Sunday, December 19, 2010

india now and then

Returning to the land of my childhood always brings a resonance within me. There is this 'joy 'n peace' combo working away inside. I just enjoy being back in India.

I like noting the things that stay the same and the things that change.

About 90% of men still seem to have moustaches - but not quite as many (thankfully) still relieve themselves pretty much anywhere. As one long-time observer noted, 'Indian men must have the smallest bladders in the world'.

You still need a dictionary of acronyms in order to interpret the newspaper. Headline after headline, article after article is dependent on clusters of capital letters. And 'CPI' is not the 'consumer price index', but the Communist Party of India - while CSI is still barely hanging-on as the Church of South India!

When I was taught to drive it was about looking one way and then the other - and then doing it all again - before venturing out onto the road. Here there is still that sense that the one who does not look at all has the right-of-way. Whether pedestrian or vehicle there is a lot of no-look venturing out onto the road as others give way to you. Establish eye contact and you will be waiting for hours.

I do not know where all the small notes of change are hiding in India, but shopkeepers still seem to have none of it when you purchase an item. And I smile when Indian shopkeepers in New Zealand seem to have the very same difficulty.

Travelling on the trains of India - tomorrow we take the 38hr trip from Bangalore to Kolkata - is still one of life's great joys. Sitting or standing at the open door of a carriage watching India go by...

What about plunging the thumb into the base of an orange? And I mean a real big orange - none of this ping-pong manadarin stuff we get in New Zealand. It is still one of the simple pleasures of India.

But there are things that change as well.

I'ved enjoyed watching Indians love their India and take pride in it. I don't remember it being like this. That Mysore zoo was stuffed with people - with Bethany and I the only foreigners.















I've been staggered by the status that India now has in the world. In the six weeks that I have been here, the leaders of the USA, France, and China have all visited in order to broker trade deals worth $10 billion, $6 billion, and $16 billion respectively. I hope some of that money reaches where it needs to go.

I've been humbled by the extent of the missionary force moving cross-culturally within India. I keep bumping into missionaries, Indian missionaries moving elsewhere in India. Consecrated people living sacrifically for the sake of the gospel. Some estimates put the number at 50,000 people. We even visited a school for missionary-kids - entirely Indian students. It wasn't like that in my day! Remember all that gnashing of teeth over foreign missionaries being sent home? God knew what he was doing.

I've been concerned at the lack of indigenous songs in the churches which I have attended. With just a few exceptions, they are singing what everyone seems to be singing. Very sad. It didn't used to be like that as the downside of globalisation begins to kick in.

nice chatting


Paul

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

dirt, chaos - and beauty

One of the definitive Indian experiences is to travel through the dirty and chaotic city of Agra, turn a corner, and be stunned so suddenly by the marble magnificence of the Taj Mahal.

This juxtaposition of rubbish and beauty captures so much of India.

You see it on any visit to any bazaar. Noise and filth and chaos may afflict every single sense - but then you see it: the brightness and beauty of onions and cucumbers, oranges and bananas, stacked with care and order.

I have been teaching at the South Asian Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) - here in Bangalore - for the month of November. The beauty of the campus is breathtaking. Every morning I marvel as I walk. But take a few paces outside the campus and the trash piles up everywhere. That juxtaposition - yet again.

I see it every morning as I read my Times of India. The front page - every single day - has been obsessed with corruption among the powerful. More rubbish. Then on page 2 they have run a month-long series entitled 'Bangalore Patrol' with the results of a study into 'civic services' in the city: measuring mobility, water, sanitation, public anemities, environment, and crime. It is not a pretty sight. Lots of rubbish going down (and lying around). At times I sense embarassment and shame with the reporters. But then turn to the back pages of the paper and the collection of photos and stories to do with beauty on a daily basis defies belief. Never have I been in a society so fascinated by beauty and the beautiful. That juxtaposition - yet again.

None of this should be too surprising. Any reader of the New Testament and student of human nature knows that the juxtaposition of rubbish and beauty fills its pages while capturing so much of who we are in whatever country we find ourselves. The wonder of the gospel is that God created us and our world as things of beauty - but sin and evil have rubbished this. And now, through the gospel, our own rubbish can be transformed and we can participate with God in his mission in the world to see that rubbish restored as well.

What a life! Here's to beauty for ashes...

I look forward to returning to Agra next month and revelling in the gospel once again - and renewing my commitment to participating in the restoration of beauty in the world wherever that may be.

nice chatting


Paul

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

history in a minor key

10 June 1886
Tarawera (eruption)

25 April 1915
Gallipoli (war)

2 February 1931
Napier (earthquake)

24 December 1953
Tangiwai (lahar)

10 April 1968
Wahine (cyclone)

28 November 1979
Erebus (plane crash)

19 November 2010
Pike River (mine explosion)

Every decade or two New Zealand is hit with a deep sadness that adds to our self-understanding as a people. Our story can be retold in a minor key - and another sad stanza has just been added. There are more - but this is more than enough just for now...

Paul

Thursday, November 18, 2010

cartoons and parables

I've been spending my early mornings in Bangalore reflecting on the similarities between the political cartoon and the parable (and have even produced 6000 words for my supervisor to show for it!)

May I introduce you to two of my companions?

1. The first is Herbert Block - known simply as 'Herblock'. Triple Pulitzer Prize winner, Herblock's career spanned six decades and thirteen Presidents, with cartoons appearing in The Washington Post from the heart of the Great Depression until his final piece two weeks before 9/11. He loved to 'skewer demagogues' and 'puncture pomposity'. He hounded Senator Joseph McCarthy for five years - being credited with coining the word 'McCarthyism' - and bedeviled Richard Nixon for twenty five, convinced from the beginning that he was a bad egg.

I wish I could include some of my favourite cartoons here - but the whole area is heavily copyrighted and I want to respect that reality. The book pictured above is fabulous, as is 'Puncturing Pomposity', a collection of cartoons dealing with the Presidents during Herblock's era. Here is a small on-line collection - but it contains two of my favourites: "Shall We Say Grace?" and "Mugging" (make sure you see the 'RN' on the cufflinks!). Another good site is here here and the Library of Congress has stored hundreds of his cartoons here and cartoons can be searched by caption/title.

I keep wondering where Herblock would have gone in this decade since his death. How would he puncture Obama's pomposity? How would he compare and contrast the fear of Muslims with the fear of Communists - separated by fifty years - and McCarthyism with FoxTVism? How would he have waded into the Health Care debate and the greedy deregulation of the banking sector that has led to the global financial crisis?

2. The second is a scholarly account of the Danish cartoon crisis when twelve cartoonists were asked to draw Mohammed 'as you see him'. What was meant to be a prod for a few 'mad mullahs' living locally became an international incident that killed more than 200 people. The story is retold by Jytte Klausen in The Cartoons that Shook the World (Yale, 2009).
The decisive observation which Klausen makes is the way the protests didn't begin until six months after publication. She concludes that this was not some colossal cultural-religious misunderstanding that led to a spontaneous outburst of rage among Muslims. Rather it was an orchestrated political conflict carried out by powerful people in places like Denmark and Egypt which was six months in the birthing. Many, many Muslims considered it all to be “the insignificant abuse of an irresponsible provincial paper in a small country”(170). But once the political forces found an outlet in the 'new media' of satellite TV, blogs, online chat rooms and the like - it spread like wildfire and the damage done to East:West relations is still being felt.

For the record, my research interest lies with demonstrating how the cartoon and parable (not just the parable of Jesus) have various features in common. They are both narrative, comparative, occasional, paradoxical, polemical, political, artistic, subversive - and brief (!) texts.

nice chatting

Paul

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

the curious case of daniel vettori

In God's grace and sovereignty I find myself on an extended visit to India at just the same time as the New Zealand cricket team is in India. Like I say, it is all God's sovereignty and none of my responsibility...

Captaining the New Zealand team here in India is one Daniel Vettori. Now I am a big fan of Dan the Man. I love watching youngsters excel and progress through to representing their country at an early age - like Vettori and now, Kane Williamson. I like my sportspeople being self-effacing, but intelligent and articulate - like Vettori. Then in more recent years Vettori has become captain, leading batsmen, leading bowler, selector - and maybe even coach, for all we know. While I consider being a selector and the coach to be unwise, it does say something about the respect in which he is held.

Daniel Vettori seems to be an exceptional cricketer and person, universally admired.

But for anyone interested in listening to my 'minority view', I do have questions about his performance as a spin bowler in Test cricket, even as our media can trumpet him as the best spin bowler in the world. Really?!

