Sunday, July 26, 2015

words of life

It is like recalling a car with a deficient part. I would love to recall all our graduates and put a new part in them - an expository one.
These are the words of a president of a leading theological college in the Middle East North Africa region - words which I heard with my own ears earlier this year. I feel his longing. But I wonder if the issue is more basic than the 'expository' part ... might it be the deeper, more foundational issue of a theology of word, a doctrine of Scripture, that needs recalling and replacing?

A generation ago Jacques Ellul wrote a book on how the word has been 'humiliated'. The various philosophical trends have conspired to weaken the word, to create suspicion about its ability to represent meaning, and to raise the alarm about the way it oppresses peoples. We are told that it has a diminished place in popular culture and public life (... but try telling that to millions of TED talk enthusiasts and almost as many millions of fans of the maiden speech of a young Scottish MP - the word-filled monologue seems to be alive and well, no matter what the ivory towers tell us!).

Rehabilitation needs to be the response to humiliation. Too much is at stake. To help restore confidence it needs a course at the college - or, at least, part of one - and it needs some careful reading and the occasional preaching series in the church.

The resources are flowing.  Kevin deYoung's Taking God at His Word has been celebrated in an earlier post. Langham has just republished the little classic by John Stott - God's Word for Today's World ... and then there is this superb book by Timothy Ward: Words of Life (IVP, 2009). I can't believe it has taken be six years to get here... Ward's purpose is 'to describe the nature of the relationship between God and Scripture' (11).

I love the shape of the book.
Ward moves from the 'biblical' (dealing with specific texts), to the 'theological' (discussing the relationship between Scripture and each member of the Trinity), to the 'doctrinal' (explaining the attributes of Scripture: necessity, sufficiency, clarity and authority) - and then onto the 'applied' (earthing his findings in the life of the believer and the community). In doing so he provides a model on how to grapple with issues of significance.

I love the way he addresses the big issues in my journey.
It is uncanny. Turn a page and there is another one. Forgive me for becoming more personal here. But so many of my issues seem to be here - simply and directly explained. Plus the guy is a wise and winsome pastor. It is obvious. Reminiscent of Tim Keller's writings, in these pages we discover someone acquainted with the issues of real people, immersed in real life with real (and thoughtful) questions about the Bible.

From my years as a student: there are words for my confusion over where Karl Barth fits (60-67); for my struggle with being confident in the formation of the biblical canon (89-92); and then for my sifting through words like inspiration (79-84) and inerrancy (130-140) - first, trying to understand them and then trying to decide whether they are useful or not - in the midst of those polemical 80s in the USA.

From my years as a pastor: there are words for my frustration with the YWAM-generation and the way they kept using the word 'inspiration' when they meant 'illumination' (92-94, 168-174); for my confusion over whether the divine:human incarnation is an accurate model for a divine:human Scripture (74-78); for my annoyance with the sovereignty of an individual's personal interpretation of scripture - what Ward calls solo scriptura, rather than sola scriptura (146-151) ... and the entire book speaks into my disappointment about the way Word always trailed so far behind Sign and Deed in the priorities and passions of churches and their leaders.

From my years in theological education: there are words for my conversation in a car with a senior Baptist leader on Balmoral Rd (Auckland), in my first weeks as a principal, when he expressed horror that I should want to make the Bible the basis of the curriculum, and as he drove his car he drove this wedge between Christ and Scripture as the word of God, elevating the former while diminishing the latter (67-74); for my intention to slow down the theologians' rush to systematization (50-51; 96-97); for my desire to be pro-Word and pro-Spirit at the same time (78-95, another wedge to dismantle!); and for my struggle to understand, and then appreciate, speech-act theory (57-60).

And now, for my years as a trainer of preachers: the entire book strengthens my convictions about the ongoing place of words in the mission of God. 'God acts by speaking (23) ... in biblical language and theology, God speaking and God acting are often one and the same thing (26) ... God has so identified himself with his words that whatever someone does to God's words they do directly to God himself.' (27). And then there is a little purple patch on the Bible and preaching (156-170) which so refreshed and renewed me.

A couple more comments:
In his discussions of the necessity, the clarity, the sufficiency, and the authority of Scripture (96-140), Ward acknowledges that 'none is a term given to us in Scripture, so we are not bound to them' (106) ... but then he builds his case for each one by making it clear 'what I am saying', but also 'what I am not saying'. It is a masterful piece of wise, winsome and irenic reasoning in a debate so plagued by polemics.

