Tuesday, December 31, 2013

first eleven: most important

Every post seems important to me at the time. Otherwise I wouldn't write it. But trawling through all 400 to select a group that seem to be 'most important' now is difficult. So I've settled on two categories (only using posts unmentioned in earlier first elevens): (a) 'most important'; but also (b) 'most ignored', which will gather those posts which I think are important - but have had less than 100 views. Here goes:

'12th man'     hebelisation
It is more than mere love. The resonance and dissonance which Ecclesiastes creates with contemporary culture is striking and every now and then it bursts out of me.

#11    election reflection
One of the great mysteries to me is how Christians can locate themselves so completely on either the political 'left' or the political 'right'. It has never been that easy for me.

#10    mission: inspiration, concern, hope
It remains the most helpful mission concept I have encountered - anywhere, anytime. Harold Turner's 'three levels'. Every country - as I try to do here with NZ - needs to bring it home, make it their own.

#9     streams and banks
I have no beef with Richard Foster - but some of his disciples have driven me to drink (almost - see #3 below). His imagery has led, unintentionally, to the diminution of the Word of God in so many lives.

#8     listening between two worlds
If there is one thing that stands out from my time with Langham, it is the opportunity to have this conversation. Those in the 'West' have so much to gain by stopping to listen, and learn, here.

#7     curse of the casual
A baptismal service at a leading church in NZ pushed me over the edge with this one - finally. One of those blindspots where we are so obviously out-of-step with biblical, and Christ-ian, faith.

#6     if
Pluralism. Naturalism. Technicism. There are lots of '-isms' that get in there and clutter authentic Christian truth. Maybe the biggest challenge of all is the addiction to our selves - anthropocentrism.

#5     anyone for mysticism?
The 14th of the 400 - a long time ago now. But a little essay for a DMin class comparing Christian songs from different generations precipitated a few scary conclusions.

#4     the unbearable lightness of being disjunctive
Another early post - and a subject to which I returned more than once. Stealing the title of a famous article on postmodernism to speak of an issue that is just as pervasive.

#3    have a drink? yeah right!
Always careful with my words on this topic (see here and here as well). But I remain surprised that more Christians do not choose to abstain as part of their call to a missional life with Jesus.

#2     defined by disaster
It was Cave Creek that prompted the initial observation - and then a series of earthquakes kept me stuck in the same key. A PhD topic which I'd love to engage - but will never be able to do so.

#1     motivation for mission
I know about obeying the Great Commission and you probably do too. But how about diversifying the reasons for joining God in his mission in the world - and doing so for the sake of Jesus?

nice chatting


Saturday, December 28, 2013

first eleven: most fun

Some posts are more enjoyable to write than others. Not always sure why. Probably a bit more creativity and cultural exegesis at work. I love working in that world. Juxtaposition flips my switch. Often the wave is building in my mind for some months and when it crashes to shore in a post which is great fun.  Here goes with a few of my favourites:

#11    camel, elephant, buffalo
It is the best wisdom I can muster on how to live when you move from a country like NZ to a country like India. When frustration begins to fray the temperament, I still travel here for my own advice.

#10    robin & marian, high school musical revisited, ruby sparks
In a previous life I taught a course on worldview and movies. I've ruined so many movies for so many people over the years. It has been an important ministry. Here I cheat with a three-in-one entry.

#9     chapter two first eleven
Yes, I do love my cricket - partly because it no longer holds something close to an idolatrous hold on me anymore. Sometimes it even provides me with the framework to say something important.

#8    ecclesiastes without chapter twelve
Could there be a better sporting biography than Andre Agassi's Open? I find that very hard to believe. But then when it is juxtaposed with Ecclesiastes - well, let the osmosis begin.

#7     reading nike theologically
Completing a sporting triumvirate of entries, each with possibilities for profound theological thinking, comes this reflection on the Nike commercial in the build-up to the 2010 football World Cup.

#6    tour de leadership
Oops - hang on a second. One more post with a sporting theme. Cricket. Tennis. Football. And now - cycling. I just can't leave this one off the list, as I had such fun writing it.

#5    bond at fifty
A character and storyline that has endured for half a century. Each evolution is a window on society at the time (more than is realised) - and maybe also a mirror on ourselves (more than is realised).

