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


Sunday, December 11, 2016

great cities in history

While this horrid nativism has been sweeping around the world like a stinky tide, I have been finding solace in a book. John Julius Norwich's The Great Cities of History (and there is a 'coffee table' version, which would make a late, great Christmas gift!).

341 pages. 70 cities. That is less than five pages for each city. Short essays written by expert historians, often distilling a life's work into a few paragraphs. But, beautiful writers, too. Pick up and read, here and there. The book takes a vertiginous, roughly chronological, journey down through the centuries and across the time zones - 'from Mesopotamia to Megalopolis'.

Great Bibliography. Great Notes. But where is the Great Map?!  The omission almost put me in the fetal position. While on this theme of 'greatness', it is interesting to gather the features of great cities that tend to reappear. Greatness is linked to the capacity to host diverse peoples, particularly immigrants. Greatness is linked to the ability to provide safe harbour to artists and intellectuals. Greatness is linked to establishing peace. Greatness is linked to effective, enduring leadership. Greatness is not just European ('the fact of their being unknown to Europe in no way detracts from their greatness' (110), speaking of Benin and Timbuktu). Greatness doesn't last - it never does - and it is eclipsed by the greatness of God, for whom the nations (and their cities and leaders) are but 'a drop in the bucket' (Is 40.15).

Speaking of 'buckets', we'll come to bucket lists soon. But let's start where everyone will start, with 'how many of these 'great cities' have I visited?' And this is lingering-a-bit, not just in-transit at the airport. For me, the number was 16 (but 18 out of the 70 because two of my cities are mentioned twice):

Jerusalem, Constantinople/Istanbul (2x), Angkor, Cairo, Agra, London (2x), Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Budapest, Washington DC, New Delhi, Chicago, Los Angeles, Singapore, New York, and Sydney.

When my personal experiences are thickened with this elegant prose, my five favourite cities would have to be: Istanbul, London, New Delhi, Chicago and Budapest. Beautiful essays.

As is true for many New Zealanders, with our colonial history barely two hundred years old, I do feel the strength which eurogravity exerts on my wanderlust. I'd love to soak in the cities of Europe so amply distributed through this book: Athens, Rome, Paris, Florence, Lisbon, Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Dublin, Vienna, Barcelona, and Berlin. I've never lingered in any of them. But then I am grateful that other overlooked great cities like Lagos and Jakarta, Lusaka and Phnom Penh, Kolkata and Lahore got into my heart first. It is helping to keep this horrid nativism at bay and prepare me better to participate in the mission of God in the world.

OK, so here is the deal. Based on this book alone, what cities head my 'bucket list'? Before I 'kick-the-bucket and die', what cities would I love to visit? I will restrict myself to a set of six, rather than sixteen, and then add a few sentences from the corresponding essay for some flavour.

'If Paradise be on earth, it is, without doubt, Damascus; but if it be in Heaven, Damascus is its counterpart on earth' (94, quoting the traveller, Ibn Jubayr). 'The citizens of Damascus considered it to be the oldest city on earth, for Cain slew Abel on the slopes of Mount Kassion ... For over a thousand years the vast crowds associated with the hajj pilgrimage would annually assemble outside the walls of Damascus for the desert crossing to Mecca' (94-95). [NB: it is where my namesake went after his conversion and I've always wanted to go there, too].

'Clearly, it could be successful in the long term only if three very different peoples, with three very different religions and speaking three different languages, could somehow be welded together into a single state; and this was the almost superhuman achievement of two men: Roger I and his son Roger II ... (the king's) court in Palermo was easily the most brilliant of 12th-century Europe. In the Middle Ages the two most important languages for science were Greek and Arabic, both of which were virtually impossible to acquire in northern Europe ... for any intellectual determined to master both, there was only Palermo' (117, 118). [NB: the 'three' being Greek, Arab, and Norman].

'Of all the great cities, Samarkand is the farthest from any ocean. It grew up instead on the human river of the Silk Road ... From this elysium, for more than thirty years, Tamerlane marched across Asia in a series of campaigns that devastated every state and city in its path, sacking Damascus and Isfahan, Baghdad and Delhi, crushing the Golden Horde and the Ottoman Turks, and leaving behind some 17 million dead ... The populace of Samarkand was a mine of expertise of diverse races and faiths, slave and free ... It was not its extent but its cosmopolitan splendour that provoked wonder. Perhaps never had a city been so purely the creation of one man ... Tamerlane coerced art and science to his own glory. In Samarkand, it seems, he aspired to concentrate and embalm the accomplishments of the entire world - a monument to himself, and perhaps to God' (124, 125, 126).  [NB; Samarkand is in contemporary Uzbekistan].

