Wednesday, May 20, 2015

down the other side

'I told you so'.
It is such an ugly phrase, isn't it?!

I told you so.

In the midst of the mess over Ross Taylor being pushed out of the captaincy and then the debacle in South Africa after Brendon McCullum took charge, I posted a piece entitled, black caps at midnight?, in which I opened with these comments:
Things are looking  bleak for the NZ cricket team. It feels like the darkest of midnights, with a long time until dawn. Dismissed for 45 and losing by an innings and 27 runs? Sounds pretty bad. But people are over-reacting in their criticism of the team. Here are five reasons for the darkness and why it could still prove to be 4am, rather than midnight... (5 January 2013)
And it came to pass that it was 4.00am, not midnight. The dawn came quickly. Soon the people of New Zealand were lost in a sunny euphoric forgiveness as the team climbed from the bottom to #3 in the world in both Test cricket and One Day International (ODI) cricket. A truly stunning achievement.

But maybe our peak has been reached. Elliot's six. It did take me awhile to enjoy the view. My plane took off from Dubai just as the final over of the semi-final started. A row of Indian lads was keeping me updated. 12 off 6. Not looking good. I waited 4+ hours for the result. On arrival in Bangalore, as the seat-belt sign went off and I stood up, the news came through that we had won, and the entire cabin stood up (I suspect they were intending to do so anyway) in a moving standing ovation in response to my boisterous exclamation of victory.

But I fear that Grant Elliot's six will mark New Zealand cricket's high noon...
'C'mon, Paul, why the pessimism?. NZ cricket usually brings out your optimistic side.'

The Everest in every cricketer's career starts tomorrow. A Test match at Lord's in London. New Zealand is woefully unprepared. This post has been building for some time, but what drove me over the cliff are some headlines from the incomparable Sir Richard Hadlee. Everything happening around the England team will make them focused and determined to prove themselves at home. They are anything but ripe for the picking. Meanwhile the core of the NZ team has been flying around India for six weeks, masquerading as IPL cricketers, but not doing much at all.

There are other things on my mind which, when taken together, leave me concluding that altitude sickness is an ailment unlikely to afflict this NZ cricket team.

The tactics
Much though I love him as a captain, Brendon McCullum's innings in the World Cup final was some of the dumbest cricket I've ever seen. And the dumb cricket continued with Grant Elliot down the order. He decided to go beserk, with two handy wickets and numerous overs still remaining. But everyone knows that while it is OK to go beserk at the end of a Test match innings, you do not do so at the end of an ODI innings. You play out the overs. NZ's ultra-aggressive approach, in the final, was a poor tactical decision. I said so before, during and after the game. The Aussies would be too smart and in their home conditions they would have too much skill for NZ aggression. They'd come out ready for it. And so it came to pass. Plus, in order to scale the highest peaks in professional sports, you gotta give more innovative attention to defense, not just offense.

The administration
New Zealand Cricket has let Bruce Edgar go from his role in selection and talent identification. The more I read, the more I reckon he had a lot to do with the team's success. Plus he was handled so badly. A poor decision carried out poorly. Not a good sign at all. And how it is that Messrs McCullum, Boult, Southee, Williamson and Anderson can be allowed to stay in the IPL until two days before a Lord's Test is beyond me... Who is running this game anyway?
Then there is the small matter of the administration of the international game by the International Cricket Council (ICC) - now controlled largely by India but with England and Australia as its lap dogs. If New Zealand is to stay competitive with these types of teams (and therefore improve their standing), a tight FIFA-like administration will be needed. But the Indian administrators tend to be too greedy, too powerful and too corrupt for that to happen any time soon.

The media
Goodness, deary me - what has gone on while I've been away from New Zealand? Where is the sober critique and the balanced evaluation? Maybe I've missed it - like I missed the euphoria of the World Cup weeks (which has possibly left me bitter and twisted, providing the real reason for this post!). Too many journalists have slipped into an over-heated, drooling sychophancy with this New Zealand team. For example, as I travel, moderate Kiwi performances in the IPL keep filling my NZ Herald and Stuff apps with gushy headlines. And it's not just Sir Richard's comments yesterday - what about this piece on Kane Williamson this morning? Saying Kane is 'prepared' is not the same as him being prepared. How on earth can he be prepared? Who is writing this stuff? He hasn't played a proper innings for weeks and weeks ... and tomorrow it is Lord's of all places.

All this to say, I hope I am wrong. I hope I have to eat my own words, spiced with intolerable chilly. I hope those of you who disagree with me will let 'I told you so' rain down on me (although you will need to say so in the next 24 hours, or you will lack credibility) - even as the late English spring rains probably pour down on this little two Test series. Just two?! Yes, only two! Why? Did I mention India, Australia and England...

nice chatting


Monday, May 18, 2015

a nervous splendor

It was like driving into spring. In Toronto the trees were leafless, but as I made my way by train to Windsor (Ontario) - and then by car to Ohio and on to Kentucky - the trees and countryside came alive with a fresh and velvety green. It was beautiful.

