Saturday, December 31, 2011

john graham

I owe a lot to John Graham.

So when I went to Whitcoulls intent on finding the Steve Jobs' biography for some light Christmas reading, I was easily distracted by Bill Francis' Sir John Graham: Sportsman, Master, Mentor - and devoured it in a couple of days.

It was 1977. In their wisdom, my parents decided that after an entire schooling based around Woodstock School, a co-ed American boarding school in the Himalayas, I should return home to NZ six months before graduation for a full year at Auckland Grammar School (AGS), a uniformed elitist boy's school in Auckland. I was one lost puppy for awhile. However a month or two into the first term a prefect left the school and, very surprisingly, John Graham appointed me to fill the gap. Coupled with my background in basketball, this trust placed in me gave me the confidence I needed. At AGS it was the season of Crowes and Whettons, Graham Henrys and Ken Rapsons (my form-room teacher who took such an interest in me, later to become my children's principal) ... and the hardest year in my life became the year that cemented my identity as a Kiwi. 

It was 1980. I had just finished my degree with plans to go to the USA for theological training late in 1981. I needed a job. 'Why don't you go and ask John Graham if he has a job for you?' I made an appointment, trembled my way into his office without any teacher training and barely 21 years of age, explained my situation and he responded with, 'OK - can you start on Monday?' That was another tough, but strategic, few months of employment in the 'real world' and it was John Graham who made it happen. One Tuesday afternoon with the 4G class stands out in my memory. One of my physical features is that I have an upturned nose. I walked into the classroom and every single boy had their index finger pressed against their nose in an effort to look like me. However for an entire term I was relieved from the trauma of relief teaching and given Ramesh Patel's Maths' classes while he was away with the NZ Hockey team. It was my first taste of class preparation and classroom management.

'OK, OK, Paul - but what about the book?'

In its pages I met again the awe-inspiring John Graham who commanded both the daily Assembly (in 1977) and the staff-room (in 1980). I also met again the man in his office (in 1977 and 1980) who treated me with such compassion and kindness. But what new things did I learn about him?

When we returned to live in Auckland in 1989 I chuckled away because I counted 8 secondary school principals in Auckland who were in that AGS staff room eight years earlier. In fact there are 23 of John Graham's staff who went on to become principals, with some special words for a couple of today's fine Christian principals, Larne Edmeades and Roger Moses ('He's now the outstanding principal in the country in my view' (134)). This is mentoring at its very finest. Sometimes this meant making some tough calls, like giving broadcaster Murray Deaker his marching orders from the staff when his inability to control his drinking impacted his performance.

'He says he caned no more than 20 boys in 21 years.' (103) - but each time, a few days later, he would personally seek the boy out. 'I didn't send for him. I wanted to meet him and just say, 'Well, Jackson, are you okay with me son, because I'm okay with you'. (103). This is a feature of his life: he does not seem to hold grudges.

John Graham has been a controversial figure in education, always fighting 'the constant belittling of academic achievement' (111) which distinguished the 1970s and 1980s. He invited enormous problems when he referred to Maori as 'lazy' and yet it is a descriptor he'd use of anyone who did not achieve at school. After retirement from AGS he was involved for eight years with Nga Tapuwae College in South Auckland, initially as a Commissioner appointed by the government to turn the school around. 'The underlying venom in the welcoming words' at the powhiri' (173) took him by surprise, but he succeeded in his task of turning the school around, developing a deep affection for the those in the school community.

Back in 1960 he was muzzled by the NZ Rugby Union for outspoken comments about apartheid. On a tour of South Africa, John Graham and a young University student (Tony Davies) visited places like Sharpeville. Bill Francis adds, 'it seems astounding that they were the only All Blacks, on a four month tour of South Africa, to make a concerted effort to check out the situation that existed for blacks' (89).

Naturally, I loved the chapter on his stint as manager of the NZ cricket team. Coming in after a disastrous period of ill-discipline and poor performance to work with a young captain (Fleming) and to bring the best out of a bunch of difficult personalities like Cairns, Parore and Astle ... masterful stuff. One philosophy he instilled was 'life can be great when you give' (164). A lot of focus on getting the players to read books when on tour and to feed their minds. They even did crosswords together as a team, with a 'word for the day' which had to be utilised in the media interview later in the day. For John Graham, managing the NZ cricket team was more satisfying than being the All Black captain (172). 'In all the pleasures I had in sport nothing surpassed this.' (172).

His approach to speech-making and communication was simple. 'Forget the silly jokes, be well prepared and give them something they didn't already know' (87), and the value of 'simply explained messages of meaningful content' (229).

John Graham has 'a hardness of mind' (63), 'a special steadfastness' (65). There are comments about 'a religious faith' (217). 'Having a religious compass has made our lives richer ... my renewed faith drives me to help those in need without making a fuss of it' (217). I enjoyed the way his wife, Sheila, was such an active partner in his life and so involved in all the big decisions along the way.

nice chatting


[PS. I see this is my 300th post, as I head into my 7th year of blogging. It has proven to be one of the more energising things I do. I love chatting away - and it has become my filing cabinet of ideas and illustrations. Now that my DMin is done, I am thinking of celebrating by publishing a little book of my favourite posts over the years: The Art of Unpacking: Exegesis as a Way of Life...but we'll see].

Sunday, December 25, 2011

evil at christmas

I've struggled to be happy this Christmas.
It was the Friday before Christmas that did it to me.

In the morning I try to absorb the news that an enduring and close friend has a brain tumour. Cancer is sinister, evil. At midday I attend a funeral for the father of my brother-in-law. A simple, small, short - and moving service. Hovering over the event is the reality of the way World War II so damaged a life. War is sinister, evil. The texts and conversation which flow through the afternoon cover just the one topic - more earthquakes in Christchurch. It is hard to fathom. Earthquakes are sinister, evil. In the evening it is news time and a leisurely read of the newspaper. Two horrendous stories of child abuse nudge into the headlines alongside the earthquakes. Violence and abuse, particularly towards children, is sinister, evil.

'Happy' is such a silly, superficial word. My Dad taught me to avoid the 'happy' in 'happy christmas' for this reason. He also taught me to avoid the 'merry' in 'merry christmas' as it carries overtones of the drunken excesses, another sinister evil, which so easily inhabit Christmas. He turned and tuned me towards joy at Christmas, that quality so deep and so secure that it moves up through life and transforms everything it touches. This Christmas I even struggle with joy - thanks to Friday.

The darkness feels more gloomy this year. My little mind has always been drawn to the verses about Napthali and Zebulun (reminding me of New and Zealand) in Isaiah 9. 'There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress' (9.1) ... 'The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned.' (9.2)

Oh God, please, please have mercy.
Make those words real this Christmas.

May the son who has been given truly be a 'Wonderful Counsellor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father, and a Prince of Peace' (9.6) to those who need him most in the midst of the sinister evil in this world in which we live.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

the postmodern and the parable

The greatest and hardest achievement in writing a 64,000-word thesis is that I managed to do it without using a single superlative (although, it must be said, the thesis is not an alliteration-free zone). In breaking free from such restraint I thought I might nominate the two best books I encountered in my study.

Peter Leithart's Solomon Among the Postmoderns works away at the interface of postmodernism and the book of Ecclesiastes. At times it is just electric. The guy can write, oh yes he can. He knows his postmodern theory and he is besotted with Ecclesiastes. He is at his best describing the characteristic vocabulary of Ecclesiastes, hebel (vanity, meaningless) - 'vapour'. Modernity aspires 'to control the vapour, to sculpt the mist' (33) ... and 'postmodernity is vapour's revenge' (39). WARNING: you do need to be able to cope with some of the heavier postmodern theory and if this makes you cautious, start with pages 55-58. The highest recommendation I can give is that I would not dream of teaching about postmodernism, or preaching from Ecclesiastes, without this book open beside me.

