Saturday, October 25, 2014

text and context

With the SAIACS MTh class in 2013
Requiring MTh students to take a course in homiletics/preaching? It is most unusual. But that is what happens here at SAIACS (Bangalore). Twenty five students. Their theses go in on the Friday (yesterday). Then this module starts on the Monday. A bit of a challenge for the instructor - but that privilege is all mine.

We'll buttress our theological convictions together, as we take the text seriously on the way to the sermon. The content and purpose of the text will determine the content and purpose of the sermon. There will be no compromise on this. Each one will demonstrate this ability by preaching a sermon in class.

But that is not all that we will do together. We will also take the context seriously. While it won't determine the content or purpose of the sermon, we will be listening carefully to it and looking for ways to build bridges to it.

So, in small departmental teams, students will work with a general topic. They will add a specificity to it by drawing in a perspective from within the borders of their departmental focus (New Testament, Missiology, History of Religion, Theology etc) and creating a question. They will orient that perspective directly towards preaching, the preacher and the sermon. In this way, three worlds will be integrated (hopefully): South Asia, their specialisation, and homiletics. In the aftermath of the rigour of thesis-writing, the focus will be on an oral presentation to the class.

And the general topics in 2014?
This year I have decided not to include the three issues which surface most frequently in this context - caste, corruption and sexual violence - and push them into other areas. Here they are:

Rural India and orality
Modi and oratory 
Hindutva and persecution
Gurus and pastoral leadership
TV - Hindu and Christian
Karma and providence
Prosperity and hope
Shame and freedom
Garbage and stewardship
Bhakti and worship

Should be fun. One thing is for sure.
I am set to learn a bit over the next month.

nice chatting


Sunday, October 19, 2014

preaching matters

Yes - another book on preaching, pitched primarily for people making a start.
(I've tried to surf this recent wave for readers - herehere, here, and here!).

Jonathan Lamb's Preaching Matters (IVP, 2014) has arrived.

I read the book in one sitting - or, one lying, to be accurate - early one jet-lagged morning in Kingston, Jamaica. Not sure I've ever done that with a non-novel before. Maybe they should add that endorsement to the dozen others that fill the first four pages!

Jonathan Lamb was Langham Preaching's first director and pioneer, under whose guidance the work touched sixty countries in just ten years, ex nihilo and with limited resources. Amazing. As his successor, it often leaves me breathless. Jonathan is now CEO and Ambassador-at-Large for Keswick Ministries globally.

There are a number of distinctives which help this book stand out from the crowd...
1. Jonathan distills such a wide array of reading and experience into simple, clear and brief description. This is what held me through the early hours as I read, just as it is the often overlooked combination that keeps people awake during sermons. Simple. Clear. Brief. For me, it means this book lines up alongside Darrell Johnson's The Glory of Preaching as one to use for required reading in more formal college/seminary courses. It is that good.

2. The use of Nehemiah 8.1-12 to provide an unobtrusive, gentle structure to the book is a bit different and it works well.

3. As a little aside...  Just before we shifted here to India, I taught a final preaching course, something that had been part of my annual rhythm for two decades. It was a master's course and so experienced pastors comprised the core, many of whom I had taught in their undergraduate days. Overall, it was a disappointing experience. As a teacher of preaching, I left NZ with my tail between my legs. Their confidence in the word seem to have eroded. Intimidated by a very difficult mission context, they seemed to be humming and hahing theologically. Deep conviction no longer seemed to hold them. As I listened to them preach, it seemed that the very sin I had pleaded with them to avoid all those years earlier was now holding them - namely, scanning the horizon for the (technique-filled) waves coming from off-shore, finding and riding the next big one, only to find that it crashes into nothingness on the shoreline - just like all the other ones before it. I chastened them but, more significantly, I chastened myself and have made changes in what and why and how I teach preaching as a result.

Techniques have their place. Of course they do (see below). But our confidence, our hope, does not lie in mastering the latest magical technique. It lies in the transforming power of the gospel which comes to us as word, written and living. The secret is found in being mastered by convictions - for a lifetime. In the opening pages (19-61), Jonathan weaves his way through truths and passages to identify some of these convictions, starting with:
Preaching matters, because it is a God-ordained means of encountering Christ (16).
If a preacher does not have this conviction holding them through thick and thin, they should consider another vocation. Later, Jonathan adds:
Too often, the Bible doesn't set the agenda; it is simply the background music (22).
If a preacher is not willing to work hard at letting the Bible set the agenda of the sermon, again they should consider another vocation. It is that big a deal.