What is the chief role of the frontline spinner in a Test team? If you know your cricket, one thing ranks above all else. A spinner needs to take advantage of an aging pitch and bowl out the opposition in the third and fourth innings of the match. Simple as that. My question is this. When did Vettori last bowl us to victory in the fourth innings - or, it must be said, even bowl well in the fourth innings?

Having listened to my theories for a few years now, my son Stephen played with 'statsguru' on the cricinfo site to produce some stats for me.

Are you ready for this?

The first table lists the bowling averages of spin bowlers, in the third and fourth innings of a match, during the 2000s against Test teams other than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. It lists all players who have taken at least 20 wickets in that situation. Cast your eye down the list and you know its reliable with the names that appear in the following order: Muralidharan (ave 21), Warne (ave 23), Saqlain (ave 24), Harbhajan (ave 24)... with Dan the Man (ave 48) appearing in 18th position after such luminaries in the spin-bowling art as Chris Gayle, Ashley Giles, and Nicky Boje. WOW!

Now I know what you cricket experts are thinking - and so does Stephen. "But poor old Vettori has to bowl in New Zealand most of the time where conditions do not help the spinner?" OK - so with no prompting from me Stephen is off checking on the stats when all matches in New Zealand are excluded and the qualification becomes just 15 wickets. What happens now? The leaders in this table have not changed much, but what has happened to Vettori? He has dropped to 24th with an average of 59.

While I agree with those who consider Vettori to be among the finest one-day bowlers in the world with his strength being his guile and containment, I remain unconvinced about his credentials as a great Test match bowler because in the area of greatest importance as a spinner, he has been mysteriously and woefully inadequate. Vettori is a great student of the game and he must be aware of this record. I wonder what he thinks about it?

There is more to this argument - but I think I'll keep my powder dry in the meantime.

Here's to Dan the Man spinning us to victory in the 2011 World Cup in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Oh, by the way, in God's grace and sovereignty I will be in Sri Lanka during some of that time.

nice chatting


Paul

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

transforming theological education

It was deja-vu all over again...

Earlier this week I taught a class at Laidlaw College for the first time in years. [At reception I was asked to go to Lecture Room 3. "Are you serious? - that is the very spot where I started all those years ago.” I was wearing a baggy sky-blue short-sleeved shirt and at the first break I was so bathed in nervous sweat that I had to go for a walk around the block with uplifted arms (not in praise to God!) just to dry off...]

Later this week I leave to teach a course at SAIACS in Bangalore (India). So, I've been thinking a lot about theological education in the last few days. I find myself wondering whether New Zealanders realise just how much the landscape of theological training has been transformed in recent years. [NB - I am restricting myself to degree-level training, not because certificate/diploma options aren't important (they are!), but because I find it takes degree-level work to shift the worldviews that are inherent to transformation].

In 1979 I was looking for a degree-level option that was clearly and spaciously Stottian-evangelical in ethos and local-church-facing in orientation. My conclusion at the time was that there was nothing available in NZ. None of the denominational college options in NZ have had this heritage. Is there another English-speaking country quite like it? I cannot think of one. In fact, rightly or wrongly, my grandfather actually forbade me from going to our own Baptist Theological College ... So I felt that I needed to look off-shore for training.

In 1989, as my time as a pastor in Invercargill was coming to a close, the scene in theological education had not shifted much at all. The suspicion of theological education was rife. Again and again at the grassroots, those with ears to hear could hear it being perceived to be a time when you lose your passion (at best), or you lose your faith (at worst). “We sent away our best and they came back ruined.” WOW! It was disturbing how many Kiwi theological educators dismissed this grassroots perception. Unwise, very unwise. Also unsettling was the fact that for someone choosing to stay-at-home in a place like Invercargill, there was still no degree-level ‘extension’ option for study and training.

Then the transformations began ...

Different people come to mind. The historic work of John Hitchen and Edward Sands at the Bible College of New Zealand (now Laidlaw College), securing the very first non-university degree in the land (BMin) for theology. What about the vision of Brian Smith, birthed at a similar time at Carey Baptist College, for theological training to be reoriented towards mission outcomes? And I still remember the day when the University of Otago's Gerald Pillay strolled into a BCNZ/Laidlaw staff meeting and charmed us all with ideas that had us buzzing. Sadly, he did not last the distance - but what about the steady development at Otago under Paul Trebilco's leadership in the years since? What about the breadth of scholarship now available through the Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School? More recently, there has been the bold and sweeping and necessary change at Laidlaw College under the leadership of Mark Strom. I’ve mentioned just a handful of names – but peel back their contribution and other names emerge more quietly ... people like Derek Christensen and Martin Sutherland whose vision has also assisted this transformation.

And what about today? In 2010?
How does this ongoing transformation look now?

Here is one hopelessly opinionated, impossibly brief, and inevitably inaccurate perspective on this story – with my eye fixed solely on the uniqueness of the niche which each college provides (please don't forget this!). At their best, what do they do that others do not do as well?

Laidlaw College
Who thought it could ever be possible? Studying disciplines like Education and Counselling from within a Christian framework – and in the company of a serious engagement with Bible and Theology? Remarkable! Yes, I know that 'christian liberal arts colleges' are a dime-a-dozen in the USA (my wife, Barby, is a graduate of one of the best examples – Wheaton College), but not here in NZ. But this is what Laidlaw has achieved ... The public world, with its philosophies and worldviews, are firmly on the agenda as is shaping a generation of articulate and faith-full believers to live in it. Sure, the change in recent years has been seismic and quick – but a period of consolidation and growth beckons under Rod Thompson’s fresh leadership. Throw in a full complement of distance learning options, a teaching site in Christchurch, and the established Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School and the influence for good and for God from this school is sure to continue.
Check it out here.

Carey Baptist College
Here is a college which has learned to celebrate its denominational identity from within an evangelical ethos. Over a period of time the governance, the staffing, and the curriculum has turned to face the local church - becoming first a servant and then also a prophet in its midst. Carey recognises the church – when accurately defined – to be at the core of God’s mission in the world. Any person being called into a church-based leadership role, from any church group or denomination, should be considering Carey as an option for training. The college is demonstrating just how rigorous theological education can include leadership development and character formation, rather than jettison it. A gifted and increasingly kiwimade teaching team under the creative and relational leadership of Charles Hewlett is a feature – as are the distance education and Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School options. For such a local-church-facing college, the irony is that its research and publication achievements are rated as second-to-none outside the universities.
Check it out here.

University of Otago
The Department of Theology and Religious Studies at this secularised university has numerous people of articulate faith and gospel-commitment in it. Amazing! For a person for whom a University context and degree is important and for someone wanting a more classical curriculum – leaning towards the ‘pure’, more than the ‘applied’ courses – this can be a good option. Being based in Dunedin adds something unique – particularly when they have a well-oiled distance education programme as well. I have close friends who have thrived in this environment. Otago has also been generous in providing PhD scholarships for a trickle of younger evangelical scholars - no small contribution to the transformation.
Check it out here.

East-West College of Intercultural Studies (Waikato)
Here I am jumping out of the ‘degree-level’ option...simply because this is the college to consider for training to prepare as a cross-cultural worker/missionary. This was the exclusive domain of BCNZ/Laidlaw for decades – with Carey also making a contribution more recently. However, as mentioned above, both Laidlaw and Carey have been establishing niches elsewhere and so East-West has been occupying a crucial spot on the landscape.
Check it out here.

There are other recent initiatives worthy of note. (a) The Nelson Diocese has commenced the Bishopdale Theological College (Nelson), primarily to train people for ministry positions in the Anglican Church. (b) Even (!) the University of Victoria has made progress with Chris Marshall on board - a fine scholar teaching to full classrooms. (c) Then there is the plethora of colleges offering certificates and diplomas within their own communities: AlphaCrucis, Pathways Bible and Mission College, The Shepherd’s Bible College, Ministry Training College etc...

My hopelessly opinionated, impossibly brief, and inevitably inaccurate perspective is that the transformation in theological education in New Zealand is remarkable. It has never been in better heart - not even close. Senior church and mission leaders are beginning to wake-up to the fact that things have changed – and that the old stereotypes and perceptions which shaped them just do not fit anymore. Thirty years ago I had to go overseas to get an evangelical theological training. I wouldn't dream of doing so now. Twenty years ago I longed to be able to offer my church family in Invercargill some serious theological study options because every local church should be its own local college. If I was there today I'd have multiple and varied options from which to choose. We'd be having a blast studying together...