Then a little book on the parables: Paul Simpson Duke's, The Parables. Just 111 pages and yet in his introduction ('Into the World of Parables', pages 1-15) and conclusion ('On Preaching Parables', pages 97-111), there is a most uncommon appreciation of the twist and turns in the history of parable interpretation. In between he expounds eight parables from the Gospels which provides some illustration and anchorage. Having absorbed so much of this literature myself over the past twenty years, and collecting a library of 70+ books on parables along the way - what Duke achieves is remarkable. In provoking a discussion on preaching from the genre of parable this will continue to be my required reading for more advanced students. As a preacher this book is not enough on its own  - and I am not sure how evangelical Duke is with his convictions about scripture (which is an issue with preaching the parables) - and so I would have a book like Klyne Snodgrass' tomic Stories With Intent open beside me as well (along with the best in commentaries!).

nice to be chatting again, after a five week hiatus.


Monday, November 21, 2011

election reflection

The Rugby World Cup Final and now the National Election. Two sporting occasions in one month. I love it. I can't wait to pull my chair a little closer to the screen on Saturday and watch the contest unravel.

Some things have not surprised me.
The surge in support for the Greens. The humbling of John Key (Kiwis would never let that smug cockiness get that far ahead in the polls without bringing the poppy down to size - it had to happen).

Some things have surprised me.
I never, ever picked the resurgence of Winston Peters - nor can I believe that Peter Dunne is entering this election with the same haircut as last time.

As a Christian and as a citizen, I always struggle to know which way to vote. People who find it easy or go the same way every time really surprise me. It doesn't look that easy to me. There are so many tensions and continuums filling my field of vision. Very generally speaking and written by an amateur with partial understanding, here are some of them:

Personal ethics (those leaning to the right) vs social ethics (those leaning to the left). I want to lean both ways at the same time. Both abortion and poverty trouble me deeply, even equally.

More punitive justice (lots of fairness to the letter of the law; lean to the right) vs more restorative justice (a little grace within the spirit of the law; lean to the left). I think I lean more to the left. Locking them up just cannot be the answer all the time.

Wealth creation (those leaning to the right) vs wealth distribution (those leaning to the left). I think I lean more to the left. But I sure see the importance of creating the stuff in the first place.

Individual initiative (those leaning to the right) vs communal responsibility (those leaning to the left). I think I lean more to the right. A close call - but some aspects of the welfare state just cannot be good for us.

Appealing to self-interest vs appealing to national and global interest. I think I can rise above merely voting for what is in my best interests. There is a lot to like about the Greens on this one.

The personality of a political leader vs the policy of a political party. I want to lean both ways at the same time. Leadership is critical, character is important and it is not just about policy. This one could make me vote for Tariana, Pita and the Maori Party.

MMP vs the others. I have to look more closely at this through the course of this final week. It has not been a hot issue for me. All I know is that I won't vote for returning to FPP. Another personal 'beef' for me in parliamentary politics (which impacts my voting) is that I watch those in opposition to see whether they can ever say anything positive about the people and policies of those in power. If they can, their integrity builds a little in my eyes. Sadly, Phil Goff has been one of the poorest at doing this in recent times. And isn't it good to see the demise of so-called Christian parties? The whole idea is wrong-headed as a means of influencing society.

So, as you can see, I am far from decided.
"The televised debate tonight will sort me out. Yeah Right"

nice chatting


Friday, November 11, 2011

intriguing cricket intrigue

So I've been working on my DMin thesis most of the week. It is on The Role of Intrigue in Communicating with Contemporary Skeptics ... which reminds me - for those of you skeptical about the wonders of cricket (particularly the Test match variety), here are a few intriguing happenings in recent days.

Can you believe it?! The most embarassing moment in all of New Zealand sport was almost trumped by our trans-Tasman buddies last night. They were 21-9 chasing our all-time low score of 26 - until their last batsmen top-scored and they made their way to 47. The story is made all the more intriguing when it can be stated with confidence that there is no suggestion of match-fixing...

[Added later] Can you believe it? One of the finest writers of all time on cricket, with his columns mastering the language as much as the subject, Peter Roebuck, is dead at 55. Having read some of his autobiographical material I just knew from the very early moment when I read the news that the circumstances would carry a story of deep tragedy. A piece in Melbourne's Age expresses it so well that for a moment I thought it must be Roebuck writing. But it isn't and it never will be again.

Can you believe it?! M.D. Crowe, my all-time favourite batsman, continues for the Cornwall reserve team against Papatoetoe tomorrow in his comeback match - at 49 years of age. He is 15* overnight. I wonder if I could sneak down tomorrow and watch a bit... [NB: He was out on his overnight score of 15].

Can you believe it? Chris Martin brought up 200 Test wickets last week. Unfortunately of the 59 bowlers in the history of the game to have reached that mark, the ones with the highest averages (therefore, arguably, the least impressive of all) are: 1. Chris Martin (34.94); 2. Danesh Kaneria (34.79); 3. Gary Sobers (34.03); 4. Daniel Vettori (33.61). I hate to spoil the party but our two leading current Test match bowlers are average performers - something I have addressed here, in the case of Daniel Vettori. If you'd like to drool, consider the top three performers from the West Indies with three remarkably similar records - can you believe it?! - Malcolm Marshall (20.94); Joel Garner (20.97); and Curtley Ambrose (20.99).
[NB: Kiwi's Shane Bond (22.09) and Richard Hadlee (22.29) are not far behind and remarkably similar as well. Of all the bowlers from all the countries in the history of Test cricket (let's say, since 1900 and the subsequent era of covered pitches) who have bowled at least 3000 balls - that is a reasonable career - Shane Bond has the best strike rate of them all. Every 38.7 balls he got someone out...]

Can you believe it?! Well, Martin Crowe can't - and nor can I. Over this upcoming summer there is an 80 day period where there is no first class cricket. What's more, I have the solution :) The window for Twenty20 cricket is far too big. Six weeks?! Ridiculous. Twenty20 is not that different from baseball in terms of time and energy expended. In professional baseball in the USA they often play six days out of seven, with a lot of excitement generated by the occasional back-to-back games, or doubleheaders. Cricket can learn from this without going quite to this extreme. Six teams - home and away - 10 games + finals' weekend. I reckon the window could be three weeks (and four weekends - the last one being finals' weekend). On each weekend three teams could gather in one location (for example, Queenstown) and the other three in another location (say, Napier) - with each team playing twice and there being one double-header in each location. So that would be 6 of the 10 preliminary games played on the weekends. The other 4 games to be played are then fitted in as one-off games on the weekdays. Slightly larger squads. One game every two days... Run it roughly from 26 December - 15 January. Even a Twenty20 skeptic like me would find this intriguing. Go on - elect me to the Board of New Zealand Cricket :) It is a great idea...

Can you believe it?! The ICC has recently released rankings - team and individual - for Twenty20 cricket. New Zealand is ranked third. WOW - third is pretty high for us these days. But here is the bit that is hard to believe: the top six bowlers in the rankings are all spinners - the ones that are supposedly so much easier to hit.

Can you believe it?! In 12-18 months, the New Zealand test team will be world-beaters ("ah, Paul, always the optimist with NZ cricket, aren't you?!"). If a lawn-bowler (ie an underarm bowler) from Australia can lead our selection panel, why can't I have a crack at selection as well (unless, of course, I am on the Board)? Here it is:
1. Martin Guptill
2. Brendon McCullum
3. Daniel Flynn
4. Ross Taylor
5. Jesse Ryder
6. Kane Williamson
7. Reece Young
8. Daniel Vettori
9. Tim Southee
10. Hamish Bennett
11. Neil Wagner
with Dean Brownlie, Doug Bracewell and James Franklin on the bench.

I find that this kind of intrigue really energises me for the other intrigue to which, rather sadly, I must now return.

nice chatting


Wednesday, November 09, 2011

ted steve paul

Those of you familiar with the biographies of John Stott will remember that he once had a Kiwi curate at All Souls' named Ted. Ted had the gall one day to criticise Stott about his preaching being beautifully biblical, but unconnected with the wider world. As the story goes, it was this interchange that became the seed for Stott developing his "double listening" metaphor (and the "bridge-building" one) whereby a preacher must listen to both Word and World on the journey to the sermon.