4. Speaking of techniques(!), Jonathan then heads in this very direction (62-108). As he does so, the approach of Langham Preaching is overheard on every page. This is intentional, as the book is partly motivated by a desire to get a basic resource into the hands of those we train worldwide. In a nice touch, Jonathan dedicates his book 'to the courageous preachers of the Majority World from whom I have gained so much inspiration.' Then he takes the reader step-by-step through the process of moving from text to sermon in pursuit of a sermon that is faithful, clear, and relevant. So practical and so useful. The Appendix even gathers some of the worksheets that are being used worldwide.

With Jonathan at one of my favourite places on earth
- St Bathans in Central Otago (New Zealand)
Reading Jonathan's book provoked another trajectory of thought. There is an irony here. The quotation which I hear attributed to John Stott more frequently than any other is his phrase 'double listening'. In fulfilling our callings - including the call to preach - we need to listen to word and world, text and context. Or, changing the metaphor to the title of Stott's definitive book on preaching, our callings involve 'bridge-building' - particularly in the call to preach.

But here is the irony. Those who stand in this Stottian tradition - particularly the British and Australians with whom I have chatted and trained and whose books I have read - don't seem to me, in practice, to take listening to the world as seriously as the Stott quotation suggests they should. Does not double-listening suggest that in the course of the sermon we need to be biblical exegetes, but also cultural exegetes? Does not double-listening suggest that in the course of the sermon we need to instill the true biblical story and worldview, but always alongside the need to expose the false stories and worldviews of those with whom we live and move and have our being in wider society? Does not double listening suggest that in the course of the sermon a preacher is a skilled biblical theologian - but also, at the very least, an amateur sociologist? Have we listened carefully enough to Stott's call to be double-listeners?

These are some of the questions on my mind, as I read Jonathan's book and as I pick up the reins of  leadership from him. Don't get me wrong. The pursuit of relevance in the sermon is given priority (109-121), as is careful application (150-157). A foundational session on 'making the connection' inhabits the basic Langham training. It's great. But I do wonder aloud, for those who stand in the Stottian tradition, whether this area needs further strengthening - even methodologising. What are the techniques to use? Just as there will be steps to take and skills to learn in handling the word well, will there not also be steps to take and skills to learn in handling the world well? I think so. But my hunch is that well-convictioned preachers don't want to go there because they think to do so will diminish the preaching of the word in some way. It ain't necessarily so. Either we go there, learning new steps and skills, or we pull back from the claim to be double-listening, bridge-building preachers.

nice chatting


Saturday, October 18, 2014

on caste and more

It's one month ago now. Two conversations. One in which I participated. One which I heard about second-hand a couple of hours later. But there they are - both running around my mind ever since ... and annoying me. So it is back to the purge-by-posting strategy.

The first conversation was with a bunch of Christian university graduates. It was about the ongoing presence of caste in Indian society, including the church. Caste had reasonable vocational origins, but now it is a way to keep people separate and then to value some much more than others. A student related to me that when his denomination gathers for it's annual assembly, they divide up according to caste. What?! Haven't these guys heard about Ephesians 2, Galatians 3 - and a bunch of other passages?

It makes me combust. It just does. But when we are about to combust, it is always good to pause, stop the flow of oxygen, and ask 'why'. Self-awareness is always a friend. For me, it is more than a biblical-theological issue. I can see this. As I approach leadership and community and mission, 1 Corinthians 12 may have taken on creedal proportions - but there is more to it than this.

As a child, stuff happened that makes me sensitive to nonbelongingness. It will always be that way. I am from New Zealand. We are so flat and egalitarian. Hierarchy is hated. We have a thing called the 'tall poppy syndrome'. As soon as someone grows too tall and excellent, standing out from the mediocre crowd, we have ways and means to cut down that poppy - or just wither it into lifelessness by a welter of sarcasm. Plus I now work in a UK-based organisation and I see a bit of caste in this class-y society. The era of Downtown Abbey did not rid it of all vestiges of the upstairs:downstairs way of life. I feel it - just as my Dad felt it when he went to work in the UK at my age, three decades ago. Self-awareness? These are some of the factors that light-up my combustible contribution into any conversation on caste.

But then there was a second conversation. I didn't hear it myself. Barby, my wife, heard it and related it to me. Again, a Christian graduate student. She has lived life in multiple places around the world. One simple observation. 'You guys in the West spend a lot of money on leisure.'

Boom. Hmm. Wow. Ugh. Ouch. As you can see, a highly articulate conversation has been triggered inside me.

Is she saying that leisure is wrong? I fantasize about sneaking a week here and there with Barby in some oddly exotic place. Is that wrong? I don't think so. Next month we are having our first 'longer-than-one-week' holiday in four years. Do I feel guilty? Of course not. Truth be told, I feel guilty that it has taken this long a time! Leisure. Rest. Lying fallow. These are good things.