I hope and pray that these colleges can fill their niche and hold their nerve over the coming years. I hope and pray that they relate to each other with the right mix of the c-words: complementing, complimenting, cooperating ... and some gentle competing just to keep everyone honest!

nice chatting


Paul

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

savitri

This week I received a photo from India of my brother, Mark, with Savitri.

When we were children in India, Savitri used to help my mother around the home. In Hindi we called her our "aiyah". She was part of the family. We loved her and she loved us. Over the intervening forty years we have remained in touch. On any visit any of us make to North India, we make our way to Savitri in her little village. My memories are of my Mum and Dad being terrific with her over all these years - praying and giving and writing and visiting...

She is the mother of a great nation now. 72 years of age. Six children, sixteen grandchildren, four great grandchildren. Mark writes that "Savitri enjoyed sitting there, holding our hands and relating all the family news to me. She was tearful at several times when she was expressing her love for our family. I think she said that every night she goes to bed and prays for each of us, kissing our photos."

How do you like that? The ironing and the cooking have become the praying and the kissing. Hang on a second?! I seem to remember plenty of kisses back when I was a kid :)

nice chatting

Paul

POSTSCRIPT - a few months later I was able to visit Savitri

Saturday, October 23, 2010

message & medium

In my work as a trainer with Langham Preaching I am trying to ensure that the medium is as accessible as the message. We want to teach simple skills that are transferable, leaving participants thinking "I want to pass this onto others" because both the content and the methodology builds their aspiration to have a go themselves.

1. This is why I love whiteboards (or even blackboards) - particularly big ones. During this past week in Cambodia, we had a "truths that hold us" session on the first morning. [I also love small table group discussions!] Each table had a different truth to engage from the perspective of the preacher. "What is one key truth we need to affirm about God? about Jesus? the Spirit? the Bible?..." They bring back their single best insight for the whiteboard (gathered in the left hand column) - I add some of my ideas (in the right hand column). We have some discussion. And in 60mins we are articulating the theological foundations for preaching in a collegial - and comprehensive - manner.
2. This is why I love newsprint - particularly big sheets of the stuff. My favourite part of the training is when the small groups return from an afternoon of wrestling with a fresh passage through to the stage of producing a sermon outline. Not a lot of time - but they do such a good job. They write their outlines on this newsprint and we stick them all around the walls to create a "sermon (art) gallery" ambience. Then we work through these 'works of art' one by one, commentating on the good things ("I would love to preach this sermon myself next Sunday") and the not-so-good things ("If you had a bit more time to work with this outline, here is what I suggest you do"). The progress in their work through the week needs to be seen to be believed.
3. There is another newsprint exercise which I enjoy. Having people see the importance of engaging with their context is critical - but I am no expert on their context. What do you do? Put them to work... In their groups they come up with lists of the biggest issues being faced in (a) personal/family life; (b) local church life; (c) country life. Then we station three people at three newsprint 'stations' around the room. When I say "go", a representative from each group takes their best idea to each station and has it written up. However if it is already on the list by the time they get there, they must return to their group and get another 'issue'. It turns into a madhouse with people running everywhere (unless you are in the laidback Pacific islands!). Great fun ... and in less than an hour you have the most remarkable lists of the contextual issues which must be engaged by the preacher.

But the good people of Cambodia... [and they are so exuberant - like when we reached the end of the session on the single story of the Bible with talk of the Second Coming and the room just broke out into spontaneous applause and raucous cheering. It was incredible. And yes, I was thinking about 'killing fields' at that moment, but I am still not convinced that they were as they seem to have this capacity to move on - maybe they are not afflicted with the same guilty conscience which we have on this matter.]

I digress - sorry! Where was I?! Oh yes...
But the good people of Cambodia taught me a couple of new tricks this week :)

1. What about two translators, instead of just one?! This was so cool! In the photo below I have one translator (Somnang) focused on translating what I am saying, while the other one (Sothea) is focused on translating what I am writing on the board.
2. What about taking photos of the whiteboard?! [I have never seen so many digital cameras in one room before - and don't get me started on all the microphones!] Again and again we'd reach the end of a session and as I head off to get a drink, this group of people would rush forward with all the zeal of 'Just as I Am' at a Billy Graham Crusade - with cameras in hand.
At one point, one man said to me in faltering English, "I have waited a long time for this training". It don't get much better than that...

nice chatting


Paul

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

kingdom without borders

While in Vanuatu last week I read Miriam Adeney's, Kingdom Without Borders: the untold story of global Christianity (IVP, 2009).

If you love potted and inspiring stories, then this book is for you. [I can actually lose interest with stories and wander off as they are told - but not these ones!]

If you want to 'click refresh' in your understanding of what God is doing around the world and haven't been invited to Lausanne in Capetown(!), then this book is for you.

If you are a preacher wanting to infuse your sermons with stories from around the world, but the call of God on your life is not to go around the world yourself, then this book is for you. I can hear a lot of preachers using the following line, "In her book, Kingdom without Borders, Miriam Adeney tells the story of..."

If you are a woman (or, a man for that matter!) wanting to read more about how God has used and is using women around the world, then this book is for you.

If you are a skeptic who believes all that stuff at university about how missionaries have destroyed culture blah, blah, blah - then this book is for you (start with pp30-31).

If you share my enthusiasm for the books of Philip Jenkins - particularly The Next Christendom - with all their clarity and sanity, then here is your companion volume, full of pulse and staccato. While I find there to be just a tiny gap between my mind and my heart, many people talk like there is a chasm and for such people I commend Jenkins to your mind, as much as I commend Adeney to your heart.

Let me quit the "ifs" and "thens" and make a few other comments about the book.

1. Take the structure of the book. Story-filled chapters on what is happening in China (41-64), in Latin America (88-114), in the Muslim World - mainly Iran (139-164), in the Hindu world - mainly India (186-207), and in Africa (231-252) alternate with chapters on Word (65-87), Spirit (115-138), Catastrophe (165-185), Song (208-230) and the Way of the Cross (253-268).

2. Take the style of the book. Adeney flits from one dialogue-filled story to the next with virtually no transitions and the reader is drawn along. Country after country is covered. It almost makes you dizzy, needing time to recover from a paginated jetlag at the end. She is such a good writer - and her knowledge of what is happening is broad and deep.

3. Take the purpose of the book: "think of this as a continuation of Hebrews 11" (8), as she tells the stories of mainly "indigenous believers" (34) with very few foreign missionaries making the final cut. "It is a humble celebration of the kingdom that glows from generation to generation and will never be destroyed" (40). One might well add that it is not just 'glowing from generation to generation', it is growing in time zone after time zone.

4. Take the instruction that drifts into the book. Every now and then she stops to linger with a topic or someone's insights. Be it interpreting the Bible contextually (72-76); exploring community, suffering, and power as themes in Africa (76-83); reflecting on the nourishment of the Spirit (135-137); being "called to witness, not to convert" (156-159); helping the poor and oppressed (167-170); noting Ajith Fernando's 8-fold response to the tsunami (180-185), or K. Rajendran's five suggestions for indigenous mission (203-207 - India has 50,000 cross-cultural missionaries serving within India!); depicting the three streams of Indian Christianity as "dharma, dalit, dot.com" (187-201); exploring the function of songs (214-218); training godly leaders (244-248); or, embracing best practises to limit suffering (265-267) ... it is all ever so wise and practical.

