Sunday, February 23, 2014

aussies shine

With that title you may be thinking this is one of my occasional posts on cricketing matters. It is not. Nor, quite obviously, is it dealing with matters pertaining to rugby. It is about preaching. I've always found it ironic that those who shout the loudest about their high view of preaching can be the very ones who give the least attention to the creative and the practical aspects of preaching. 'Teach the Bible faithfully - and the Spirit will do everything else' can seem to be the first and only principle to follow.

Well - here are some 'high view' Australians writing books laced with practical advice on contemporary issues and doing so in a creative manner. Neither book is that theological in its focus - and yet it is obvious that thought-full theological minds are behind both books. It is very refreshing.

I have mentioned before (here) Gary Millar & Phil Campbell's Saving Eutychusbut my copy was on the ocean waters and so I had not finished it. They write with a distinctively energetic and chatty style. The sections I found most helpful are the ones on 'scripting your sermon' (43-61); the value of writing your passage out by hand (66); 'finding a route to the gospel' from the Old Testament (86-99, possibly the best starting point I have seen on this difficult area); and the idea of a 'delivery sphere' as a way of mapping how the voice is doing through the course of a sermon (103-107).

They are strong on the importance of peer critique. To demonstrate this they both provide a sermon manuscript (with some commentary on why they do certain things) and then they critique each other. Again, it is worthwhile to look over their shoulders here. The style they've chosen means that they need to keep drawing attention to themselves which becomes a bit tedious - but there is no denying that this is a very useful book, particularly for those taking their early steps into preaching.

The other book is Tim Hawkins' Messages That Move. I don't believe I've ever met Tim, or that our approaches to training preachers have ever intersected. But again and again, as I read, I couldn't believe how closely aligned we are. He just expresses it far better than I can! A couple of examples:

(a) I use a model which I call 'the five corners' in which I advocate that to prepare an effective sermon we need to start in the world of the text - but then proceed to the worlds of the listener, the wider society and the preacher, doing even more exegesis in each of these 'corners'- before returning to the text to ensure that it is the final arbiter on the content and purpose of the sermon. Well, Hawkins' book is as good a resource as I've seen on the importance of visiting the listeners' corner. Illustration. Application. Delivery. Introductions. Conclusions. It is all there. The most useful sections for me were 'terrible opening lines to avoid' (97-100); 'how to tell dynamic stories' (155-164); the appropriate use of humour (195-212); and 'how to move away from your notes' (213-233).

(b) Hawkins is concerned about the static nature of much that passes as expository preaching. So am I. I've devised a map metaphor as one way to address this concern (among other concerns). The sermon is like a journey into and through a country, visiting states and cities (etc) along the way. Hawkins likens the preacher to a train driver and the way 'every great message takes people to a destination'. While 'the big idea will determine your destination' (59), I like the way he keeps the focus on the destination. I am looking for a suitable way to introduce 'destination' into the map metaphor ...

Tim Hawkins has been (pretty much) a career youth pastor. At one point he argues that 'expository evangelistic preaching to non-Christian high-schoolers week-in-week-out ... (has been) the most fruitful preaching we have ever done' (69). That is a big call. Sure - he will be particularly gifted and that helps. But still it brings to mind all those youth pastors in my preaching classes over the years who would roll their eyes and moan that 'my young people will never be interested in this stuff'. Now I can make two responses to them: the old one and a new one. The old one? 'The problem is not so much with your young people - but with you and your feeble and frail convictions about the transforming power of the word of God'. The new one? 'Go, talk to Tim'.

More personally, it was good for me to absorb these books from out of the more conservative end of the theological spectrum in Australia. It is a context in which I've spoken on a number of occasions. I never find it easy. They can be a suspicious and clubby bunch(!), a bit narrowed and known more for what they are agin than what they are for. These books conveyed exactly the opposite impression and I benefited greatly from them.

nice chatting


Saturday, February 22, 2014

six from six

Barby and I are coming up to six months of living here in Bangalore.
One of the first things I did was buy a smartphone.
I've enjoyed clicking here and there as I see interesting things around where we live.