#4    extending the playlist: prayer-full and extending the playlist: praise-full
I love hymns. The removal of the best ones from the playlist of NZ churches is a grave error in judgement. We are made in the image of what we sing. Today we are shallow and smaller of spirit.

#3    the olympics with other eyes
I've been doing this for three or four Olympics now. The watching of this supreme sporting event builds the enthusiasm for the mission of God in the world to fever pitch as well. Integrated living.

#2     on a date in chennai
A trip that was designed to annoy, we decided to enjoy. And so it came to pass. Out flowed a post that tries to capture the annoying and the enjoying way in which India can take hold of you.

#1     living it up at the lido
Taking my parents to Miss Potter, set in the Lake District which they so loved - is enhanced by an image & then it gets lost in serious reflection on the place of the elderly in our world today.

nice chatting


Thursday, December 26, 2013

first eleven: most read

I don't review every book that I read - but still this blog has accumulated 79 book reviews. I've settled on choosing ones in which I have lived the most - and then influenced the most. So, for example, there is no room for Stuart Lange's A Rising Tide which within ten hours of being posted became my most viewed post - ever! I still haven't figured out why... but that book wasn't so much about 'influence', as reinforcement.

So, here goes, with the ones that have shaped me the most:

#11     pure gold 
The sad and stirring story of Eric Liddell, reminding me again that nothing beats the usefulness of totally consecrated ordinary people in the mission of God - a goal within reach of each one of us.

#10    musings on a challenge to faith
I fail to see the attraction in atheism. So I thought I'd open my mind and give it a go with this popularised articulation of the cause. It served only to reinforce my commitment to biblical theism.

#9     the mission of god's people
Goodness me - did I never review Chris Wright's Mission of God? This is a fine second choice, confirming my commitment to give my life to joining God in his restorative mission in the world.

#8     dancing in the glory of monsters
The combo of working with Langham and a son with a heart for the Congolese drives me to read books like this. A sad story told on the back of a series of one-on-one interviews by a brave author.

#7     william wilberforce
To follow countless viewings of Amazing Grace with reading this definitive biography of the great man in the months around the 200th anniversary of abolition. Good times!

#6     bible and treaty
The story of the role of the gospel in NZ's early history. To discover the architect of the Treaty to have direct links to both Wilberforce and Simeon was almost too much for this faint heart to bear.

#5     unchristian
The outcomes of this Barna Group project stunned the Christian establishment in the USA, describing how far the next generation is drifting from the faith. Great fuel for my DMin thesis too.

#4     pakistan: a hard country
As a child of India, it surprised me to find my heart so soften towards Pakistan. But it has. This more complicated history added facts to the feelings - and urgency to the advocacy.

#3     fairness and freedom
This weaving of the histories of NZ & USA - chronological and topical, at the same time - is masterful. Then to be able to distill 'fairness' and 'freedom' as the one word summaries?! So satisfying.

#2     the lost history of christianity
Philip Jenkins must fit in somewhere. He has been the discovery of the decade for me. As I never reviewed The Next Christendom, this book is his most accessible book and will do just fine.

#1     to change the world
Every Christian leader must read this book. Enough said. The phrase 'faithful presence' captures the essence of a missiological strategy that has somehow got lost over the past generation.

nice chatting


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

first eleven: most viewed

Eight years of blogging.
This is my 400th post.

I love blogging. My friend, Mike Crudge, was the one who suggested it to me. [NB: Mike has recently followed that advice himself, with his own blog here]. Mike was right. It suits me. It is the most energizing thing I do, often early on a Sunday morning. I have an active mind and blogging helps me stay creative and critical and clear in my thinking. I know I break the rules all the time. My posts are far too long, for example. However it must be remembered that I do write, primarily, for my own benefit - but am happy for people to be looking over my shoulder, if they wish. And now - after eight years - I have the most fabulous personal resource: 400 posts gathered under 22 topics. I think I'll keep going for a bit longer...

