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 speak.
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 prayed.
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 September 30th.
Susan Phillips is Executive Director, New College Berkeley.