Here are six of my favourites:

good looking


Sunday, February 16, 2014

bridges to hope

I have a friend who has been to Myanmar more than sixty times. Another friend is pushing twenty. My sister and her husband are closing in on ten visits. As for me, it has been only three ...

But that is enough to be sobered by what I've seen. There is something particularly evil about a regime that represses its people so fully and for so long. The time frame is of (biblical) exilic proportions, long enough to clear the living, corporate memory of any other reality. This seems to lead to a different brand of poverty. I can't quite put my finger on what I mean by this. Maybe others can help?! But it is more like the poverty in (post-Soviet) Kyrgyzstan, than in India. Along with all the other impoverishments, there seems to be a poverty of ideas, of initiative, of innovation. While in India there seems to be a lot of 'why bother?' in the handling of poverty (due to the failure of will), in Myanmar I have wondered whether it is more a case of 'how bother?' (due to the crushing of will).

But on Trip #3 last month I had to question this assessment. One image challenged me to reconsider. More accurately, it was the one single image which I saw dozens and dozens of times on a six hour bus trip to Chaungtha Beach. A bridge. Almost every 100 meters, off from the elevated main road, there was a bridge that spanned a moat-like space. It took people down from the road and across into homes and fields. I was transfixed by what I saw. After more than 100 photos on my smartphone as the bus whizzed by, I found myself fantasizing about taking six days over the trip and trying my hand at photojournalism, creating a book full of photos and stories about bridges.

Why the intrigue? Every single bridge was different from the one before. I kid you not. Each bridge was made from local products. Each one was functional, but still vulnerable to the elements. My theory about the poverty of ideas and innovation went out the window. To see the flowering of such creativity and innovation, under such interminably repressive conditions, is testimony to the image of God lurking in each person. My despair was transformed by these bridges to hope.

The metaphor of the bridge is richly polyvalent, isn't it? As 'the bridge to life', it tells the story of the cross, of reconciliation and restoration. John Stott used it with communication and mission, advocating that bridge-building lies at the core of both. Churches build bridges into the community. It is bridges that reconcile conflicting peoples. In my own life, the bridge was the centrepiece of a personal mission statement that held me for three decades: 'building bridges between the academy and the church, increasing the flow of traffic both ways, and directing it all towards mission'.

The essence of the bridge is it's recognition that a gulf exists. Then it makes connection possible, with the expectation that there will be movement and traffic over that connection which enables distanced people and ideas to mix and mingle. When I think of this enormous task of nation-building which Myanmar faces (together with the church-building that is integral to that task), it is bridges that they need. Everywhere. Find a chasm and bridge it. And there is inspiration to be found by the roadside. Oh, yes there is. It is where I found it.

nice chatting


Sunday, February 09, 2014

angry birds, my teachers

If you hang around John Stott's writings for awhile, you'll soon discover he loved birds. Birding was his favourite hobby and a subject about which he had an encyclopedic knowledge. He wrote a delightful book - The Birds, Our Teachers - in which ornithology drifts across to ornitheology. What a difference an 'e' makes...

This love for birds has seeped into the organisation he founded, Langham Partnership. At my first ever gathering with the leadership team, we went to Skomer Island to enjoy puffins. I discovered that the two senior leaders - Chris Wright and Mark Hunt - were also avid bird-watchers.

It was clear to me. To become Langhamised, I needed to go birding.

What should I do? NZ has some lovely birds (the tui, for example) - but many seem brown or green and its most famous one is kinda ugly and can only be seen in the dark. So at one international meeting a staff member (remaining nameless) re-introduced me to Angry Birds. I downloaded it onto my smartphone and ornitheological pursuits downloaded their way into my life - and teachers they did become.

When I play Angry Birds...

I think about theology
The birds are angry. While I would not ascribe their brand of anger to God, it does turn my mind to his wrath which is integral to his justice. So many of God's global people, marginalised and harassed, place their 'hope in the judgement of God' (Ps 96.11-13). It reminds me to stand with them, in solidarity.

I think about apologetics
The way to win is to focus on the most vulnerable point in the foundations. The whole edifice comes crashing down in much the same way as the presuppositional apologists argue. Find the flaw in the argument, drive it to its logical conclusion ... and then they'll be ripe for Jesus. The only problem is that the postmodern is sitting there singing, Shania-like, 'that don't impress me much'.