Anyhow, I thought I'd celebrate with a series of First Elevens, a cricketing equivalent to a Top Ten. Where do I start? I guess 'most viewed' is the obvious place. So, let's give it a go. Leaving out 'book reviews' - which I'll do separately - and recognising that this creates a bias towards the more recent which have been viewed more, here goes:

#11      being odd
A theme often overheard in this space... The unwillingness of Jesus-followers to stand out from the crowd. Then they wonder why they are so perennially ineffective. Duh?! They have missed an elemental dynamic to mission as it is biblically configured.

#10     man of steel
Always on edge with Hollywood's allusions to the gospel story. The majority world tends to equate Hollywood with the 'West' - and then the 'West' with Christianity. This effort to link a superhero to the Jesus story left me distressed at the damage done to the name of Christ around the world.

#9     if i was bill bryson (part one) ... and also (part two)
While I am no patriot (and find the very concept to be alien to the mission of God in the world), I do love Aotearoa-New Zealand. Driving through its ever-changing scenery is one of life's great delights - matched by any opportunity to plan an itinerary for others doing so for the first time.

#8     all god's people said 'ouch'
In the middle of debates about the emerging church, I stumbled across an Epilogue that stunned me with its prophetic clarity - and reminded me why I just could not sell my soul to the 'emergent' theories. They only have the church at Ephesus in their sights. There are six others to worry about...

#7     leading and creating
Two transformative truths that swept through me to bring healing and conviction. I stumbled across both of them 'in the Word' and 'in the world' at about the same time. Now they are foundation stones in the way I understand what serving God and each other looks like.

#6    snobbery
A bit of fun - but with some deadly serious intent behind it as well. Suggesting that to CS Lewis' subversion of a 'chronological snobbery' (an attitude to history) needs to be added a similar subversion of 'geographical snobbery' (an attitude to culture).

#5     redeeming short term mission
Confession time. Not a big fan of short term mission trips. All sorts of reasons. But they are here to stay and so this is an effort to make them better. Hoping this post might make its way into church mission committees discussing policy and short term mission teams doing orientation.

#4     a 90s kind of guy
I have tended to stay away from anything that looks remotely like sermonizing - but here is an engagement with a part of the Bible that just took off. I simply shared my love for the Psalms in the 90s as they have impacted me decade by decade.

#3     corruption
As I've shifted into the Langham world, this blog has defaulted a bit to alerting Christians, in places like NZ, to what is happening elsewhere. From this distance the headlines on NZ news websites can look silly. 'Is it going to rain on Christmas?' Deary me. Wake up. Start with engaging corruption.

#2     an open letter to those besotted with relevance
I can't think of a bigger blindspot in the life of the church in the 'West'. The irony is that the very thing they prioritise on the way to effectiveness is the very thing that tends to sow the seeds of an enduring ineffectiveness. Plus, it is an exhausting kind of life to live.

#1     preaching from revelation
It was a simple idea. I wanted to spend a year busting my fear of Revelation. I read the text. I reflected on the scholars. I developed a sermon (outside of ch2 & 3). I gathered what I learned into a (long) post and offered it to others. It struck a chord and seems to have helped lots of people.

nice chatting


Sunday, December 15, 2013

dancing in the glory of monsters

'We do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of Africa' (334). So writes Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (2012).

It is hard to argue with him. Truth be told, I don't expect many of you to go on and finish this post.

Built on face-to-face interviews with witnesses, a new one introduced in each chapter, Stearns tells the story of 'the collapse of the Congo' in three successive wars which followed in quick succession after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. This is seriously good story-telling.

His purpose is 'to tackle Congo reductionism' (xxi), that unwillingness to leave the causes of the conflict to be as complicated as they are - preferring, as we do, an 'array of caricatures' (4) because it is easier. But it is complicated. We need to persist where others have fallen away. Since 1996 five million people have lost their lives in the Congo.

It is a story with a 'deep history' (4). But because I want you to read the book, I need to subvert the paralysis which complexity creates. Let me distill for you just one of the conclusions, draw your attention to a single image, and then gather a bunch of comparisons where the unknown is related to the known (for you and me). A neat threefold strategy for engaging complexity.

