning. Jerry Gilpin introduced us to the work of Meredith Belbin. I’d heard people speak of Belbin Team Rôles, but not done anything on it myself. Potentially very useful in putting together teams or diagnosing problems within them, if a little tricky to expect everyone to complete a questionnaire first!
Drove home this afternoon, giving a lift to a distance learning student who lives in east London.
Glad to see the family, but time to sign off now for the night. More tomorrow, I hope.
George Kovoor is mad. It’s the title of a Facebook group, and it’s true. I discovered the group last night when the man himself sent me a friend request and it was on his profile. He is a member.
As I thought, I wasn’t able to set up an appointment with him today, as he requested yesterday. When I was here in the 1980s, you needed to ask the Principal’s secretary two weeks in advance if you wanted to see George Carey. So when I went to see the current secretary, sure enough there was no window when both GK and I were free.
However, she made a suggestion. Why not reserve a seat next to him at lunch? The staff and students here all have yellow chits they place on tables to reserve seats in the dining room. She tore up a piece of yellow paper, wrote my name on it and told me where George sits. I went and marked the seat next to him.
It was duly a crazy conversation. Just I am very clearly an introvert, so George is as clear an extravert as you are likely to meet. He conducted simultaneous conversations with about five of us. I referred yesterday to how he has a collection of projects all in addition to being Principal here. He referred to my bookmarking of Butler and Butler‘s fairtrade clergy shirts, and it transpires he has an involvement in the marketing of clergy attire himself.
During the meal, George asked for a bottle of tabasco sauce. We expected him to use it on his chicken and spicy rice. No. He drank it directly from the bottle. Tonight, I have learned from some of the students that it is his favourite party trick, especially in front of men. However, it has given the students an idea for something when they hold a ‘superheroes day’ here in a fortnight to support Comic Relief. Pastoral confidentiality does of course mean that I cannot reveal their plans on a public blog.
At the end of lunch, he said he was sad we couldn’t match our diaries but was still keen to meet. So I’m having breakfast with him at 7:45 am tomorrow, when he gets into college.
On a calmer note, the course today has been just what I wanted when I booked it last year. I’ve taken very few notes, but so much has fallen into place. Without turning it into the psychological equivalent of a horoscope reading, my personality profile under Myers Briggs makes so much sense of my strengths and weaknesses in ministry and in other relationships. Jerry Gilpin who is teaching the course is another former Trinity student. He was in the year above me. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up over coffee tomorrow. Already he’s given me some recommended reading on personality type and ministry. So far it includes Faith and Psychology by Leslie Francis, Growing Spiritually with the Myers-Briggs Model by Julia McGuinness, In the Grip by Naomi L Quenk, and he’s going to check on the title of a book by William Bridges.
I’ll sign off soon. I need to pack stuff ready for leaving here tomorrow lunchtime. Lectures start at 9:15 and I have to vacate the room by 10. I need just my morning stuff and laptop bag ready to go.
There won’t be chapel worship tomorrow morning, because the students will be worshipping in their pastoral groups. So I have worshipped together with the community for the last time. And I wanted to say this. Whatever nit-picking comments I’ve made about services this week (and that’s my personality type, too!), I have so far failed to mention the extraordinary sense of devotion and commitment to Christ that surrounds you like a magnetic field in the worship. I’m struggling for a way to express this gracefully and without sounding condemning of others, but I have missed being in a community like that. I believe that when you are in a group of Christians like that, then iron sharpens iron. Others lift the level of your discipleship. Sometimes they don’t know they’re doing it, but they do. I wonder how much of this energy gets dissipated when people leave.
I don’t know whether it’s as unrealistic to reproduce this in the local church as it is to bring back to a congregation the ‘spiritual high’ some people experience at conferences. I’m tempted to think there is a difference here, though, because this is an ongoing, day by day, week by week community, not an annual gathering of thousands. Am I crazy to have lofty ambitions for the local church? I always have been a (failed) idealist in that cause. One of my tutors at my Methodist college, David Dunn Wilson, picked up on my tendency in this direction and told me to remember that the Church is a company of sinners. Eugene Peterson has a similar tone in his book The Jesus Way, in which he stresses the importance of forgiveness from the example of King David’s life. I agree with both of them up to a point, but Christians are more than forgiven sinners. It’s something the Methodist tradition knew in its infancy with John Wesley‘s call to ‘scriptural holiness’. Somewhere I still believe that a community of forgiven sinners also needs deep intentional aspirations to holiness.
Or am I barking?
I’m going to be nice about Iona today. Specifically about one of their confession prayers.
Yes, you read both of those sentences correctly. The confession in chapel this morning was more refreshing – and challenging – to my mind. It was modelled on the verse in Isaiah 55 where God says ‘My ways are not your ways’. It thus consisted of a series of stark contrasts between the ways of God and of humans. So we got a clearer focus on God in the confession as a result, in my opinion.