That was last month. Last week it was like driving into autumn. We left Auckland in the morning, driving south to Turangi. In a few brief hours the colours on the trees deepened and brightened in their final flourish before the onset of winter. It was beautiful.

When we arrived in the lakeside town of Kuratau, I found myself driving, unexpectedly, into autumn and spring once again. However this time the journey took place in my imagination, as I was transported to a city I have never visited and into a century in which I have never lived.

Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendour: Vienna 1888/1889 (Viking, 1981) absorbed me in the darkened hours of each morning before the family awakened. When the author writes a sentence like this, before he leaves even the first paragraph of his Preface, were there any other plausible options than absorption?
I've tried to trace local tremors that began along a curve of the Danube, then echoed across the world to come thundering down into our own century (vii).
The story gains momentum through the Autumn of 1888. Morton weaves together the stories of different ones as the splendour of Vienna's high society moves towards the celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph's birthday and beyond.

Composers Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Hugo Wolf and Anton Bruckner are there. A young neurologist called Sigmund Freud is there. The founding father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, is there. So also is the painter Gustav Klimt, the conductor Gustav Mahler, the composer-painter Arnold Schonberg, and the doctor-turned-writer Arthur Schnitzler. All their stories are told. Even philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is there (albeit 'in his mother's belly ... (about to) haunt the philosophy of the next century', 70). Add to these Viennese residents, the visits of Edward, Prince of Wales, and the German Emperor Wilhelm, and it is quite a muster of (male, yes I did notice!) characters. Never before has wikipedia received such an intense workout at my hands.

At the centre of the story is the Crown Prince Rudolf, with his thirtieth birthday falling in this same season. Rudolf was 'the hero of a living fairytale' (172). 'He entranced crowds and leaders alike. Queen Victoria's crustiness dissolved at the sight of him' (34). When his turn to rule arrived, he would be determined to make 'Vienna more seriously modern' (42), separating himself from his father's legacy.

The story passes through a midwinter's day (30 January 1889) at Mayerling. You see, Rudolf was a troubled chap. He was both 'lofty and lost' (188). He was 'wracked by protocol and emptiness ... laboring through the posturings of high hospitality' (215).
'Politics had become futility ... hopes for nourishment receded from his public to his private life. By the end of 1888 he saw in the gilded labyrinth around him only one figure worth clinging to: Mary Vetsera' (175). 
Yes, Rudolf became entwined with Mary, aged 17, who had 'learned the art of consent though she never lived to reach the age of it' (130). Together, it seemed as if they tried 'to overcome an uncontrollably failing life with a controlled, willed, carefully shaped death' (66). They entered together into some kind of suicide pact and at Mayerling they took their own lives. [So intrigued has the world been with this story that wikipedia references more than 15 movies, musicals, documentaries and ballets covering the events of that day].

Vienna was in the season of carnival. That was brought to a grinding halt as high society escaped the city - 'only the people were left in the city, to starve, to shiver and to grieve' (272). But the interwoven stories of the Viennese geniuses - Brahms, Strauss, Freud, Herzl, Mahler et al - continue on, retold in the finest detail.
All these talents served an intuition maturing first in Vienna; something important and green had turned golden and sick and petrified ... (315) 
By such paradox Vienna attained greatness after all. It bred the geniuses who foretold the modern wound. And Rudolf, too, became in time a sad but significant precursor. He was the herald of an alienation common to the youth of our day ... Under today's system the young often appear to be a generation of Rudolfs: free and glamorous in theory, crushingly impotent in action; ... free to see themselves as unbounded individuals without ever arriving at successful individuality; free to press pleasure to numb excess; ... free to sound the depths of sophisticated frustration.
The shots in the Vienna Woods were fired in 1889. Today and every day hundreds of other unnerved fingers are already crooked into hundreds of other triggers. Each time we hear of another strange young death in a 'good' house we hear of another Mayerling (316).
The story travels on to Easter Saturday in the Spring of 1889. 'Everything swelled and brightened toward Easter' (316). That Viennese specialty, 'the art of making life unserious' (299) reasserts itself. 'The chill had passed' (301). 'There was not a branch in the Vienna Woods that wasn't greening' (317). As yet another grand musical event fills the city with sound, Morton concludes his book with mention of a thin cry, first uttered on that Easter Saturday, commemorating the darkest day that history has ever known - a cry which carries with it a chill all of its own.
It was the thin cry of a baby born that afternoon. The parents were Alois and Klara Hitler. They named their little one Adolf (317).
And next week it is back to spring-less, autumn-less life in Bangalore, filled with heat and rain and the delights which come with it - like mangoes.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

exodus: gods and kings

On my recent flight from San Francisco to Singapore I decided to create a conversation in my mind, by watching a movie and reading a book.