At more than one point in the various biographies, Ted is described as a "brash Kiwi". Maybe it was just Ted, in that unevenly sanctified state which can mark a curacy ... or is there more to this? Is there something inherently brash about Kiwis? That would be a big call to make...

But this week Steve Williams and Paul Henry haven't exactly helped to dilute that impression.

Four days after the words were spoken, Stevie's comments about Tiger Woods were still the top two most-viewed sports stories on The Guardian website in the UK. That included a weekend of football action - incredible. The story redefined "going viral". Given the global popularity of golf, Stevie is almost certainly more famous than Richie - and maybe even the most recognisable Kiwi name/person in the world today. Sadly, he has a track record of headline-grabbing ugly brashness. This cartoon, entitled 'the most appalling hole in golf', captures it well.

Less widely known beyond NZ is the media personality, Paul Henry. He had to leave his broadcasting job after a series of gaffes which included naming one woman as retarded and another as having a moustache - before setting his brand of humour on two respected leaders of Indian heritage, as he made fun of names and disrespected ethnicity. In the end he had to be sacked - but then he reappeared on our screens with indecent haste and now he has just landed a huge job in Oz. [NB: I am not dignifying his gaffes by providing links for you].

A few reflections:

1. Both Williams' language and Henry's humour are silly, juvenile and over-the-top. It is reminiscent of what one might find on the playground at a primary school. I found both to be ugly and brash, leaving me feeling embarassed to be a Kiwi.

2. At this point many reach for 'political correctness' and ask why we have to be so precious about certain things. 'Where is your sense of humour, Paul?' Although political correctness can squeeze us into thinking more narrowly about the issues, my interest is more with theological correctness. Whichever way you look at it, abusing or mocking people in ways that relate to their ethnicity and/or gender that causes offense is theologically incorrect. For this reason I have been surprised how many fans of Paul Henry I have encountered within the Christian community. I don't get it.

3. All my life I have watched Kiwis engage with Aussies, Brits and Americans - and vice versa. It reminds me of a family. Kiwis are kinda like the little kid brother, by virtue of size and location. I think if we let them, we might become a favourite little brother - but instead, at the first hint of being ignored or forgotten, we break out into all kinds of attention-seeking behaviours. We can become noisy and ill-mannered - as the brash and the ugly surfaces. We see it in the sporting world. We see it in the media. More sadly, it can be discovered within inter-cultural mission teams at work around the world where poor relationships between mission partners is reputed to be the biggest reason for people returning home.

Is Ted a bit like Steve and Paul?!
It couldn't be so...that is why we met him only on a first name basis.

Are Kiwis inherently brash?!
Probably not (although I've seen enough to make me wince) - but we should still take care.

Thankfully, oh so thankfully, the All Blacks won the World Cup - with the brashness and ugliness saved only for the build-up to the game against Australia(!) and only among the supporters, not the team.

nice chatting


Sunday, November 06, 2011

pastor and scholar

Such is my life now that I can describe a book by how many boarding passes accumulate within its pages as I work my way through it. So, for example, that book on Pakistan in July was a "thirteen (international) boarding pass" book. It was long and slow and intense.

Last week I read a "three (domestic) boarding pass" book. It was short and quick and fun...

John Piper & DA Carson's The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor. It was originally delivered on a single occasion in 2009 to which the crowds flooded as one might expect, given the Christian celebrity status of the authors. In the first half we hear from John Piper, a pastor whose "mind never fully left the academy" (108), while the second half is devoted to DA Carson, a scholar whose "heart never left the church" (108).

The purpose of the book comes in its final paragraph: "So in charging pastors to be more serious about the life of the mind, and in challenging scholars to be more engaged with the life of the church, (our prayer) is that all our thoughtful shepherding and all our pastoral scholarship may be to the great end of having the gospel message about Jesus dwell richly (Col 3.16) both in us and in our people...(111)."

My response to the book?! Quite polarised ... sorry!

Try as I might I am rarely able to find Piper's wavelength in his sermons and books. Something must be wrong with me. The temptation is there to say that "he just does not do it for me" - but that would sound hyper-consumerist of me, so I won't say it :). His section is too focused on his own story for my appetite, interesting though it is at various points (for example, his early 'disabilities' surrounding a "paralysis before people and painfully slow reading" (29)). And I guess, if I'm honest, I was stunned to read that his church is in the process of starting its own seminary. "Why, oh why, can that possibly be necessary?! Who on earth came up with that idea? What can a seminary of this ilk possibly contribute to the global church which is not already represented elsewhere? I just don't get it."

Enough. Let's move on. Because in his half of the book Carson is at his brilliant best. Every faculty of every evangelical theological college should make these 35 pages the focus of a daylong retreat. I kinda miss that I am not in a position to make this happen anymore myself! A briefer(!) personal narrative gives way to 'twelve lessons for the scholar as pastor'. Here they are with a great quotation thrown in for free::

1. Take steps to avoid becoming a mere quartermaster
"It is possible to write learned tomes on apologetics without actually defending the gospel in the current world; it is possible to write commentaries without constantly remembering that God makes himself present, he discloses himself afresh, to his people, through his Word ... Unless you are actively involved in pastoral ministry in some sense or other, you will become distant from the frontlines and therefore far less useful than you might be." (82, 84)

2. Beware the seduction of applause
"(it) means that for you it becomes more important to be thought learned than to be learned. The respect of peers who write erudite journal articles becomes more immediately pressing than the Lord's approval (84-85) ... (then after a potentially corrosive discussion with his doctoral supervisor) In a flash I knew that I would rather have the gospel, knowledge of forgiveness of sins, and a reverence for God's Word than all the academic applause in the world" (88).

3. Fight a common disjunction
(the 'critical' vs the the devotional reading of Scripture)
"My response, forcefully put, is to resist this disjunction, to eschew it, to do everything in your power to destroy it ... when you read 'devotionally', keep your mind engaged; when you read 'critically' (ie with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of 'tools'), never, ever forget whose Word it is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it." (91)

4. Never forget people
"We don't have mere students, organic sponges whose primary function is to soak up data and then squeeze it back out again on demand. Rather, in our classrooms are blood-bought children of the living God ... because of the content we teach, because of the Lord we serve, we who teach in such institutions must also be eager for relationships with students." (92, 93-94)

5. Recognise different gifts
"Through their books, get to know some epochal thinkers reasonably well. Slow down; read, take notes, think, evaluate ...What is virtually never justified is never reading anything slowly, seriously, analytically, and evaluatively, for such reading of good material not only fills our minds with many good things, but teaches us how to think." (97, 98)

6. Recognise what students learn
"If I happily presuppose the gospel but rarely articulate it and am never excited about it, while effervescing frequently about, say, ecclesiology or textual criticism, my students may conclude that the most important thing to me is ecclesiology or textual criticism ... I dare never forget that students do not learn everything I try to teach them but primarily what I am excited about." (98-99, 99)

7. Make the main thing the main thing
(on the danger of being teachers who love to focus on "the weaknesses, aberrations, and assorted blindspots of contemporary evangelicalism") ... "This may work its way out in students who become more and more critical of confessional evangelicalism, and pretty soon even of the evangel itself. They are in danger of becoming smart-mouths. Their superciliousness guarantees that they cannot minister effectively anywhere. Instead of becoming believers whose lives fruitfully foster change within the church, these students become condescending critics ... In all our legitimate concern for the innovative, what is of greater importance is the changeless." (101, 102)

8. Pray and work for vision
"If you are a pastor-scholar, you ought to be asking yourself what might be especially helpful at the present moment, what work of scholarship is crying out to be tackled, what popularization would benefit the Lord's people ... If you write only what others ask you to write, I fear you may be displaying a want of scholarly imagination, and, still worse, a lack of pastoral care." (102, 103)

9. Love the church
"If we are training a preponderance of pastors and others who will serve in the local church, it is essential that the faculty members truly love the church that Christ loved and for which he gave himself. Many students will learn to love what their professors truly love. So love the church." (103)

10. Avoid lone-ranger scholarship
"Some projects are better undertaken with collaboration ... if you are beginning to press into arenas of thought that are not your first area of competence, you are wise to run your work by others in the field, to solicit criticisms and suggestions." (104)

Carson ran out of gas (or was it time?) with the last two...
11. Be interested in the work of others
"Be at least as interested in the work of others as you are in your own." (105)

12. Take your work seriously but not yourself
"Make sure you have some people around you who feel free to laugh at you ... Walk humbly - you have far more to be humble about than you realise. Take your work seriously, but not yourself." (105)

And then a delightful concluding word from the editors:
"To Jesus, the great pastor-scholar, be all the glory."

nice chatting


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

rugby emotion

Exactly one week ago the parade was making its way through Christchurch, with thousands turning out to celebrate the All Blacks' victory in the Rugby World Cup.