Stick with me - please!

 a conclusion
Our eldest son works among Congolese in Kampala (Uganda) and Goma (DR Congo). Independently from Stearns, he draws the same conclusion. There is some irony in it. What can so frustrate us, bureaucratic government institutions, is exactly what Congo doesn't have - and needs. There are no functional institutions. Stephen joked on the phone last night about 'Yes, Minister' and the British civil service. But the genius of that system is that the civil service stays while governments come and go. Congo doesn't have that luxury. Ethnic rivalries, regional politics, and big personalities win the day. Near the end of his book, Stearns observes
'Perhaps the most nagging, persistent problem I have witnessed while researching and writing this book has been the lack of visionary, civic-minded leadership' (328).
In this system loyalty is 'more important than integrity' (175) and is valued 'more than competence' (272). All the way through he alludes to this deficit in the Congo. Good leaders at the helm of effective institutions? 'This legacy of institutional weakness [is] for many Congolese almost as depressing as their physical suffering' (126). Leaders view 'the state apparatus as a threat, to be kept weak so as to better manipulate it' (126). Ethnicity is the fiercest ideology: 'it will take generations to rebuild institutions or social organisations that can challenge the current predatory state without resorting to ethnicity' (216). The Congo needs 'a free press, an independent judiciary, an inquisitive parliament' (283) that is able to 'dig deep and scrutinise information' (282-283).

And there is deep history behind this. Be slow, very slow, to allow your mind to assume that there is 'some genetic defect in Congolese DNA, a missing 'virtue gene'' (215) of some kind. The Belgian colonialists must take a lot of heat for this. Having 'dismembered what remained of most Congolese kingdoms' and then creating 'a colonial state whose purpose was to extract resources ... the colonial authorities handed over government to a Congolese people almost wholly unprepared  to manage their vast state' (330).

an image
Did you have lingering look at the book's cover image above?
[NB: also the images, by way of video, posted last year might be helpful]

many comparisons
'Like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars within wars' (69). 
On allusions to World War II and the Holocaust:
'There is no Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Instead it is a war of the ordinary person, with many combatants unknown and unnamed, who fight for complex reasons that are difficult to distill in a few sentences' (5).
'Unlike the holocaust of Word War II, which had been carried out by a select group of state officials and army officers, largely away from the view of the population, Rwanda's genocide was organized by the elites but executed by the people ... the killing took place in public places' (15).
'Where elephants fight, the grass is trampled' (31).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

lrpl taylor

A year is a long time in sports...

One year ago NZ cricket was mired in a mess. The sacking of Ross Taylor as captain was a case study on how not to do it. It was appalling. Someone should have been sacked. I don't argue with the outcome, as I was one who thought he shouldn't have been the captain in the first place - but the process was unprofessional and, more importantly, demeaning to the person himself.

Taylor took some time out and then came back - and, boy, has he come back. In this current Test he has become the NZ cricketer with the highest Test average (for those who have played more than 20 innings) - higher than Crowe and Turner, Fleming and Sutcliffe. That is an achievement to celebrate.

But there is another achievement hidden away so that only trainspotting cricket-statistics nerds like me will ever notice. Take a look at the list of players with the most catches in Test history from all countries across all times. But look a little closer. Consider the column of catches per innings. The top dozen of all-time - among those with more than 70 catches looks like this:

1. Bobby Simpson  .940
2. Ross Taylor   .904
3. Stephen Fleming  .859
4. Tony Grieg  .813
5. Mark Taylor  .796
6. Graeme Hick  .782
7. Jayawardene   .782
8. Paul Collingwood   .766
9. Graeme Smith .744
10. Greg Chappell   .739
11. Mark Waugh   .738
12. Ian Chappell  .729

But if you know your cricket - reflect on this list for a little longer. It is the stronger bowling teams - particularly with faster bowlers getting nicks into the slips more often - that will produce catchers with higher statistics.

In that list, the Aussies (#1, 5, 10, 11, 12) all come from teams with exceptional bowling resources. So does #9 from South Africa. #4, and to a lesser extent, #8, were part of a fine era of English bowling (but #6 not so much). Only one South Asian (#7), a context known for pitches that are a graveyard for fast bowling.

Which leaves us with two Kiwis way up there at #2 and #3. Neither one comes from the era of Hadlee. Both from weaker Test teams - particularly Ross Taylor. Fiery fast bowlers inducing lots of nicks into the slips? Not in Taylor's era. This is a remarkable achievement. Among NZers, Crowe is only at .546, Coney at .659 (but the safe and gifted, Bryan Young, was 54 from 58 - and .931!)

