A few weeks ago about a dozen of us were sitting around a
large wooden table in Susie Lipps’s welcoming home in the wine country. Sharon
Gallagher and Susie were leading us in a Wine Country Memoir-Writing Retreat, prompting
us to reflect on different topics. For example, the vineyards are like
communities, the particular members sharing soil, sunshine, and flourishing.
They wondered how we have experienced community in our lives.
Not surprisingly at a New College Berkeley retreat, my mind
went to that community. These days the staff and trustees of the ministry are
meeting frequently as we plan the 40th anniversary celebration on
September 30th, at which our longtime friend Mark Labberton will
Sitting near the vineyards with my fellow retreatants as we
all wrote in silence, my mind went to a previous NCB anniversary celebration,
and this is what I wrote:
Fifteen years ago I
was in a pinch. Hundreds of people were coming to New College’s 25th
anniversary celebration, eager to hear John Stott speak, and John had just
phoned to tell me he had fallen at his country place and broken his leg. He
would not be joining us, but he was recovering well.
Alone in my
third-floor office I prayed, called my husband to ask for his prayer, and I worried.
So many people would be disappointed. What could be done? Who else would John’s
admirers be happy to spend an evening listening to? How would anyone that
popular be available two weeks ahead of the event? Would anyone in our extended
community come to the rescue?
My eyes scanned the
books crowding my shelves. So many amazing people had come through NCB and
taught for us. The Contemplative Pastor
by Eugene Peterson caught my eye. Eugene had influenced me and many at our
school through his teaching for us and especially through his writing. It
seemed a long shot, but I dialed the number of his Montana home. I knew he was
immersed in writing and fending of all invitations, so I took a deep breath and
Jan, Eugene’s wife and
sometimes guard, answered the phone. I didn’t tell her why I was calling when I
asked to speak to Eugene, and I wasn’t sure I’d get past her to him. Jan
hesitated and then said, “Okay, I’ll get him.” Phew. My hands were clammy, but
folded in prayer.
“Hello, Susan,” Eugene
said in his warm, gravelly voice. I could almost see the twinkle of his eyes.
My sad tale blurted out, ending in a request, “I’d so love for you to come and
speak for us, Eugene. We’d all love to hear you. I’m really sorry to be asking
this of you!”
Eugene took a deep
breath, cleared his throat, and after some very long moments said, “I’m a
sucker for folks in trouble.”
Amazing grace. I
prayed again—this time in thanks!— and said to Eugene, “I think from now on
that will be my definition of a Christian.” He chuckled. And he’s chuckled
every time I’ve reminded him of it, including on that lovely anniversary night
fifteen years ago.
That’s Christian kindness, Christian community. I have been
nurtured, grown, and flourished in it.I
am grateful. I hope you’ll join our community in gratitude and celebration on
Susan Phillips is Executive Director, New College Berkeley.