What this woman couldn't understand is the amount of money we spend on leisure - and, I guess, this reflects the huge space it occupies in our imaginations and dreams, our goals and priorities. What I hear her saying is that 'in a world where there is so much need and inequity, how do you justify spending so much money not just on legitimate things like an education and a home - but on your leisure?

Is she onto something here? Of course she is. What is wrong with my self-awareness that I can't see this as clearly as she does? While I've been combusting over Ephesians 2 and Galatians 3, she has been reading much of Luke's gospel and a whole lot of the prophets. And out she comes with disturbing stuff, exposing blindspots in my reading of the Bible and my following of Jesus.

Nah - I don't really want to purge-by-posting. Filling, not flushing, is what I want. I want to get close enough to people like this that they tell me stuff that annoys me, triggering conflictual conversations in my head that help me be more faithful to the gospel with my life. I am asking the Spirit to help me combust as much over leisure's overspending as I do over caste's undervaluing.

nice chatting


Saturday, October 11, 2014

words and word

Using a tap to turn off a waterfall in the monsoon. That is how these twin books felt like to me. The authors are trying to contain trends that have swept through society and church and already taken control. It is too late - surely?!

Maybe. But I am happy to help them turn off that tap. This stuff is too important.

In Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, the author argues that 'the stewardship of words is akin to stewardship of other resources' (146). The ecological crisis is not the only crisis which we face. Words are in big trouble. 'Language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants' (1).

Or, switching the analogy a little, we have a problem with 'junk texts' that is similar to the one we have with junk food. 'A steady diet of drivel weakens us' (82). As with eating well, 'we (need to) savor and linger over words; we (need to) taste with delight and take in slowly' (83). If we don't do so, it will be more of the same where 'we say more and more about less and less to more and more people' (230).

As you can imagine, cultural artefacts like news bulletins and talk shows are among those that feel the heat. But the book is not a negative diatribe. Far from it. It is constructive - and this comes through in a couple of ways. One is that McEntyre writes beautifully, adorning her argument with appealing prose. The medium provides a message! Listen to this piece on recovering wit in the face of the contemporary reliance on sarcasm:
Wit doesn't argue with sophists, simpletons and demagogues. It waves them on their downward path with a quip. They don't even know they've been had. Wit withers with a smile; it never wrangles; it prefers fine-pointed instruments to bludgeons, and uses them to more effect ... Wit lands lightly and leaves quickly, never explains a punchline or takes too long to deliver one ... Wit awakens the willing and ready and leaves sluggards to their sleep. It doesn't proselytize or preach, but it does speak truth to power, expose the hypocrite and incites its victims to the distressing self-awareness they may have sought to avoid (207-208).
The second constructive feature is seen in the very backbone of the book itself. The twelve chapters are twelve 'stewardship strategies' ('practices that may help to retrieve, revive and renew our precious language resources', 10): love words; tell the truth; don't tolerate lies; read well, stay in conversation; share stories; love the long sentence; practice poetry; attend to translation; play; pray; and cherish silence.

By the way, McEntyre loves Jane Austen ('whose dual legacy of precision and restraint is a gift to us all', 48) - but it is another woman about whom she speaks that I'd love to be like: 'a woman rich in experience who held her own opinions vigorously and was curious about those of others' (90).

In Kevin DeYoung's Taking God at His Word, the author claims that 'the word of God is more than enough to accomplish the work of God in the people of God' (24). As I replay my past - particularly the years serving the church in New Zealand - I wonder how many people with whom I have walked over the years believe this statement? Some... But it is the ol' Chesterton quotation which more readily comes to mind. Many consider the word to have 'been tried and found wanting' - when the reality is that 'it has been wanted and not really tried'. That is how I see it.

I've enjoyed DeYoung before (here, with a follow-up here). He is chatty and accessible. There is a neat contemporary engagement, while still being anchored in great convictions. Probably more conservative theologically than many readers of this blog - but that is exactly why you should engage him :). Take a risk. Quit the diet of reading only the reassuring echoes of what you already believe!

DeYoung opens with Psalm 119 because it shows us 'what to believe about the word of God, what to feel about the word of God, and what to do about the word of God' (16). The rest of the book provides the 'building blocks' which enable us to share those Psalm 119 convictions. It is a collection of warmed-over sermons on selected passages in the Bible - 2 Peter 1, Hebrews 1, Deuteronomy 30, Acts 17, 1 Corinthians 2, John 10, and 2 Timothy 3 - from which emerges the useful acronym, SCAN. Sufficiency, Clarity, Authority, and Necessity.
If authority is the liberal problem, clarity the postmodern problem, and necessity the problem for atheists and agnostics, then sufficiency is the attribute most quickly doubted by rank-and-file churchgoing Christians (45).
Amen. The church does need a sharp jolt in its theology of word, beginning with its sufficiency. It is one of the larger blindspots today. I now commence every homiletics/preaching course with this topic. What is the point of going any further, if this is not first in place? Listening to sermons from preachers with a deficient theology of word can be so tedious. They should be considering another vocation methinks. Then, recalling the post which I consider to be the most important one which I have tried to write over the years, DeYoung observes that 'the Bible is only impractical for the immature, and only irrelevant for the fools who believe that most everything is new under the sun' (122).
If we learn to read the Bible down (into our hearts), across (the plot line of Scripture), out (to the end of the story), and up (to the glory of God in the face of Christ), we will find that every bit of the Bible is profitable for us (54).
My own high view of Scripture has often been challenged by others along the way. DeYoung addresses three of the leading challenges: (a) starting with what the Bible says about the Bible leads to a circular argument (23-25); (b) being such a bibliolater when I should get my eyes back on the person of Christ (102-110); and (c) affirming all of Scripture to have authority, discarding the populist red-letter approach (117-120).