The movie was Exodus: Gods and Kings. With Batman (Christian Bale) as Moses, it tells the story of the Hebrew slaves gaining freedom from the Pharoah of Egypt. Even on a tiny screen with average sound, it was visually stunning. Generally speaking, I don't get too uptight with directors taking a little license to tell their version of epic biblical stories - as I enjoy watching how they interpret the story's features.

The other partner in the conversation was the book by Andrew Sach & Richard Alldritt: Dig Even Deeper: Unearthing Old Testament Treasure (IVP, 2010) - or DED, for short. It is a follow-up to an earlier book (Dig Deeper) in which is collected the 'toolkit' needed to interpret the Bible accurately. 16 tools. The two books make the subject of biblical interpretation as simple as it can possibly be made. What makes DED ideal as a conversation partner is that its subject matter is the book of Exodus. 'In DED the toolkit goes 'live' ... this is a book about what Exodus means for us today' (14). DED is developed around a 'fourteen-word summary' (17) of the story: beatings, bush, plagues, passover, water, whingeing, father-in-law, fear, case law, covenant, tabernacle, calf, cleft, tabernacle...

'So ... how did the conversation go between the movie and the book during the flight?'

For me, it was directed by the same three options which I face when I work with my automatic payments in an electronic banking service. Adding. Deleting. Altering.

The opening tension created by 'pharoah-preferring-general-over-son' was taken straight out of the script of Ridley Scott's earlier Gladiator film and so it felt a bit stale.

But I loved the way he created a character out of Joshua's father - Nun (as in 'Joshua, son of Nun') - played by Ben Kingsley. I don't think it is just his Gandhi-aura, but every time Nun/Kingsley was on the screen I leaned forward - particularly the scene when Nun tells Moses of his Hebrew origins.

In a story loaded with testosterone, I welcomed the development of characters like Miriam and Zipporah. Hollywood can't help itself when it comes to family troubles and romance. Two of the more compelling scenes are where Pharoah demands the truth about the family ties and then the subsequent one in the wilderness when Moses is exiled. More on the romance below.

A bit like with 2014's other biblical epic - Noah - it is interesting to watch Hollywood wrestle with how to portray the miraculous elements, like the plagues (or, 'catastrophes') and crossing the Red Sea. They seem to be caught between not giving God too much credit and explaining it simply as natural phenomena.

Whereas a faithful portrayal of the biblical story would have God be an easy winner of the Best Actor award, in this movie he does not even surface as a candidate for Best Supporting Actor. He is the subject of so much of the action in Exodus - but you'd never know it from the movie.

But more concerning than this is the fact that the bits of God being displayed on the screen bear so little resemblance to the God living in the pages of Exodus. So much is missing. Exodus 34.6-7 contains 'perhaps the fullest explanation of God's name in the whole of the Old Testament' (DED, 172).
Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin...
And yet does this God make an appearance in the movie at all? I don't think so. Similar truths can be found in earlier passages, like Exodus 5.22-6.8 and Exodus 19.1-6. 'You've seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself'. This God is not in the movie. I find myself jealous for God and his name, as I watch. I feel grieved about the multitude who see the movie, but miss seeing God as he truly is.

Linked to this is the way the movie makes an effort to portray what happened and how it happened, but make so little effort to engage the question of why it happened. This can be typical of Hollywood where special effects often trump an absorbing storyline. One of the 'tools' in DED is the 'Author's Purpose tool: The biggest question we can ever ask of a passage in the Bible is simple, 'Why did the author write this?' (DED, 199). Nah. Here the Director/reader does what he likes with the storyline, with the author's purpose inconsequential.

The movie would have been so much deeper if he had played with the 'hardening of the heart' theme amidst the plagues. 'The Bible is clear: we are responsible for our actions and God is in control of them' (DED, 51). I missed the the poetry and music of Exodus 15. I missed the Jethro story in Exodus 18 and the way 'he acts like a giant hinge, holding the two halves of Exodus together. People rescued by God need to live God's way' (DED, 96). And I wish that the movie had extended beyond barely touching Exodus 20 and moved on to the wonder of the tabernacle and God's desire to come and live with His people. Even though the God-boy walks alongside the ark of the covenant at the end, we have no sense of 'the breathtaking truth that Yahweh intends to dwell with his people' (DED, 143).

