Wednesday, November 26, 2008

bluffton

I am enjoying my longest stay in the USA since I was a student here 25+ years ago. I have been speaking at the annual missions' conference of a church set in the cornfields of NW Ohio - where my father-in-law is pastor emeritus. The church has been supporting Barby's family in India for 95 consecutive years. It is an honour for me to be here. A few reflections...

1. You gotta love rural America. On my first day here the weekly Bluffton News was published. The front page was blanketed with all the names of students at the local high school and primary school who finished the semester with straight As (or Bs, from memory). Not too concerned about tall-poppies around these parts - and a long way from Saturday sports in New Zealand where team mates take turns winning the 'player of the day' trophy.

2. Inside the front door of the church is a map of the world and pockets to hold the newsletters of the 44 missionaries being supported (by a church of about 500).

The conference lasted from Sunday to Sunday. About 8-12 of these 44 were here for the week, gathering each morning to share and pray together. Then every night of the week (except one) 150+ people in the church came out to hear the missionaries share their story. Incredible commitment. They still run a Faith Promise scheme and after the second Sunday it became clear that they would exceed their goal - at a time and in a place where the economic downturn is really biting.

3. Person-for-person these are the warmest and kindest people you could ever hope to meet. I have just had 9 consecutive evenings in peoples' homes for dinner. I made the mistake of coveting the following text on the dining room wall and Ruth ended up giving it to me...

Speaking of wobbling I remember that my first impressions of the USA 30 years ago were the big cars and the big people. The cars have down-sized a lot, but not the people - except I don't notice it so much now because we have such an obesity problem in NZ.
Speaking of gobbling, it is Thanksgiving this week. I reckon we Kiwis suffer for not having this tradition. I do enjoy the way the default setting for Americans is to be an affirmative, thankful, and positive people. It brought back to mind my early struggles, fresh home from the USA, as a pastor in Invercargill. In the US, if ya done good, you tend to hear about it. In NZ, if ya done good, you tend not to hear about it. From those early days I determined to be an enourager and a thanker of others, demonstrating that it doesn't give people 'big heads' and that the occasional (humble) tall poppy ain't such a bad idea. But gee, I've ran out of gas on that one a few times and not sure how successful we can be swimming against this strong cultural tide.

4. One of the reasons for #3 for me in Bluffton, is the esteem in which my father-in-law is held. I've lived with him for two weeks. I never knew someone could be so godly - selfless and caring and serving. He takes every opportunity to pray. He rings every single person on their birthday. At 87 he still makes personal contact with more than 25 people each week. He is on the go from morning until night. His example is one of the reasons why I am deeply convinced that the first principle of (pastoral) leadership is to love people. I watch the way his love opens people up to God.

5. Some of the mission work is local - for example, in the prisons. The guy was telling me that not since Stalinist Russia has there been a country with such a high rate of incarceration. He told me that if a guy gets an underage (that age being 18) girl pregnant, it doesn't matter what the circumstances, if either the mother or the father of the girl chooses to press charges then the guy is likely to be put away for 10 years AND carry the stigma of being a 'sex offender' for the rest of his life, with every single computer record carrying the information. In fact this prison-worker receives a postcard every six months notifying him that a sex offender is living in his area with the address of the person being given.

6. With my visit being so soon after the elections I determined that the wise course of action was not to use the O-word while I was here - and it wasn't until well into my second week here that I heard the word on anyone's lips at all. It has been fascinating. When they do speak of Obama in this conservative pocket of rural USA it is with such a dismissive disdain - not that different to the tone with which George W. Bush gets treated in NZ.

7. The stability of the community is remarkable - as witnessed by the same names appearing again and again on the headstones and the inter-marriage being the stuff of legend! And no matter how challenged Americans think they are by their culture it never fails to amaze me just how much Christianity intrudes into public life. Radio. TV. Community events. Church buildings. Christians are everywhere it seems. But I do wonder how much energy is spent conserving something that is as cultural as it is Christian. And I do wonder if the channel tends to be tuned - again and again - to maintenance rather than to mission. There are huge down-sides to having a homefield advantage in the marketplace of religions. Isn't that what Christendom taught us?

now that I have set a record for my longest post ever, I shall quit!

nice chatting

Paul

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

a cricketing retirement (sort of)

After 24 years of hanging-out with NZ Baptists I was farewelled as Principal of Carey Baptist College at last week's Baptist Assembly.
Me ol' mate Andrew Picard was one who gave a speech using various cricketing jargon to get his point across. A fellow cricket fan, Andrew had even contacted the Black Caps (the NZ cricket team) in Bangladesh and got them all to sign a T-shirt for me and send it back to NZ. GULP?! He then presented it to me on the night... how cool is that? I even have photos to prove it!