I like this book - a lot. I'm trying to find a way for it to worm its way into the required reading of my classes - and it is a leading candidate to be the next book I give to each one of my kids. There can be no higher praise.

nice chatting


Sunday, September 28, 2014

real presence at पचपन

I am 55 today. In Hindi, 55 is the catchy little alliterative, puchpun (पचपन). My mum enjoys ticking off her children as they pass through this age and stage. Just one more to go, Mum.

I have moved past the expectation of real presents on my birthdays (although my son Joseph did send me a much-appreciated basketball this month). No - with this post I want to bear witness to the real presence of Christ in my life, surprising me at times beyond my expectation.

I've trawled the memory bank for episodes in which God has drawn near in Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit touched my life.

Episode One: A Sunday morning in Lagos (Nigeria)
It is almost twenty years ago. My first sustained visit to a non-Western country since my childhood in India. No direct flights from the USA in those days. New York's JFK airport had a big sign, prominently placed: 'Avoid Lagos Airport'. I arrived at the aforementioned Lagos airport before dawn. Humid. Eerie lighting. Fans whirling inches from my head. Guns everywhere. Custom officials viewing the contents of my bag like self-service at a lunch buffet. After three long flights, it was getting to me. The words of the woman next to me on the flight - 'thank-you for coming to my country to tell people about Jesus' - no longer seemed so thrilling.

The first conference in Ibadan went OK. Then, during the weekend, the thought of flying on my own to a little place in the jungle called Owerri became too much for me. I freaked out. Timid little me got a big dose of the fears and panics. Just as well I didn't know that there would be no one to meet me at the airport. Just as well I didn't know that soon after my arrival at the guesthouse, while I was left to rest and everyone else went into town for provisions, more big guns would arrive at the door and take away my passport. Just as well I didn't know that I would sit in transit in Port Harcourt airport reading a newspaper shouting headlines about the most unsafe airports in Africa - with #1 and #2 being ... you guessed it, Lagos and Port Harcourt.

But I was in better shape by that time. I had woken early on that Sunday morning in Lagos. Fear is a dependable alarm clock, I find. My mind was playing games. I resolved that I would not be getting on that plane. I would remain in Lagos. No Owerri for me. Then I heard it. Quietly at first. Then stronger and stronger. It was a dawn church service. I recognised the tune being sung. Then I picked out the words. Before I knew it I was singing along. 'Because He lives I can face tomorrow. Because He lives all fear is gone'. The real presence of Christ breathed peace into my life and gave me the power to pack my bags.

Episode Two: Multiple mornings in Auckland (New Zealand)
If you speak to my peers, in my late teens I was a huge advocate for global mission. One year we ran a World Christian group at university. The next year it was in our church. Once I counted a couple of dozen people for whom God's call overseas journeyed through one of those groups. I fully expected to be one of them. But it was not to be. God had other plans. After theological training and marriage to Barby, we were to spend 25 years focused on the church in New Zealand.

But midway through Year #20 something happened. I was taking my morning walk to get a newspaper from the Mobil Station on the corner of Dominion Rd and Mt Albert Rd. I was in good spirits. It was the day after Christmas. On the day before Christmas news came through that Nigel Pollock had agreed to come to NZ to head-up our TSCF/IFES work. Having been on the search group, I was elated. But now, on the day after Christmas, the headlines carried tragedy. Boxing Day 2004. The tsunami broke my heart. It just did. For many early mornings after that, in my little walk-in closet of an office perched in our home, I found myself weeping. It still affects me. I was retelling this story in Sri Lanka just last month and the moisture readily returned.

This molten moment matured into a refreshed call into global mission. I see this more clearly now. It was the turning point. Those who knew me best could see it happening as well. I knew not when or where things would change. But the real presence of Christ in my life was softening and redirecting me. As it turned out, my time as principal at Carey Baptist College still had five more years to run. And so, like Mary, I was left to ponder things in my heart, fed now by different authors ('Bless you, Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh'). When the time came for a new direction, I was surprised by the quickness with which everything happened. I shouldn't have been.