I think about the christian mind
The way to win is to find the right shape for your parabolas. It is the orientation of the birds before anything happens that is critical. The information in the Bible is sufficient, not exhaustive. It sets us up for all we need to be oriented the right way. Then it is about finding the trajectory of wisdom, those wise parabolas, on which to travel as we think christianly about life and what it throws at us.

I think about pneumatology
Or, the Spirit. Sometimes the only way to win is for the birds to recognise that they cannot do it on their own. They need the boost of extra power, or the direction of extra guidance. Just a hint here of the way the life that is Spirit-filled on a daily basis does experience a divine resource in these very same areas.

I think about leadership
The way to win is to visualise the task that lies ahead, assess the resources that are available, set a strategy commensurate with those resources - and then use the right ones at the right time in the right way. Need I say more? Angry Birds provides a primer on visionary leadership.

I think about ecclesiology
Or, the church. Some of the challenges in Angry Birds are immense and the only way to win is to persevere, to keep trying, to keep stewarding the resources - and to do it together. There is a way to win. My mind drifts across to a field of Dutch tulips, the merits of 'the perseverance of the saints', and its affirmation of the true believer's inexorable progress towards sanctification.

I think about anthropology
Or, humanity. The way to win is to embrace the diversity of birds available, seeing their variety to be a many-splendoured-thing issuing from the mind of their creator. Each is flawed and prone to mistakes. And yet each has value. Each one is called to a different task and then gifted for that task. A little depravity. A little dignity. And a little dose of 1 Corinthians 12 as well.

I think about eschatology
Or, history and hope. Game by game, level by level - there is a winning to be experienced. There seems to be a purpose. There seems to be a direction. But is it going anywhere for the birds? Is their an ultimate victory for them - or, is it an endless succession of little wins and losses that ultimately go nowhere and succumb to some brand of cosmic fatalism? Ahh - my mind drifts across to real history, real hope, and real victory. Ultimately, Jesus wins.

I think about christology
The thing I think about the most when I play Angry Birds is the way these silly little games can become so addictive, reminiscent of the control which 'the exceeding sinfulness of sin' can have on our lives. But wait - there's more. The human heart is also so deceitful and can create endless justifications (a bit like this post!) for errant behaviour. My mind drifts across to Jesus, to his unique person and his final work, and to the way his redeeming work on the cross dealt the decisive blow to sin in human hearts and evil in human systems.

Well - that is enough ornitheology for one day.
And I haven't even mentioned the pigs...

nice chatting


Saturday, February 08, 2014

a tale of three kings

It has been around for twenty years.
I've been aware of it, but just never read it.

But recently Langham's Executive Director, Mark Hunt, gave me a copy of Gene Edwards' A Tale of Three Kings. It tracks with David as he relates to Saul above him and then Absalom below him, giving the reader 'a study in brokenness'. The narrative style creates an open-endedness that enables the reader to enter the story through a range of people.

Just 108 double-spaced pages, it was an easy read on a recent flight from Singapore to Yangon. In the face of God's call on our lives it deals with issues like patience and submission and what it looks like to entrust things to 'the One who judges justly'. Then it also gets into our own faces, digging away to discover issues like ambition and rebellion lurking in unexpected places.

Many pray for the power of God. More every year. Those prayers sound powerful, sincere, godly and without ulterior motive. Hidden under such prayer and fervor, however, are ambition, a craving for fame, the desire to be considered a spiritual giant. The person who prays such a prayer may not even know it, but dark motives and desires are in his [sic] heart ... in your heart.
Even as people pray these prayers, they are hollow inside. There is little internal spiritual growth. Prayer for power is the quick and the short way, circumnavigating internal growth.
There is a vast difference between the outward clothing of the Spirit's power and the inward filling of the Spirit's life. In the first, despite the power, the hidden man of the heart may remain unchanged. In the latter, the monster is dealt with. (40-41)
If I was still in the world of mentoring students and emerging Christian leaders, this book would sit alongside Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus as the first two books (outside the Bible) that I would use to facilitate an opening of the inner world. That is pretty high praise from me.

nice chatting