One searing weakness of the book is the lack of an Index. Another caution is that every now and then the sources being quoted are quite dated. But this is a book I will treasure and to which I shall return.

nice chatting


Paul

Monday, October 11, 2010

four families

During a recent 'tour of service' with Langham Preaching in Vanuatu I was impacted by families - four families, to be precise.

from england and germany to new zealand
The Shudall family. I like to think of them as missionaries to New Zealand where Andy works as Head of Training for TSCF (the IFES-affiliate) - but is also involved as a trainer with Langham Preaching in Vanuatu. Whether it is the warmth and directness in the parents or the intriguing diversity among the children, I enjoy coming back for more with this family. Parenting is tough today. Rarely have I seen the full love combining with the clear boundaries, so integral to good parenting, as I saw demonstrated by Andy and Ines this past week.

from australia and the usa to vanuatu
The Gibb family. Steve, Jane, (Matt? - at uni), Tiffany, Jennifer, Emily, Ethan, Rose. Despite all the flack which missionaries attract in the public world from the media and in university departments, in this job I encounter, again and again, such fine missionary families doing superb work. The Gibbs have only been in Vanuatu less than three years. Steve is already preaching in Bislama, giving himself to pastoring a church as well as strengthening the student work at the local university ... and is pretty much the polar opposite of the stereotype. When he preached from 1 Peter 5 (which I was preparing to do, but I am so glad I passed it on), it brought tears to the eyes. He visited all four corners (for those of you who are former students of mine!), exegeting both text and context so well. The church in Vanuatu is blessed to have such a model in their midst...

from korea and new zealand to vanuatu
The Won family. Chun Hee, Nan Joo, Justin, Christopher. One day during the seminar Chun Hee just walked on into morning tea unannounced. My memory bank went into overdrive. His name was on the tip of the tongue but I didn't have the confidence to speak it out! He and Nan Joo had been students of mine at BCNZ/Laidlaw almost 15 years ago. We ended up spending a whole day together. Chun Hee is dedicated to 'bush mission', spending almost half his time in the dispersed villages of Santo - building water tanks and kindergartens and churches, not to mention baptizing people and training leaders and starting businesses. 80% of Vanuatu's GDP is controlled by 500 Chinese businessmen and the 2000 white people who control the tourist industry. Virtually nothing trickles down to 'ni-vans' (indigenous people). It is shameful. The Won family are determined to break this monopoly and build God's church as they do so. It was inspiring...

from everywhere to everywhere
The family of God. Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Ni-vans...it goes on and on and on. Experiencing this so regularly is one of the great privileges of my life (this time next week I am in Cambodia!). To hear God's word read and preached in another language ... to sing songs together like "I am your brother; you are my sister" with Ni-vans ... to hear them burst out in song with "never failed me yet, Jesus has never failed me yet" (when the foreigner might conclude that he has failed them. But if anyone has failed them, it is not God, but members of God's global family) ... to have one of those intercession times where everyone prays at the same time in a grand chorus pounding at the gates of heaven ... and to enter it all with my own son from my own family, Joseph (who entered fully into the training), was so special for me.

nice chatting

Paul

PS - Joseph did have time for some fun as well. Check out this photo as he jumps into a pool (I jumped as well, but ended up with a big bruise on my but-bone):

a leadership resolution

[Apologies - I can use this blog as a personal filing system for things I do not want to lose. This is one such time...]

It looks like an ancient manuscript now. For 11+ years it was pinned above my desk as a prayer-full and personal resolution crafted to frame my time as Principal at Carey Baptist College. It has almost faded into invisibility now - but before it does so, I want to capture it ... because it was such a big deal for me at the time.

"As I begin as principal of Carey, I resolve, in dependence upon God, to develop as a servant leader who is committed to a life of integrity and balance and who spreads encouragement and builds trust among those whom I lead - as we patiently move into a future marked by excellence which we envision together."

The italics were italics because they were my focus on a daily basis. Looking back from 'the inside-out' - 18 months later - I do consider that the grace of God helped me stay true to this resolution.

However one of the challenges for me in moving on from this leadership role has been processing the gap between what I may have intended (from the inside-out) and how I may have been perceived (from the outside-in) by those I led and those with whom I worked. For all sorts of reasons this gap can grow wide for those in senior leadership roles. Sometimes I struggled with the way intention could become skewed by perception in a way that felt unfair.

But as the months go by (and consistent with previous chapters of my working life), I am finding a more contented equilibrium in which the inside-out is trumping the outside-in and intention is interpreting that era of leadership, rather than perception ... and this is a work of the grace of God as well.

nice chatting


Paul

Friday, October 01, 2010

killing fields, living fields

I am a bit slow. The book was published fourteen years ago. I have heard so many people speak so enthusiastically about it. Finally, on a return trip to the UK (and with my first training visit to Cambodia with Langham Preaching later this month), I worked my way through Don Cormack's Killing Fields, Living Fields (Monarch, 1997). I see here that there is a 2009 edition published by Christian Focus. Kinda wish I knew that before I started. Learn from my mistake!


While my first visit to the departure area at Phnom Penh airport in October 2009 alerted me to just how much has been written on recent Cambodian history, I am glad I started my journey with Cormack's book. This is one book that every comfortable Christian should read.

Why?

It is a contemporary example of ancient principles easily forgotten. Persecution is real. Believers who live distinctively with distinction in any society should expect this persecution. And persecution is the means by which God spreads the gospel. It happened in the first century in the Mediterranean. It happened in the twentieth century in the Mekong. As the subtitle expresses it, the Cambodian church is "the church that would not die". Never very numerous under extreme persecution it just would not give up. When a man called Sophiep is locked up, the writer acknowledges "But as many other Christians have discovered in such circumstances, he was profoundly aware of God's presence with him ... He was filled not with fear but courage and joy" (375).

The facts and figures are extreme. While Pol Pot's regime lasted five years (when the entire country became something of a concentration camp), the time of intense suffering for the church numbered at least twenty years. "30% of the people and 90% of the church" (182) perished during the Pol Pot years of 1975-1979. In the five years immediately prior to those years - at the start of the 'twenty' - the "three leading churches in Phnom Penh exploded into thirty major centres of worship (126) ... with people turning to Christ at the rate of almost one hundred per week by the end of 1974" (144) - and this in a country where the total number of believers was always measured in dozens and hundreds, not thousands and millions.

A pair of features in the life of the Cambodian church as it became established caught my eye. While often put in opposition with each other, here they worked in unison. One is the prevalence of the miraculous. God demonstrates a penchant for using the miraculous as a means of helping establish the gospel in a new setting. People can long for more and more of this - to the point where life takes on a 'not by faith, but by sight' quality as demonstrations of God's power need to be seen in order to sustain their faith. It might be more advisable to pour energy into the second feature: the priority given to establishing a Bible School where young leaders could go and be taught in the Word and enabled to live by faith and in obedience to God.

My favourite story is on pp214-216 when, during the Pol Pot years, young Radha is forced to marry someone. As a believer he was alarmed at the possibility of being 'yoked to an unbeliever' - but he had no choice. After the ceremony and on their own, Radha mumbles, by habit, a grace before a meal and his new bride cries out "you are a Christian" - as she was. At a time when believers numbered hundreds (at best) out of millions, God had arranged the marriage and what was intended to harm, God used for good in a Genesis 50.20 kind of way.

There is an agricultural image which pervades the book. Fields. Fallow Ground. Seed. Late Rains. Thinning. Wheat and Tares... Each time the author makes comparisons between what is happening in the earth in Cambodia and what is happening in the church in Cambodia. It is nicely done. [I have a sermon series on Nehemiah using the same metaphor and it made me want to preach a series where there is a sustained and dual opening of the text of Nehemiah and the context of Cambodia...]

While Cormack is a skilled writer ("Knotted veins coursed down his bare sinewy legs to muddied feet from which hung a pair of worn-out rubber thongs" - 401), I did find that the book lacked a little of the page-turner quality associated with compelling story-telling. He jumps a bit out of the single, linear plot-line approach which may have made the story more suspense-full. But that is just a personal opinion. I loved the "we passages" (as found in the Book of Acts!) where he enters the story himself (for example, p267f) to create a sense of immediacy and personal testimony.

He helps us understand the complexities of the political-religious context in Cambodia. Those readers enamoured with Buddhism will come away with a more sane and sober perspective. It was intriguing to discover that Pol Pot and his mates studied together in Paris under French philosophers at a seminal time in their lives - probably the same philosophers so instrumental in shaping this postmodernism which has so gripped people's worldviews in the West. Now there is an observation to ponder further!

The age of reading is not over. I read the final page as my plane touched down in Auckland yesterday and found myself wondering what the impact on the people of God would be if each person read one biography of a person, or a country, of this ilk in each year. I know the answer. It would lift our eyes, break our hearts, deepen our faith, and renew our hope. It would be transformative. So what is stopping us?!

PS: If you are a pray-er, I invite you to pray. As the global church's gaze descends on Cape Town and Lausanne III, spare a prayer for us as we start the Langham Preaching training over the same days with 50 pastors from 8 church groups in Cambodia. I am hopeful that God can be at work in two places at the same time.

nice chatting

Paul

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

two sadnesses

Sometimes my heart is so cold and hard.

For example, last month when the TV News gave the first ten minutes to the story about the stranded whales in Northland, it barely moved me. In fact I was aghast that the story hogged so much headline time. I could argue that my heart was more inclined towards Pakistan (and it was) - but sometimes I would like to be able to summon more compassion for animals in distress (just as I wish some people would summon less compassion for them!).

However there are two related areas which stir my compassion.