And striking a blow to the chronological snobs out there, he takes us back, repeatedly, to the tried and the true - and the very, very old: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, BB Warfield, and Herman Bavinck - with the relatively unfamiliar Turretin the stand-out to me. For example, on the relationship between Word and Spirit:
The former works objectively, the latter efficiently; the former strikes the ears from without, the latter opens the heart from within (93).
nice chatting - and with the rather forlorn hope that those who most need to read this book will actually do so.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

a perfect (scottish) seven, plus one

It has always been a dream to visit Scotland.

My parents loved it enough to name my sister, just 15 months older than me, Heather. I had visited it on two previous occasions. Once to visit a college in Glasgow (for 6 hours); and once, travelling all the way from New Zealand, to interview a possible faculty member in Edinburgh (for 24 hours, and led on to George & Jo Wieland, together with Lindsey, Joanne and Jonathan, coming to NZ).

But visits lasting a few hours hardly constitute visiting a country. And so after Langham meetings in Wales, to which Barby had also been invited, we headed off for a five day holiday in Scotland (during which we enjoyed a total of five hours of sunshine, as we traveled 1106 miles).

Never before have I been in a country where the letters are so familiar to me, but my pronunciation of those letters, as they assemble together in place names, seem so unfamiliar to them. The only words I got right were the rivers - Tay, Don, Esk, Tweed and other such complicated assemblages. Maybe the five years of living in Invercargill, where every street name seems to come from Scotland (we lived on Tweed St), prepared me for this daunting assignment.

I've already posted photos on the staggering views of the Isle of Skye from Elbol and Applecross - but here are eight other places we enjoyed.

new abbey

An unheralded little abbey, known also as Sweetheart Abbey.
We loved the grass carpet and the Mogul-coloured stone that reminded us a bit of Delhi.


Everyone raves about this one - and so they should.
My stunt-double, Daniel Craig, helped me out with a few scenes here in a recent movie.

We stayed overnight in a little B&B and then a still morning led to lots of reflection photos.
This is Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.

eilean donan
The iconic castle which so often introduces Scotland to the world.

An historic location, with the Robert the Bruce statue in the foreground and the William Wallace memorial in the distance.
And in the valley between, marked by the Stirling Bridge ... and all kinds of brave-hearted battles.

This William Wallace memorial is nowhere near Stirling - and was announced only by a simple sign
on a tiny lane in the middle of the Borders. It is deserving of far, far more marketing!
east neuk

The sun shone as we moved through this sequence of jigsaw puzzle villages south of St Andrews.

So many of the cathedrals in the UK seem so removed from mission and ministry.
Not this one. All the explanations for the tourist were tinged by the gospel. 
The surrounding area inspired Beatrix Potter
royal mile (edinburgh)

Not usually a big fan of wherever it is that the crowds wander, but this 'mile' is an exception.
Here is John Knox in the courtyard of New College, made famous for me by John 'Diary of Private Prayer' Baillie,
Thomas 'the expulsive power of a new affection' Chalmers, James 'prince of preachers' Stewart ... all very exciting.
It is also where Kiwi Murray Robertson trained.
Then around the corner, presiding over 'the mile', staring down the church
and subverting much of what New College stood for is ... philosopher David Hume.

nice chatting


PS: ... and England's Lake District ain't too bad either!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

skye watch

Sometimes a Lone Person is better than a Lonely Planet.

With just a day in our schedule to explore the Scottish Highlands that Lone Person for us was Graham Slater, a dedicated 'Munro-bagger' (NB: a Munro is a mountain in Scotland over 3000' and Graham has 'bagged', or climbed, all 282 of them - and is now up to 70 on his second time around!).

Graham knows his stuff. He directed us to the Isle of Skye and left us with two words: Elgol (on Skye) and Applecross (across from Skye). Off we went, dutifully obedient - and then delightfully overwhelmed. WOW. The sun never shone through - but it didn't seem to matter...

the view from elgol

the view from applecross 

Oh yes - and the road into Elgol ain't too bad either...

And what about the road into Applecross? Goodness deary me...

nice chatting and watching
(and thanks, Graham)


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

in the (lowest) corner of a rural field

Some people have lived such important lives.

