Sunday, March 12, 2017

you are what you love

This book shifted me. Maybe I should say that in theory, it is shifting me - but whether anything happens in practice, time will tell. Lets start with a few appetizers:

'We are oriented by our longings, directed by our desires' (11).

'You are what you love because you live toward what you want' (13).

'Our primary orientation to the world is visceral, not cerebral' (33).

James K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love is very Pauline (Phil 1.9-11): 'It is not that I know in order to love, but rather: I love in order to know ... The place to start is by attending to our loves' (7).

Here are some of the shifts for me...
1. At a personal level, I need to recalibrate the way I see my journey into holiness. It is not just mustering up disciplines, it is about orienting my loves and wants, aiming them at God. 'Our sanctification is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on a tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do, it means changing what I want' (65).

As I am writing this post, I have one eye, and a lot emotion and imagination, attuned to cricinfo as I track with Kane Williamson towards another Test century. To be honest, I am being a bit obsessive about it. It is too big 'a want'. A relatively innocuous desire like this can do its damage. 'If love is both habit and hunger, then our tastes and cravings for what's ultimate will be changed in the same way' (64) - by feeding hungers and nurturing habits. 'Not all sins are decisions' (54):
... our sins aren't just discrete, wrong actions and bad decisions; they reflect vices. And overcoming them requires more than just knowledge; it requires rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves (54).
2. I need to change the way I understand (and teach) 'worldview'. Some years ago I noted the change between the first (1988) and second (2004) editions of James Sire's landmark The Universe Next Door in which he moves from a solely intellectual description of 'worldview' to one that is more inclusive of the affections. Smith is moving along this same trajectory. If we think human beings are 'brains-on-a-stick', then we will fail to see surrounding cultural practices as liturgies, 'as habit-forming, love-shaping rituals that get hold of our hearts and aim our loves' (38). These cultural liturgies are 'rival modes of worship .... that affectively and viscerally train our desires' (23, 32). Worldview is a matter of the affections and the imagination, not just the intellect. Pastors need 'to be ethnographers, helping their congregations name and 'exegete' their local liturgies' (54).

This is a poem that is quoted twice in the book (11, 91)
The case study Smith uses as an illustration must be one of the most discussed aspects of the book. It is brilliant. He takes the reader to the shopping mall and the way consumerism acts as a 'cultural liturgy' that takes over our hearts, shapes our behaviour and stains the way we encounter God (40-55). He considers the 'shopping mall through a liturgical lens' (55) and asks, in this experience, 'What are the things you do that do something to you?' - because 'the mall is 'a formative space, covertly shaping our loves and longings' (55). A bit like Calvin who spoke of our hearts as 'idol factories'...
[NB: the author speaks about consumerism here:].

This took me back thirty years. Fresh out of seminary and heading off to be a pastor and my father said something to me which struck me as odd at the time: 'Don't forget to engage with peoples' feelings because that is what drives their behaviour - not so much their thoughts.' I think he was right.

[A similar case study could be built around the immersion by a generation of Christian young adults in Friends, followed by Big Bang Theory. Twenty years of soaking it up. These cultural liturgies have so formed their loves and habits regarding relationships and sexuality that the counter-liturgy in the Story comes across to them as implausible and impossible. It is very, very sad. We are what we soak in...].

3. At one point Smith asks, 'What if education weren't first and foremost about what we know but about what we love?' (155). Now, that would cause a shift! He talks about shaping students in the same way as we shape our children: 'the faculty in loco parentis ('in place of parents')' (158). Just as the pastor's love is the same brand of love as the parent (1 Thess 2), maybe so also the teacher's love? By the end of a course I often feel that way... He talks about the spiritual practices which faculty can embrace (and shouldn't we add administrative staff as well?) in order to cultivate this direction. A bit of Bonhoeffer's Life Together surfaces. But maybe unlike it is with children, do we need to rethink the place of compulsion in the formation of students? I remained unconvinced about the value of making things compulsory with adult learners... In a lovely touch, Smith writes about the transformative impact on a class that buying a coffee-maker had, of arriving early to welcome his class with freshly brewed coffee - as 'a kind of incense for early-morning learning' (163).

4. There is one area where I find the author encourages me not to shift. This obsession we have with 'remaking the church in order to 'speak to' contemporary culture' (75). It is misguided. Later, 'we cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church' (178). Such people think that it is the church's out-of-dateness that is its biggest problem. Smith sees it differently. In fact he is quite subversive. 'In order to foster a Christian imagination we don't need to invent; we need to remember' (181). It is an immersion in the Story that is needed, not an immersion in the latest trends. We are restored by being 're-storied'. Using the earlier example, rather than making church more like a mall in order to fit into the cultural flow (because if we do this, this does something to us!), we need to invest in the 'counter-liturgies'. It is going against the cultural flow, in an intriguing way, that is the key.

This approach is then taken to four combustible areas: worship, youth ministry, weddings and the home.

With worship (57-81), Smith advocates a move away from it being solely an expressive activity, something we are doing, and on towards it becoming more of a formative activity, something that is being done to us. 'Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition' (78). In the following chapter (83-110) he gives some ideas on how this can be done - and even offers advice on how to persist in a church context where this is not happening (99-103). He makes a special plea for including confession in worship (103-110). Stop being so fussed about what might appear to be irrelevant or too churchy for the possible unbeliever in your midst and get on with being faithful to biblical worship. How can we expect God to be at work among us if we are not worshipping as he us wants to do? My money is on the unbeliever being drawn closer by watching authentic confession more often than we think - and, if not, that is no reason to stop doing confession.
[NB: the author speaks about worship here:].