I am still trying to figure out what I think about using a little boy to represent God - or, is he actually God himself because he does utter the phrase, 'I am'? I do not warm to the boy at all. He seems like a bit of a brat to me. He is cold and calculating, a bit petulant and disengaged. My hunch is that the director want us to see these qualities and to be a little confused and uncertain and then to allow all these qualities to drift across to God, altering the witness of the biblical story.

In the opening scenes, a high priestess sets the framework for the story: 'a leader will be saved and his saviour will some day lead'. From this point forward the story lives within the orbit of the Moses:Pharoah relationship. It is framed in the language of revolution and of slaves demanding their rights for freedom, with Moses as their leader. God needs a general with a special sword, rather than a shepherd with a special staff.

The profile which the nuclear family receives, rather than the more likely tribal/national identity, betrays a further Western/Hollywood tampering. I doubt whether Zipporah would ever ask, 'What kind of God tells a man to leave his family?' The most cringing moment in the movie comes when Zipporah challenges Moses about the way he is raising their son.
Z: 'Is it good for a boy to grow up believing in nothing?' 
M: 'Is it bad to grow up believing in yourself?'. 
I winced. Just because Hollywood preaches the gospel of self-belief, doesn't mean Exodus needs to do so as well. That was a terrible moment.

Linked to this is the development of the romantic storyline. I struggle to imagine the question, 'Would you trade your faith in order to keep me?', being a real issue. On two occasions the movie lingers with the promises, or covenant, made between Moses and Zipporah. It comes out like a short catechism of four questions with corresponding answers:
What makes you happy?  
You do.
What is the most important thing in your life?
You are.
Where would you rather be?
When will you leave me?

Interestingly, in this little covenant between Moses and Zipporah, we can almost overhear little echoes of of the covenant between Yahweh and his people which is so strikingly absent from the movie. 'Behind-the-scenes faithfulness is God's style' (DED, 29).

I know we can't expect a Hollywood film director to be accurate with this, but Christians watching the movie must not lose sight of how this story fits into a far wider and bigger story. 'As we read the big story from beginning to end, we discover, like Russian dolls, miniature versions of the story hidden inside.' (DED, 147). Exodus is one of those stories 'hidden inside', as so many of the details in its story point forward to the Jesus story and find fulfillment in the gospel.

Oh yes - and if I was still teaching movie courses, or even Gospel & Culture ones, I'd be making an assignment out of watching this movie alongside the Charlton Heston Ten Commandments one from 50+ years ago. Compare and contrast these two and allow this conversation to follow the trajectory of cultural change, particularly in matters of faith and religion, and you'll need an around-the-world flight to grasp all the implications

nice chatting


marty roy lovatt

[I avoid using this blog to post sermons, messages and the like. Blogs feel like a different genre and I prefer to chat away. But on this occasion I'd like to pay tribute to my special friend, Marty Roy, who died earlier this month after a battle with cancer. The family asked me to share about Reflections on Friendship at the Memorial Service.]

Here is a slightly edited version of my comments...

My first memory of Martin Lovatt’s name was from my grandmother.
The Lovatt family had moved from Whangarei to Auckland
and had rented our family home while we were in India.
On one home leave, Martin had just vacated a bedroom which I then occupied.
As she wandered down the hallway and looked in my room
(more property manager, than grandmother at this moment), she said…
“I wish you’d keep your bedroom as tidy as Martin Lovatt kept it.”

It was when I returned from India for the final time, that Martin and I became friends.
Gradually our lives became entwined…

We enjoyed our sport together:
He endured my cricket and I endured his tennis…
He even hid me on the tennis court somewhere on our way
to winning the men’s doubles title at the Mt Albert Baptist Tennis Club.
But it was on the basketball court where we had our most fun together.
Martin was so fluid, so naturally athletic and, let’s face it, so cool.
And he was far better than I at retaining his sanctification
in our periodic efforts to dispose of Northcote Baptist Church.

We enjoyed our food together:
We’d wander down Wellesley St during our university days
to spend our student allowance on steak sandwiches.

Given the demise of my culinary skills, it should be placed on record
that it was I who actually taught Martin how to make an Indian curry
… on his way to becoming the great chef that he was.

When Barby came out to NZ that first time,
we became engaged and then headed off to Cape Reinga
on a road trip with Martin and his Mum.
I remember arriving at the Edwards’ bach in the Bay of Islands
with so many tamarillos that, in preparing them
for their subsequent encounter with the ice cream and then our bellies,
Martin and I had to use a bucket rather than a bowl.

We enjoyed our music and movies together
with George Benson, Billy Joel … and Chevy Chase leading the way.

Sadly, some things have been left undone:
I was never able to show my India to Martin.
He was never able to show me his Tata Beach in Golden Bay.

I always marvelled at the work of his hands:
initially, the sketches & paintings:
he did two for me that hung on the walls wherever we lived:
one of the family home just up the road
& the other of the old church in Russell;
and then the working with wood and the graphic design.