One was brought to mind by a headline in the online BBC news service this morning. They are making an inventory of all known plants in the world. While the radical reduction in numbers of species is due more to the fact that many plants are currently named more than once, the story caused me to reflect on how I feel about species of plants becoming extinct. I feel sad about it. It is more than a failure in conservation - it is a failure to fulfill the divine mandate, given to us at the beginning, to steward the earth.

The other one is ever before me. In my first eighteen months in this job with Langham Preaching, I will be making five visits to Melanesia. China may well be home to 1/5 of the world's people, but Melanesia is home to 1/5 of the world's languages. That is a staggering statistic. God's commitment to peoples and to languages and to words is central to His purposes in the world. There is nothing He wants to say to a people that cannot be said in their own mother-tongue language - and He wants to be able to say it so desperately! And when the story of a language dying-out surfaces, something in me dies as well. "You mean there will be one less language heard in the chorus around the throne?" Yes - it is very sad. It also will be seen to be a failure, at the end. A failure to fulfill the divine mandate to reach the peoples of the world.


nice chatting

Paul

Friday, September 17, 2010

two resources

Over the years I have had my doubts about whether the Bible really has the sort of priority it needs to have in the life of the so-called "EPC" (evangelical-pentecostal-charismatic) churches of NZ. [NB - it probably says something that these groups have been clumped together like this!]

Ironically, it is these EPC churches which trumpet a commitment to the authority of Scripture, but if such a commitment was a crime and the prosecuting attorney was sent to investigate, the question must be asked - again and again - whether they would find enough evidence to bring a conviction? In personal life? Family life? Small group life? Local churches on a Sunday morning?

The Bible tends to be assumed, rather than articulated. A commitment to the Bible tends to be more theoretical, than it is practical. There tends to be talk about it - and not often a lot of action with it. Believe you me, the evidence can be gathered! In the Baptist circles with which I am most familiar, at times I have discerned among leaders a fear of making the Bible too important - as if elevating the Bible necessarily leads to diminishing Jesus, or some such logic.

And yet the situation is improving.

This evidence is there too. The success of the E100 Bible-reading project. The state of our theological colleges where biblical studies is being taken more seriously than ever. The interest in biblical preaching at the grassroots can be overwhelming at times. The re-emergence of groups like TSCF with their commitment to the Scriptures ... it is all very heartening.

Then this past month I stumbled across a couple of resources:

1. An article on the Bible by a Langham colleague, Mark Meynell, entitled "First Things First ... and Last" which has been published online here. It is just SO helpful. I am thinking of photocopying it for a discussion in our young adults home group. Mark is also a Senior Associate Minister at All Souls in London and keeps a remarkable blog going here.

2. The two volume daily devotional by DA Carson, entitled For the Love of God is available now on-line here. Carson makes his way through the Bible following the Robert Murray McCheyne plan which is about reading four chapters a day. On each day Carson selects just one of these passages and offers a page-long meditation. It is meaty (yes, sometimes I have reached for my dictionary) and provides a much more nourishing feed than many of the daily devotionals on offer today. One thing that is so helpful in the online version is that whenever there is a biblical reference mentioned, the full text comes onto the screen by hovering the mouse over the reference.

I commend both of these resources to you

nice chatting

Paul

Monday, September 13, 2010

two biographies

Two biographies are on my mind and in my heart.

I read the first one this past weekend. DA (Don) Carson's story of his Dad, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson (Crossway, 2008). The simple story of an ordinary man. As I read, I was reminded again of how God's ways are more deciduous than they are evergreen. The seasons are all there.

There is the springtime of God's call to be a missionary pastor in French-speaking Quebec. There is the long winter of years and years of "slogging perservance" (75) as a pastor in a tiny church in Drummondville with no apparent fruitfulness. The discouragement led to depression which contributed to resignation. No sooner had he moved to Ottawa then God decided to send summertime with the "wind of the Spirit blowing across French Canada" (116) - right through the areas and peoples where he had laboured for so long. 50 churches became 500 churches in a decade. But there was a summertime that came to Tom as well, freed to do the things he enjoyed alongside a senior pastor and able to be involved in projects like the translation of English TEE resources into French. And then there was autumn...caring so carefully for his wife Marg through Alzheimers' gradual decline and eventual death.

I remember Don's stories about his Dad from when I was his student. I started at Trinity in a Greek class under Don Carson in the very year (1981) which is described as a "great year" (119) in Tom's life as he knew God's singular, but brief, blessing on his ministry. I remember the moistened eyes. Tom Carson was 'an ordinary pastor', "perennially insecure" (117) with deep feelings of inferiority and failure and yet here we are, decades later, reading his story and being drawn closer to God as a result. Such are the ways of a sovereign and gracious who stands outside time and space and yet works in that time and space, beyond what we could ask or imagine, in and through the lives of those willing to trust and obey.

Pieces of the story will remain with me. In Tom's journal, as son Don headed to Cambridge for PhD study: "Oh God, may he walk with Thee" (104). Don's own reflections on "the chasms of discouragement" (91) through which so many pastors walk (on pp91-96) which brought to my mind some of my own dark days in Invercargill. The theological stalking by Carson senior of the emerging Carson junior with an article in Christianity Today by the latter attracting the hand-written comments in the margins by the former, "no sign of liberalism here" (123). The poignancy of reading that Tom died alone as Don, having just travelled across the timezones to be at his side, went home for a quick shower and a nap.

The second biography on my mind and in my heart is also simple and ordinary. It is the story of my Dad written by Mary Tallon, Surprised by Obedience: a biography of Raymond Windsor (Pause for Effect, 2010) for which we are having a Book Launch in Auckland on Saturday 2 October and it will be available here.

Actually I grew up realising that my Dad's life was no ordinary life. While in India I was aware of the scrapbooks back home in NZ containing his exploits as a concert pianist, a rugby player and a baritone singer. I could take you to the classroom in India where my History teacher surprised me by using my Dad as an illustration of a 'renaissance man'. Over the past 15 years I have had the privilege of preaching in about 110 Baptist churches in NZ and without exception (it is true - I have kept track of this!), at the conclusion of the service, someone has always come up to check out my pedigree and tell me a story about how my Dad has influenced their life. And now watching his health decline so steadily as Parkinson's exerts its spreading influence creates its own poignancy ...

I haven't held the finished book in my hands yet. And while it does not aim to be as polished a piece as the story of Tom Carson (nor likely to have the same readership!), I confess that the two stories stimulate the mind and soften the heart in similar ways - drawing from me the priority of "trust and obey, for there is no other way", knowing that one day God will open the way (and turn the seasons).

nice chatting

Paul

Monday, September 06, 2010

two earthquakes

There were two earthquakes in Canterbury last week.

One was the actual earthquake that has created such fear and anxiety throughout the region and headlines around the world. Every image and every sound-byte is still so compelling. The bill will press on beyond NZD2 billion. The great 'act of God' in this disaster is that no one seems to have died.

The other earthquake was the collapse of South Canterbury Finance, the largest finance company to collapse so far. The bail-out and guarantees from the government (and tax-payer) will also push on towards NZD2 billion. That is a sizeable amount for this small economy. Take the time to read Rod Oram's column in the Sunday Star Times yesterday to sense the scale of this disaster.

Of course the thing which fascinates about this second earthquake is that it involves the company founded by NZ's most prominent Christian philanthropist, Alan Hubbard - which provides no little energy to the column by Paul Holmes, arguably NZ's most celebrated journalist, as he lets loose in the Sunday Herald here. Scroll down to the second half of the article and feel the poison. Alan Hubbard has been the 'act of God' for many, many Christian organisations in New Zealand. Organisations known to us all have been propped up by his generosity. It is stated that he has given away NZD200 million. Now what happens?!

The after-effects with both these earthquakes are from over. But one thing is for sure - with both of them, this is a great time for the people of God to shine and to be the 'acts of God' for others ... while reflecting, with gratitude, that we live in a country where the financial cost of 2 billion TIMES 2 is pretty much covered and that the personal cost has not involved human death.

nice chatting


Paul

Monday, August 30, 2010

pakistan

I feel sad today, really sad.

As if being a country where foreign forces fight a war on your own soil is not enough...

As if having the worst air disaster ever to occur in your history is not enough (and having it happen in sight of your country's capital)...

As if being ravaged by the worst floods in your country's history is not enough (and without the outpouring of compassion to which other countries are accustomed)...

... then your country's cricket team gets caught up in a betting scandal that brings shame on your people, confirming to many that your country is a place where corruption is endemic and out of control.