With youth ministry (143-154), Smith reminds us that 'effective Christian formation of young people might look like a failure for a time' (146). How true. The lack of patience and the need for measurements of (numerical) success plagues youth ministry. 'We have effectively communicated to young people that sincerely following Jesus is synonymous with being 'fired up' for Jesus, with being excited for Jesus, as if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful disposition...' (146-147). Subversively, he makes a case for the love of tradition among young people and that instead of looking for the next big thing in youth ministry, 'we should be looking behind us' (151) - way behind us because 'the future of the church is ancient' (7).
[NB: the author speaks on youth ministry here:].

With weddings (118-126), Smith worries about the liturgies of narcissism that afflict the event. The 'spectacle of the wedding' is the focus: 'It is why we spend more time fixated on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than on the long slog of sustaining a marriage' (120). I've become disillusioned by Christian wedding ceremonies. Basically, I won't take them anymore ... unless there is a commitment to them being both a serious sacrament and the launch of a missional partnership.

With the home (126-136), these are my favourite pages. Smith ain't gonna buy any 'idolatry of family' ideas. He actually prefers the word 'household' ... 'because I don't want to fall into a narrow picture that assumes we are all parents. God calls some of us to singleness (1 Cor 7.8), and not all of us live in parent-child homes' (203). Good man. I love the way he calls us 'to situate our households in the wider household of God' (133). Amen to that one. We should be concerned about
the ethos of our households - the unspoken 'vibe' carried in our daily rituals. Every household has a 'hum', and that hum has a tune that is attuned to some end, some telos. We need to tune our homes, and thus our hearts, to sing his grace (127).
Smith includes some moving stories from his own household. For example: (1) On the 'formative power of the family supper table', I've read the story on pages 132-133 aloud a few times and wept every time; and (2) On the value of family traditions and memory-making, I love the story about taking his kids to a cathedral in France (150-151).
[NB: the author speaks about life in the household here:].

James K. A. Smith is a relatively new discovery for me as an author. Slowly, I plan to make my way through his books, with one other reviewed here. I like to read by author, rather than by topic - and slowly expand my list of favourites authors and read what they write. This guy is on that list.

BTW, he has a delightful eye for illustrations. Very much the principle I teach - that the best illustrations are about seeing the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity reigns supreme on this one. But likening the Augustinian quote about 'hearts being restless' with a beachball in a pool is seriously impressive (14). So also is the way a visit to a grocery store leads to a recognition that we don't 'think our way to new tastes' (59-64). I love the way he lingers with Balthasar's observation of the similarities between the way a mother is with a baby and the way God is with us (111-113).

nice chatting


PS: two (less than) 2 minute videos - and there are a set of ten on youtube...

Friday, March 03, 2017

ahh, the elderly

The other day I sat behind an older man clutching his ear with his hand during the singing. I picked what was going on. The music was too loud, but he desperately wanted to remain among the worshipping people of God. He wasn't making a fuss, and clutching his ear seemed to be his best option. As for me and my house (which is just Barby and I, to be fair), I think it is a poor option. A shameful option.

It is great to see emphasis given to youth and childrens' ministries...
BUT if we are going to build this around the compelling 'the youth and children are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today' statement - why are we not also affirming that 'the elderly are not the church of yesterday, they are the church of today'? Why is this not equally compelling? The logic is the same. You could even argue that the case for the elderly is even more compelling, given that, on average, they are closer to meeting their Maker than the children and youth. And eternity matters - right?!

It is great to see initiatives among people with disabilities...

Long overdue. Here in Bangalore, you can't walk far from here before you find such ministries, mostly gospel-inspired. I delight in the smile of one of the gardeners here - so uneven and limited in his walk with his disability, but welcomed and valued in this community. On our evening walks, we pass his little home - and the sunshine in his smile and the width in his wave makes my day. BUT if we are offering employment and building ramps and including sign language, why are we not also turning down the music just a bit for the elderly? Is that much lost by doing so? Is this not a legitimate disability as well?

In recent days, my heart has been inclined again towards the elderly for three reasons.
A Movie. An Exercise. A Passage.

a movie
Every now and then a movie tugs at my heart and I watch it again and again. We Bought a Zoo has been one example. I love it. I just do. And now a new one is eclipsing itHave you seen The InternRobert de Niro has recently retired (hardly elderly, I realise - but stick with me) and lost his wife. He joins a trendy, booming entrepreneurial on-line sales company as an intern, as part of a scheme pitched at retirees. He is so untrendy, starting with turning up to work in a jacket and tie - and all things technological are foreign to him. Now this is Hollywood and so not everything in the movie is praiseworthy ... but because of his servant-heart, his character, his wisdom, and his caring for people of all ages he has a transformative influence on the company. A company that is obsessive about relevance and success is subverted and improved by an odd, but intriguing, person in their midst. Methinks it is a great case study for a church leaders' retreat...

an exercise
A Langham friend of mine in Australia (Jill McGilvray) is a counsellor and does some teaching as well. I was captivated by an exercise which she does with pastors-in-training. She gives five post-it notes, from three different colours, to each student. On the five green post-its they write five things they are glad they own. On the pink ones they write five activities they enjoy doing. On the yellow ones they write five people that they love. Easy-peasy.