I've been thinking a lot about emotion in the intervening days.

What an array of feelings surfaced during the tournament. From the opening ceremony when that lad came out to meet Jonah Lomu wearing a Canterbury jersey (the single most enduring memory of the tournament for me) to the final twenty minutes of the final when a pervasive anxiety took over a nation. The land of the long dark cloud beckoned yet again. And then not for the first time in the latter stages of this tournament did the best team on the day lose. What drama it caused...

Then at a personal level there was so much happening. Surely the world's best player could not be cruelly injured out of the tournament for the third straight time? Yes, he was! What about that Stephen Donald, villified and crucified by all sections of the media and talkback radio a few months ago - but there he is sitting way down on the pecking order at fourth and yet he steps up to kick the winning goal? What about the French team advancing forward to the haka? And what a fine line it became between hero and zero, knighthood and exile, for Graham Henry?! And then how about Jock Hobbs? Saviour of the All Black brand in one decade; securer of the World Cup in the second; and then in the third decade he shows up, so seriously ill with cancer, to give Richie his 100th cap and to receive a special award from the IRB for services to rugby.

We could go on and on, couldn't we?! We haven't even mentioned the fans - whose emotion is so well-captured in this little piece:

I am well-wired to my emotions. It is a topic of great interest to me.

The post-resurrection narratives are my favourite resting places with emotion. In Luke 24 there is the despair of the two on the road to Emmaus. In John 20 there is the grief of Mary, the fear of the disciples, and the doubt of Thomas. Despair, grief, fear and doubt. Very human. Very basic. Very elemental - almost like the carbon:hydrogen:oxygen:nitrogen in the Periodic Table of Elements. So much that is damaging at the emotional level is some combo of these four. Full though each person is with one of them, each one drains away in the encounter with Jesus. Doubt becomes faith with a touch. Fear becomes courage with a presence. Grief becomes joy with a word. And those despairing hearts become burning hearts under the influence of an expository sermon from Jesus! It makes me love and worship Jesus so much more when I see such attention to individual human emotion at the very time when he could be showing-off his divinity and victory over death to a packed stadium somewhere.

Another resting place are the writings of Matthew Elliot. There is his more serious book: Faithful Feelings: Emotion in the New Testament.
"Emotions are a faithful reflection of what we believe and value. The Bible does not treat them as forces to be controlled or channelled towards the right things, but as an integral part of who we are as people created in God's image. Christian emotions should be the most intense, the most vibrant, and the most pervasive things we feel as they are based on the most important things in life ... Our emotions will show the reality of our faith.You will find believers living from their hearts at the core of the great moves of God in the New Testament and church history ... Emotion is not the opposite of reason and rationality; it is part of reason's very substance ...When Christian emotions are not present, or when harmful emotions are pervasive, it is a warning that the belief system which the New Testament presents has not been grasped, or valued" (264-268).

Elliot has also written a more popular, storied and interactive book: Feel: the power of listening to your heart. It is supported by a website with all sorts of resources and ideas. His quest has been to find the true role of feelings in the spiritual life. His conclusions?
"Our emotions were given by God to drive us to our best ... emotions are among the most logical and dependable things in our lives ... emotions give us a window to see truth like nothing else ... the true health of our spiritual lives is measured by how we feel. That is the great power in listening to your heart" (4-5).

nice chatting


Saturday, October 29, 2011

grand prix, grand narrative

I am always on the look-out for changes happening in the world around us...

With a F1 Grand Prix in India today (who would have thought it possible?!), my mind started buzzing overtime. How has the list of countries hosting F1 races changed over the years? How might this reflect the shifts in power - particularly, economic power - in the grand narrative which is the global story?

So I decided to compare 1981 with 2011 - a neat thirty year gap.

The countries which hosted a grand prix in 1981 and 2011 are:
Brazil, Belgium, Monaco, Spain, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Canada.

The countries which hosted a grand prix in 1981, but not 2011 are:
USA (twice), Argentina, San Marino, France, Austria, and the Netherlands. [NB: I think the USA comes back in 2012 - but interesting that it was twice in 1981].

The countries which hosted a grand prix in 2011, but not in 1981 are:
Australia, Malaysia, China, Turkey, 'Europe', Bahrain (although cancelled through political unrest), Hungary, Singapore, Japan, Korea, India, and Abu Dhabi.

Is that fascinating, or is that fascinating?!
The centre of gravity for the grand prix has moved decisively eastwards and southwards, away from Europe and towards Asia - following the grand narrative of the global economy ... and the global church!

nice chatting


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

bartholomew - again

I don't tend to buy books according to topic - but by author. And then each year I try to expand my list of favourite authors.

2011 has been the year of Craig Bartholomew. Earlier this year I reviewed his remarkable commentary on Ecclesiastes. On a recent trip to Cambodia I read Living at the Crossroads: an introduction to Christian worldview - a book co-authored with Michael Goheen.

Goheen & Bartholomew had already co-authored The Drama of Scripture: finding our place in the Biblical story. These two books form a superb combo on biblical story and christian worldview. One follows the other so naturally. My mind drifts across to theological colleges around the world and the possibilities of a course with these books as the basis - a course made easier because the authors have constructed websites to go with each book, adding resources of all kinds. What an act of refreshing servant-hearted generosity! For the biblical story book, look here - and for the christian worldview book, look here. Clicking through the ppt slides provides a quick tour of the books - and check out all the articles they have collected ...

Anyhow - back to Living at the Crossroads. The idea behind the title is that "the people of God live at the intersection of two stories, both of which claim to be true and comprehensive" (8) - the 'western story' and the 'biblical story'. Drawing frequently on Lesslie Newbigin's analysis, they argue that the church tends to compromise, "allowing the biblical story to be subsumed within the modern scientific story" (9).

First up there is a chapter explaining 'worldview' with a focus on the history of the concept and the five objections to it from within the Christian community which then draws forth a better description: "worldview is an articulation of the basic beliefs embedded in a shared grand story that are rooted in a faith commitment and that give shape and direction to the whole of our individual and corporate lives" (23). Here there is a move away from the overly rationalistic definitions of yesteryear and on towards a more 'storied' and all-of-life understanding.

Then the two stories at the crossroads are engaged. The biblical worldview - rehearsed as creation, sin, restoration, consummation (31-66): "to look at the world through Scripture is to look at the world through three lenses at the same time: as something created by God, twisted by sin, and being redeemed by the work of Christ. Remove any one of these lenses and the biblical worldview is distorted. This is like an LCD projector that requires three glass panels - red, yellow, green - through which the video signal passes. All are needed to give proper colour..." (63).

After this attention shifts to the Western story - traced as it is through all kinds of stages: Greco-Roman Paganism; some input from the Gospel; Medieval Synthesis between the Gospel and a 'Platonized' Christianity; Renaissance when humanism is 'born again'; Reformation; Scientific Revolution; Enlightenment and the conversion of the West to a new faith - "faith in progress, faith in reason, faith in technology, faith in a rationally ordered social world" (92-96); Age of Revolution when society is brought into conformity with Enlightement faith; a Romantic reaction; and then Late Modernity with the gains and decline of Liberal Humanism of our current times. All in all, a quick story from the 6th century BC to the 21st century AD in 39 pages!