In a recent wander through a cemetery in Pembrokeshire (SW Wales) one memorial is designed to attract attention more than any other. And it does. High above all else. The erect, stone figure can be seen from some distance. A military man of some kind, I suspect. Maybe a general? In life he commanded armies and now in death he is commanding graves.

But I am not wandering for his sake.

I am on a little pilgrimage. My eyes look here and there for the headstone I have come to see. Ahh, there it is. Down at the lowest point in the cemetery, close to the boundary, in a nondescript little space. Having been added far more recently than its neighbours, the colouring (and the material being used) is a little different, making it easier to locate.

I draw nearer ...

... and still nearer.

It is my first time back to The Hookses in Dale since John Stott died, four years ago (later this month). This is the place where John Stott came to write his books and to retreat from the busyness of a global ministry. It was his wish to be buried here.

I had heard about the content of what he wanted written as a memorial (echoing the words chosen by Charles Simeon, a 19th century inspiration with a remarkably similar ministry) but I was not prepared for this context. I mean we are talking about arguably the most influential person in the global evangelical church in the last five decades, maybe more. This is not exactly St Paul's, or Westminster Abbey, is it?!

But why should I have been surprised? A life characterized by simplicity and humility was followed by a death characterized by the same. In the lowest corner of a rural field.

The cemetery begins as the row of houses concludes - with our 'general' elevating upwards
in the middle and Stott's grave in the lower right corner (maybe expand this one a bit!). 
As for that content, let's draw nearer, one more time.

nice chatting


Sunday, June 28, 2015

the road to character

David Brooks' The Road to Character (Allen Lane, 2015) is a book of two halves - that is, if we are able to be flexible and allow one of the halves to be only one-sixth of the book.

The Introduction (ix-xv) and The Shift (3-15) will make their way into the required reading list for countless courses around the world dealing with issues of spirituality and leadership. They are that good. The final chapter - The Big Me (241-270), with its 'The Humility Code' - will not be too far behind. Brooks takes just 50 pages to nail his argument.

In the other five-sixths he collects eight 'biographical essays' because 'moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed' (xiii). These people discovered their lives were made of 'crooked timber' (Kant) - and so they 'waged war' with it.  Frances Perkins, Ike Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), Augustine, and Samuel Johnson. As we meander through the stories, Brooks urges us to 'relearn a vocabulary of character' (15) that has been lost.

Brooks' argument builds on a distinction made by Rabbi Soloveitchik regarding the two sides of our nature, Adam I and Adam II. Brooks has a gift in drawing contrasts in a succinct manner. Adam I is interested in CV, or resume, virtues. Adam II is committed to eulogy virtues. Adam I is about what we say as we market ourselves for success, while Adam II is what people say at our funeral about our character.

While Adam I wants to conquer the world, 
Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world (x).

To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. 
To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses (x).

If you don't have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, 
your betrayal, will happen. Adam I ultimately depends on Adam II (12).

Adam I achieves success by winning victories over others. 
But Adam II builds character by winning victories over the weaknesses in himself (13).

Narcissism is the cultural setting in which the confrontation between these two Adams takes place. It is a 'gospel of self-trust' (7). 'You are special. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Don't accept limits...' For Brooks, 'a moral tradition has been left behind' (15), as people have become self-absorbed - or, in the words of George Eliot - we are 'taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves' (244).

This infects Christian communities. One of my own long-standing concerns is that so much teaching on topics like spiritual gifts and self-esteem owe more to the spirit of the age than to the Spirit of God. The very notion that our gifts and our strengths should determine our vocation beggars belief. Where and when will we then confront our weaknesses and our flaws? Vocation is determined by calling primarily, not gifting (which comes soon afterwards). Brooks' message is that we need 'to become strong in the weak places' (10) so that 'Adam I bows down to Adam II'.

Woven into the 'biographical essays' is all kinds of wisdom: the nature of sin (54-55); the value of suffering (93-96); a beautiful paragraph on what 'sensitive people do when other people are in trauma' (100-101 - it reminded me of my godly mother!); the nature of love (168-174); the nature of pride (198-201); a reflection on status updates on facebook (250-251); and on parenting (254-257). But the common denominator with the eight stories is clear and bold:
... each of the lives started with a deep vulnerability and undertook a lifelong effort to transcend that vulnerability ... And yet each person was redeemed by their weakness. Each person struggled against that weakness and used that problem to grow a beautiful strength. Each person traveled down into the valley of humility in order to ascend to the heights of tranquility and self-respect (268).
It is easy to overhear the wisdom and character of Jesus in these pages. I longed for references on the way the Holy Spirit provides the energising power to produce this kind of character - but not sure it would have worked. The way Brooks packages biblical wisdom for a readership that is increasingly skeptical about us, the people of the Book, is one of the attractions of his writing.