We both crossed the waters to be Best Man at each other’s weddings.
He traveled from Auckland to Chicago.
I traveled from Auckland to Nelson.

Just 11 days older than me, Martin’s middle name is Roy, mine is Royston.
But on many flights these days, there is not enough space
on my boarding pass for my full name – and so, across the top, I wait to see
if it will just say Windsor, Paul Roy … because I kinda like it when it does that.

We named our second son after Martin.
Martin said to our Martin not so long ago that he was ‘a symbol of our friendship’.       
While the name was given to honour Martin,
       there is also the prayer that God might use
       his own brand of genetics to graft the qualities
       of Martin the elder into Martin the younger
& Barby and I have loved watching the evidence of this happening.

At one level these are the kinds of comments expected from a friend at a memorial service.
But I have to say they are not the first things which came to mind – special though they are.
When I think of my friendship with Martin,
my immediate thoughts are of two profound truths in the Christian journey.
              One is that we carry the image of God in us.
              & the other is that Christ is formed progressively in us.

On an occasion like this it is wonderful to say of my friend:
            In him, I’ve glimpsed Jesus. He reminds me of the way God is.
            Because of Martin, I understand God & love Jesus that little bit more.

Martin was loyal
All the time I’ve known Martin – he has lived within a few kms of this spot.
while I’ve been a bit of here, there and everywhere
(& that is always a challenge for a friendship).
          The ‘here there and everywhere’ was never Martin’s concern.
          I was always met with that same combo:
                the expansive smile, the warm eyes and the committed hug
                that together worked to sweep away the time and the distance.
    A stable, loyal rock of a friend whose steadfast love did not cease.

Martin was gentle
Not outspoken.             Not aggressive.      
Not brash.                    Not needing to be the centre of attention.
Always the impulse to listen, rather than to speak.
I loved watching my kids warm to him at the different stages of their lives.
One wrote to me this week, simply saying:
‘Without a doubt, Uncle Marty was the kindest, gentlest man I have ever met.’
            & I found this gentleness to be soothing.
            When a little weary, a little burdened
– his gentle, humble heart did provide a little rest for the soul.

The loyalty of God, the gentleness of Jesus was reflected in Martin’s life.

Martin was good
In more recent years Martin and I were part of a men’s breakfast group
       And on the drive across town – I’d ask about his health & the family.
       Then over breakfast, similar questions would be asked.  
He was so good in the way he drew us in,
patiently giving us the opportunity to be part of this journey.
But then, every time, this brightness would come over him when the subject shifted to us.
        He wasn’t absorbed in what was happening to him.
        He wanted to be there for others. He remained so interested.
        He took our little challenges, by comparison, to heart
                   listening attentively and then praying fervently.
  Martin was such a thoroughly good man.

In some of the most difficult places in the world today,
the people of God enter into a little response together:
       from the front: ‘God is good’    with the people responding: ‘all the time’.
    then from the people: ‘all the time’  & from the front ‘God is good’

At times I’ve struggled to find God’s goodness in all this.
I remember reading a psalm with Martin in the car outside his home.
            As I got started – ‘ohh, I’ve picked the wrong psalm’
The words felt hollow. So few of the assurances seemed true for Martin.
I started skipping phrases and then verses.
I remember being so angry as I drove home.
I was ready to rip pages out of the Bible.
But… the appeal of the Psalms and of the God to whom they direct us
is that we can turn over a few pages
and find a psalm that expresses just how we are feeling.
Part of God’s goodness is that he is not unhinged by those feelings.
In fact, the Bible says that ‘in our distress, he is distressed’.
            He finds cancer to be sinister and evil.
And the goodness of God is seen most fully in his restorative plans
for us and for creation as we move into the future – a place Martin has reached.
            It is the certainty that these plans will come to pass
            that enables us to endure – plans that come to us as pictures in Revelation.
‘He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
            Never again will they hunger
            Never again will they thirst
The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat
For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd
            He will lead them to springs of living water
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Loyal. Gentle. Good. How many of us could bear witness to the same three?
This is what Martin brought to friendships. I knew it truly. I knew it deeply.

And it is in the loyalty and goodness of God and the gentleness of Christ that Martin would want us to place our confidence as we try to move forward from this place with him alive in our memories and hearts.

Paul Roy Windsor

Monday, April 20, 2015

lyrics for living 5 (wing my words)

To be known as a good listener is a great aspiration to have.