Then she gives her talk on ministry to seniors. Off she goes - but she has an alarm on her phone to go off every few minutes. When it does, each student picks a post-it, screws it up, and throws it to one side. This is the pain of growing old. It is the gradual sense of loss that fills every direction in which they look and live. Things and activities and people. Jill lives in this loss a bit, helping pastors-in-training feel the pain. Then they are asked to go and pick up each post-it, unscrewing them one at a time, and becoming more thankful that the things and the activities and the people that they love and enjoy are still with them.

a chaarpai
a passage
Next week I'm doing a series through Ecclesiastes for the first time in two decades. It is the first book of the Bible that I loved, as a preacher. I wrote about this recently. While it is an odd and difficult book, it is an honest one. I imagine the author as an elderly person. In NZ settings I refer to him as a kaumatua (a Maori elder). At other times he has been a grandfatherly sage. Next week, after tossing lots of ideas around with those who know far more than me, I have settled on him being a guru on his chaarpai as achhe din comes to an end. [NB: achhe din - literally, the 'good days', is a phrase used widely in India's public life]. While the scholars differ on this one (don't they always with Ecclesiastes?!), many feel that the emotional centre of the book is 12.1-7 where guruji takes us on a tour of his body as it declines into death. By this time he is pleading with his disciples to 'Remember their Creator' before the achhe din pass and the 'days of trouble' come. Eugene Peterson is so good in capturing this emotion:
1-2 Honor and enjoy your Creator while you’re still young,
Before the years take their toll and your vigor wanes,
Before your vision dims and the world blurs
And the winter years keep you close to the fire.
3-5 In old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen.
The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt.
The hum of the household fades away.
You are wakened now by bird-song.
Hikes to the mountains are a thing of the past.
Even a stroll down the road has its terrors.
Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.
Yes, you’re well on your way to eternal rest,
While your friends make plans for your funeral.
6-7 Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
To be honest, one more thing is on my mind.
Movie, Exercise, Passage - but also, today...

A person
As I write, at this very moment, one of my very favourite people among the elderly is moving home. She knows Ecclesiastes 12.1-7 from the inside, with all its pain and frustration - and losses. I have so much else I should be doing, but I wanted to write this post on this day, as a tribute to all that she and Uncle Brian have meant to me over the years. Love you so much, Auntie Audrey. God is with you.

nice chatting


Thursday, February 23, 2017

basis and focus

There are two divisions about which the preacher must be wary.

One is dividing Spirit from Word. 'In biblical thought the Spirit of God is as closely connected to the Word of God as breath is connected to speech' (John Woodhouse). They belong together. Don't elevate one above the other. God's speech cannot be separated from God's breath - much like the case is for us.

The other is dividing the Christ from the Bible. Knowing them as Written Word and Living Word suggests something - surely?! They belong together. And yet I've worked in settings were there is a palpable fear that the consequence of honouring the Bible is the diminishing of Christ. No. It ain't necessarily so. It is possible for the Bible to be the basis and Jesus to be the focus of our lives and ministries.

My Langham colleague, Stephen Williams, recently visited Wittenberg in Germany. During a skype last night he mentioned to me a painting by Lucas Cranach in a church in Wittenberg. All he said to me was: 'Luther has one hand on the Bible, the other hand is pointing to Christ - with all the congregation looking at Christ and not at Luther'. Ahh - perfect. As soon as the skype was finished, it was off to google to find this painting. Here it is:

I did a bit more research and found that the painting is part of what is called the Reformation Altar (see below). It is a way of describing the church visually. The three paintings across the top are the three sacraments, widely accepted in the Protestant church: baptism, eucharist, confession. Underneath this threesome lives our painting, depicting a kind of foundation for the church - the crucified Christ as revealed in the written Word.

nice chatting


PS: Stephen wrote to me to ask whether I had seen "the little girl - possibly Luther's daughter - who is the only one not looking at Christ. She is looking out at us and inviting us into the painting, as if to say - 'this is for you, too.'" No, I hadn't noticed - and that is very, very cool. Love it. Can't get enough of it. An evangelistic painting.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

shedding light, opening windows

It is becoming one of my favourite teaching sessions. The goal is to shed light on a critical word in the character of a preacher and then to open a window on the places in the preaching ministry where this word has relevance.

We start by splitting people into pairs. "I am going to put a single word on the whiteboard and in your pairs I'd like you to agree on another single word that describes its meaning for you. OK?!" This past Thursday I had the mother of all whiteboards with which to work. It covered an entire wall. Pedagogical heaven.

Up goes the word: integrity

After their discussions, each pair is invited to write their word nearby to 'integrity' on the whiteboard. Always, always, always - the range of words is fascinating. Rarely is their much repetition. 'Integrity' has so many layers and nuances. The semantic range is wide. The connotations are endless. Each pair speaks to their word - and the conversation gets started, as we listen and learn from each other.

What I didn't say is that I ensure that each pair shares the same mother tongue, or heart language. In this country there are plenty of languages from which to choose! So the next thing I ask them to do is to agree on the word in their language that best describes integrity. Up on the board it goes - again, nearby to 'integrity'. People love their own heart language. It is fun to hear the settings in which this word is used by their people. Through all of this interaction, light is shed on the meaning of integrity.