Speaking of people of the Book, this is the same David Brooks who wrote the heralded article on John Stott in his New York Times column, all those years ago. I do not know all the details, but that encounter with Stott greatly impacted Brooks' own spiritual journey. In a book that finds its way to an advocacy of humility as 'the greatest of all virtues' - it is humility that both Brooks and Stott have in common. I valued Brooks' vulnerability. 'This book is about Adam II ... I wrote it to save my own soul' (xi). The final paragraph - in the Acknowledgements (!) at the very end - took me by surprise and made me a little weepy (which is not particularly difficult to do), with all that is left unsaid.
Life has its vicissitudes and unexpected turns. My ex-wife, Sarah, has done and continues to do an amazing job raising our three children. Those children, Joshua, Naomi, and Aaron, are now spread around the globe, and exemplify the traits of character that any parent dreams of: courage, creativity, honesty, fortitude, and loving kindness. They don't really need this book, but I hope they profit from it. (273)

My own battle with these issues of the self and its place and profile in my life took a sweeping turn all those decades ago when I read 'Self-Understanding and Self-Giving' in Stott's The Cross of Christ. Have you read these pages? The words melted me and electrified me - as they do so again just now. They became a starting point. Self-denial and self-affirmation. Dignity and depravity. Worth and unworthiness.
On the one hand, the cross is the God-given measure of the value of our true self, since Christ loved us and died for us. On the other hand, it is the God-given model for the denial of our false self, since we are to nail it to the cross and put it to death. Or, more simply, standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die (285).
nice chatting


[PS: I see from the 'labels' section to the right that this is my 100th book review :)].

Thursday, June 25, 2015

mangoes, rice, preaching

How is this for a greeting at the front of our local grocery story - Nilgiri's in Kothanur (Bangalore)?

Look at the variety of mangoes. Alphonso seems to be king, but I ain't fussy. A mela is an event where people gather in a festival-like manner. Bring it on. We tend to take the mela back home with us and have mangoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner - and the occasional snack.

But what is going on here?

Is it not true that mangoes are so commonplace and so central to life here in South India that the culture develops and distinguishes the varieties in a way that we just would not do back home in NZ?

Step inside the doors of the store and the same thing happens again - with rice. A similar variety, this time each with its own bin. Once again ... is it not true that rice is so commonplace and so central to life here that the culture develops and distinguishes the varieties in a way that we just would not do back home? [But no mela for me this time. Rice glues up my alimentary canal, leading to ailments which will remain unstated here.]

Step inside the life of the early church in the book of Acts and a similar thing is happening - for those with eyes to see. Not mangoes. Not rice. Preaching. So commonplace and so central is preaching to its life that the early church develops and distinguishes varieties in a way that we just do not do in NZ, or in India - or any other country with which I am acquainted.

Scholars tell us that there are 37 references to the growth of the church in Acts. Six associate this growth with a quality of church life. Seven link this growth with the presence of signs & wonders - but 24 references link it with preaching the word of God, in all its nuance and variety. Even a basic understanding of the book of Acts picks up its theme: the church spreads, as the Word of God spreads. It is the biography – not of Peter, or Paul – but of the Word, carried forward by preachers. The final phrase in the original emphasizes this: ‘the unstoppable word’...
Speaking of scholars, my journey on this point has twisted and turned thanks to different scholars.

CH Dodd gave me a horrible start. He zeroed in on just two words - 'preaching' and 'teaching' - and argued that there was a 'clear distinction' between the two (when the biblical data is far less certain). His analysis was unnecessarily exclusivist (allowing for no overlap in meanings) and reductionist (giving priority to just two words, when there are many more) ... and had a generation heading up the wrong alley.

Along came word-study supremo, Gerhard Kittel, rescuing me with the news of thirty-three different words for preaching in the New Testament. The mela is still on. The bins are diverse, full - nuanced.