And all of it happening in a matter of weeks.

Yes, Yes, Yes - I know #4 is not in the same league as #1 through #3. Not even close. It is a very light and simple straw - but today it feels like it is breaking the camel's back.

I know a bit about that part of the world and the mixture of anger (for those thinking wrongful accusation has been made) and shame (for those thinking rightful accusation has been made) will be deep and wide and intense.

It just isn't fair.

And all this from a missionary kid raised in India.


nice chatting (I think)

Paul

Thursday, August 19, 2010

fox news

There are some remarkable things about the USA (for example, where would you find billionaires - in any currency - coming together to commit themselves to giving half of their wealth away? Amazing)...

... but Fox TV is not one of them.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read that their ratings are soaring. But don't count me among their fans. Here are ten reasons:

ONE
I find it staggering that a media outlet can claim to be legitimate and yet occupy, so transparently, only one place on the political spectrum. In reacting to what they perceive to be a left-wing bias in the mainstream media, Fox News makes little attempt to be balanced at all. They seem to swing to the opposite extreme and stay there. When does such a stance become mere propaganda?
[And I am writing as someone who has never voted 'left' in a political election - ever.]

TWO
It is not just the bias, it is the volume with which the bias is projected. Everything is so loud. Everything seems to attack the viewer in headlines, playing on our fears and anxieties to the point of becoming overheated and even irrational at times.

THREE
The volume is made worse by the brashness of the celebrity hosts in their stable. Messrs O'Reilly, Hannity and Beck are some of the most smug and arrogant people I encounter on TV - and I do find it distressing that each one, as far as I know, claims to have a Christian faith.

FOUR
I remain unpersuaded by some of the assumptions lying behind the unimpeachable vocabulary that is used on Fox News. What is this 'freedom' that is talked about? Sometimes it sounds like the 'freedom' being protected is nothing more than the 'American way of life', marked as it often is by things like over-indulgent consumption. What is 'patriotism'? I'd love someone to give me a biblical basis for patriotism. I cannot find it - or construct it. I have yet to be convinced that God looks down from his heaven and sees national boundaries. There is one church and it is global.

FIVE
Why must every woman doing a news spot on Fox News look like she has been recruited from the latest Miss Universe pageant? What are the subtle messages being absorbed by the women (and men!) who are watching? And this in a culture which struggles to find a beauty beyond the skin-deep and the youthful.

SIX
The USA is a large country at the center of the world. To some degree we all revolve around it. The USA does not need to define themselves by going outside themselves in quite the same way as we do. This means that Americans, quite understandably, can live in a bit of a bubble. And in its approach, Fox News builds and strengthens that bubble - while I would suggest that the first principle in being an American Christian is to burst the bubble and make extra efforts to see the world from other perspectives.

SEVEN
Those little segments of news stories which fill the time between the main shows ("...and here is something you might find interesting...", or however they say it) are a little annoying, aren't they? Over the months, I have watched how they have this capacity to make small stories seem big, while ignoring many a big story - thereby making them small. As a Christian living in this world I find this unacceptable.

EIGHT
To identify a Christian perspective with one side of the political spectrum is always unwise. Fox News frequently leaves me thinking that God votes Republican. As for me I find voting in elections so difficult. My sense is that (in)justice trumps the economy as the primary issue about which to be concerned. Then when (in)justice is the focus for any length of time, attention will turn to ethics. Here is where it gets tricky. Will it be personal ethics, the great concern of the "right" (and Fox News) OR will it be social ethics, the great concern of the "left". Voting becomes tricky because I want to be equally concerned about both the personal and the social. In the past I have leaned towards the personal/right - but it is no more than a 'lean'...and I am not so sure about the future.

NINE
I know they would deny it, but there sure is more than a whiff of islamophobia hanging around Fox News from time to time. And yet in a society with such a good track record on 'freedom of religion', my understanding of the Islamic community is that they just want policies in place that treat islamophobia in much the same way as anti-semitism. Is that so wrong?

TEN
There are some truly remarkable things about the USA. But as I travel through Asia sometimes I shudder when I sense people building their understanding of what America is like largely from Fox News. That is sad, very sad. And it is ever so far from the truth. There are far, far better bits to America.

Yes, yes, yes - I know. I could just turn the TV off.
And sometimes I do.

nice chatting


Paul

[PS: to any American friends offended by this post, being offensive is not my purpose - although I do realise it may be a consequence. Sorry!]

Thursday, August 12, 2010

a chopsticks conversion

A recent post was about 'converted, always converting' and related some of the areas where I have changed my mind in recent years. I want to pick this theme up again, but this time in a more practical area.

But first I need to explain something both about my past and my personality. I am a missionary-kid from India. Through my teenage years our home was an international guesthouse with missionaries coming and going. I remember laughing at the heavily accented (be it British, or American) Hindi that we used to hear - not to mention the stumbling pronounciation of the newer recruits. Then there was the mocking of people making very average attempts to dress 'like the natives'.

There has been a bit of hangover in my life ever since. 'Unless you can embrace a new culture with both authenticity and accuracy, don't bother'. That has been a mistake.

And the mistake becomes complicated when it conspires with my personality. I am more introvert than extrovert, more timid than adventuresome. This means that when I move across cultures I am more likely to freeze up than I am to step out. That is a real shame. I envy extroverts, I really do. They just waltz into these situations. I can't.

In my current role with Langham Preaching I move from country to country at a dizzying speed and often find myself immersing deeply, if only briefly, in a new culture. I love the peoples of the world. I long to hear all those languages around the throne. Indeed I am writing this in the middle of an intensive weeklong training seminar with pastors from that big country above Hong Kong. I am the only white face and there are only a handful of people (if that) who speak English. But I have a deep sense of privilege to be here.

Often I have another training colleague with me (usually an Aussie, so far) and on more than one occasion I have learnt from them in this area. This is what I've observed. You can be wildly inaccurate but if you are authentic, with a love in your eyes and a warmth in your face and prepared to have a go, they'll love you all the way home. We give out 2-3 books at the end of the training week, often calling people forward name by name to receive them. On one occasion my fellow trainer (in his words), "butchered every name on the list" as he read them out - but in that very moment he bonded himself with the people in a special way. I saw it happening with my own eyes.

I think I knew all this already. Actually I know I did. But for the reasons stated above I am so slow to put it into practise.

So here I am having a fork-free week in Hong Kong. I wonder if the chopstick is a pointer to this new conversion which I'd like to embrace. Putting my past to one side - together with the timidity and the introversion - I'd like to step out and into new cultures more freely, more fully and less fearfully - putting away the fork and picking up the chopsticks in all sorts of ways.

One area of regret for me has to do with my time as Principal at Carey Baptist College and my engagement with Te Reo Maori (the Maori language). I don't doubt my commitment to it. I only need to recall the disappointment I felt when a training initiative was closed down! Plus I'd love to have learned Te Reo Maori to signal that commitment but the demands of the job just did not make it possible. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I wish that I had taken the opportunity to speak and use Maori more often. Whether it was opening the Carey year with a powhiri (which I often did) or routinely starting a speech with a greeting in Maori (which I seldom did), I could have embraced Te Reo more fully. But the stakes were high - being inaccurate and inauthentic was not a good look and there was huge pressure to get it right. Then when the timidity (or, more accurately, the flat-out fear I felt in these settings) and introversion took over, I just didn't do what I should have done.

nice chatting

Paul

Thursday, August 05, 2010

god's continent


Yes, that's right - I have digested yet another Philip Jenkins' book. It is becoming a compulsive behavioural disorder (particularly when I see the next one already on my desk). This one is a sane and measured response to the fear that Europe is becoming some sort of Eurabia where Christianity's prospects, currently being dismantled by secularism, is about to suffer an even worse fate in the form of an incoming Islamic tide sweeping through what was once God's Continent.
Philip Jenkins, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2007)

A few reflections...

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War Europe is again "a critical theater for rivalry" (25) - this time between competing forms of religious belief: Islam, Christianity, and secularism. While it has the makings of a similar crisis in the way it feels unresolvable, maybe it will resolve itself in time?

There is a "birth dearth" in Europe where falling birth rates are leading to a "slow motion autogenocide" (6) which contrasts markedly with countries from where many immigrants, often Muslim, are coming. Quoting Mark Steyn, "the design flaw of the the secular social-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birth-rate to sustain it" (7). In Western Europe "the rule of thumb is that "the closer you get to the Pope, the fewer children one has" (30). This is part of the challenge behind Turkey's application to the EU. If admitted it will be the most populous country in the EU by 2015 and one of the few with a rising birth-rate. The Muslim percentage in Europe would jump from 4.6% to 16% overnight and keep rising sharply - not to mention that the country being admitted is where the word 'genocide' was invented less than 100 years ago with the extermination of its Christian Armenian population in 1915. A difficult debate...

