Sunday, September 28, 2014

real presence at पचपन

I am 55 today. In Hindi, 55 is the catchy little alliterative, puchpun (पचपन). My mum enjoys ticking off her children as they pass through this age and stage. Just one more to go, Mum.

I have moved past the expectation of real presents on my birthdays (although my son Joseph did send me a much-appreciated basketball this month). No - with this post I want to bear witness to the real presence of Christ in my life, surprising me at times beyond my expectation.

I've trawled the memory bank for episodes in which God has drawn near in Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit touched my life.

Episode One: A Sunday morning in Lagos (Nigeria)
It is almost twenty years ago. My first sustained visit to a non-Western country since my childhood in India. No direct flights from the USA in those days. New York's JFK airport had a big sign, prominently placed: 'Avoid Lagos Airport'. I arrived at the aforementioned Lagos airport before dawn. Humid. Eerie lighting. Fans whirling inches from my head. Guns everywhere. Custom officials viewing the contents of my bag like self-service at a lunch buffet. After three long flights, it was getting to me. The words of the woman next to me on the flight - 'thank-you for coming to my country to tell people about Jesus' - no longer seemed so thrilling.

The first conference in Ibadan went OK. Then, during the weekend, the thought of flying on my own to a little place in the jungle called Owerri became too much for me. I freaked out. Timid little me got a big dose of the fears and panics. Just as well I didn't know that there would be no one to meet me at the airport. Just as well I didn't know that soon after my arrival at the guesthouse, while I was left to rest and everyone else went into town for provisions, more big guns would arrive at the door and take away my passport. Just as well I didn't know that I would sit in transit in Port Harcourt airport reading a newspaper shouting headlines about the most unsafe airports in Africa - with #1 and #2 being ... you guessed it, Lagos and Port Harcourt.

But I was in better shape by that time. I had woken early on that Sunday morning in Lagos. Fear is a dependable alarm clock, I find. My mind was playing games. I resolved that I would not be getting on that plane. I would remain in Lagos. No Owerri for me. Then I heard it. Quietly at first. Then stronger and stronger. It was a dawn church service. I recognised the tune being sung. Then I picked out the words. Before I knew it I was singing along. 'Because He lives I can face tomorrow. Because He lives all fear is gone'. The real presence of Christ breathed peace into my life and gave me the power to pack my bags.

Episode Two: Multiple mornings in Auckland (New Zealand)
If you speak to my peers, in my late teens I was a huge advocate for global mission. One year we ran a World Christian group at university. The next year it was in our church. Once I counted a couple of dozen people for whom God's call overseas journeyed through one of those groups. I fully expected to be one of them. But it was not to be. God had other plans. After theological training and marriage to Barby, we were to spend 25 years focused on the church in New Zealand.

But midway through Year #20 something happened. I was taking my morning walk to get a newspaper from the Mobil Station on the corner of Dominion Rd and Mt Albert Rd. I was in good spirits. It was the day after Christmas. On the day before Christmas news came through that Nigel Pollock had agreed to come to NZ to head-up our TSCF/IFES work. Having been on the search group, I was elated. But now, on the day after Christmas, the headlines carried tragedy. Boxing Day 2004. The tsunami broke my heart. It just did. For many early mornings after that, in my little walk-in closet of an office perched in our home, I found myself weeping. It still affects me. I was retelling this story in Sri Lanka just last month and the moisture readily returned.

This molten moment matured into a refreshed call into global mission. I see this more clearly now. It was the turning point. Those who knew me best could see it happening as well. I knew not when or where things would change. But the real presence of Christ in my life was softening and redirecting me. As it turned out, my time as principal at Carey Baptist College still had five more years to run. And so, like Mary, I was left to ponder things in my heart, fed now by different authors ('Bless you, Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh'). When the time came for a new direction, I was surprised by the quickness with which everything happened. I shouldn't have been.

Episode Three: A Sunday evening in Bangalore (India)
Just over four years now. On this very SAIACS campus where I sit now. I had come for a long weekend (to speak at graduation) on my way to Assam to explore the feasibility of Langham Preaching commencing in Northeast India. But trouble had surfaced while I was in Vanuatu in the preceding week - with a tooth. The dentist in Auckland had no light to shed on the problem.

Off I went to India. Painkillers were popped like jellybeans. I made it through the Graduation Ceremony, speaking about how God's amazing grace is not just evident at conversion. It tracks with us through all of life. On the Sunday morning I had offered to preach in a local church. I still don't know where and I have no idea what I spoke about. Over lunch I confessed things to a couple of SAIACS staff who were hosting me. I was in trouble ... and I was leaving for Assam early in the morning. I had never been to Assam before, but I was sure I didn't want to visit a dentist there.

These SAIACS people immediately got onto their mobile phones. Eventually a dentist near to SAIACS was located in Chennai (some hours away), but returning later that Sunday. Would you believe it? He agreed to open up his Agape (!) Clinic for me on a Sunday night. In 120 minutes he completed an entire root canal procedure. Never before had such skilled hands - quick, decisive, gentle - entered my mouth. Meanwhile the principal of SAIACS, Ian Payne, sat in reception and waited for me all that time. Amazing grace tracking with us through all of life? I spoke about it one night and then on the next night, I experienced it as the real presence of Christ touched my life through his people.