After this analysis the book takes off in three closing chapters.

In Chapter 7 the authors ask "what time is it?" as they discern four currents in our current time which just must be discerned clearly by those wanting to live at the crossroads: (a) the rise of postmodernity; (b) consumerism and globalisation; (c) the renascence of Christianity in the southern hemisphere; (d) the resurgence of Islam. The West needs to wake-up in a hurry to recognise that "postmodernity is not the only game in town" (108).

In Chapter 8 they explore what "faithful, relevant witness" at the crossroads looks like as they go in search of 'a comprehensive vision of cultural engagement'. Basically it is salt and light re-envisioned and invigorated as they call for a "critical participation" (132). But the helpful feature is that they turn to a businesswoman, a PhD student, a social worker, a teacher, an athlete, and a politician to provide illustrations of the points they are making. And what must be avoided is withdrawal (a bit like the error of the Essenes), accommodation (like the error of the Sadducees) and dualism (akin to the error of the Pharisees) - and there is certainly no room for the approach of the Zealots either:  "using every possible means, including violence, to usher in the kingdom in their own strength" (145).

In Chapter 9 the principles are applied to SIX areas of public life: Business (146-150), Politics (150-153), Sports and Competition (153-156), Creativity and Art (156-161), Scholarship (161-165), and Education (165-173). The application and earthing of the principles of Christian worldview in these everyday areas of life is superb. The Business section touches down in free trade and fair trade; Politics tackles Romans 13 and reminds readers that "the church is a theocracy, but the nations in which Christians live are not " (150) ... and then the way "Scholars should work to uproot theories from their idolatrous soil and replant them in the soil of the gospel, where they can bloom more fruitfully (164)" - before concluding the chapter with a sustained discussion on public schooling, Christian schooling and home schooling (worth the price of admission, let me tell you!).

The book concludes with a 'Pastoral Postscript' in which the plea to remember the priority of being in community, of being sustained by a vigorous spirituality, of joining with the Spirit in what is his work in the world, and finally, of the need "to engage the powers in the public square in hope" (176).

nice chatting


Saturday, October 08, 2011

wisdom at funerals

There is plenty of wisdom in Ecclesiastes, nowhere more than in ch7.2: "you'll learn more at a funeral than at a party" (paraphrase mine). I've been going to a few funerals recently and learning lots as I do so.

Last week it was Dr John Allen, remembered from my teenage days at Mt Albert Baptist where I hung out with his kids. His son David gave me my first opportunity to preach. His son Philip gave me my copy of JI Packer's Knowing God. And Priscilla - well, years later I remember getting up to preach at Windsor Park Baptist Church and being so surprised to see her curly mane of red hair in the congregation that I found myself starting my sermon with an exclamatory "Hi, Priscilla".

It was the tribute from Paul, Priscilla's husband, that so impacted me. I asked for a copy and permission to quote it here. Paul spoke about his father-in-law's "moral consistency - a consistency between his beliefs and his actions and between the private and public man ... there was no shadow of hypocrisy in him." Then out tumbled these profound statements:

"He was an accomplished person who had status in the world, but was not vain or self-important;
He was wise, but not remote;
He was learned, but not the least pompous;
He loved all his children and grandchildren individually in a special way, but never played favourites;
He was good-humoured, but never mocking or sarcastic;
He had theological depth, but also had a simple and child-like faith throughout his life;
He was knowledgeable about current affairs, but was never opinionated or bigoted;
He was a devoted and highly successful professional man, but was never dismissive or neglectful of his family;
He had pleasure in the whole realm of creation, equally in the cosmos of the night sky, or a bucket of wormy compost;
He enjoyed his own company, but was also full of social graces and was a uniter of people."

I did not know 'Uncle John' well enough to write all this, but I did know him well enough to see how all that is written here could be true. It carries a ring of authenticity - oh yes it does.

The influence of a good person has a way of growing and extending even further after they have died. When I read these words from his son-in-law that is most certainly the case for 'Uncle John' with me. And maybe by posting them on this blog, it can be the case for another - maybe others who did not even know him - because here is an example worth following.

nice chatting


Thursday, September 29, 2011

godzone: nurturing the sprouts

Earlier this month I had the privilege of preaching the sermon at the John Stott Memorial Service in New Zealand. I closed my message from Jeremiah 23 by speaking of the sadness of Stott's death - but also of a deeper sadness.

The deeper sadness is that John Stott visited our country only three times and the most recent visit was in 1969. If you do the number-crunching this means it is unlikely that there are many Kiwis under 60 who have any memory of his ministry on NZ soil. That is incredibly sad...

"There will be lots of reasons for this - some excusable, some inexcusable."

The thing that impacted me is that when you look at Stott's life and what he stood for and then look at the landscape of NZ church life over the past generation or two, that absence shows up and led me to ask some questions:

"Why do we struggle to save words like ‘evangelical’ and ‘exposition’ from extinction, burdened as they are by stereotype? Where are the evangelistic missions on our campuses? What has been happening at our seminaries – is it a ‘making’ or is it a ‘marring’? Where are the crowds hanging out at Bible teaching conferences? Why does maturity not attract the same attention as mission? Why do we not confront false teaching courageously – yet graciously? Where are the home-grown biblical scholars in that ‘Bible Speaks Today’ mould? What does hearing a leader say “I am no good with names?” – say about their prayer lives?"

Then I went on to suggest that the answers are coming. There are encouragements. "The sprouts are appearing in our land, but they need nurture."

Let me give some examples.

Take 'seminaries', or theological training. There is plenty of 'making' going on - and far less 'marring' than there used to be. When you consider the current state of Carey and Laidlaw, for example, one can only conclude that the state of theological education in NZ has never been better. (NB: I have blogged on this subject recently here). There is now no reason whatsoever for a Kiwi to go overseas for their primary theological education.

Related to this, take the question about the lack of home-grown biblical scholars. New Zealand can point to historians and theologians and sociologists of an evangelical persuasion who have completed doctoral study in New Zealand. But biblical scholars? The sprouts are tender but they are coming along. I think of Martin Williams with a PhD on Salvation in 1 Peter from Otago which is to be published by Cambridge University Press (as I understand it). WOW! And there are a growing numbers of others: Dr Mark Keown comes to mind (Philippians), as does soon-to-be Dr Sarah Harris (Luke) - but I better stop before I start missing people out!

One more example of an answer to one of the questions above. Take this area of evangelistic mission on our campuses. For a generation or two the church in NZ has tended to turn its face away from our universities. There has been an inability to prioritise how "your mind matters" (as Stott put it) and that an engagement with the students and departments of the university is critical to any mission strategy. And so, with the passage of time, the secular and the pagan and the godless in our universities has become more and more intimidating and in the face of it, an evangelistic impulse or strategy has been dulled - if not dried up altogether.

But the sprouts are there! Year-by-year it is so exciting to see the Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship (TSCF) - aligned as it is with the global body (IFES) to which John Stott gave so much energy - build up some momentum. A steady trickle of conversions is now a feature of their work on campuses. Ben Carswell has been set aside as a National Outreach Coordinator. And now there is the boldness and freshness of Godzone, a rugby-themed presentation of the Gospel of Luke, complete with testimonies from leading rugby players and developed in an indigenous Kiwi format. It is so encouraging. My understanding is that something like 8000 of these were distributed in the first week of availability.

You can order your own multiple copies online for friends here - at a cost of $2 plus shipping.

nice chatting


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

redeeming short term mission

I cannot escape the clutches of the question.

Be it Islamabad or Jakarta or Delhi - or Sydney, Wellington, Bluffton (Ohio!) or Auckland. The same issue has been filling my ears and my lips. As I've watched experienced missionaries in action - Robin and Jenny, John and Rosemary, Steve and Ruth - the question has come to mind. Then as I've listened to mission society personnel and attended mission conferences and engaged with mission committees, still the question has come to mind.