Then, on one sleepy Friday evening in Wanaka (NZ), I was commencing my favourite ministry opportunity of all: a local-church based preaching seminar for people at the grassroots. A dozen people this time. But then - ever so quietly, as is his manner - in slipped a thirteenth person into the back row. Murray Harris, arguably New Zealand's greatest ever New Testament scholar. Gulp?! He caught me waxing as eloquently as I could on this very point. Later in the week I received a hand-written note from the professor. He affirmed what I was saying and took me to the Mela in Thessalonica - Acts 17.2-4 - carefully scripting the six different Greek words (in just three verses!) that give colour and depth, diversity and nuance, to the ministry of preaching. 

Before too long, Aussie Peter Adam came along, bringing some order to the mela when he articulated 'the many different ministries of the Word' (Speaking God's Words, 75):
(a) words of information: teach, instruct, point out, make known, remind; 
(b) words of declaration: preach, proclaim, cry out, testify, bear witness, declare, write, read, pass on;
(c) words of exhortation: call, denounce, warn, rebuke, command, give judgement, encourage, appeal, urge; 
(d) words of persuasion: explain, make clear, prove, guard, debate, contend, refute, reason, persuade, convince, insist, defend. confirm, stress;
(e) words of conversation: say, speak, talks, answer, reply, give answer.

There is a need to thicken and deepen and broaden the 'ministry of the Word' that happens in and through local churches. Here is one application of what it could look like: preaching: acts and now.

nice chatting


Friday, June 19, 2015

lyrics for living 6 (but this i know)

When things get tough I try to look in two directions.

One is horizontal. Maybe chronological is a better word. I bring to mind the way God works with a 24 hour day and how dawn follows midnight. Always. Without Fail. Then in many countries, far from the equator, He works with a 4 season year. Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter. But then ... always ... without fail ... spring follows winter. What is true in the rhythm of creation is true in the rhythm of the new creation. The 24 and the 4 breathe hope into my life during difficult times.

The other direction is vertical. Deep though the pain may be, deeper still there is a God who is true and real and faithful. Ten years ago - last month - I began my message at the funeral of a young woman, who had a brain tumour accompany her through her entire (almost) life, with these words:

"There is this hymn that I love…
 The first line of every verse starts the same way: 'I cannot tell'
       …as if to say
                    I don’t understand
                    It is beyond me
                    I just don’t know
Then… further down – half way through the very same verses 
each time, there comes a response: 'But this I know'
       …as if to say
                   I am sure
                   I rest my life on this
                   I am convinced of this
The words in the hymn are great.

But it is actually the way these phrases are arranged 
on the page that gets me every time.
      The very fact that they even coexist…
       - 'I cannot tell' & 'But this I know' -
       and hang out together in the same verse is remarkable
                   - just like with life -
And then more subtly, the ‘But this I know’ always lies deeper and lower 
in the verse & on the page it is the foundational phrase
                   - just like in life it can be, as well -
By way of Reflection this morning I want to focus 
on the deeper and the foundational: the ‘But this I know' ... "

Here is another young woman (her name is Hope!) singing this hymn:

Ten years ago - next year - I visited Zambia with my son, Martin. Two days after returning to New Zealand I was to speak at a World Vision Prayer Day. I remember feeling panic, as I had no idea what to say. But then God dropped an idea into my mind. I had been immersed in the sadness of Meredith's State of Africa as I traveled and also the Psalms of Ascent. 

These psalms are borne in pain. I decided to hold these distressing stories of African nations emerging from colonization in one hand and these Psalms in the other hand. Context and Text. Just how I like the conversation to be in my heart and mind. I read bits from the book and then read bits from the Bible. Zambia - Psalm 120 - deceit. Rwanda - Psalm 121 - fear. Sudan - Psalm 122 - war ... On we went, through the countries and through the psalms ... even USA/UN/France - Psalm 130 - guilt.

When they engage with these stories, Christians around the world get knotted, and ask, "Where is God in all this pain? Has God left Africa?" But I didn't hear Christians in Africa asking those questions so much. They kept on worshiping God. But sometimes I thought I could hear them wanting to articulate, "Where are God's people - our brothers and sisters - in all this?" 

Oh yes, the worship weeps - but deeper down the worship knows certain things to be true about God. The experience changed me. I came home with a vibrant testimony of 'I cannot tell, but this I know' which will shape my life for forever. The pain is real. The suffering is huge. Don't minimise it. I cannot get my head and heart around it. But deep though the pain may be, there is something deeper going on. Down through the pain there is Someone else. 

