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.