What is the place of short term mission trips in the overall mission of God in the world today?

I confess to feelings of increasing skepticism. They are over-rated in terms of their long-term effectiveness. They soak up too much time and energy both for people over here and over there. They drain many a missionary budget in local churches. For those with the courage to name the inconvenient truth at the heart of it, the return on the investment is notoriously poor.

"Aren't you being a little harsh, Paul?"
Yes, most definitely I am. That is the point...

I don't doubt that short term mission trips are transformational for some people. They most certainly are - but for how many people? And what percentage of people are still transformed a decade later? I have my doubts. And while on the subject of percentages, what is the percentage of a local church's mission budget that is going on short term mission, as opposed to longer term commitments. I bet it is creeping up.

Big-time sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, estimates that 1.6 million Americans go on “mission trips” each year, with churches spending at least $2.4 billion per year on such trips. Many of these trips conclude with time in a resort - in fact, one resort in the Bahamas reported that they had 1 “short-term missionary” for every 15 residents...

Here is how I would set the (financial) priorities of a local church, or family, wanting to be committed to the mission of God in the world.

Priority #1
Identify people, partnering with long-standing mission organisations, who are willing to learn the language of those to whom God is sending them. That is what opens up the highway into peoples' hearts. That is what proves that 'your people will become my people'. Learn their language. That is what sets the platform for something strategic.

Those people mentioned above - Robin and Jenny, John and Rosemary, Steve and Ruth - all fit into this category. I wish I could take the time to tell you what I've seen in their lives in recent weeks. In Jakarta I eavesdropped on a kinda reunion evening for all the 'alumni' touched by a missionary couple who gave their lives to the people and the country. People flooded into the huge room. Dozens of them. From all sorts of senior positions in the life of the nation. Oh yes, this is always Priority #1. Every single one of God's people need to be involved in supporting people like this - and it should be uppermost in the minds of mission committee priorities.

Priority #2
The church in the majority world is growing in numbers and maturity. Leaders are emerging. It is no longer cost-effective to wrap up all our money in our own people and send them over there. You can get a better missional bang for your buck by diversifying your investment. Today it is hugely strategic - if nowhere near as 'sexy' as short term mission trips (!) - to be supporting established and proven initiatives in these countries.

For example, accredited theological colleges and credible indigenous mission agencies head the list. The seed for this post was borne when I attended the foundational meeting of the Indian Evangelical Mission (NZ) Trust earlier this month. I don't tend to be on Boards anymore, but when invited to join this one, I jumped at it. IEM is the most respected missionary-sending agency within India, sending hundreds of missionaries cross-culturally - and probably able to send 10 people for what it costs us to send 1 person. As Obama expressed it the other day, "do the math".

Priority #3
Then there is that mission mentality of us going 'over there' to give them what they need and long for. Here mission flows one way in what is a hangover from the colonial era. It is no longer good enough! An investment in two-way partnership is needed somewhere in the mission budget. There is a lot that we need and do not long for enough which our friends in the majority world can prod and provoke in us. We need them. Start with attitudes to wealth and resources, sacrifice and suffering.

The work of Tony in a SE Asian country comes to mind. Plenty of resources have flowed from here to there over the years. It has made a massive difference. But a whole lot of prodding and provoking, among other things, has flowed from there to here as well as leaders have visited and ministered in our churches. It is a partnership.

Priority #4
Again, this is a little different than the norm. With the growth in expertise in many parts of the majority world, there is a contribution to be made at a 'consultant' level. The servant-hearted facilitator. The person with a specialised skill or expertise who can visit for a short period to upskill national leaders. This is short-term and non-residential, but when appropriately organised it can be effective.

I have a brother who is a high-powered surgeon and he does a bit of this. I work with a guy called Paul who is an Old Testament specialist. He is based in a college in Asia for six months of the year and then the balance of the year he is on the loose, free-lancing in all kinds of places around Asia. A staggering potential for influence without taking over the work from national leaders. In the shrinking global village it makes so much sense - and it ain't very costly!

Priority #5
With these four priorities established in the life of a local church - and a family - then I think we can turn our minds and hearts and wallets towards short term mission trips in an effort to redeem them.

But some changes need to be made as we do so. The trips need to be fewer in frequency. The trips need to have less people on them. The trips need to be for longer periods of time. The trips need to be less mobile, more willing to remain in one place. And the objective is simple - it must lead on to lifelong transformation in the way life and family and career and church is viewed.

Participants need to be 'scarred for life'. I confess that my kids have showed the way for me here. One went and remained in Kolkata for seven months. Another did something similar in Kampala, but for fifteen months. Another spent nine months in Liberia...

It is about staying long enough to learn people's names, have people become your friends, and then remain in your heart for forever - as well as sitting on your shoulder, as it were, bothering you with every single decision which you make. Surely, if a short term mission trip does not lead to this outcome then it remains unredeemed and questions need to be asked.

nice chatting


Saturday, September 10, 2011


An old hymn has been getting under my skin and taking over my heart. I have no knowledge of ever hearing it before, until it was part of a medley of recordings of my Dad singing that was played at the beginning of his funeral service.

[NB: You can hear just three of the four verses (naughty, naughty!) being sung right at the very beginning of the link to the service here -].

But here are the words. I had been searching for them and then my brother just produced them yesterday. The hymn is written by Ada Habershon, an influential figure in the life of DL Moody, and it is simply called 'Longings'.

I long to know Thee better, day by day,
I want to draw much closer when I pray;
To listen more intently for Thy voice,
To let the things Thou choosest, be my choice.

I long to serve Thee better, hour by hour,
Depending more entirely on Thy power;
I want to know more fully all Thy will,
To count upon each promise and be still.

I long to keep more closely at Thy side,
To worship in Thy presence and abide;
I want to rest more calmly in Thy care,
Assured that Thou will keep me safely there.

I long to find new beauties in Thy word,
To follow in the footsteps of my Lord;
And, oh, the dearest longing through Thy grace,
Is that mine eyes may see Thee face to face.

nice chatting


Friday, September 02, 2011


The Hebrew word hebel has intrigued me for years. It is the word identified most closely with Ecclesiastes.

I grew up on the KJV's 'vanity' and gradually shifted across to the NIV's 'meaningless'. In between there was time for the GNB's 'useless', the NEB's 'empty', the Living Bible's 'futile', and now the CEV's 'nonsense'.

[Hint from translators: when we cannot agree, you know that you have a fascinating word.]

Once I did some theological training I was able to wade into the scholars a bit more. Like Michael Fox's 'absurd', or Peter Kreeft's 'wild goose chase - and there is no wild goose', or Chris Grantham's 'random', or RBY Scott's 'breath', and then just this year Craig Bartholomew's 'enigmatic'.

[Warning from exegetes: this is no time for 'illegitimate totality transfer' where the entire semantic range of possible meaning is poured into one single reference.]

Is it not the most fascinating word?

At its core hebel is meant to be a metaphor. We are meant to see something, the linguistic osmosis kicks in and what we see pictures what the word means. What is to be seen with this word? Vapour. Breath (on a cold day). Mist. And maybe best of all - drum roll, please, for Eugene Peterson and The Message's 'smoke'.
And what might the essence of this metaphor convey? Maybe two things?: (i) something that is brief and fleeting; (ii) something that is empty and weightless. Like 'breath' and 'smoke' - and even like 'enigmatic', as this refers to that which cannot be grasped.

What shall we do with all this? Well, John Stott is very much on my mind and so why don't we do a little 'double listening' in his honour, reflecting a little on the World and the Word. OK?

For me a striking example of hebelisation in our world is the Reality TV phenomenon. I am no fan at all. Sorry! Right at the start of Ecclesiastes - in chapter 2 - the writer embraces something similar, a host of trivial pursuits on the way to finding significance for his life. Take a close look: laughter, wine, homes, gardens, music, money, sex, celebrity - each one a Reality TV possibility (and we could add sport, food and travel) - and his conclusion on these pursuits?
Hebel. Brief. Empty.