It is certainly one of mine. But inevitably, in my work (as with many of you, I'm sure), I do a lot of talking. Looking back through my google calendar over recent weeks, I find things like this:

teaching a module on preaching in Bangalore (India)
contributing to leadership meetings in London (UK)
facilitating a meeting in Amman (Jordan)
promoting the ministry in which I am involved in Phoenix AZ (USA)
encouraging people in A and Z (China)
speaking at a memorial for my special friend in Auckland (New Zealand)
discussing work among first nations peoples in Niagara Falls (Canada)
(later this week) preaching at a seminary in Wilmore KY (USA)

I wonder what your list looks like? That is a lot of variations on the talking theme.
But diverse though these settings may be, they all have one thing in common.

For each of them, I pray the same prayer.
The words of a hymn.

Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
In living echoes of Thy tone ...

O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.

What is it that draws me back to this hymn, again and again?

I like the way it originates with God
We are a channel. We live with God and spend time listening to Him.
What we pass onto others is what God has passed onto us.

I like the way it prioritises words
So much of the church has lost confidence in word and words.
There is a bias against words which God simply does not share.

I love the image of flight
The words originate with Him and He is the one who needs to fly them as well.
I can do my talking, but then He must do His winging.
It means less manipulation and spinning - and more faithfulness.

I like the realism about the human heart
There are hidden depths, marked by secrecy, sadness, stubbornness and sin.
These things are not softened by human skill, but only by the Spirit.

Sadly, unlike other posts in this series, I could not find a you-tube version that I liked. Maybe there is a reader who can help me out here. One or two were OK, but then they excluded the verse I wanted. [This is the best I could do:].

NB: If you click on the 'worship' label - scroll down on the right side of this page - you will find quickly the other posts in this series.

nice chatting


Thursday, April 16, 2015

ten days in china

As this was my first ever visit to China, I thought I'd collect a few photos and reflections.

On Easter Sunday morning we attended one of the officially recognised churches. 1000 people, standing room only. Traditional, but not necessarily nominal or liberal. The Germans occupied the province for less than twenty years, but transformed the architecture (see below) and left behind a world-class brewery (not seen below - I don't believe in such promotion). After the service on the hill on high, we descended to the road below where a young man with a disability of some kind was chalking his version of the gospel on the footpath.

There was the thrill of driving over the longest bridge in the world. It never touches land. It takes 25min to cross - and it would cover the English Channel with some kilometers to spare. There was even a spaghetti junction in the middle of the ocean. Meanwhile, over on terra firma, a quick shot from the car captures the razor edges of the mountain ridges that took me back to sketches in the biographies I read as a child.

The cities were impressive. A majority of our time was based in Qingdao, China's 18th largest city - but still coming in at over 4 million (in a province, Shandong, with over 100 million people). It was the base for the sailing at the Beijing Olympics. It gave me an opportunity to share how New Zealand wins all its Olympic medals sitting down. The Chinese enjoyed that one...

For a country aiming at being the dominant nation in the 21st century, I was a little surprised at the paucity of English. I knew it was a challenge (and I confess to enjoying seeing indigenous languages to the fore) - but they won't dominate the world if they don't dominate English. Quite a contrast to India, with its British colonial ancestry. Then, rather ironically (and this is true throughout Asia), I am a little bemused by the dependence on Western models on billboards. The metanarrative for beauty and fashion (and wedding apparel) still tends to be written far from Asia. The new colonialism. Kinda sad.

The food was fun, as I appreciated the diversity of cuisine from the different regions of the country. Obesity was a rare sight and the link was made with the Chinese preference for savoury over sweetness. But I am still shaking my head on how these little sea slugs could fetch USD10/each - and that be considered a steal. They look more suitable for garden compost to me. And while the food was diverse, not everything that circulated around the table was edible.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my first visit to China would have me landing in a city just one hour from Weifang, where a big hero of mine (Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame) was confined during World War II ... and where he subsequently died of a brain tumour in his early 40s. There are various memorials, all of which I indulged. But there was a poignancy about the visit. As I stepped out of the car, a message came through that my best friend from way back, Martin Lovatt, had succumbed to cancer in his mid-50s back in New Zealand. Eric and Martin. Good men of deep and uncomplicated faith. Serving God with all that I am becomes a more straightforward choice because they are in my life. It is gonna be one of those days I remember for forever.

Partly because of the language barrier, I did find the person on the street and in the service industry to be a bit stern and unsmiling. I was not quite ready for this. I kept trying to make them smile - but to no avail. Oh well - it couldn't be said of the people with whom I hung out and who showed me around. Some of the warmest, most hospitable people I've encountered. Their kindness to me as I grappled with being so far from home when my friend died will remain with me.

 nice chatting


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

logos and google

'The Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other'.

Attributed to Karl Barth, this is the classic cliche about the need for preachers to remain connected to both the Word and the World, the Text and the Context, as they prepare and deliver sermons. Earlier this month in Amman, I heard Dr Yohanna Katanacho (Bethlehem Bible College) refresh the Barthian quotation, as he described his own approach to preaching:

'Using Logos helps me understand the text; using Google helps me understand the context'.
[NB: I am assuming that 'Logos' refers here to a Bible software package.]