Episode Three: A Sunday evening in Bangalore (India)
Just over four years now. On this very SAIACS campus where I sit now. I had come for a long weekend (to speak at graduation) on my way to Assam to explore the feasibility of Langham Preaching commencing in Northeast India. But trouble had surfaced while I was in Vanuatu in the preceding week - with a tooth. The dentist in Auckland had no light to shed on the problem.

Off I went to India. Painkillers were popped like jellybeans. I made it through the Graduation Ceremony, speaking about how God's amazing grace is not just evident at conversion. It tracks with us through all of life. On the Sunday morning I had offered to preach in a local church. I still don't know where and I have no idea what I spoke about. Over lunch I confessed things to a couple of SAIACS staff who were hosting me. I was in trouble ... and I was leaving for Assam early in the morning. I had never been to Assam before, but I was sure I didn't want to visit a dentist there.

These SAIACS people immediately got onto their mobile phones. Eventually a dentist near to SAIACS was located in Chennai (some hours away), but returning later that Sunday. Would you believe it? He agreed to open up his Agape (!) Clinic for me on a Sunday night. In 120 minutes he completed an entire root canal procedure. Never before had such skilled hands - quick, decisive, gentle - entered my mouth. Meanwhile the principal of SAIACS, Ian Payne, sat in reception and waited for me all that time. Amazing grace tracking with us through all of life? I spoke about it one night and then on the next night, I experienced it as the real presence of Christ touched my life through his people.

Episode Four: A long weekend in Auckland - and Sydney
My precious Dad breathed his last breath on a Wednesday morning, just as the Hallelujah Chorus reached its crescendo on the tape recorder by his bed. Or, so I am told - because I did not get there in time to be with him. But his pain-filled ordeal was over - finally. Apart from the grief that gripped me, it created a huge dilemma. I was meant to be in the Blue Mountains (near Sydney) for Fri-Sat-Sun, speaking at the Reach Out Mission Conference. What do I do?

We decided that Dad would want me still to go. So between my Dad's death and my Dad's funeral I popped across the Tasman to give multiple messages at a mission conference. I did my best. I don't remember much, except feeling a little star-struck on the Saturday night because Reuben Morgan and his band from Hillsong led the service before I got up to give a mission message from the book of Ecclesiastes. Sunday morning it was straight home again, but given the unfriendly time zones, not reaching home until 6.00pm. And then ... the challenge of preaching at my Dad's funeral the next morning. What on earth was I thinking?

I went to bed almost straight away. Then from 2.00am until 10.00am I  experienced something as close to 2 Peter 1.21 as I am ever likely to experience: '... but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.' My mind, my heart - and my fingers - were 'carried along'. Romans 10 fell open with a message that captured my Dad so well, drawing us all into the orbit of the real presence of Christ - especially me.

It is good for me so to reflect and write.
I pray that my episodes can precipitate a few of your own.

nice chatting


[NB: Breakfast for a 55 year old birthday boy - pink guava, orange papaya and red pomegranate]

Friday, September 19, 2014

nilgiri tea plantations

I have fallen in love ... with tea plantations. Given that I am a teetotaller (as in totally-tea, I guess), one day I plan to eschew the pub-crawl in favour of a plantation-crawl around South Asia. Sri Lanka. Nilgiris. Darjeeling. Assam. Any takers?!

You don't think I am serious, do you?
You don't know me :).

nice looking


Monday, September 15, 2014

wounded tiger

The Bible says that God has planted eternity in our hearts. I've often wondered whether he has planted cricket in the human heart as well - but just like with eternity, it becomes a planting that is smothered and choked by other pursuits ... :).

I've always enjoyed the game of cricket. The rest of humanity is on a journey towards a similar enjoyment, but they just don't realise it yet. Ever since my Dad retold stories of his boyhood Aussie heroes on that flight from Brisbane to Sydney when I was a little boy, I've been captivated. I was never good enough to find great pleasure in playing the game. It is the stories and statistics that swirl around it that fascinate me. There is no other sport under the sun quite like it.

In more recent years, it is the social history that slips in with those stories that interests me. Ramachandra Guha did this so well with Indian cricket (reviewed here). Then when I spotted Peter Oborne's  Wounded Tiger among the new books at Blackwell's in Oxford, I was caressing it within seconds - and finishing it within days. A History of Cricket in Pakistan.