Having shed light on what the word 'integrity' means, the windows are opened on the preaching ministry itself. Where is integrity a challenge for the preacher? "Come up with your three most important reflections. OK?!" After some discussion in their pairs, they are invited to write one of their reflections on the whiteboard. But there is a catch. If their idea is already up there before they get there, they have to select a different reflection from their list. In this way everything written on the board - on the far left above, where the windows can be seen - affirms something different about the challenge of integrity in preaching.

Then I like to turn to the Bible for a few minutes (although I forgot to do this on Thursday - gulp?!). "What are the words in the Bible which convey the idea of 'integrity'?" This week they embark on an assignment where they are to find 'logos-pathos-ethos' in the Pastoral Epistles. Methinks they'll have a few words by the end of this exercise. 'Blameless' will emerge, I'm sure. It always does. Another exercise is to have each pair agree on one person in the Bible known for their integrity and one person known for their lack of integrity. Get the names up on the board and draw out of the class the reason why this is the case...

After all the discussion, it is great to return to the pairs and have them share with each other where a specific challenge with integrity lies for them - and have them pray for each other, in their heart language!

... and then, finally, we get to the written notes I've prepared :).

nice chatting


PS 1: I had decided to write a post on this exercise, but when I discovered that the photos had light being shed and windows being opened, there was no holding me back.

PS 2: My focus here is on preacher training - but the same exercise could be done with leadership training.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

house and home

This morning it was off to offer a prayer of blessing for the house of some close friends that is taking shape. On the rural fringe of Bangalore. I loved it. As a boy, in both rural and urban settings in North India, I enjoyed being absorbed into scenes just like this one. The memories flooded back. The bricks. The plumblines. The little cement mixed into the lots of sand. The skills. The women hard at work, with the someone in charge watching - and sitting! Nothing much has changed in 40 years.

We waited for the doorway to arrive, as this was deemed to be the opportune time for a prayer. It was put into its place. I shared a few words about what it takes to turn a house into a home, a financial asset into a ministry base. I urged our friends to step through that doorway and reflect on how their home can become:

a place of refuge, offering a haven to the troubled and the abused.
a place of welcome, enabling the outsider to become an insider.
a place of belonging, stewarding a space that builds an identity and leaves a legacy.
a place of rest, calming the stressed and energising the weary.
a place of worship, liberating the believers to pray and praise.

May this be true about your home as well!

nice chatting


Sunday, February 12, 2017

lyrics for living 12 (fulness of my might)

It is early Sunday morning, my preferred time to write a blog. For me this task is in every sense a sabbatical activity, recreative and restorative. This morning I am feeling overwhelmed by nostalgia. Later today I will be back preaching from Ecclesiastes...

In many ways Ecclesiastes is where it all started. It is the first book of the Bible I loved, as an expositor. That first series, almost thirty years ago, is still with me: The Memoirs of a Grandfatherly Sage. Truth be told, the guy is writing his own blog in these twelve chapters. He would ease so easily into our fake news, alternative-facts, post-truth discussions today.

Then came the invitation to speak at a TSCF/IFES Student conference, exactly twenty years ago (1997): Swoosh Spirituality: Ecclesiastes Confronts the Nike Generation. Here dawned my first love as a preacher. Opening the Word and opening the World in the course of the same sermon (series). Biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis. The Stottian 'between two worlds' and 'double listening'. I remember spending so much time exegeting Nike, so that I could patiently tell its story alongside the Ecclesiastes one, but with God's Word having the final say. My conclusion? Pretty much as this picture, which we created for the series, suggests...

On another occasion I worked through the book at a Presbyterian church in South Auckland over Easter. Afterwards I received a caustic note, with the damning appraisal: 'synagogue sermons'. It took me another fifteen years before I concurred. Now I teach, with some feeling as a result, that these series from Old Testament books need to be both theocentric and christotelic. One further series stands out in the memory: Selley's Spirituality. 'Selleys' was a fill-the-gap product available at the local hardware store and this time I tried to make a case for the way Ecclesiastes addresses issues that the church in New Zealand had forgotten. The one other thing I remember is doing some writing for a magazine and an article called Kiwi Kulture: Consulting a Wise Advisor. Yes, lots of nostalgia this morning. This ol' fella has been a friend along the way for a very long time...

But something else happened in that 1997. After being invited to consider the principalship of Carey Baptist College (Auckland), in a conversation that lasted most of 1996, everything was dropped, inexplicably, in that October. It was all very odd. A letter arrived and that was it. 'Not interested. We've moved on.' No explanation given. I don't remember being too dislocated, as it was not a role for which I would have thought myself qualified to apply for anyway. But then that March morning, a few months later, is still with me. I was in Kathmandu, visiting m-workers in a role I had with Interserve. An email arrived from Barby with two shattering pieces of news. My little niece, Rachael, had all but drowned in the family swimming pool ... and the job of principal at Carey had been offered to me, out of nowhere. A few days later I was flying from Larnaca to Athens - and as that plane dipped down into Athens, I looked out the window and my heart strangely turned and warmed to this opportunity. I knew the call of God to it from that moment.

Why am I meandering through all this nostalgia? Well, when the time came for the induction service in Dunedin later that year, I was asked to choose a hymn that was meaningful to me. I could almost hear my ol' mate whispering in my ear. 'You gotta choose this one'. Baptist Hymnbook #446. As I am going to tell folks later this morning, Ecclesiastes is a bit like a Maths' school book. They are both filled with questions and puzzles ... and the answers can be found in the back, in chapters 11 & 12. This is the way to live. These words in this hymn capture it so well. They had taken on anthem-status at this time in my life.