These might be the best available images of the Black Caps for the next few weeks as they are about to take on the might of a wounded Australia. Just as well I am over here in rural Ohio for two weeks (speaking at a missions' conference in my father-in-law's church) with limited access to news... Still - I reckon they'll offer a shock or two along the way.

nice chatting

Paul

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

being a better bloke

I've been reflecting on the ministry of John the Baptist. Not so long ago I preached on the passage about him in Luke 3. I highlighted the way John demanded a fruitfulness from his listeners and modeled a humility in the way he sign-posted people towards Jesus ... and then how this combination of fruitfulness and humility is what opens peoples' ears and builds credibility in a society where such credibility is lacking.

I concluded my sermon with these words:

QUOTE
For me 2008 will always be associated with two men. Talk about fruitfulness. Talk about sign-posting. Talk about building the credibility that opens peoples' ears. Talk about being prophetic and preparing the way for Jesus ... here it is!

One man is associated with the cavernous rocks holding in a remote mountain stream. The other is associated with the cavernous buildings holding in a busy urban street.

Both men stepped through the door to become fruitful. Both men stood next to Jesus as signposts. Both men died trying to save the lives of others.

Tony McLean died in that stream. Austen Hemmings was stabbed to death on that street.

God may not expect us to die like them. But there is no reason why we cannot live like them.
UNQUOTE

[NB - for overseas readers, the sacrificial deaths of these two young men (both sons of Baptist pastors and active Jesus-followers) have been huge events in NZ in 2008]

After I had finished preaching, a woman whom I respect highly greeted me and said: "I guess I'll go out and try to be a better bloke."

Hmmm?!


nice chatting


Paul

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

my vote

I have just voted in our NZ elections. As I won't be in my electorate on election day - and in solidarity with the Americana in me - I decided that I would vote today on the 4th of November.

I've thought a lot more about it...

1. I decided to help make MMP work and vote for a minor party. This is because I am more and more troubled by the abuse of power in the political process and want neither Labour or National to rule alone. As a nation we are becoming more comfortable with making MMP work and I want to encourage the skills involved in working as a coalition.

2. I will never ever vote for a Christian political party. The very notion of such a thing is wrong-headed in my view. The place for Christians is not clumping together in a party with an unseemly and embarassing grab at power - but as individuals salting and lighting and yeasting and disseminating their way across the politcal landscape as part of the scattered church at work in the world.

3. Nor will I vote for a party that is unlikely to make it into Parliament because either they can't get 5% of the popular vote or they don't have a person winning their own electorate seat. That is what I call a wasted vote.


So with what options does that leave me? The Greens, Maori Party, United Future, Progressives, probably ACT and probably not NZ First.

Now where do I go? I start looking at the bigger picture and the littler pictures (policies).

4. With the bigger picture... it is one thing for MMP to be at work, it is quite another for Labour to come a pretty distant second in the overall party vote - but because they can cobble together more left-of-centre coalition partners find themselves back in government. This is a possible scenario. I do not like the sound of that. I think that would be wrong. It makes me far less open to Greens and Progressives.

5. With the littler pictures... it is a case of trying to understand the nuances of policies. As recent posts have mentioned I will resist being told that good governance is primarily about making everyone more prosperous. It is primarily about ensuring justice. This makes me uneasy about ACT on both counts. I do not like them on Law and Order and I am still not convinced that they have much heart for the poor.

6. I have a lot of respect for Tariana Turia in the Maori Party but I wonder aloud whether (like with the Greens) they are going to do just fine in this election without my help. They will have a strong and effective voice.

7. So this brings me to United Future. I was leaning their way and so I went to their campaign launch to get a sense of the flavour and be more informed. It was worthwhile. While it is too late for Income-Splitting for our family I'd love others to benefit from what seems to be an eminently sensible economic policy. Policies on tertiary education and health also make sense to my limited mind.
Plus I am drawn to a minor party that can be in a coalition with the Left in one election and with the Right in the next. That appeals to me a great deal, particularly on ethical issues where I also want to straddle the political divide. And knowing people in a party makes a big difference. I have huge regard for Denise Krum, sitting at #3 on their list. Yes, I would like to see a person of her quality make it into Parliament. I need to be honest and name that reality for me.
Moreover if National wins the election and forms the next government I'd want United Future to have as many seats as ACT (if not more) and be the stronger coalition partner, a role in which they have great experience.

And so - I got there in the end !! - this is why United Future ended up with my party vote.

There are my thinking processes laid bare.
I hope they help you with yours (if you are a Kiwi, that is)
Now we wait and see - and pray!

nice chatting

Paul