These statements align with the Stottian quotation which I hear most frequently as I travel: the call for 'double listening'. We need to be listening to the Word and listening to the World on the way to relating the one to the other in the sermon - and in life itself. I've been reflecting again on how much this principle has been woven into the fabric of who I am and how I function in ministry.

As a young pastor, in my twenties, there was a bus company that moved us around in the lower South Island of New Zealand. It was called H & H. I remember articulating the 'H & H' that moved me in ministry: hermeneutics and homiletics. Interpreting the Bible. Preaching the Bible.

As a young lecturer in my thirties, I found myself teaching H & H. I was like a little boy in a licorice shop. As my thirties gained momentum I was asked to develop a course from scratch called The Gospel in a Post-Christian Society. WOW - those were the days... With H & H - and now GPCS - filling my waking hours, 'double listening' had embedded itself into my vocation. Text and Context. Word and World. Not surprisingly, my developing doctoral studies had a similar flavour as I wrestled with 'the parable in the postmodern'.

Into my forties and a 'jack of all trades' teaching career (at BCNZ/Laidlaw College I had taught in every department and at every academic level) was traded-in for a single, specific focus: homiletics, or preaching. As I lived in this area a model for teaching the subject took shape. At its core was a commitment to double listening - or, more accurately, quadruple (?!) listening - as we listened our way around the four corners of a room, engaging with text, listener, world and self - with the text having the strongest voice as these conversations morphed their way into a sermon. [NB: One ongoing incarnation of this 'four corners' approach is the impressive Kiwimade Preaching website where contributing articles are collected in these four corners.]

Now in my fifties and involved in a preacher training ministry with a global reach, the Barthian cliche continues to have its manifestations, sometimes in surprising places. My suitcase, for example. This morning I looked in there and noticed the two books, on a blue towel, selected for reading on this trip. Almost intuitively by now, this selection pulls me into double-listening. I really like it like that...

Well, that is a slice of one person's story into a life of 'double listening'.

What does your own story sound like?
Because we all need to be doing it, in every vocation.

nice chatting


Sunday, March 22, 2015


Earlier this month I enjoyed my first trip to the Arab world. After meetings in Amman (Jordan), I travelled to Lebanon to spend a few days with my colleague and friend, Riad, at his home in the Bekaa Valley (that flat bit above the central ridge in the map below).

Lebanon is a small country, taking two hours to drive its width and five hours its length. Before the troubles began Riad could drive to Damascus for an afternoon with his in-laws and be back home again the same evening. It has a similar population to New Zealand (4 million), although increased now by almost 50% with refugees from Syria (possibly as many as 2 million). It is a courageous and compassionate commitment, given that the influx of Palestinian refugees a few decades ago created the context which wrecked the country with 17 years of civil war.

Simply put, the country is beautiful. I saw beautiful places - and beautiful people.

Here is Byblos, with the longest continually populated community anywhere in the world. The ruins in the picture suggest that people lived here 8000 years ago - and pretty much every year since.

The ruins of Byblos are impressive - but so, too, are the restorations of Beirut. I couldn't get enough of the downtown buildings, marveling at the mastery involved in taking buildings back to their former glory, after being rubbilised by prolonged civil war (sometimes even with church as neighbour to mosque - see below). It is kinda like a picture of creation-fall-redemption...!

Then there is the first century Roman temple in Niha.

And what about that Bekaa Valley, with the view from Riad's upstairs' verandah?

The snowy slopes of Mt Hermon were a special thrill for me (here, the view at breakfast).

... and then a closer view, up on the Syrian border.

And how can a visit to Lebanon not sight a cedar?! Here is a relatively young one, at 1400 years of age (they go up to 3500 years of age!).

When it comes to the people, beautiful people, it is hard to go past a visit to the basement of an unfinished Baptist church, schooling 300 Syrian refugee children. Gorgeous kids. We walk into this classroom and the children stand up and recite the Lord's Prayer - 'your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven ... deliver us from evil ... forgive us, as we forgive others ...'. Yes, Lord, may it be so.

Last year, the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon, issued an 'Urgent Appeal' to the wider, global evangelical community. The current situation verges on 'being bona fide genocide' ... (they warn of) 'the annihilation of Christian presence in the Middle East' ... 'we must work together to heal the wounds and to preserve what is left of the Christian community in these lands'. They call for partnership, with that word solidarity featuring prominently at beginning and end. And so I leave Lebanon with a heart full of longings - that innumerable Christians in the wider world will give up their small and silly ambitions and get lost in something bigger than themselves - and that God will hold his church in Lebanon-Syria, keep his people, and lead them onwards and upwards...

nice chatting


PS: for another post sparked by Syria - see the messiah above syria.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

a female leadership quality?!