Wednesday is not a normal lecture day here. After morning chapel, students keep silence until 10 am when they meet in their pastoral groups, then at 11 they all meet together with the Principal for Community Coffee. I’m not sure what happens in the afternoons – I think it must be free for study. I decided I would observe silence with the students before taking another walk into town to buy presents for Debbie and the children.
Trinity was the first place I ever observed any extended silence, on college Quiet Days. At first it frightened me. There is something terrifyingly loud about the way one’s own thoughts invade and clamour for attention. Yet silence, with the accompanying discipline of solitude, is a sign of health and vitality in the life of the Spirit. On one of those Quiet Days, I remember deciding I would read Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s ‘Life Together‘. Figuring it was only ninety or a hundred pages, I was sure I could get through it easily in one day. I couldn’t. Bonhoeffer packed such a punch with every sentence, the book kept stopping me like brakes on a car. What I most remember is him saying that no-one is fit for community life who cannot also embrace solitude. This morning, the silence was not a ringing in my ears but a recharging of my batteries.
Then I went off present-hunting. I found an art shop and bought some little models for the children to paint. I won’t say what I bought Debbie, because she occasionally reads this blog. I just hope she likes my purchase.
Lunch was suitably spartan for Ash Wednesday: soup and bread. But it wasn’t gruel. There was a choice between carrot and coriander soup (which I normally consume by the gallon) and a fish and cream soup. Both were accompanied by two types of bread: one was a tomato bread, the other I’m not sure, but it was good. I got through two bowlfuls of the fish and cream soup. Debbie dislikes both fish and mushrooms, and they are two things I love, so if I’m not at home to eat and I get the chance, I take advantage. This one had vague similiarities with the most wonderful soup I have ever tasted: cullen skink at Sheena’s Backpackers’ Lodge cafe in Mallaig, the fishing port at the northern end of the Road to the Isles in Scotland.
At the end of lunchtime, I had the joy of spending twenty minutes or so catching up with my old tutor John Bimson.
What to do this afternoon? Still feeling very disciplined after the morning silence, I read more of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘, especially the chapters on personality type in the church. I concentrated on those sections specific to my own personality type of INTP. Time and again, I read paragraphs and thought the authors had met me. Yes, I am someone who likes to bring new vision to a church, because I’m more about the future than the present, more big picture than fine detail.
And – apparently, my personality type often gets frustrated with regular local church ministry and ends up in sector ministry. In particular, my type often likes to engage in research. I felt another underlining of the sense I’d had at Cliff College a fortnight ago about doing a PhD. Well, no, more than that: I felt like the research idea came up and mugged me again.
So to the weekly college communion service at 5 pm. Trinity is an evangelical college, but very much what is called an ‘open evangelical‘ college. It is not hardline Calvinist/fundamentalist. Secure in a commitment to biblical authority, it believes there is value to be found in other Christian traditions, too. Today that meant the Lord’s Supper conducted in a more Anglo-Catholic style, complete with incense, processing and the like, and of course an ashing ceremony. I don’t think a real Anglo-Catholic would have recognised it as a complete facsimile, not least because the music was mainly from evangelical and charismatic sources. But it was a genuine attempt to be sympathetic. And I find the imposition of ashes to be a powerful symbolic act. It sends a tremor through me every time. I’m glad we have it in the Methodist Worship Book, too. I haven’t washed mine off yet. The only pity was that just the first half of the words were used with the imposition of the ashes: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’, but they forgot to say, ‘Turn from your sin and follow Christ.’
On to dinner and another great conversation with the other former lecturer of mine who is still on the staff here, John Nolland, along with his wife Lisa. John has ‘a brain the size of a planet’ and authored the three volumes on Luke’s Gospel in the Word Biblical Commentary. More recently, he has written a highly acclaimed commentary on Matthew for the New International Greek Text Commentary on the New Testament. We learned from some top-class scholars here, and so do the current students, with staff such as Gordon and David Wenham here, to name but two of many.
During the Peace in the communion service, the Principal, George Kovoor, shared the Peace with me and then continued the conversation. He invited me to book an appointment with him to chat over coffee for half an hour. The only problem is, I shall only be able to offer tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he has space in his diary for then at such short notice. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether it comes off. I hope it will. He is a genial man, and if you click the link I gave to him above you’ll be exhausted just reading about him. I spoke to him on Monday, explained who I was and he told me he was a Methodist minister, too. It’s true. He is Indian, and was ordained in the Church of North India, which is a united denomination. Yesterday, he gave a notice to the community, saying that he was going to play a student at table tennis. He wouldn’t ask for prayer, because last time he played someone and asked for prayer he won, and he didn’t want an unfair advantage this time. Turns out he won anyway.
See you tomorrow.