Jenkins constantly asks the question whether religion is the underlying issue with the ongoing tension in Europe. For example, what about generational difference between the white (often older and richer) and the non-white (often younger and poorer)? There is "a disaffected underclass" (178) but how much is it really a religious issue now - and how much might it become a religious issue in the future if tensions are not reduced, thereby "removing the festering grievances that potentially drive people to militancy" (232). With the collapse of Marxism, "Islam is becoming in Europe the religion of the repressed" (132).

Faith is struggling in Europe under secularism. "In a typical year, the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, with around one million faithful, ordains one new priest"(33). In time this same secularism may dilute Islam as well. Who knows? And yet there is "faith among the ruins" as Jenkins reaches for all kinds of evidence: "an enduring Polish piety" (57); "the golden age of pilgrimage" (60f) etc. The tendency is to overstate the Muslim "threat": "Europe's evangelicals, charismatics, and pentecostals outnumber Muslims by almost two to one and will continue to do so for the forseeable future" (74) - not the least because alongside the Muslim immigrants from Asia and Africa, there are also Christian ones from the same regions. By 2025 about 8% of Europe is likely to be Muslim - not that overhwelming a statistic.

There is room for dispassionate critique of some prevailing assumptions about Islam. Muslim aggression has marked the history of Europe as much as Christian aggression. For example, consider the high profile which the Crusades still receive from a millenium ago and then the skimming over a few Muslim stories of oppression in the intervening centuries. Furthermore, for some, "Muslims can scarcely demand complete religious freedom throughout Europe if Christians are not allowed limited rights to worship in Islamic lands" (270). That was one of the more compelling statements in the book for me.

"The key political struggles within Europe's contemporay Muslim communities concern intimate issues of home and family" (179). There are still more "revolutions at home" to occur. And the treatment of women is to the fore here, as Jenkins works his way through the issues that do tend to surface like arranged marriages, wearing of burqa/hijab/jilbab, importation of wives, polygamy, suppression of domestic violence, gender roles, "honour killings", and genital mutilation. There is still a long way to go...

There is a chapter on terrorism - but it does not dominate the book. While the voices of the extremist is "shrill, ... the religious situation is much more complex than it might appear. While radicals and militants flourish, their opponents are numerous and significant, and so are the forces working against this extremism" (147). Interestingly, Jenkins predicts that "unless political circumstances change radically, there will soon be a major attack on an iconic symbol of European Christianity" (264) - for example, a cathedral of some kind.

Europe is not ready to enter the discussion because of the way it has minimised, even misunderstood, the role which religion plays in public life. Whereas in the Muslim mindset "politics is a subset of religion" (180), in the Euro-American mind the two are segregated into exclusive domains - with religion tending to be forgotten, in Europe anyway. And because Europe has been so irreligious/secular, they have tended to see the tensions solely as racial issues, eliminating the religious element simply because it has not been a feature of their own lives. As Jenkins concludes, Europe does not face a "Muslim problem" but a "religion problem" - with "the systematic failure by European elites to understand religious thought and motivation" (259) leaving them ill-equipped to face the great issue of their time. This leaves a space for a genuine presentation of the gospel in word and deed.

One statistic I still can't believe: "A third of the two million people in Britain who originated in the Indian subcontinent came from just one region - Mirpur in the Pakistani part of Kashmir" (110) ...

A slow and absorbing read (mostly as I travelled through Europe) - but ever so worthwhile.

nice chatting


Paul

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

toothpaste

I continue to reflect on MP Chris Carter's self-destruction on TV last week.

I am not surprised that he has requested two months off work for health reasons. I do not know what his health issues are - but I remember wondering at the time if this guy was in burn-out mode.

I hope Christian leaders, particularly pastors, were watching...

If the emotional tank is not replenished and the gauge closes in on 'empty', all kinds of things start to happen. Behaviour becomes irrational, for starters. But the thing I saw in Carter that I have seen in myself on occasion is that when the tank is empty, disappointment morphs into anger and sometimes even onto rage.

And here is the problem. Here is one reason why burn-out is so catastrophic. If that anger is not addressed, it causes people to say things they regret. Just a word or a phrase. And they can lose their job (like Carter) - because toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube. It just can't.

I hope Christian leaders, particularly pastors, were watching...

nice chatting

Paul

golf rankings

Every now and then, on a Tuesday morning, I check out the latest golf rankings.

It all started in 1992 when those two likeable Maori lads, Michael Campbell and Philip Tataurangi, led New Zealand to the world amateur title (the Eisenhower Trophy). I've always enjoyed them and been following their fortunes ever since.

It does not make great reading this morning!

Tataurangi is ranked 914 and Campbell is ranked 949 and so both are likely to fall out of the Top 1000 in the next few weeks. Tataurangi has had some dreadful injuries and Campbell's fall is so dramatic, having been ranked in the Top 20 for awhile.

But other countries caught my eye this morning...

The USA has four of the top five golfers and if things remain on the same trajectory it is only a matter of weeks before Tiger Woods loses his number one ranking. But with only five golfers in the Top 20, there has been a sharp decline in American golf in the last twelve months.

Conversely, the most dramatic transformation in the same time frame has been from ENGLAND (and also GREAT BRITAIN). Six of the Top 20 are English, while nine are British. For all the flak that British sport attracts, this is a remarkable turnaround.

Other nations in decline are the AUSTRALIANS (now only one in the Top 30) and the NEW ZEALANDERS (for the first time in years - maybe ever, I suspect - we have no one in the Top 200). Another nation on the rise is SOUTH AFRICA (five in the Top 30)...

nice chatting ... about utter trivia!


Paul

Thursday, July 29, 2010

converted, always converting

I guess if the church needs to be "reformed, always reforming" - then it might be OK for me to be converted, always converting. Won't there always be blindspots to be exposed as I slide down the asymptote closer and closer to the full and complete truth of that horizontal line...yes, I think so.

I can think of a number of conversions in recent years.

What about the recognition that there is only a great commission because there was first a great mission? Behind a few words of Jesus in the Gospels and Acts lies the initiative of God running from Genesis to Revelation. Long before there is something we are to do among the nations, there is something God has been doing among the nations. I am embarassed by the length of time it took me to see this.

What about the recognition that there is more to the gospel than sin and redemption, the bad and the new? Really?! Yes! To commence with the bad infers that the Bible begins in Genesis 3. To conclude with the new forgets the certain hope that there is more to come. The full gospel includes the good, the bad, the new, and the perfect. Furthermore the 'new' does not begin with Jesus - it begins, far earlier, with Abraham in Genesis 12.1-3. This is the first great commission. This is the gospel announced beforehand (Gal 3.8a). I am embarassed by the length of time it took me to see this.

What about the recognition of a longing for the judgement of God? I blame my kids for this one. Yes, I do! My 18yr old daughter heads off to Kolkata's slums for 7 months. Then she engages herself to a man who, a few days later, heads off to Liberia's raw and open post-war sores for 9 months. Then my son graduates from law and within days is mingling with Congolese refugee children flooding into Kampala - and he is still there, 15 months later. I've never been the same again. I hear their stories and I find myself longing for the judgement of God to descend upon the earth. How dare we feel offended by the judgement of God when so many of his people all around the world are hanging out for that judgement. No more sitting in righteous indignation over God's righteous indignation for me. No way! Count me in with the heavens and the seas, the fields and the trees - I want to sing about the sure coming judgement of God as well (Psalm 96.11-13 - but who is writing songs like this?). I am embarassed by the length of time it took me to see this.

What about the recognition of the diverse ways in which the Old Testament points us to Christ? Of course I believe this - but now I am seeing it with greater fullness, frequency, and precision. All sorts of things are helping me. From the simplicity of the most beautiful children's storybook where it is assumed that "every story whispers his name" to the sophistication of Bible teachers and Langham colleagues who skillfully find these christocentric seams through the Bible far better than I can. I still doubt whether the Old Testament authors intended all that is ascribed to them - but I can now see a Moses or a David or an Isaiah saying in response to them, "Wow, that is more than I thought - but it fits. I can see that what you say could be true". And yes, I am a little embarassed by the length of time it took me to see this.