It is a headline that catches the eye, isn't it?
Why women make better CEOs in the 21st century.

It is Sunday morning. I am browsing The Sunday Telegraph at Heathrow. It is International Women's Day and the paper is making a bit of a splash with an eye-catching headline. I've always found women preachers to be reluctant to say that there is a distinctive voice which they offer to preaching. Could the same be said of women leadership styles?

Not according to this article. Out with masculine command-and-control styles and in with 'feminine' collaboration-and-listening ones. Less kings and macho-heroes - and more orchestrators. According to Simon Sinek, what we need are 'more leaders with female qualities such as empathy and humanity. Aggression and self-interest are the qualities of bad leadership.'

Hmmm...  I am tempted to leave my response with Sir Ian Richardson, from yesteryear's House of Cards: 'you might think that - I could not possibly comment'.  But I won't. I suspect a stronger case can be made for a distinctive voice (and style) in the field of leadership than it can be made for preaching. While there are times when I have seen this to be the case - I still can't help feeling a little sorry for the male leader who has empathy and humanity!

The online article omits a box embedded in the print version of the article. Five Keys to Good Leadership. They are so good, I quote them in full here (partly because I do not want to lose them):
1 Good leadership is about communicating a vision of something that does not exist yet. Hitting revenue targets is not a vision. The worst combination is a leader who keeps a tight grip while offering no vision.
2 Once you have defined that vision, you need to articulate it. Employees are increasingly questioning why they work for a company. So CEOs have to convince others to get on board, leading sideways rather than just downwards. Instead of vision, many CEOs prefer to use the word 'purpose'.
3 Surround yourself with people who are better than you, [ie appoint your weakness] developing and building that talent. Nurturing talent is like being a parent, in that you take pride when your executives achieve independence.
4 Avoid being pushed into instant decisions. Think about what you are doing. Too many CEOs are pushed around by social media. Don't let yourself be bullied by a fickle public.
5 Walk the walk. You need to embody qualities such as collaboration, encouragement, and listening rather than just pay lip-service to them You need to be an exemplary role model.
Intuitively, this seems to hit that proverbial nail on its equally proverbial head - although they missed the opportunity to speak of how #1 can be done through collaboration and listening. In my experience, 'the vision thing' is one area that still receives the controlling, macho, directive, 'downwards' treatment ... but maybe that is just my feminine side speaking:).

nice chatting


Sunday, March 01, 2015

holding on

Barby and I have enjoyed five weeks with Micah and Amaliya, our little grandchildren, filling our Bangalorean lives with joy. The fact that our Lovely Lys and her hubbie, Tim, came with the package deal only makes the visit that much sweeter. Tonight I say good-bye to all of them as I head to London for Langham meetings. I feel sad.

I've loved a lot this month - and learned a bit too.

When a weary, or a scared, Micah flings his little arms upwards with pentecostal fervour accompanied by the plea, "I want to hold you", I think he means, "I want you to hold me". Either way, the key to rest for the weary and shelter for the fearful in this situation is the 'holding' - be it the tightness of his little arms holding on to me - or, my big arms holding on to him.

And yes, as you might imagine, it does make me think of how I relate to God.

Weariness and fear are two of the great challenges for me in living life. They never seem to be too far away. They are always prowling around in the neighborhood of my heart. Many a contemporary worship song urges me to sing something akin to "I want to hold you, God - and I never want to let You go". And I am happy to oblige, with fervency and with meaning.

But is the strength of my 'hold' really worth singing about? Micah's hold on me is not the key to his sense of security. It is my hold on him that makes the difference. I love to hold him. And so it is with God. Sing all you like about how much you want to hold Him (and I will continue to do so) - but, ultimately, the rest and the shelter is found in knowing that He holds onto me and will not let go. He loves me that much ... and that is worth singing about.

I love a little letter in the New Testament. It is written by Jude.
It uses the word 'keep' in a similar way to this idea of holding.

Jude opens up, writing to those who are 'loved ... called ... and kept for Jesus Christ' (1).
He urges his readers to 'keep yourselves in God's love' (21, a bit like Micah's holding of me).
Then: 'To him who is able to keep you from falling...' (24, a bit like my holding of Micah).

While he was in Bangalore, Micah and I enjoyed our walks...

He loved the animals - be it the tiger on the wall, or the crab on the beach (in Kochi)...

And taking little breaks for rest and refreshment together was important too...

nice chatting


By the way, Micah's little sister, Amaliya, is pretty cute too.
Here she is with her grandma in a little restaurant in the Jewish Quarter of Fort Kochi.