Lord, in the fullness of my might, I would for Thee be strong;
While runneth o'er each dear delight, to Thee should soar my song.

I would not give the world my heart and then profess Thy love:
I would not feel my strength depart and then Thy service prove.

I would not with swift-winged zeal on the world's errands go:
And labour up the heavenly hill with weary feet and slow.

O not for Thee my weak desires, my poorer, baser part!
O not for Thee my fading fires, the ashes of my heart!

O choose me in my golden time, in my dear joys have part;
For Thee the glory of my prime, the fulness of my heart!

I cannot, Lord, too early take the covenant divine:
O ne'er the happy heart may break whose earliest love was Thine.

Oh, how I used to love to sing out this hymn, oftentimes with a trickle down the cheek. It used to get to me, but I am becoming too old for it now! This is a nostalgic trip. I feel kinda sad. The words no longer have quite the same resonance with my longings. It is pitched at younger people than I am now. I hope there are still some who might open their hearts to it - and maybe a musician or two who can create a good tune :).

Still, I think I might read it as a closing prayer later this morning. It fits my text - Ecc 11 & 12 - so well.

nice chatting


PS: Not surprisingly, I cannot find a version on youtube that can commend this hymn. Sorry - but organ accompaniments with unfamiliar tunes do not count!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

forty days and forty nights

It was exactly forty days and forty nights. Enough time for a flood, or for some testing times in the desert. However for Barby and I it was a more celebratory season, as it was about going home to New Zealand, via Australia, for the wedding of our daughter.

While New Zealand is world famous for being a beautiful country, there is a beauty that captures the eye in every single other country that I've visited. Australia is no exception. The commitment to speak at the Belgrave Heights Summer Convention was preceded by a holiday with our sons in South Gippsland and then across on the Great Ocean Road.

The last photo is of the Yarra River flowing through Melbourne, rated 'the world's most liveable city' (using thirty different criteria) for each of the past six years. It is not hard to see why. We had an opportunity to move there more than twenty years ago but it was not to be. The Convention, coming within the global Keswick family, is held in the Dandenong Ranges about 50min east of the city. I upgraded my longtime interest in 1 Peter with the help, in particular, of Karen Jobes' fine commentary, building a series around a 'brightening the anti-christian blues' theme.

On arrival it was an unexpected thrill to see the smiling faces of this family. Martin and Joy were single students when we were at the Bible College of New Zealand more than 20 years ago. Joy was in our cell group and we remember some of the early discussions around marriage. Well - now they have three gorgeous children: Jonathan, Sarah and Hannah.

The thrill of seeing them immediately dissipated when I recalled that Martin's PhD was in 1 Peter and was published by Cambridge University Press without needing to change a syllable (well, that is what I like to tell people). Young Hannah got into 'taking notes' mode - so much so that she nicked numerous conference booklets, taking out the pages and taping them into her booklet ... so that she could really take notes.

Then it was onto New Zealand as the family gathered for Bethany and Jonny's wedding. Barby's 95 year old father, Charles Warren, made the trip all the way from the USA as did all four of her siblings. Two of them had never been to New Zealand before.

So many highlights...
Watching the bride with her Grandpa on arrival - with her Mum and aunties in the background:

Watching Grandpa eat a Kiwi meat pie at Piha (so that is three icons in one photo!):

Watching Grandpa enjoy his great-grandchildren - and vice versa:

Watching our sons enjoy being together (sometimes with the help of a niece and/or uncle):

Watching our grandchildren:

Oh yes, and the wedding:

nice chatting


Sunday, January 29, 2017

leon morris

Within weeks of starting my theological training, DA Carson was making sure we knew about Leon Morris. I was just 21 years of age. First impressions tend to linger. Two of the first books which I purchased as a student were The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross and The Gospel According to John.  

Leon Morris is arguably the most influential biblical scholar to emerge from Australia-New Zealand - ever. Not sure why I add 'arguably' - because who else could there possibly be?! [NB: If you are up for it, an old series of Leon Morris sermons from John's Gospel available here]. Anyhow - when Neil Bach's Leon Morris: One Man's Fight for Love and Truth emerged last year, I was all over it. Here are some of the random reflections that impacted me:

Leon Morris was a shy lad from a rural mining town in Australia. He had a bit of a speech impediment and an accident left him visually impaired - basically, blind in one eye. 'He did not have a strong need to be known' (xiii). Shining through his life for me is what God can do with a consecrated life that is willing to empty itself.

The subtitle usually captures it: 'one man's fight for love and truth'. If his life had a thesis statement it would be 'a 'passion for the love of God seen in the truth of Christ's cross' (3). Love. Truth. Not an easy tension to maintain. My mind drifted across to John Stott's analysis of the greatest crisis the church has ever faced (as described in Acts 15). The outcome? Love triumphed. Truth triumphed. So crucial for the church when drawn into conflict. 1 John is a book that holds these two together well - and because of this I have often urged new pastors to preach through first John in their first year.

On completion of his training, Leon Morris 'wanted to go to a remote area to serve God' (24). And so it was to be: five years pastoring clusters of people in the Australian outback. I remember benefiting from a similar experience, with five years in Invercargill. It gives you an opportunity to sort yourself out in leadership and ministry without the clutter, the distractions, and the competitions which urban life so easily fosters.