Episode Four: A long weekend in Auckland - and Sydney
My precious Dad breathed his last breath on a Wednesday morning, just as the Hallelujah Chorus reached its crescendo on the tape recorder by his bed. Or, so I am told - because I did not get there in time to be with him. But his pain-filled ordeal was over - finally. Apart from the grief that gripped me, it created a huge dilemma. I was meant to be in the Blue Mountains (near Sydney) for Fri-Sat-Sun, speaking at the Reach Out Mission Conference. What do I do?

We decided that Dad would want me still to go. So between my Dad's death and my Dad's funeral I popped across the Tasman to give multiple messages at a mission conference. I did my best. I don't remember much, except feeling a little star-struck on the Saturday night because Reuben Morgan and his band from Hillsong led the service before I got up to give a mission message from the book of Ecclesiastes. Sunday morning it was straight home again, but given the unfriendly time zones, not reaching home until 6.00pm. And then ... the challenge of preaching at my Dad's funeral the next morning. What on earth was I thinking?

I went to bed almost straight away. Then from 2.00am until 10.00am I  experienced something as close to 2 Peter 1.21 as I am ever likely to experience: '... but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.' My mind, my heart - and my fingers - were 'carried along'. Romans 10 fell open with a message that captured my Dad so well, drawing us all into the orbit of the real presence of Christ - especially me.

It is good for me so to reflect and write.
I pray that my episodes can precipitate a few of your own.

nice chatting


[NB: Breakfast for a 55 year old birthday boy - pink guava, orange papaya and red pomegranate]

Friday, September 19, 2014

nilgiri tea plantations

I have fallen in love ... with tea plantations. Given that I am a teetotaller (as in totally-tea, I guess), one day I plan to eschew the pub-crawl in favour of a plantation-crawl around South Asia. Sri Lanka. Nilgiris. Darjeeling. Assam. Any takers?!

You don't think I am serious, do you?
You don't know me :).

nice looking


Monday, September 15, 2014

wounded tiger

The Bible says that God has planted eternity in our hearts. I've often wondered whether he has planted cricket in the human heart as well - but just like with eternity, it becomes a planting that is smothered and choked by other pursuits ... :).

I've always enjoyed the game of cricket. The rest of humanity is on a journey towards a similar enjoyment, but they just don't realise it yet. Ever since my Dad retold stories of his boyhood Aussie heroes on that flight from Brisbane to Sydney when I was a little boy, I've been captivated. I was never good enough to find great pleasure in playing the game. It is the stories and statistics that swirl around it that fascinate me. There is no other sport under the sun quite like it.

In more recent years, it is the social history that slips in with those stories that interests me. Ramachandra Guha did this so well with Indian cricket (reviewed here). Then when I spotted Peter Oborne's  Wounded Tiger among the new books at Blackwell's in Oxford, I was caressing it within seconds - and finishing it within days. A History of Cricket in Pakistan.

Oborne (chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph) had me from the moment he wrote these words in the opening paragraph of his Preface.
Cricket writing about Pakistan has sometimes fallen into the wrong hands. It has been carried out by people who do not like Pakistan, are suspicious of Pakistanis, and have their own preconceptions. Autobiographies by England cricketers, with some exceptions are blind to the beauty of Pakistan and the warmth and generosity of its people (xvii).
Preach it, brother. And he does... Without loss of a critical objectivity, Oborne writes with such empathy (it is reminiscent of Lieven's Pakistan: A Hard Country, reviewed here). Believe it or not, the final chapter moistened the eye with its gentle tenderness. Entitled "White on Green" (the Pakistani flag mirrors the colours of a cricket field, with white flannel set against green grass), Oborne revisits some of the main protagonists in the story in their final - or, post-cricketing - days. Kardar, Saeed, Fazal, Hanif, Cornelius - and Imran. A grace shines in their latter years in these closing pages. This mingles with the author's self-reflection on his own journey in writing the book.
Like everyone who gets to know Pakistan at all well, I fell in love with the country, and always felt an intense excitement whenever I returned (506) ... [On his train trips on visits for research] - I would go to bed watching the sunset over Sindh and wake up to sunrise over the Punjab (505) ... [And then his final words] - (Cricket in Pakistan) is magical and marvelous. Nothing else expresses half so well the singularity, the genius, the occasional madness of the people of Pakistan, and their contribution to the world sporting community (509).
Enough for sentiment. Now for substance.

The book is structured with two pairs of sections: (a) the age of (AH) Kardar, 1947-1975 followed by the age of (Imran) Khan, 1976-1992; and then (b) the age of expansion (1992-2000, after winning the World Cup) followed by the age of isolation (2001-present, while 9/11 is in mind - it is the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2007 that sticks with me). Neatly done.