Just as with the hymn, down lower and further in these Psalms can be found truths to know for sure. Psalm 120 and the God who saves. Psalm 121 and the God who protects. Psalm 122 and the God who peace-keeps. Psalm 123 and the God who shows mercy. Psalm 124 and the God who helps. Psalm 129 and the God who judges. Psalm 130 and the God who forgives. Psalm 131 and the God who stills...

The horizontals and the verticals. 
It is the way to live. 
May God help me so to do.

nice chatting


Saturday, June 13, 2015

taking flight with frances

Seldom do I remember flights taking-off these days. I am asleep by that time, as an involuntary nap overwhelms me on the way to the runway. On this occasion I could be excused for such behaviour befitting a baby. Eight long days of listening, facilitating and note-taking had left me a little weary.

I boarded the plane. As I settled into my customary aisle seat, my eye caught an empty row of three up ahead. It was a clear day. Lima to Sao Paulo. Across the Andes, for goodness sake. Five hours. What about a window seat? Yes, why not?! So I settled into my new digs, with imaginary toothpicks holding up my eyelids so that I can remain alert until after take-off.

In the end sleep was the least of all likelihoods...

Julia Cameron's John Stott's Right Hand (Piquant, 2014), 'the untold story of Frances Whitehead', was the book of choice for this flight. The story of the woman who worked alongside John Stott for 55 years - in 'a unique partnership ... for which the English language perhaps has no word' (86). One can only imagine how a Hollywood scriptwriter would mess with the characters and the plot. And yet Frances occupies so much of 'the back-story to John Stott's colossal influence' (189).

The book was finished on this single flight despite frequent interruptions to savour the view outside my window.

Oh, those mountains, barren but beautiful, range upon range, as we head inland towards the Andes. 
I love the zigging and zagging pathways up their steep sides.

The dignity of work. A simple observation in the final pages caught my eye. 'Appendix II: Books typed by Frances Whitehead'. Typed? When did you last see a typist featured in such a list? It seems such a basic task. But books cannot be completed if they are not typed. This story legitimates basic, but essential, work. It dignifies the simplest of callings. Sure, Frances became something special as 'Frances the Omnicompetent', the 'source of all knowledge' (SOAK). But like you and me, she had to make a start somewhere - and typing was it.

Goodness me - is that a volcano out my window?

The work of grace. It was not an easy life. Her only sibling, an older sister, died far too young. Her parents' marriage was unhappy, ending in separation. The bond with her mother 'was never deep' (140). Frances led a solitary and 'rootless' life, leading to a shy and 'diffident' personality. Her father, her 'rock', died suddenly just before her 19th birthday. But through it all God drew Frances to himself - with the preaching of one John Stott being the key: 'the sheer authenticity of the preacher had convinced Frances to listen and to focus' (41). It was as she listened that 'the light of Christ first dawned on me' (11). This is the story of someone like us. God chose to make Frances His own - just like he wants to do with you and me.

On the distant horizon, can I make out some blue below the horizon as well as above it?
Is there some sky and some water? Surely not. 
But then, for no apparent reason, the pilot takes a sharp left turn
... and we travel along the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The grace of obedience. After a season working with the BBC, Frances was appointed as secretary to John Stott. This was to be the setting for her obedience to God for the rest of her working life. Typist - yes! But also gatekeeper, administrator, encourager ... and very much the 'right hand' of John Stott. 'A servant of the servant of the Lord'. It is a shared legacy. Their ability 'to work together so closely for so long was a mark of grace' (86). 'They resolutely did not allow for romantic hopes to take root' (86) in order to obey this higher calling at 'an unrelenting pace for over half a century' (189). We may not all be as gifted as John Stott, but we can all be as obedient as Frances Whitehead and that is what God desires from us. That is enough. He can do amazing things with obedience.

As soon as Titicaca fades from view, the city of La Paz appears right underneath me.

Accessible stories of ordinary people who are deeply consecrated to Christ appeal to me. They become special people. This story of Frances Whitehead ticks this box for me. I read it right through without stopping. The dignity of work - the work of grace - the grace of obedience.