'But Venice remained apart. Those 3 km of shallow water - a far more effective defence than deep - served as a gigantic moat, giving her total protection from her envious and unruly neighbours and enabling her to turn her back on Italy and look to the East ... There, in the silks and spices, the gold and the furs and the slaves of the Orient, lay her wealth ... No other major Italian city could claimed to have remained inviolate for close on a thousand years. And no other could boast such wealth' (150, 152).

'Timbuktu is a city on the southern edge of the Sahara constructed of one part history and two parts myth ... It was only after the colonial presence of the French had ended that the true history and wealth of Timbuktu were revealed in the form of the great private libraries that their scholar citizens had patiently copied, preserved and transcribed ... The commercial lifeblood of towns such as Timbuktu had been sucked away centuries before (when) the inland trans-Sahara caravan routes were being replaced by seaborne traffic ... What has kept Timbuktu in existence for the last 400 years was neither gold dust nor slaves, but pride in a thousand years of Muslim scholarship and a carefully guarded inheritance of thousands of manuscripts' (161, 162, 164).

St Petersburg
'Peter the Great conceived his new capital as an elegant European paradise forged from the swamps and frozen wastes of northern Russia. It was to be the new Amsterdam or the new Venice, and was to act for Russia as a window on the West ... What always amazes about St Petersburg is the miracle of what has survived after war, siege and communism. The Hermitage remains one of the greatest museums in the world ... The churches of the city having been converted into swimming pools and gymnasia and, in the case of Kazan Cathedral, a museum to promote atheism, now resound again to the strong male voices singing the Orthodox liturgy ... St Petersburg has always fascinated its visitors - a city where the long dark winters and the sufferings of its recent past are relieved by the anticipation of the White Nights in the short summer, when darkness is entirely banished and beauty and optimism reigns' (242, 244, 245).

nice chatting - but where is the map? Or, did I already ask that question?


Thursday, December 01, 2016

the prevailing image

It is a principle of effective communication.

Check out the Economist magazine. It is right there - always there - between the title of the article and the body of the article. A simple, single, summarising sentence. One of the secrets for TED-talk effectiveness is that a given talk can be captured in the length of a tweet. 140 characters. The doctoral thesis needs this sentence - and so does the sermon.

Haddon Robinson calls it the 'big idea'. Alec Motyer asks, 'What is the one thing that all the other things are about?' Gary Millar and Phil Campbell speak of the 'freshly squeezed essence of the passage'. Every sermon needs it. The thesis. The proposition. To articulate it is a burden, but as the time of delivery approaches it becomes a saviour.

But it is not enough. I am increasingly persuaded that it is not enough.

The best biblical preaching is science - and art. It is prose - and poetry. It engages the mind, but also the imagination. What is said needs to be seen as well. Sadly, those most committed to biblical, or expository, preaching are often those with the least active imaginations. This should not be so. It is not good enough. 

This is why in recent years I have required students to include a prevailing image in their sermons. A picture over which they linger. Maybe it is there in the introduction - and then again in the conclusion. Maybe they sink into this image in the middle of the sermon somewhere. Maybe it is tied closely to the application. However it happens, people walk away from the sermon with their imaginations alive.

The best example I know of this happening is in the Bible itself. In the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134, what I like to call Hillsongs: the original soundtrack), we find prevailing images. Again and again, in these brief little psalms, the songwriter engages the imagination with pictures...

Here is my Top Ten, the prevailing images in these psalms which engage my imagination the most:

Psalm 129: 'those who plough have ploughed my back and made their furrows long' (3).

Psalm 124: 'the flood engulfed us ... the torrent ... the raging waters swept us away' (4).

Psalm 131: 'Like a baby content in its mother's arms, my soul is a baby content' (2, The Message).

Psalm 125: 'As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people' (2).

Psalm 126: 'And now, God, do it again - bring rain to our drought-stricken lives' (4, The Message).

Psalm 133: 'It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard' (2).

Psalm 129: 'May they be like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow' (6).

Psalm 120: 'He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree' (4).

Psalm 130: ''I wait for you more eagerly than a soldier on guard duty waits for the dawn' (6, CEV).

Psalm 124: 'We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler's snare' (7).

Here is a Top Ten without even mentioning 'your wife is like a fruitful vine within your house; your children like olive shoots round your table' (128.3). Oops, we now have a First Eleven.

If these psalms, with just a handful of verses in them, can find space for a prevailing image, so can our sermons. Notice, too, how utterly ordinary and everyday these images are. The advantage of being ordinary and everyday is that they have a better chance of engaging the imaginations of a wider range of people. Everybody relates to the ordinary and everyday ... that is what those words mean!