Here are a few highlights:

The birth of Pakistani cricket is told through the eyes of a 20 year old strike bowler, Fazal Mahmood. His heart set on being in the Indian team for a tour to Australia - and the opportunity to bowl at Don Bradman. He makes the squad and is told to report, some months later, 'to training camp at Poona on 15 August 1947'. [This is the very day of Indian independence, with Pakistan's day being the 14 August]. Fazal's hopes sank in the horrors of partition. Friends with 'a common inheritance' (40) became enemies by powers beyond their control. Hindus moved from west to east. Muslims moved from east to west. 'The whole of the Punjab was aflame amid the complete collapse of civilization' (12). It is just 35 miles from Amritsar to Lahore and, for decades, they were part of the 'same easygoing and tolerant Northern India culture' (78). After Partition, 'there were no Muslims in Amritsar and no Sikhs or Hindus in Lahore' (78). Fazal never made it to Poona.

While Indian cricket retained the cricketing infrastructure, Pakistani cricket needed to be born against this bloody backdrop. In time two Pakistani cricketing families came to the fore - the Burki clan in Lahore (offering many of the Khans, including Imran and his cousin Majid) and the Mohammed clan in Karachi (offering four brothers, Wazir, Hanif, Mushtaq, Sadiq) - but both families have their origins in the India of today. They are among the ones who moved home. The Mohammed family traveled by boat from Gujarat to Karachi and established their home in a vacated Hindu temple. One of the Mohammed brothers played in each of Pakistan's first 89 Tests. There is a delightful photo of three Burki sisters who each became mothers of Pakistani cricket captains.

But the story flows the other way as well. One of the early captains of India, Lala Amarnath, was a Hindu from Lahore. He had to leave. In the very first test between India and Pakistan, the two captains (Kardar and Amarnath) 'would have understood each other very well':
They had been brought up in the same same city, played as boys on the same streets, represented the same clubs, and tested their skills against the same players. They spoke the same language, ate the same food, and wore the same clothes. But for accident of religion and history, Amarnath and Kardar would have been on the same side (70).
Years later (1978), when Amarnath returned to Pakistan with the Indian team as a commentator, a Mercedes was waiting at the Lahore airport. The manager of the Indian team thought it was for him - but, no, it was for 'Lala-sahib' - being welcomed back to his hometown. Still today, at a national level there is conflict and tension across the border - but at a personal level there can be real affection.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

oxbridge journeys of heart and mind

I am sitting here in Wycliffe Hall (Oxford). Wikipedia tells me that before I sat here, such assorted luminaries as JC Ryle, Nicky Gumbell, JI Packer, NT Wright, Alister McGrath and Lord Coggan sat here as well.

As I've been sitting, I've been thinking and feeling.

Today it is one year since Barby and I left home and family in Auckland to set up a new life together in Bangalore. It has been a big change, even bigger than we anticipated.

As I've been reflecting, my heart and mind have been journeying through Oxford and across to Cambridge.

I've been feeling with CS Lewis, who used to gather at The Eagle and Child, barely 800m from where I sit, with JR Tolkien. Of all his quotes, the one I reflect on the most is that 'there is a joy deeper than happiness, just as there is a grief deeper than pain' (or, words to that effect). A generation later, Wycliffe alumnus JI Packer comes along and plays with this idea and extends it in his book, Laidback Religion. He writes something about how Christians have 'larger hearts than others' (or, words to that effect) as God gives us this capacity to feel both grief and joy intensely - and at the same time. One does not always expel the other. To say that joy eclipses grief is inhumane. But they can coexist.

So much for my heart - and for Oxford.
Now for my mind.

It journeys across to Cambridge to the imagery of one of my heroes, Charles Simeon, pastor of Holy Trinity church for 54 years. It is on my mind because when in Sri Lanka last week I tried to paraphrase it. It was so humid. A dysfunctional fan and a bumpy pillow added to the challenges. Then there was the cold shower - a nice prospect in such humidity - but entering it at first light still remains a challenge for someone accustomed to finer luxuries, like hot water. But I found that if I got my head wet first, then the rest of my body followed more easily. A bit like Simeon and the hedge, a story in one of his biographies. He is talking to one of his friends, encouraging him not to worry about a little suffering. 'When I am getting through a hedge, if my head is safely through, then I can handle a little prickling on my body and legs.' (or, words to that effect). It is true. If my head can understand, then my heart and hands can follow more readily.

So I am processing the real shift from Auckland to Bangalore by taking an imaginary journey to Oxford and Cambridge. The greatest challenge is learning to live with separation from the family, at a time when grandchildren are being added to children. Some do this better than others. Maybe we don't do it so well. Maybe our own lengthy separations from parents as teenagers hovers in the background. Maybe we need to get over ourselves and show a little maturity. Whatever.

My journey to Oxford reminds me that, as a Christian, I have a very large heart that can embrace the ache of separation and the joy of obedience at the same time. It can - and it does. It is the oddest of realities and I feel it fully.

My journey to Cambridge reminds me that mind needs to lead heart. Let facts direct the flow of my feelings. Let truths be the wellspring for my emotion. 'God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life - and for the lives of those I love' ... now, that ain't such a bad truth with which to begin, is it?

nice chatting