Sunday, May 31, 2015

spurgeon's sorrows

The word is used so much today. I hesitate to bear witness to depression in my own life, lest by doing so it mocks those whose struggle with it is so serious, so debilitating. Down through the years ... the names, the faces, the situations. They fill my heart and mind as I sit down to write - as does the memory of the sheer helplessness of stumbling alongside them as they walked through the valley.

One thing I do know is that my life has been messed around enough by melancholy to ensure that there are depths of empathy inside me. I suspect Zack Eswine is the same. There is a knowingness about the way he writes Spurgeon's Sorrows (Christian Focus, 2014). He has been there too. He seems to have set himself the task of reading every sermon preached by Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the Victorian era, accumulating everything he ever says about depression and engaging with it.

In passing, Spurgeon's own battle with depression is sourced to an experience as a pastor of just 22 years of age. He was preaching to a congregation of 10,000 at the Music Hall in Royal Surrey Gardens in London when some idiot yelled, 'Fire!' - and in the panic which ensued seven people died and many more were injured. Spurgeon never recovered from this experience. It haunted him and softened him through until his death, 36 years later - and his sermons are touched by this experience, often with a surprising transparency.

There is so much to like about Eswine's book. It is short (143 pages). It is practical. Every single chapter is laced with wisdom for both 'sufferer' and 'caregiver' - for example, 'Helps that Harm' (75-83); 'Suicide and Choosing Life' (119-132). It is tender, nowhere more so than in the final chapter - 'The Benefits of Sorrow' (133-143) - and the way he writes about 'Charles', rather than 'Spurgeon'. And, in a field like counseling, where I do not always have confidence in the theological foundations underpinning the perspectives being advocated, it is good theology - like here: 'even hope demolished can become hope rebuilt, if it is realistic and rooted, not just in the cross and the empty tomb but also in the garden and the sweat-like blood' (131).

The role of metaphor and of 'a larger story' are two features which stand out for me.

1. In a world where words can be of little value, I was a little surprised by the focus on words. For example, in 'A Language for our Sorrows' (67-74), Eswine writes of the value of 'leaning on metaphors' - word-pictures, essentially. 'Poetry from God for our sorrows' (73). Spurgeon used them so much in reference to depression: 'traversing the howling desert - enduring winters, or a foggy day - caught in a hurricane - crushed, trodden in the winepress' (68-69). He reached for metaphor so often. So did the Psalmist. For Eswine, 'metaphor can handle mystery ... metaphor leaves room ... metaphor allows for nuance ... metaphor requires further exploration' (71-72). Sufferers need 'to search for metaphors to describe their experience ... and (caregivers) need to learn patience and appreciation for metaphor' (73).
Sometimes those of us who suffer depression feel the sting of the irony - the inability to find empathy and comfort from the very people who read the Bible every day but do not recognise the gift of metaphor for the sorrowing within its pages (72-73).
2. Spurgeon recognised that any current melancholy is a chapter in a bigger book, a season in a fuller year, and a midnight with a following dawn. It is this larger story that brings hope in the midst of the heavier story. Nevertheless, 'our salvation messages will prove inadequate if they do not  meaningfully account for the large portions of reality that cause screaming in the world; particularly with depression' (78). Quoting William James, Eswine writes of this 'remoter scheme' (79), or larger story, or metanarrative:
A larger story about God exists that possesses within it a language of sorrows so that the gloomy, the anguished, the dark-pathed, and the inhabitants of deep night are given voice. Such a god-story is neither cruel nor trite. Such a story begins to reveal the sympathy of God (74).
And again, later, in what is something of a summary of the book:
We think of the Bible as a violent book, of God as angry, and god-talkers as sloganeers. But Charles saw in the Bible a language for the sorrowing, an advocacy to disrupt helpers who harm, and a man of sorrows sent from God out of love for the wailing world so that those who sat in darkness could finally feel the home they were made for and enjoy the sun again. This remoter scheme or larger story becomes the means by which Charles daily reckoned with the proximity of his despair. God had offered a reason for hope that matched the intensity of our reasons for despondency (90). 

One more word on tenderness. It is there in quotation after quotation, word picture after word picture. It makes for a beautiful reading that touches the affections. Be it Spurgeon: 'The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits' (25); depression is 'a kind of mental arthritis' (61) - or, Eswine himself: 'Depression is a darkness that drapes over us wherever we go' (35); 'God's promises are a sort of lighthouse reaching out into our night seas' (94); and 'Laughter gave our tears room to breathe' (106).

Two more pieces of wisdom. One quoting Andrew Solomon: 'Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance ... depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance' (quoted on page 29). Isn't that a great discussion starter?