Think about the contemporary equivalents: Extreme Makeover (homes); American Idol (music); The Amazing Race (travel); Next Top Model (beauty); Master Chef (food); Temptation Island (sex); Project Runway (clothing); America's Toughest Jobs (work); The Apprentice (business); Biggest Loser (weight loss); Last Comic Standing (comedy) etc etc. I'll stop short of being too dismissive. But what I will argue is that if a person finds a succession of these shows to be compelling and greatly anticipated each week, then that person is probably being hebelised without realising it. Maybe something dangerously vicarious is going on in their voyeuristic enjoyment of the vacuous. They will be losing touch with the real reality so poignantly described in Ecclesiastes 4, for example, with all its human trauma and sadness.

Once the subject turns to the real reality we are directed back to the Word. I don't know if you subscribe to the view that sees value in reading the Bible 'canonically' (ie that the order of the books/chapters have some significance). Here is one time when I do. Two verses before the start of Ecclesiastes (Prov 31.30) we find beauty being described as hebel - and the response which a woman is to make is given as well: "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised". In that one verse, two verses before Ecclesiastes, lies the message of Ecclesiastes. The response to Ecclesiastes 1.2, crammed with five references to hebel, comes in Ecclesiastes 12.13 - 'fear God'.

Fearing God is to take God seriously. Why? He is not brief. He is not weightless. He is neither like breath nor smoke. He is eternal and weighty - in fact 'glory' is the word that will do just fine , as that is what 'weighty' means. If Proverbs 31.30 carries something of Ecclesiastes in microcosm, so also does Psalm 62 where multiple references to our hebelised lives comes in the context of a God who is rock and fortress and refuge.

Jesus is also about the permanent and the weighty and the full. For me Ecclesiastes is pre-evangelism on the way to "I have come that you might have life - life in all its fulness".

nice chatting


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

english cricket

This English cricket team is exceptional. Who could have picked that they would beat the #1 side in the world 4-0 in a four Test series? Remarkable! And as was the case against the Aussies last summer, a number of the victories have been substantial.

The rise of English cricket is great for the global game. Not only did they bring the dominant Aussie era to a close, they have humbled the Indians as well. India has far too much power and when they won the World Cup, the Indian lad in me said "oh yes", while the cricket fan in me said "oh no". Things appear more equal now as the great game is reinvigorated (aided also by the new Test Championship). But can the English enjoy an era of dominance like the Aussies and the West Indies before them? I doubt it. Talented and balanced and youngish though they may be, they don't intimidate like the mental toughness of those Aussies and the swagger of those West Indians used to do.

I like my statistics. But one comparison has always made me grumpy. It has to do with batting averages. How can the comparison between English/Kiwis and Aussies/Indians ever be fair when the quality of the pitches and the conditions in which the game is played are so different? Aussies and Indians have slightly inflated averages, while the English and the Kiwis have slightly deflated averages. I'll go to my grave believing that Martin Crowe was far, far better than 45.36!

But this is where the English team is so impressive. While pitches have improved, they do not play on batting paradises like is usually the case in Australia and India. And yet their Top Seven average, 49, 42, 58, 50, 49, 38 and 44. Four of them rank in the best fifteen of all time in terms of English batsmen (5th, 9th, 11th, 13th). WOW!

The playing conditions in New Zealand are similar and the comparable statistics give ample evidence for the weakness in the NZ game. The Top Seven from NZ's most recent series averaged 27, 37, 35, 41, 45, 33, and 30. Sure, there is a big gap in experience - but still that suggests that the English team will average 80+ more runs from their top order in each innings - and 160+ over the course of a Test. You will win a lot of test matches with that kind of advantage. And where do the best four in our top order rank in the history of NZ cricket? It is not that dissimilar (3rd, 7th, 13th, 17th) which provides some evidence for our perennial weakness on the global stage.

[NB: With the Indian Top Seven they average almost exactly the same number of runs as the English and the best five in their top order rank 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 8th in the history of Indian cricket].

Then there are the pace bowlers in the English cricket team. I do not have the time to check the history - but when was the last time the front-line pace attack averaged just 13, 16, and then 25 when playing against the best team in the world, stacked with batting legends of the game, over at least a four game series? How is that your bowlers are taking such cheap wickets on the very same pitch that your batsmen are making such big runs? Amazing!

The English will need to win well in India and beat the South Africans convincingly to be seen as a great team - but it will not surprise me if they do so. I am not sure who will eventually humble the English - but I suspect it will not be the Kiwis.

But then, of course, there is always the rugby...

nice chatting


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

three movies

Now that I no longer teach a course on movies, my movie-watching has diminished greatly - and often just on planes through sleepy eyes (although I do limit myself to one per flight in order to ensure that I get some reading done!).

But not in the last ten days. There have been three movies to fill my screen.

First up, Of Gods and Men (we were watching this at the cinema when my brother was trying to contact me about my Dad's sudden decline in health). This is one for the ages and just must be seen. A small group of elderly monks keep alive both their own community and their incarnate presence in the wider Muslim society - at a time when the threat of extremism is real. I delighted in the slow pace, the struggle towards consensual decision-making and the joy which flows when this is discovered, and the salt:light tension with which they courageously and winsomely lived. And a true story as well - which I prefer. It took me back to favourites like The Elephant Man and The Lives of Others in terms of impact. A 'must' for a church leaders retreat with space to discuss - or a class on the Church.

Then it was Fire in Babylon. A film about the rise of West Indian cricket with some of my childhood heroes - Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts, Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, Michael Holding et al - to the fore, but also all kinds of musicians, historians, and culture-watchers interviewed as well. Terrific socio-historical insight into the reasons which drove West Indies cricket to the top. To think it is just for cricket fans would be a major mistake. One of my offspring (who shall remain nameless) sat glued to it. The editing and sound-track make it compulsive viewing. If anything, there are not enough clips of cricket action - but no one will ever really mind. I have my own copy - but you'll have to come watch it here, coz' it ain't leaving the house!

Last night my son Stephen brought around a 1963 Peter Sellers' movie, Heavens Above. The story of a mistakenly appointed vicar, taking up a country parish run by the rich and powerful, who believes the New Testament more literally and develops a heart for the poor and needy. The economy of the town crashes when the chief benefactor of the town joins the vicar as charity trumps business. The ending is very odd and reflects the era/issues of that time - but there are some great lines in it and plenty of mischief in the Sellers' character. The willingness to be true to the gospel, regardless of the implications, kinda inspires amidst all the humour. With the emphasis on incarnational ministry today, this film could easily develop a bit of a cult following. [NB - the brains behind the movie is one Malcolm Muggeridge, with 1963 being some years before he was converted!].

nice chatting


Thursday, August 11, 2011

dad 1928-2011

After a long battle with Parkinson's, Dad died at home yesterday in the company of his family - with the sun streaming through the window as the Hallelujah Chorus filled the room.

If you would like to read the story of Dad's life, people around the world have been appreciating a little book by Mary Tallon - Surprised by Obedience.