It is the Good Life. It is the beauty of the new creation (as read in these pages) which complements the beauty of creation (as seen out that window) ... and a beauty in which God draws near.

nice chatting


PS. May I add one more thing? I do not find the title to be convincing. Such is the ignorance about John Stott among emerging generations that any new books dealing with this story should try to draw near to these younger ones. This is a title for the insider, not the outsider, to the story. An opportunity has been missed. Moreover, I wonder how those generations respond to a title in which a woman is being defined in this way? I guess it is OK if you know the people (and I am sure Frances does not mind) - but if you don't, I wonder if they will draw near to read and be transformed?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

spurgeon's sorrows

The word is used so much today. I hesitate to bear witness to depression in my own life, lest by doing so it mocks those whose struggle with it is so serious, so debilitating. Down through the years ... the names, the faces, the situations. They fill my heart and mind as I sit down to write - as does the memory of the sheer helplessness of stumbling alongside them as they walked through the valley.

One thing I do know is that my life has been messed around enough by melancholy to ensure that there are depths of empathy inside me. I suspect Zack Eswine is the same. There is a knowingness about the way he writes Spurgeon's Sorrows (Christian Focus, 2014). He has been there too. He seems to have set himself the task of reading every sermon preached by Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the Victorian era, accumulating everything he ever says about depression and engaging with it.

In passing, Spurgeon's own battle with depression is sourced to an experience as a pastor of just 22 years of age. He was preaching to a congregation of 10,000 at the Music Hall in Royal Surrey Gardens in London when some idiot yelled, 'Fire!' - and in the panic which ensued seven people died and many more were injured. Spurgeon never recovered from this experience. It haunted him and softened him through until his death, 36 years later - and his sermons are touched by this experience, often with a surprising transparency.

There is so much to like about Eswine's book. It is short (143 pages). It is practical. Every single chapter is laced with wisdom for both 'sufferer' and 'caregiver' - for example, 'Helps that Harm' (75-83); 'Suicide and Choosing Life' (119-132). It is tender, nowhere more so than in the final chapter - 'The Benefits of Sorrow' (133-143) - and the way he writes about 'Charles', rather than 'Spurgeon'. And, in a field like counseling, where I do not always have confidence in the theological foundations underpinning the perspectives being advocated, it is good theology - like here: 'even hope demolished can become hope rebuilt, if it is realistic and rooted, not just in the cross and the empty tomb but also in the garden and the sweat-like blood' (131).

The role of metaphor and of 'a larger story' are two features which stand out for me.

1. In a world where words can be of little value, I was a little surprised by the focus on words. For example, in 'A Language for our Sorrows' (67-74), Eswine writes of the value of 'leaning on metaphors' - word-pictures, essentially. 'Poetry from God for our sorrows' (73). Spurgeon used them so much in reference to depression: 'traversing the howling desert - enduring winters, or a foggy day - caught in a hurricane - crushed, trodden in the winepress' (68-69). He reached for metaphor so often. So did the Psalmist. For Eswine, 'metaphor can handle mystery ... metaphor leaves room ... metaphor allows for nuance ... metaphor requires further exploration' (71-72). Sufferers need 'to search for metaphors to describe their experience ... and (caregivers) need to learn patience and appreciation for metaphor' (73).
Sometimes those of us who suffer depression feel the sting of the irony - the inability to find empathy and comfort from the very people who read the Bible every day but do not recognise the gift of metaphor for the sorrowing within its pages (72-73).
2. Spurgeon recognised that any current melancholy is a chapter in a bigger book, a season in a fuller year, and a midnight with a following dawn. It is this larger story that brings hope in the midst of the heavier story. Nevertheless, 'our salvation messages will prove inadequate if they do not  meaningfully account for the large portions of reality that cause screaming in the world; particularly with depression' (78). Quoting William James, Eswine writes of this 'remoter scheme' (79), or larger story, or metanarrative:
A larger story about God exists that possesses within it a language of sorrows so that the gloomy, the anguished, the dark-pathed, and the inhabitants of deep night are given voice. Such a god-story is neither cruel nor trite. Such a story begins to reveal the sympathy of God (74).
And again, later, in what is something of a summary of the book:
We think of the Bible as a violent book, of God as angry, and god-talkers as sloganeers. But Charles saw in the Bible a language for the sorrowing, an advocacy to disrupt helpers who harm, and a man of sorrows sent from God out of love for the wailing world so that those who sat in darkness could finally feel the home they were made for and enjoy the sun again. This remoter scheme or larger story becomes the means by which Charles daily reckoned with the proximity of his despair. God had offered a reason for hope that matched the intensity of our reasons for despondency (90). 