A distinctive of his scholarship was that he took the text seriously. His landmark book on the atonement (see above) overturned the accepted consensus, causing 'a shift in theological history' (4). He helped people 'to think clearly and use words carefully' (187). The mark of his teaching was his ability 'to be clear, using simple language to explain complexities without losing depth' (43). He was 'compelled to write by an inner drive to faithfully record his findings' (74). According to Carson, Morris 'demonstrated a knack for addressing a fad' (128) which is just how scholarship needs to be used in the church today. His practise was to write 'one page a day for publishers when at home' (219) which, at six days a week, amounts to 300 pages each year. In the author's estimation more than two million copies of books by Leon Morris have been published - and, remember, these are basically scholarly books...

Given the company he kept, I was surprised at Morris' perspectives on two vexed issues of the past generation or two: the authority of scripture and women in ministry. He was more spacious than I expected. On the former, he held some of the the heated inerrancy debate at arm's length, preferring to speak in terms of authority and inspiration. On the latter he considered that 'more than one conclusion could be drawn from the scriptural evidence' (180) - and this from someone who was as careful and as evenhanded as anyone has been with the biblical text.
He saw enough evidence of the treatment and inclusion of women in ministry in the New Testament, against the culture of the first century, to be satisfied he could be a gentle supporter of women in ministry (182).
If Leon Morris has a career-defining role, it was his 15 years as principal of Ridley College in Melbourne. This was an absorbing part of the story, mostly because it had its difficulties and the author is willing to expose some of this reality. It seems that Morris would have welcomed, even expected, the opportunity to be principal earlier than it eventuated. When the invitation did come, he was pretty grumpy - 'I could wish that the Council in its wisdom would go jump in the Yarra' (112). At the time he was Warden of Tyndale House (Cambridge) and loving it - and he had also received an invitation to join the faculty at TEDS in Chicago. In order of preference, he felt suited to Tyndale House, then TEDS, then Ridley ... but, together with Mildred, they heard 'the increased sense of God's call (to Ridley) against their personal preferences' (121, emphasis mine). What a testimony!

Ridley experienced 'six successive years of record student enrolments' under Morris' leadership - as the college 'remained true to evangelicalism in a pluralistic diocese' (185). But he struggles as a leader. 'Leon could not let go (of administrative tasks) ... he did not always welcome the initiative of others ... while he encouraged people, he was not an effusive employer' (163). His legacy in leadership was a bit too much 'the benevolent superman' (164). However, it is interesting that the author notes that 'no principal of Ridley since the 1940s has found the job easy, given its in-built tensions and responsibilities' (163).

After Leon Morris retired, Peter Adam, one of his former students and a future Ridley principal himself, visited him and Mildred and on asking about his time as principal, received 'a twenty minute tirade on how difficult they had found their time at Ridley' (188). It is an astonishing paragraph for the author to include. I read it twice to make sure I'd got it right. Far too honest for most published biographies of this type, but I found it added an integrity to the other 300 pages! I've been a principal of a similar college with similar issues for a similar period of time and, in such leadership, as Peter Adam himself concludes, 'the inside story was quite different' (188).

As a young pastor I tried to read one biography of a saint every year. It was a way to warm the heart, renew the convictions and re-center the dreams and goals. While I've drifted from this practise, I am pleased that I've started 2017 by doing so...

nice chatting


Sunday, December 18, 2016

white mughals

Sixty-two. It was an impressive effort.

Once I finished William Dalrymple's White Mughals I turned to the Glossary and gave Barby the test. A bit of Hindustani here. A bit of Urdu and Persian over there. A lot of Koranic-Mosque terminology everywhere. But out of almost 140 words, she got 62 correct. Very impressive, don't you think? As a point of comparison, my score was 26. What do you expect? My Hindi opens mouths with laughter, while Barby's Hindi opens hearts with admiration. I love watching it happen. One of the highlights of living back in India...

It has been a long, hard year and with a bit of the doctor in our ears, we set off for a break and a five day exploration of a new city. Hyderabad. Overnight train each way, in a two-person 'coupe' all on our own. No work allowed. Not even contact with friends in the city (that always feels terrible). And what has White Mughals to do with all this? The story takes place in Hyderabad, largely between about 1795-1805. So... reading through the book at the very same time as walking through the places. My idea of fun!

The highlight was visiting this building, the home of the British Resident, or High Commissioner - and built by the main character in the book. It is massive - 'not unlike its exact contemporary, the White House' (xxxii). In ruins and unused now, but with some half-hearted, and probably poorly funded, efforts at restoration taking place.

On the front steps with my book.
There is a model of the original building out the back. Such a model features in the story...

It is such a sad story, a love story between the British 'Resident' (James Achilles Kirkpatrick) and a (very) young Muslim Indian princess (Khair un-Nissa). I am not going to spoil the plot for you, but reflect more peripherally on the story in a number of ways.