The easiest way to purchase it is by using the Book Depository's free postage service at this
link here.

nice chatting


PS: the full funeral service can be viewed here:

Saturday, August 06, 2011

a stottian top ten

Ah yes, one more post to mark my appreciation for John Stott. Here I countdown the ‘top ten’ books (out of the 50+ he has written) that have shaped my life. No easy task – but here we go...

at number ten
‘The Bible speaks today’ not only names Stott’s deep conviction (“God still speaks through what he has spoken” – one of my favourite sentences), it also titles a commentary series edited by him and into which he contributed seven volumes. These books are the bread and butter of his influence on me. Don Carson would speak to us as students of how Stott could “tap, tap, tap away at a text and it would just break open so clearly”. It’s true. So it could be Ephesians or Thessalonians, Timothy or Romans – but I’ll start where I started as a young pastor: the Sermon on the Mount and Christian Counter-Culture and his desire “to let Christ speak it again” for today. (With one sadness being that so little of his work in the Gospels and the Old Testament has been published...)

at number nine
I have almost given up on the word ‘evangelical’ here in New Zealand – not because I don’t believe in what it represents (far from it), but I have grown weary of the caricatures which the word attracts. For example, the world of media and politics keeps dragging ‘evangelical’ back to the very fundamentalism from which it was separated fifty years ago. UGH! But then just when I am about to give up, I take up and read Evangelical Truth – and don’t miss the subtitle: “a personal plea for unity”. This is not the shallower ‘love-is-all-you-need’ brand of unity, this is the deeper unity which comes with having love and truth in common. As he explains this evangelicalism (and lives it), I really, really like it - goodness me, it even sounds like the fullness of the gospel. And so at times I turn Stott into an adjective and refer to myself as a Stottian evangelical (a phrase of which he’d disapprove, I'm sure).

at number eight
Maybe because conversion happened for me like the dawning of the day, rather than a lightning strike in my adult years, I have not been as impacted by Basic Christianity as the millions of others - although it is still a precious book. Rather it is one that follows on neatly from it, as a manual on discipleship, that influenced me: The Contemporary Christian, with the sub-title once again helpful: “an urgent plea for double listening”. He works his way through the gospel, the disciple, the Bible, the church, the world – and pleads with his readers to listen both to the ancient word and the modern world as this keeps us from unfaithfulness on the one hand, and irrelevance on the other. This is the book I have used to introduce more than one group of young adults to John Stott. They are not always as enamoured as I, it must be said - as the style is older and “he does quote an awful lot of dead Anglicans!”

at number seven
My copy of this next book was a gift from John Stott to my father-in-law (Charles Warren) with a little inscription. 'Charlie' (which suggests they knew each other pretty well) hosted John Stott on a visit to Mussoorie (India) in 1973. That visit is my first memory. I was 13 years of age. He spoke at an Assembly and classes were cancelled as a little revival broke out in the school. Anyhow - back to the book. Three quarters of Understanding the Bible is simple survey material and then he shifts gears to include two chapters that have shaped my own approach to the Bible - and the training we now do within Langham Preaching: 'the Authority of the Bible' and the Interpretation of the Bible'. Interestingly, this material (and much more) is included in a more recent DVD series with an elderly John Stott in full flight - but curiously it never seemed to receive the marketing that was warranted. Be in!

at number six
Having established himself as a teacher of the biblical text, his own 'double listening' with both ears open became so very credible when he delved into the cultural context with a book that has gone through four editions as the world around us grapples with new issues: Issues Facing Christians Today. Here Stott demonstrates just how ‘worldly’ the best in evangelicalism can be. It became the starting point for the discussion of numerous ethical issues for an entire generation. And don’t miss the bookends – oh, please don’t miss the bookends. That marvellous chapter on ‘thinking christianly’, where I first discovered the seed of ‘the good, the bad, the new, and the perfect’ near the beginning, and the equally marvellous ‘call for christian leadership’ at the end.

at number five
This one took some courage. Basically John Stott allows a “liberal” scholar to pull his writings apart, book by book, and then invites Stott to respond. He does so in letter form - each time with, “My dear David ... Yours as ever, John.” Off they went, back and forth, with the Bible, the cross, the miraculous, the moral, and the eschatological. And it was that final exchange which exploded a controversy around him, from all sides, because of a few paragraphs written right at the end about hell and eternity. It is a shame that Evangelical Essentials: a liberal:evangelical dialogue became stuck, in the eyes of so many, in those final paragraphs because for me the book is the model of how wisdom, clarity, depth, humility, respect, courage, and balance combines in the life of a saintly scholar. What he said in terms of content was terrific, but even that was trumped, again and again, by how he said it and the tone he demonstrated. While many regret the book being published (maybe even John Stott himself, I don't know), I am not counted among them. Now there is a great need for “a postmodern:evangelical dialogue” with similar content - and tone.

at number four
It is time for another ‘Bible speaks today’ and to a biblical book I found difficult to preach through as a pastor, paralysed (a bit) by the danger of turning description into prescription inappropriately. Pauline scholar though he may be, it is Stott’s commentary on the Message of Acts that I love the most. And it is not just the ‘tap, tap, tapping’ going on – it is this writing style of his that I have grown to love. He takes a passage. He develops the strands of teaching in the passage. Oh, the clarity of the explanation! And then towards the end something invariably happens. He takes those strands, the imaginative eye goes to work, and he weaves those strands into something fresh that is compelling which captures both the essence of the passage and its relevance for today. The Bible speaks today. Preaching as science and art. Go on - read his chapter on Acts 2 to see what I mean. I have force-fed it to a generation of students, pleading with them to aim at such faithful, and imaginative, clarity.

at number three
So many churches today have mission statements that are variations on the ‘creating lifelong followers of Jesus’ theme. True – but just not true enough. Following ‘after’ Jesus in order to be ‘like’ Jesus says a lot, but it does not say it all. This is where Focus on Christ (or, Understanding Jesus) – “an enquiry into the theology of prepositions” – has left its mark on me. Stott attaches ‘through’ and ‘on’ and ‘in’ and ‘under’ and ‘with’ and ‘unto’ and ‘for’ to Jesus to give a more complete picture of what it means to be a Christ-ian, uniting with Christ in all these diverse ways. I taught Spirituality only once, but this book was looming as required reading as a means of bringing biblical anchorage to a discipline that has a tendency to float a little free. It has even transformed my facebook identity (“horrors, let’s not get too carried away, Paul”) where I describe myself as wanting to be a ‘prepositional Christian’. But all the best in trying to track the book down as it has not seemed to grab a readership and so lingers 'out of print'.

at number two

It just has to reach this high in the list because Line #3 in Chapter #3 so arrested me as a theological student that it became a mantra for my life ever since. It is why I believe so deeply in the priority of both biblical preaching and theological training: "The essential secret is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions ... theology is more important than methodology". Yes, it was while I heard John Stott expound Romans 1-5 at Urbana '79, as a 19 year old, that I experienced God's call to Bible teaching and it was through reading Between Two Worlds (or, I Believe in Preaching) three years later that the call was cemented into place. With it being a little dated now, Langham Preaching Resources has revised and shortened this book as The Challenge of Preaching in the hope of lengthening its life and broadening its appeal still further around the world.

at number one
I once had a student who was not warming to his academic work. One summer, rather than be placed in a church to practise being a pastor, he was placed with the principal (me!) to practise being a student. I developed a reading list and we read a book each week and met to discuss it – all in an effort to jump start a love for study. Never, ever will I forget the conversation that followed his reading of The Cross of Christ - not an easy book for someone struggling to be a student. It was transformative for him - and for me. Years ago it was the chapter on 'Self-understanding' ("what has that got to do with the cross ... everything!") that God used to bring clarity into the muddied discussions on self-esteem - and healing as well. But the feature about the book which I love is how each chapter commences with a serious work-out for the mind (well, for me anyway) - but by chapter's close the heart was soaring in weepy worship of Jesus. I delight in people who keep my mind and heart together - just as it should be and just as John Stott does in this book. I once wrote to John Stott, thanking him for this book and he wrote back (as you do - far out!) and acknowledged that this was his most important book. That does not surprise because he gloried in the cross and urged others to cling to the cross.

Do continue to visit the Memorial Site. Do access his sermons - free of charge - on the All Souls website. Do buy a book from the list above, or from the comprehensive bibliography. If you 'know not John Stott', do browse the messages being left in the Remembrance Book, pushing on towards 1000 in number now - that is such a staggering number.

And do make it a priority to thank and respect the contribution which John Stott has made to the mission of God worldwide by attending a Memorial Service near you (a list is constantly being updated on the Memorial Site). The New Zealand one will be at 5pm on Sunday 4 September at the Cathedral in Parnell (Auckland).

nice chatting