Oborne (chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph) had me from the moment he wrote these words in the opening paragraph of his Preface.
Cricket writing about Pakistan has sometimes fallen into the wrong hands. It has been carried out by people who do not like Pakistan, are suspicious of Pakistanis, and have their own preconceptions. Autobiographies by England cricketers, with some exceptions are blind to the beauty of Pakistan and the warmth and generosity of its people (xvii).
Preach it, brother. And he does... Without loss of a critical objectivity, Oborne writes with such empathy (it is reminiscent of Lieven's Pakistan: A Hard Country, reviewed here). Believe it or not, the final chapter moistened the eye with its gentle tenderness. Entitled "White on Green" (the Pakistani flag mirrors the colours of a cricket field, with white flannel set against green grass), Oborne revisits some of the main protagonists in the story in their final - or, post-cricketing - days. Kardar, Saeed, Fazal, Hanif, Cornelius - and Imran. A grace shines in their latter years in these closing pages. This mingles with the author's self-reflection on his own journey in writing the book.
Like everyone who gets to know Pakistan at all well, I fell in love with the country, and always felt an intense excitement whenever I returned (506) ... [On his train trips on visits for research] - I would go to bed watching the sunset over Sindh and wake up to sunrise over the Punjab (505) ... [And then his final words] - (Cricket in Pakistan) is magical and marvelous. Nothing else expresses half so well the singularity, the genius, the occasional madness of the people of Pakistan, and their contribution to the world sporting community (509).
Enough for sentiment. Now for substance.

The book is structured with two pairs of sections: (a) the age of (AH) Kardar, 1947-1975 followed by the age of (Imran) Khan, 1976-1992; and then (b) the age of expansion (1992-2000, after winning the World Cup) followed by the age of isolation (2001-present, while 9/11 is in mind - it is the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2007 that sticks with me). Neatly done.

Here are a few highlights:

The birth of Pakistani cricket is told through the eyes of a 20 year old strike bowler, Fazal Mahmood. His heart set on being in the Indian team for a tour to Australia - and the opportunity to bowl at Don Bradman. He makes the squad and is told to report, some months later, 'to training camp at Poona on 15 August 1947'. [This is the very day of Indian independence, with Pakistan's day being the 14 August]. Fazal's hopes sank in the horrors of partition. Friends with 'a common inheritance' (40) became enemies by powers beyond their control. Hindus moved from west to east. Muslims moved from east to west. 'The whole of the Punjab was aflame amid the complete collapse of civilization' (12). It is just 35 miles from Amritsar to Lahore and, for decades, they were part of the 'same easygoing and tolerant Northern India culture' (78). After Partition, 'there were no Muslims in Amritsar and no Sikhs or Hindus in Lahore' (78). Fazal never made it to Poona.

While Indian cricket retained the cricketing infrastructure, Pakistani cricket needed to be born against this bloody backdrop. In time two Pakistani cricketing families came to the fore - the Burki clan in Lahore (offering many of the Khans, including Imran and his cousin Majid) and the Mohammed clan in Karachi (offering four brothers, Wazir, Hanif, Mushtaq, Sadiq) - but both families have their origins in the India of today. They are among the ones who moved home. The Mohammed family traveled by boat from Gujarat to Karachi and established their home in a vacated Hindu temple. One of the Mohammed brothers played in each of Pakistan's first 89 Tests. There is a delightful photo of three Burki sisters who each became mothers of Pakistani cricket captains.

But the story flows the other way as well. One of the early captains of India, Lala Amarnath, was a Hindu from Lahore. He had to leave. In the very first test between India and Pakistan, the two captains (Kardar and Amarnath) 'would have understood each other very well':
They had been brought up in the same same city, played as boys on the same streets, represented the same clubs, and tested their skills against the same players. They spoke the same language, ate the same food, and wore the same clothes. But for accident of religion and history, Amarnath and Kardar would have been on the same side (70).
Years later (1978), when Amarnath returned to Pakistan with the Indian team as a commentator, a Mercedes was waiting at the Lahore airport. The manager of the Indian team thought it was for him - but, no, it was for 'Lala-sahib' - being welcomed back to his hometown. Still today, at a national level there is conflict and tension across the border - but at a personal level there can be real affection.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

oxbridge journeys of heart and mind

I am sitting here in Wycliffe Hall (Oxford). Wikipedia tells me that before I sat here, such assorted luminaries as JC Ryle, Nicky Gumbell, JI Packer, NT Wright, Alister McGrath and Lord Coggan sat here as well.

As I've been sitting, I've been thinking and feeling.

Today it is one year since Barby and I left home and family in Auckland to set up a new life together in Bangalore. It has been a big change, even bigger than we anticipated.

As I've been reflecting, my heart and mind have been journeying through Oxford and across to Cambridge.