Just as Downtown Abbey engages with the erosion of the upstairs:downstairs class distinction in early twentieth century England, White Mughals traces the replacement of a 'fusion and hybrid' (500) era, characterized by mingling and mixing, with a separatist era in which the British Empire turns a bit rogue and ruthless. 'The easy labels of religion and ethnicity and nationalism, slapped on by a generation of historians, turned out to be ... surprisingly unstable' (xl). A Governor General (Waterloo's Duke of Wellington elder brother) and, to a lesser extent, 'Evangelical Christianity' attract much of the blame for this change.
For nearly three hundred years Europeans coming out to the subcontinent had been assimilating themselves to India in a kaleidoscope of different ways ... (but now it) was a place to be changed and conquered, not a place to be changed or conquered by (54).
James was among the last of the English officials in India who found it possible to truly cross cultures ... (making the leap) from Britain to India, from Georgian to Mughal, from Christianity to Islam. India was no longer a place to embrace and to be transformed by; instead it was a place to conquer and transform (454). 
One wonders about the transitions happening in our early twenty-first century. Has much changed?

There is a lot of chatter about colonisation coming out of my home in New Zealand. It seems to be the great evil. Evils have been perpetrated, that is for sure - but I don't find the narrative totally convincing. Lots of things are going on, at different layers, with colonisation - some even quite good. For example, for these 'White Mughals' like James Kirkpatrick, this is a story of  'the Indian conquest of the European colonisation ... the coloniser colonised' (10, 28). This insight brought a smile to me face. It took me back to boarding school days in the Himalayas. American kids would come out for a single year of high school. Routinely, they'd hate the first semester, but after a vacation trip around India and then a second semester, invariably the last thing they wanted to do was to go home to the States. Representatives of the great colonisers of the late twentieth century had themselves been colonised - and changed forever. Not such a bad thing. A difficulty I find with discussions around colonisation is the selectivity which is shown. Why are we not as critical of the colonisation of the world today by certain professional sports, certain brands of music, or a certain image of beauty - each, in their own way, disrupting the local and indigenous? One person's colonisation seems to be another person's globalisation.

A view inside ... I think I saw the sign forbidding photos after I took this one!
I won't critique Dalrymple for much, but I will on this point - as I do with much of the media and the academy. "C'mon people. Show some professionalism." A basic principle of research is that you paint your opponent in their best light and engage with what you see. With Dalrymple (and the media and the academy), Christianity is usually painted in its poorest light, while Hinduism and Islam are painted in their purest light. Glimpses of truth may exist with both representations, but it is hardly a fair and accurate truth. Maybe it is an early downpayment on post-truth and fake news! 'Islam overcame the English more by its sophistication and power of attraction, than by the sword' (19). Really?! The added complication for this perspective today is that you can be both truly Indian and truly Christian - even a truly admirable Evangelical Christian. Shock. Horror. But I know heaps of them...
[NB: I am in the midst of preparing some talks from 1 Peter - living for Christ amidst harassment and persecution - and I think this is one of the real, but admittedly milder, ways in which persecution happens in countries like New Zealand].

James Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa
Yep, they are memorable. Beautifully developed. I'd love to see a quality movie director have a go at this story. There is so much to like about James Kirkpatrick, for example. The way he operated cross-culturally, building trust and friendship with the Nizam of Hyderabad (who referred to him as his 'Beloved Son'). Case study stuff. The way he took a stand against the Governor General's demands to 'bully and bribe and browbeat', almost living to see the day when he was fully vindicated. What about with his young wife? He chose to be circumcised and to convert to Islam in order to marry her and oh, how his love prevailed.
It was James's fate for his love to be tested not once, but four times. Four entirely separate inquiries had been carried out into his affair with Khair. At each stage he could have easily washed his hands of his teenage lover. Each time he chose to remain true to her (400).
Also, on characters ... I enjoyed the portrayal of the power which older women can have behind the scenes in a Muslim world (see 248-259). But also Khair. So strong, 'a dominant force among the women ... in her widowhood, she clearly still retained her magnetism and her effortless ability to get her way with all those who were drawn into her orbit' (425) - at barely twenty years of age. Incredible. But then she went on to live 'the saddest of lives' (464) ...

A 'Chinnery' (the name of a painter) of the two children on the eve of their departure to England,
never to see their parents again. 'One of the masterpieces of British painting in India' (390).
[NB: later in life, the daughter was drawn into the orbit of the Clapham Sect folks].
The dilemma of the 'white mughal' is a bit like that of the missionary kid. These words sound so familiar:
England was no longer the place that James really considered to be his home. He had been born in India ... he felt most himself in India, and returning to England was the last thing he wanted ... (but) his spirit might feel comfortably at home in India; but his wretched body, less malleable, seemed to need England (352, 379).
Dalrymple is such a good writer. How does he do it? The way he wades into the details of history and comes out with a compelling story. In literary terms it is like developing a palace out of an archaeological dig. When James dies (in Calcutta - and buried in the Park Street Cemetery), Dalrymple writes:
But it cannot have been a very emotional affair. For James had died among strangers, away from everyone he loved, and far from everyone who loved him. His beloved wife, his two little children, his brothers, his friends, and his father: as he was laid in the muddy monsoon ground, not one of them even knew that he was dead. In place of tears, there was a cold military salute. The coffin was lowered, and the mud of the grave was filled in. (398)
Dalrymple closes with a word of hope, a hope that I share - but for different reasons, I suspect.
As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past, and they will do so again (501).
In their fullest expression 'East and West' (although this did cease long ago to be a helpful way to categorise the world) 'meet and mingle', experiencing both a unity and a diversity, in the gospel of Jesus. That is where people become the truest form of who they really are. That is where bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear is most fully expelled by the peace and dignity, the humility and harmony in what the cross of Christ achieves. I believe it with all that I am. And in this wretched world, giving us a ride through 2016 that I so often just wanted to get off, this hope is still something to celebrate this Christmas.

nice chatting


PS1: I've reviewed two other Dalrymple books here: The Last Mughal and Return of a King.