Arguably, the most frequently asked question in the training of preachers is 'where do I find illustrations?' Well, start by investing in your own imagination by seeing the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary and everyday.

nice chatting


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

lyrics for living 11 (change be blest)

In these troubled times, my mind and heart have travelled, yet again, to a hymn.

It comes from my bulging 'hymns I've sung only when I have chosen them' file. The most recent selection of this hymn was almost 30 years ago - and even then I probably chose it only 2-3 times.

'This post really is going places, Paul. That is a great start.'

Well, it keeps going downhill from here. The customary tune, Chilton Foliat, is hardly a keeper. And unlike every other hymn in this 'lyrics for living' series, I could not find a single recording of this one on You Tube. I guess that says something.

It gets worse. Look at this little graph that I discovered (yes, sorry, it is very little). The horizontal axis is a time line (1750-2000). The vertical axis is the percentage of hymnals in which the hymn can be found. Allow me to interpret the graph for you. This hymn was born into the hymnal world in about 1900, but its life has always been endangered, peaking at a presence in a whopping 20% of hymnals, before suddenly becoming extinct in about 1975. Where is David Attenborough when you need him for a little hushed commentary to set the mood...?

Sit tight. This marketing exercise has further downhill to go. Some may see a likeness between Henry Twills, the hymnwriter, and the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan (I certainly do) - but I suspect there won't be too many who join me...
Henry Twells
So here I am with an extinct hymn that I've only sung 2-3 times more than 30 years ago, written by a singularly good-looking guy ... and about to commend it to you. And yet... And yet... A bit like a recent lyrics for living post, this is a hymn for this troubled year of 2016 - with phrases I may have rarely sung, but which I have never been able to shake.

Awake, O Lord, as in the time of old.
Come down, O Spirit, in thy power and might.
For lack of Thee our hearts are strangely cold,
Our minds but blindly grope toward the light.

What?! A little theological incorrectness to get started? The Lord is the last one who needs to be woken. The Spirit hardly needs to 'come down', as he is already fully here. But to write it as he has intensifies the pleading in this prayer. I love it. Then to speak of cold hearts and blind minds... Is this not the very combination that annoys me in Christians here and there? And might this combo not be a bit obvious when I take a selfie of my own soul?

Doubts are abroad: make Thou these doubts to cease.
Fears are within: set Thou these fears at rest.
Strife is among us: melt that strife to peace.
Change marches onward: may all change be blest.

What a Fab Four these are?! Doubts. Fears. Strife. Change. It doesn't matter where I seem to look, I see them. Politics plays with them. The media lubricates them. They are there in the sweeping global trends that overwhelm us ... they trouble far too many of those dear to me - and they invade my own private world. Be it deep, deep inside - or wide, wide outside ... what on earth could be better than experiencing doubts to cease, fears to rest, strife to melt - and change be blest?

It is not knowledge that we chiefly need,
Though knowledge sanctified by Thee is dear:
It is the will and power to love indeed;
It is the constant thought that God is near.

Most versions of the hymn omit this verse. No! No! Don't do that. When he goes looking for an answer, he does not fall into the head versus heart trap. The cognitive and the affective both need to be switched on. Knowledge may not be the chief need, but when touched by God, it is still precious. It is still to be sought ... alongside the chief need: an outpouring of love and compassion ('love indeed', and love in deed), refreshed as we are, as Advent approaches, by the conviction that God draws near in Christ.

Make us to be what we profess to be;
Let prayer be prayer, and praise be heartfelt praise;
From unreality set us free,
And let our words be echoed by our ways.

I can hear the accompanying instruments go quieter, gentler. Most hymns have a verse like this one. The prayer goes intimate. The prayer pulls back the curtains to discover life backstage, far from the public persona. The concern? Hypocrisy. Give this a tweak, says Twells. The world hates our hypocrisy. Jesus hates our hypocrisy. Not only must we love what Jesus loves, we must hate what Jesus hates. In this post-truth world, with lying as the new normal, we find a fresh truthfulness, a fresh authenticity, a fresh liberating reality ... and transforming echoes resound throughout a troubled world.

Turn us, good Lord, and so shall we be turned:
Let every passion grieving Thee be stilled:
Then shall our race be won, our rewards earned,
Our Master looked on, and our joy fulfilled.

It is more than a tweak that we chiefly need, it is a turn. A return for most of us. In a handful of phrases, the hymnwriter calls us back to the Lord and, at the same time, draws us forward to the Master. Repentance, mixed with hope. The hymn concludes as we need to commence. May it be so.

nice chatting


PS: I discovered this hymn, as a young pastor, in the (NZ) Baptist Hymn Book (#222), published in 1962.