I've been feeling with CS Lewis, who used to gather at The Eagle and Child, barely 800m from where I sit, with JR Tolkien. Of all his quotes, the one I reflect on the most is that 'there is a joy deeper than happiness, just as there is a grief deeper than pain' (or, words to that effect). A generation later, Wycliffe alumnus JI Packer comes along and plays with this idea and extends it in his book, Laidback Religion. He writes something about how Christians have 'larger hearts than others' (or, words to that effect) as God gives us this capacity to feel both grief and joy intensely - and at the same time. One does not always expel the other. To say that joy eclipses grief is inhumane. But they can coexist.

So much for my heart - and for Oxford.
Now for my mind.

It journeys across to Cambridge to the imagery of one of my heroes, Charles Simeon, pastor of Holy Trinity church for 54 years. It is on my mind because when in Sri Lanka last week I tried to paraphrase it. It was so humid. A dysfunctional fan and a bumpy pillow added to the challenges. Then there was the cold shower - a nice prospect in such humidity - but entering it at first light still remains a challenge for someone accustomed to finer luxuries, like hot water. But I found that if I got my head wet first, then the rest of my body followed more easily. A bit like Simeon and the hedge, a story in one of his biographies. He is talking to one of his friends, encouraging him not to worry about a little suffering. 'When I am getting through a hedge, if my head is safely through, then I can handle a little prickling on my body and legs.' (or, words to that effect). It is true. If my head can understand, then my heart and hands can follow more readily.

So I am processing the real shift from Auckland to Bangalore by taking an imaginary journey to Oxford and Cambridge. The greatest challenge is learning to live with separation from the family, at a time when grandchildren are being added to children. Some do this better than others. Maybe we don't do it so well. Maybe our own lengthy separations from parents as teenagers hovers in the background. Maybe we need to get over ourselves and show a little maturity. Whatever.

My journey to Oxford reminds me that, as a Christian, I have a very large heart that can embrace the ache of separation and the joy of obedience at the same time. It can - and it does. It is the oddest of realities and I feel it fully.

My journey to Cambridge reminds me that mind needs to lead heart. Let facts direct the flow of my feelings. Let truths be the wellspring for my emotion. 'God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life - and for the lives of those I love' ... now, that ain't such a bad truth with which to begin, is it?

nice chatting


Sunday, August 17, 2014

encountering jesus with john and mark

I have loved John 1 for many years. This week I have added Mark 1 to my deeper affections.

In John 1
we encounter Jesus in the pile-up of nouns which describe who Jesus is.
  • Word, God (1)
  • life, light (4-5, 8-9)
  • grace, truth (14)        
  • Jesus Christ (17)     
  • Lord (23)
  • the Lamb of God (29, 36)
  • the Son of God (34, 49)     
  • Rabbi (38, 49)
  • Messiah (41)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (45)
  • the son of Joseph (45)     
  • king of Israel (49)
  • Son of Man (51) ... and maybe even more :)     
Look at that list. Consider what it opens up about Jesus. His humanity. His divinity. His Jewish identity, fulfillment, ministry. His historical reality. His salvation purpose ... and then one of my favourite sermons: Jesus is light to a dark world, life to a dying world, grace to an undeserving world, and truth to a deceived world. You gotta love the johannine christology found in John chapter one!

In Mark 1
we encounter Jesus in the pile-up of verbs which describe what Jesus does (or has done to him).
  • baptising with the Holy Spirit (8)
  • having the Spirit descend on him like a dove (10)
  • knowing the Father's love and pleasure (11)
  • being sent by the Spirit in to the desert - and tempted by Satan there (13)
  • proclaiming the good news of God (14)
  • calling fishermen to follow him and making them fishers of men and women (17-20)
  • teaching with authority in a way that amazed people (21-22, 27)
  • casting out an evil spirit in a way that amazed people (25, 27)
  • healing a woman with a fever (31) and many other diseases (34)
  • driving out demons (34)
  • retreating to a solitary place for prayer (35)
  • preaching in synagogues and driving out demons (39)
  • filled with compassion, touching a man to cure leprosy (42)
  • staying out in lonely places (45) ... and maybe even more :)
Look at that list. Consider what it opens up about Jesus. All the Father-Spirit-Son stuff going on. Proclaiming. Teaching. Healing. Casting out. The authority. The compassion. The reality of temptation. The need for retreat. You gotta love the markan christology found in Mark chapter one!

How do we respond to this twin encounter with Jesus?
Here is my response - and in this order:

1. Put myself at his feet and, as the hymn-writer expresses it, becoming 'lost in wonder, love, and praise' - and 'casting down my crowns' while I am at it. So worship is the first response - a worship of Jesus as a unique person with a unique mission.

2. Put myself in the audience: hanging out with John the Baptist, giving my life to preparing the way for Jesus; with the listeners and observers, being amazed at Jesus' authoritative teaching and healing; with the disciples, obeying Jesus' call to follow him; with the sick and demon-possessed, knowing Jesus can and does heal. My primary identification is with the people like me in the story.