One more word on tenderness. It is there in quotation after quotation, word picture after word picture. It makes for a beautiful reading that touches the affections. Be it Spurgeon: 'The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits' (25); depression is 'a kind of mental arthritis' (61) - or, Eswine himself: 'Depression is a darkness that drapes over us wherever we go' (35); 'God's promises are a sort of lighthouse reaching out into our night seas' (94); and 'Laughter gave our tears room to breathe' (106).

Two more pieces of wisdom. One quoting Andrew Solomon: 'Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance ... depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance' (quoted on page 29). Isn't that a great discussion starter?

Then, if Spurgeon, Eswine and Solomon don't grab you, what about my grandson, Micah - barely three years of age? He loves strumming his guitar and drumming anything that can be arrayed in front of him (with his parents, over time, wising up to the need for these things to be noiseless). He has latched onto a lyric from a song played in the home. So with either guitar in hand, or pounding away on shoes, plants, boxes, or cushions - he blurts out the line: 'joy comes in the morning'.

nice chatting


PS. Both this book and A Nervous Splendor were recommended to me by my friend, Mark Meynell. Mark's blog occupies a different stratosphere to this one. More recently he has focused on writing books, with A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World, officially released later this week.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

maori martyrs

Te Manihera and Kereopa.

It is Keith Newman (in Bible and Treaty) who introduced me to these two Christian Maori men, martyred near Tokaanu (situated 'at 6 o'clock', on the southern edge of Lake Taupo) in 1847. When our family took a holiday earlier this month in nearby Kuratau ('at 7 o'clock' on the lake), I became consumed with the need for pilgrimage. The graveside was only 15 minutes away, by car.

The memorial lies in the cemetery of St Paul's Anglican Church, just off the highway from Turangi to Taumarunui. By 1850 there were more Maori Christians in New Zealand than European Christians. The vast majority of these Maori had been brought to Christ by other Maori. There are stories of European missionaries pioneering the gospel into new regions, only to find little churches, reading the Bible and singing hymns, already functioning - planted by Maori missionaries who reached there first. At his conversion,
Te Manihera is said to have spoken of how they had received the Gospel and the Christian faith from English missionaries; if the missionaries could leave their homeland to go out to the world and preach the Gospel, then it was the duty of Maori missionaries to go among their own countrymen. (Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
Te Manihera and Kereopa were early Maori missionaries. Their tribe in South Taranaki was mired in a cycle of war with a neighbouring tribe. Rather than exacting vengeance, they headed off, motivated by the gospel, in a spirit of peace and reconciliation - and it cost them their lives.

Someone needs to respect these graves a little more and make the script a little clearer! But I suspect the phrase at the bottom is echoing the words from Revelation:
They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb 
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death (Revelation 12.11).

The fuller story of the martyrdom can be read in Newman's book, but also in Manihera's Farewell (Hero Stories of New Zealand). Some years later, in 1916, the New Zealand Herald adds one consequence of the story:
A native teacher, speaking of their death, likened them to a lofty kahikatea tree, full of fruit, which it sheds on every side around, causing thick grove of young trees to spring up; so that although the parent tree may be cut down its place is more than supplied by those which proceed from it—this is but a Maori way of saying the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. The Rev. R. Taylor tells us that Huitahi, the murderer, afterwards gave land as a site for a mission station, and built a nice little church upon it, and when Mr. Taylor went to conduct the opening service at it, he found some thirty Maoris asking for baptism. 

One little personal aside. Part of my wider family/whanau married direct descendents of Edward Lawry, the early missionary to Tonga. Te Manihera's name before he became a believer was Poutama. Look at this story in Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
Poutama was born in South Taranaki, probably early in the nineteenth century. He was captured during a Waikato raid near the mouth of the Tamaki River. From there he was taken captive a second time, by Nga Puhi. They were travelling north when, off Cape Brett, he was put on board a mission schooner carrying the Reverend Walter Lawry from Kororareka (Russell) to Tonga; his release was secured by the gift of a few biscuits. On the voyage to Tonga, Poutama rescued Lawry's son, Henry, when a wave washed the child overboard. For 18 months in Tonga Poutama was educated by the Lawrys; he transferred to the CMS station at Norfolk Island when they returned to England. Eventually he made his way back to Waokena, near Hawera, where he married Harata ...
nice chatting