PS2: The Discovery Channel has done a 60 minute documentary, narrated by William Dalrymple, which basically tells the story of White Mughals in visual-audio form.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

from eden to the new jerusalem

Diversity came far earlier than unity. Appreciating all the different authors, all the different genre and all the different situations - oh yes, any self-respecting student of the Bible has walked the diversity road. That is where we all start. That is the bread and butter of exegesis. We know it is critical.

But what about the unity of the Bible? Yes, the Bible as a single story by a single (divine) author? It didn't seem to feature as much in my training way back then. I've been playing a game of seemingly endless catch-up over the last decade or two. I've had to read and think and teach my way into this world ... and I've been so glad to find books (there are heaps of them out there) to help me.

T. Desmond Alexander's From Eden to the New Jerusalem is right up there. The one I've read most quickly. So stimulating, so fascinating. I've never opened a book with so many footnotes that is so easy and engaging to read.

For Alexander, the Bible is a 'meta-story' (which I have always understood to mean the story by which all other stories make sense) in that it 'addresses two of life's most fundamental questions: (1) Why was the earth created? (2) What is the reason for human existence?' (10). To find the answers in this literary anthology we know as the Bible it is best to begin at the end. Revelation 20-22. Alexander sees 'very strong links' between these chapters and the opening three chapters, Genesis 1-3. His book is about demonstrating those links but then he also shows how the story grows and threads and deepens its way from that Genesis to Revelation. The plotline doesn't change. Fascinating, eh?!

Here, take a look at the chapter titles (with an added explanatory quotation), as they identify the Revelation-truth which then (a) he finds embedded in the early Genesis story, before (b) tracking it through the entire biblical story:

1. From sacred garden to holy city: experiencing the presence of God
From the outset of creation, God intended that the earth would become a holy garden-city in which he would dwell alongside human beings. However, the disobedience of Adam and Eve jeopardized this divine project ... In the process of recovering the earth as his dwelling place, God progressively established the tabernacle, the Jerusalem temple and the church (74).
2. Thrown from the throne: re-establishing the sovereignty of God
By betraying God and obeying the serpent, the royal couple dethrone God. Adam and Eve, commissioned by God to play a central role in the building of his holy garden-city, not only forfeit their priestly status but also betray the trust placed in them to govern the earth. The ones through whom God's sovereignty was to be extended throughout the earth side with his enemy. By heeding the serpent they not only give it control over the earth, but they themselves becomes its subjects ... One day this present age will give way to another, when the earth will be rejuvenated and the sovereignty of God will finally become an undisputed reality in the New Jerusalem (78-79, 97).
3. Dealing with the devil: destroying the source of evil
By obeying the serpent, Adam and Eve take on his image and defile the earth. While Adam and Eve's actions have terrible consequences, all is not lost, for God introduces the idea that the serpent will be overcome through an offspring of the woman. From Genesis 4 onwards the reader's attention is directed to this offspring ... Whereas the Old Testament looks forward to the defeat of God's enemies and the establishment of his reign upon the earth, the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the one who overthrows Satan ... Stripped of his power, he will no longer, as 'rule of this world', be able to champion the cause of evil. Every vestige of Satan's influence will be destroyed (107, 111-112, 118).
[NB: Don't miss the three pages on 'Resisting the Devil' (118-120) - so helpful].
4. The slaughter of the Lamb: accomplishing the redemption of creation
Although the enemy, 'the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan', is presently 'ruler of this world', his days are numbered and he will ultimately be vanquished. Crucial to the demise of Satan is Jesus Christ, for he is the one who overcomes the devil. Remarkably, John's description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 contains no specific reference to the name of Jesus Christ ... However, each time he is mentioned, he is designated by the title 'the Lamb' (5x) ... reminiscent of the divine deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt ... However, whereas the first exodus was principally about rescuing the Israelites from slavery, John has in view a new exodus that brings about the deliverance of people 'from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages' (121-122, 124, 125).
5. Feasting from the tree of life: reinvigorating the lives of people from every nation
John's vision of the New Jerusalem anticipates human existence as we have never known it. The life to come will be truly abundant and fully satisfying [particularly as it relates to the role of three themes: holiness/wholeness, tree of life and the nations] ... When Jesus heals, it is about restring people to the holy status Adam and Eve enjoyed before sinning ... Citizens of the new earth will experience and enjoy both wholeness of body and longevity of life. They will have a quality of life unrestricted by disability or disease. To live in the New Jerusalem is to experience life in all its fullness and vitality. It is to live as one has never lived before. It is to be in the prime of life, for the whole of one's life ... John's vision of the New Jerusalem introduces an important international dimension, reflected in three references to the 'nations' (138-139, 153, 156, 163).
6. Strong foundations and solid walls: living securely among the people of God

Maybe you are still thinking what I am still thinking.
Can he really make a case for all that stuff going on in Genesis 1 & 2 & 3?!
Yes, he makes a pretty convincing case for it.
It is such an absorbing read.

Methinks the book has the makings of a sermon series in it for 2017 - or, at least, a series of serious small group studies? Go for it.

nice chatting