Then I am ready to engage the assumption with which so many commence: mission is about doing what Jesus does. 'We are to follow him and so let's expect to do what he did'.
No - and yes.

3. No - because #1 and #2 are where we should find ourselves first. Some things that Jesus does are unrepeatable. With the full revelation of Jesus that we have in scripture now, it is sharing who Jesus is (evangelism) and doing what Jesus says (obedience) that are to grab the headlines in our lives.

4. Yes - because 'doing what Jesus does', particularly the signs and wonders, can still be part of what he wants us to do. However I remain persuaded that this happens, primarily, in settings where the gospel is pioneering its way into new frontiers where the knowledge of Jesus is limited. I remain skeptical about claims from those who have a full revelation of Jesus available to them, and yet who still hunger for the miraculous. I find myself wanting to say, 'blessed are those who have not seen - and yet have believed' ... or words to that effect.

nice chatting


Sunday, August 10, 2014

the power of listening

I'd love to be a really good listener. In fact three longings cluster together for me. I'd love to be more humble, to be more holy - and to be a really good listener. Why? As far as I can observe, this is the combo that God delights in using and I really want to be used by God. Simple as that.

Don't get me wrong. I can listen well - particularly if the expectation for such listening is in place. For example, over the years I've developed different structured listening exercises in which the perspectives of others are given precedence. The trust it builds and the team it develops is terrific. This facilitative leadership makes space for others. It draws them into setting the agenda. I love it.

But ne'er a week goes by without me having three or four self-flagellating debriefs for not listening better in a conversation. I am an enthusiast. Sometimes I jump in at inappropriate times. I am curious. Sometimes my questions flow far too fast and furious. I have a mind that is as active as it is forgetful. Sometimes the only way I won't lose a gem is by expressing it verbally - immediately. I am frustrated. Sometimes I am with people who have an unrelenting need to talk and I barge into the conversation to remind them that I am here too.  It's bad. You'd think that by my age I'd have learned to do this better.

This is why I jumped on the opportunity to read Lynne Baab's The Power of Listening. I've enjoyed her books before (see here). She has a distinctive style. It is chatty and accessible. It is practical and realistic. It is collaborative with much of what she writes being generated by what she hears from others. It is transparent as she lives in her own vulnerabilities without wallowing there (check out p119). Plus there is an authenticity here, as Lynne has worked at becoming a good listener herself. I've benefited from this.

The focus in the book tends to be on congregations and communities, with the first half of the book making its way around the power of listening in this setting: 'healthy congregations are composed of people who listen well (ix).'

It is all good stuff, as each chapter concludes with a list of questions for discussion - and then each list concludes with an encouragement to 'pay a compliment' to someone. A nice touch.

But for me the book finds another gear towards the end. The final chapters on The Listening Toolbox, Anxiety and Listening, Humility and Listening, and Listening, Receptivity and Speaking Up ... this is where I was helped the most. For example, in the 'Toolbox' chapter (107-126), Lynne opens up (a) the skills that encourage people to keep talking; (b) conversational directing skills; (c) reflecting-back skills; and (d) skills that build empathy. Anyone involved in the caring and forming of others (which is pretty much all of us, isn't it?) will benefit from this chapter. The pages on 'Roadblocks to Listening' (150-153) are likely to make some others feel as uncomfortable as they did for me ...

Tomorrow I return to India after a three week visit home to New Zealand. It has been a personal visit with a threefold purpose: take my niece's wedding, gain a longer visa for living in India, and be present for the birth of our second grandchild (just slipping in a little photo of Amaliya Grace - afterall it is my blog and I can do with it as I please!).

Over these few days at home I've been struck again by how much listening we do. And not just to wedding vows and High Commissioners and baby cries.

To live well is to listen well.

I've been to a large funeral, a concert (Grieg's Piano Concerto), a party (or three), a lunch (with Don & Joy Carson!), a lecture (with Richard Bauckham), a breakfast (with an accountability group), a lunch (with another accountability group), numerous family chats - and then, remarkably, 14 different lingering conversations with friends, facing all kinds of situations, mostly difficult, and mostly at their initiative: redundancy, sickness, separation, life intersections, disappointment etc. And while this is all going on I am doing my Langham work - comprised mainly over these weeks with capturing the essence of a week-long meeting with our key leaders ... which was really one long listening exercise for me.

To listen well is to live well.

In her book Lynne Baab takes me back to my cluster of longings. The essence of humility is not so much 'to think less of myself , but to think of myself less' (Keller) so that I can attend to others and listen to them well. I wonder, too, whether holiness begins with being so absorbed with God, listening to him well - so well, in fact, that I take his primary expectation of holiness seriously - so seriously, in fact, that I give his Holy Spirit full reign in my life to do his primary thing - help make me holy.

nice chatting