Now this was all meant to be a precursor to the latest conversion with which I am struggling - but this post is already too long. It can keep for another time.

nice chatting


Paul

Sunday, July 18, 2010

listening between two worlds

I live in NZ and listen to the sobered and scholarly voices on the challenge of the post-Christian West. I work in Asia and listen to the enthusiastic vibrancy of a viral post-Western Christianity.

I live in NZ and listen to the church speaking “mission, mission, mission”. I work in Asia and listen to the church speaking “maturity, maturity, maturity”.

I live in NZ and listen to our comfortable lifestyle drain theology of any need for hope. I work in Asia and listen to a suffering lifestyle fill theology with the significance of hope.

I live in NZ and listen to the battles over this absurdity they call the new atheism. I work in Asia and listen to the awareness of the reality of all the old theisms.

I live in NZ and listen to the prevalence of English as a lingua franca with all the resources which then flow. I work in Asia and listen to all those precious ‘mother-tongues’ – and grieve over the paucity of resources which flow their way.

I live in NZ and listen to the endurance of relevance as the longing of the local church in the world. I work in Asia and listen to the relevance of endurance as the legacy of the local church in the world.

I live in NZ and listen to the voices seeking a leadership development adrift from theological education. I work in Asia and listen to how theological education is leadership development.

I live in NZ and listen to the strategies of church growth which are founded on minimising differences between the 'outsider' and the 'insider', urging acceptance. I work in Asia and listen to the absence of strategies for church growth - and then see the growth which comes by measuring differences between the 'insider' and the outsider', recognising rejection.

I live in NZ and listen to self-righteous Western post-colonialism (particularly in the media and at the university). I work in Asia and watch the colonising still continuing on unabated – a colonising of peoples’ minds through a global culture sourced in that same West.

I live in NZ and listen to the call for more leaders - and the suspicion of theological education for the task. I work in Asia and listen to how theological education is the hope and means by which such leaders are trained.

I live in NZ and listen to the preoccupation with stories and the call for more of them in preaching. I work in relatively poor, uneducated  and oral societies in Asia and listen to the call for more teaching in preaching.

I live in NZ and listen to the infatuation with all the implications of the global village. I work in Asia and listen to how wonderful it would be if the global village led to a single village church.

Yes, Yes, Yes ... I know this is a dreadfully generalised account of the way things are. But what cannot be denied is that it is the fullness of the gospel - expressed in the transformed and transforming life of the glocal church - which is the hope of both NZ and Asia.

nice chatting

Paul

Monday, July 12, 2010

things i've heard

While I've travelled over these recent weeks, I have heard some remarkable things...

In Peru, the church is "living in a time of harvest" - the 1% 'evangelical' in 1989 has mushroomed to 15% today - which amounts to 4 million people and 20,000 churches.

In Zimbabwe, the inflation rate is so bad that some shop-keepers are known to raise their prices three times a day.

In Malaysia, the four major global religions are each represented by more than 10% of the country (Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism) - the only nation like this in the world ... until someone tells me otherwise, that is!

In Syria, the President was so impressed with a locally-produced DVD on the Apostle Paul's life that he personally paid for it to be screened for three consecutive nights in the local opera house.

In Colombia, a medical-doctor-turned-theologian observes that half of his class at medical school is now practising medicine in the USA.

In Israel, on that first Day of Pentecost, one sermon led to 3000 believers. Too often today it seems like 3000 sermons lead to one believer...

In India, they are expecting there to be more than 100 million believers by the year 2020.

In Russia, 30% of the Bible Schools that started in the 1990s, after the fall of communism, have been closed.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a Korean couple (whom I met) who have worked with blind people and spent these recent years before retirement translating the New Testament into Kurdish braille.

In the Middle East somewhere (I can't disclose the location - sorry), there are people distributing business cards with the entire Bible on them.

In New Zealand, people are celebrating being the only unbeaten team at World Cup 2010 (even though we were knocked out in the first round, a minor detail that must not be allowed to spoil a good story).

nice chatting

Paul

Friday, July 09, 2010

children's books to savour

Whenever I teach narrative preaching I always start with children's stories. Former students will remember my love for the simplicity of Quack, Quack and the power of Love You Forever - which has induced many a tear from older, and embarassed, Kiwi males.

To read them and then to ask "why does this work?" seems to supply so much fodder for the learning process. In recent weeks I have come across two more children storybooks which will adorn my teaching from this time forward.

The first is LeAnne Hardy's, So That's What God is Like (Kregel, 2004). It is the ever-so-tender story of little Temba learning about God from his Grandma. Set in Africa where the author has lived, the book has the most gorgeous illustrations. I loved the way a little Bible verse (proposition) is integrated with story and image all the way through without distraction or detraction; the way the biblical image of God is retold and explained by the Grandma in a way a little boy can understand. I applaud the selection of images chosen for "what God is like" - the wind, a rock, a mother hen, a nursing mother, a shepherd - for the way it creates space for the 'maternal' features of God, even if it may have limited the books marketability in some circles! I am sure the eyes will moisten every single time I reach that final page...

[NB - LeAnne is married to Steve Hardy, Director of Langham Scholars. I had the pleasure of meeting her on a recent visit to the UK which is when I first saw this book].

The second book is Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Zondervan, 2007). My niece, Rachael Windsor, told me about it. Again the illustrations are great - but it is the subtitle that grasps its genius: "every story whispers his name". Yes, the writer makes her way through 40+ stories and finds her way to Jesus by the end of each one (including the 20 Old Testament ones). So she commends christocentric preaching in such a natural and compelling manner. The Storybook "tells the Story beneath all the stories in the Bible and how it takes the whole Bible to tell this Story". As one reviewer expressed it, it is "as theological as it is charming".
The chapter on The Fall is linked on the web here.

It would seem that Sally Lloyd-Jones (no relation to Martyn, as I understand it) is part of the congregation which Tim Keller pastors in New York City. He writes a glowing endorsement of the book: “I would urge not just families with young children to get this book, but every Christian - from pew warmers, to ministry leaders, seminarians and even theologians! Sally Lloyd-Jones has captured the heart of what it means to find Christ in all the scriptures, and has made clear even to little children that all God’s revelation has been about Jesus from the beginning - a truth not all that commonly recognized even among the very learned.”

Enough said - these are recent and precious additions to my library. I hope you can enjoy them as well.

nice chatting

Paul

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

oxford dale budapest

Barby and I are in transit in Hong Kong on the way home after a month away (for me) from New Zealand. Time was spent in Oxford, in Dale (SW Wales), and in Budapest.

In Oxford I had the joy of helping coordinate a Consultation for teachers of homiletics from the majority world. This had been brewing for 12 months and took some organising from the distant Antipodes. About twenty of us gathered from 15 countries.
We started each day being inspired by some great preaching and closed the day with praying for each other as each one told their story - and then in between we worked our way through ten issues of substance for those who teach preaching. Community was built and significant discussions were held. Now comes the task of writing up our conclusions and looking for strategic ways of progressing the cause...

In Dale the senior staff team of Langham Partnership International, together with their spouses, gathered for a week at The Hookses - the little place which John Stott purchased decades ago and which is now developed into a venue for retreats.
It is more than two years since the conversation with Langham commenced and this was Barby's first opportunity to meet the majority of my new colleagues. It was so worthwhile! A bit of holiday was mixed with a bit of business during a week of the most glorious weather imaginable. We visited nearby Skomer Island - home to thousands of puffins - and St David's, the smallest city in the UK (it is a city because it has its own cathedral!). We visited three different Welsh pubs in 24hrs to watch three different World Cup games - but I had the same lemonade each time! [NB - for the NZ game we had to ask for the TV to be turned on, such was the level of interest!]

In Budapest we attended the four-yearly gathering of an organisation called M*E*C*O. I'll keep things vague, if you don't mind. I was invited to give the Bible readings to start each day and developed the "being distinctive with distinction" theme which has so burdened me recently. In the rush to be relevant, incarnational and salty, the people of God are forgetting the call to endure, to be attractional and lighty. We were impressed by the quality and level of commitment of these people.
Not for the first time the numbers of single women who respond to God's call to these difficult places (particularly for them) is staggering. Four Kiwis among them, including Reti - a Kiwi-Samoan Carey graduate. It was so cool to see her in action.

They say that Budapest is a beautiful city - and they were right! We made just the two sorties into the city but were enthralled by the way the Danube splits the city into Buda and Pest ... and hundreds and hundreds of lovely old buildings. Here is the Parliament:
And here is St Stephen's Basilica with "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" plastered across the front:

nice chatting

Paul