But across the history of Test cricket, Ross Taylor is one of the most reliable (and unheralded) catchers that the game has known.

nice chatting


living alongside the poor

This is our one hundredth day living back in India, the land of our childhood. The joys, the frustrations - and the conversations - have not changed much over the decades. Once again Barby and I find ourselves talking a lot about how to live alongside the poor. While it is not the daily 'in your face' reality that it is for others (for example, our friends in Kolkata), it is a topic that is never far away.

It is easy for all of us to live in reaction to our childhood. To overstate, to misrepresent - and to swing on the pendulum to some silly extreme out the other way. This is so common in missionary families, as the criticism of parents flows full and frank. You won't catch me playing that game. However we did come through an era when the the response to the poor - starting with beggars, but not exclusively so - included things like ignoring them, or arguing with them, or rationalising their lifestyles ... and running the risk of hardening our hearts towards human need.

This time around Barby and I want to try to do things differently. We won't always succeed.

A few days ago I was reunited with a friend I've made in 2013 - Ajith Fernando's commentary on Deuteronomy. It had spent three months far from me, travelling the ocean waves. I cannot convey how stunned I was when I read these words - typically personal and honest. It was a very early hour. I almost woke Barby to read them to her. Had Ajith been listening to our conversation? He was articulating some of the conclusions we were reaching...
Today many people feel that we have won a victory when we can get away with giving less than what was asked of us. After reading a tract on how to respond to poverty, I decided that I will not bargain with the poor when I buy something from them or hire them to do something for me. Sometimes they quote a price that takes into account that the one who pays will bargain. But if I think this person is very needy, unless the figure asked is ridiculously high I will not bargain with the person - often much to his or her surprise. Extending this principle a little further, if I feel the poor person has done a good job, I sometimes overpay him or her, giving more than what was asked for.               (Ajith Fernando, Deuteronomy, (Crossway, 2012) 415)

Here are a handful of places we have reached together:

We will not bargain with the poor. If what is asked is preposterous, we'll move on - maybe with a shake of the head and a warm, chiding comment. For example, a tuk-tuk driver asking for more than a meter would suggest. But when served well by the poor - the tuk-tuk driver uses the meter and gets us home safely - we will give more than the meter says. In doing so we reward service, not corruption.

We will rescript our childhood experiences, nurturing a fresh instinct to be generous with the poor. Not just money. For example, Barby tries to carry quality food with her when we are out and about. When confronted by a beggar, for example, out it comes with a warm smile, a gentle touch and a "Jesu Masih ka naam me" - it is being given in the name of Jesus Christ.

We will receive back small amounts of change when asked to do so. We don't remember this happening in our childhood. Sometimes the 'keep the change' attitude is unwelcome today. It has happened a few times for both of us. Dignity and respect has entered the equation methinks. If the sabzi-wallah (a roadside seller of vegetables) insists on giving us change (always far less than a mere dollar) - rather than a sweep of the hand to convey 'no, no - you keep it', we will receive it quickly, warmly and gratefully.

We will worry far less about getting ripped-off. This tended to be the consuming concern as kids. Not any more. We won't reward corruption. It is wrong - always. But what is also wrong is the hard heart whose instinct for compassion has dried up. We just do not want to go there. It has too many damaging consequences for our full participation in the mission of God in the world. Tim Keller's words in Generous Justice come to mind.
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitate toward the materially poor.                      (Keller, Generous Justice, (H&S, 2010) 102).
We will renew our commitment to the Stottian triumvirate that took hold of us in the years after we left India. With every significant financial decision, we will ask two questions 'Is this an expression of our contentment with what we have?' and 'Is this an expression of our generosity with what we have?' And the third part of the triumvirate? I heard him say it with my own ears. 'If I walk into the home of the poorest of the poor and I feel a twinge of embarassment, something is wrong. Alternatively, if the poorest of the poor walk into my home and I feel a twinge of embarassment, something is wrong'. Put it right. How will the triumvirate rule in our hearts now that we are back in India? I guess we are about to find out...

nice chatting