Then, if Spurgeon, Eswine and Solomon don't grab you, what about my grandson, Micah - barely three years of age? He loves strumming his guitar and drumming anything that can be arrayed in front of him (with his parents, over time, wising up to the need for these things to be noiseless). He has latched onto a lyric from a song played in the home. So with either guitar in hand, or pounding away on shoes, plants, boxes, or cushions - he blurts out the line: 'joy comes in the morning'.

nice chatting


PS. Both this book and A Nervous Splendor were recommended to me by my friend, Mark Meynell. Mark's blog occupies a different stratosphere to this one. More recently he has focused on writing books, with A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World, officially released later this week.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

maori martyrs

Te Manihera and Kereopa.

It is Keith Newman (in Bible and Treaty) who introduced me to these two Christian Maori men, martyred near Tokaanu (situated 'at 6 o'clock', on the southern edge of Lake Taupo) in 1847. When our family took a holiday earlier this month in nearby Kuratau ('at 7 o'clock' on the lake), I became consumed with the need for pilgrimage. The graveside was only 15 minutes away, by car.

The memorial lies in the cemetery of St Paul's Anglican Church, just off the highway from Turangi to Taumarunui. By 1850 there were more Maori Christians in New Zealand than European Christians. The vast majority of these Maori had been brought to Christ by other Maori. There are stories of European missionaries pioneering the gospel into new regions, only to find little churches, reading the Bible and singing hymns, already functioning - planted by Maori missionaries who reached there first. At his conversion,
Te Manihera is said to have spoken of how they had received the Gospel and the Christian faith from English missionaries; if the missionaries could leave their homeland to go out to the world and preach the Gospel, then it was the duty of Maori missionaries to go among their own countrymen. (Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
Te Manihera and Kereopa were early Maori missionaries. Their tribe in South Taranaki was mired in a cycle of war with a neighbouring tribe. Rather than exacting vengeance, they headed off, motivated by the gospel, in a spirit of peace and reconciliation - and it cost them their lives.

Someone needs to respect these graves a little more and make the script a little clearer! But I suspect the phrase at the bottom is echoing the words from Revelation:
They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb 
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death (Revelation 12.11).

The fuller story of the martyrdom can be read in Newman's book, but also in Manihera's Farewell (Hero Stories of New Zealand). Some years later, in 1916, the New Zealand Herald adds one consequence of the story:
A native teacher, speaking of their death, likened them to a lofty kahikatea tree, full of fruit, which it sheds on every side around, causing thick grove of young trees to spring up; so that although the parent tree may be cut down its place is more than supplied by those which proceed from it—this is but a Maori way of saying the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. The Rev. R. Taylor tells us that Huitahi, the murderer, afterwards gave land as a site for a mission station, and built a nice little church upon it, and when Mr. Taylor went to conduct the opening service at it, he found some thirty Maoris asking for baptism. 

One little personal aside. Part of my wider family/whanau married direct descendents of Edward Lawry, the early missionary to Tonga. Te Manihera's name before he became a believer was Poutama. Look at this story in Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
Poutama was born in South Taranaki, probably early in the nineteenth century. He was captured during a Waikato raid near the mouth of the Tamaki River. From there he was taken captive a second time, by Nga Puhi. They were travelling north when, off Cape Brett, he was put on board a mission schooner carrying the Reverend Walter Lawry from Kororareka (Russell) to Tonga; his release was secured by the gift of a few biscuits. On the voyage to Tonga, Poutama rescued Lawry's son, Henry, when a wave washed the child overboard. For 18 months in Tonga Poutama was educated by the Lawrys; he transferred to the CMS station at Norfolk Island when they returned to England. Eventually he made his way back to Waokena, near Hawera, where he married Harata ...
nice chatting


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

down the other side

'I told you so'.
It is such an ugly phrase, isn't it?!

I told you so.

In the midst of the mess over Ross Taylor being pushed out of the captaincy and then the debacle in South Africa after Brendon McCullum took charge, I posted a piece entitled, black caps at midnight?, in which I opened with these comments:
Things are looking  bleak for the NZ cricket team. It feels like the darkest of midnights, with a long time until dawn. Dismissed for 45 and losing by an innings and 27 runs? Sounds pretty bad. But people are over-reacting in their criticism of the team. Here are five reasons for the darkness and why it could still prove to be 4am, rather than midnight... (5 January 2013)
And it came to pass that it was 4.00am, not midnight. The dawn came quickly. Soon the people of New Zealand were lost in a sunny euphoric forgiveness as the team climbed from the bottom to #3 in the world in both Test cricket and One Day International (ODI) cricket. A truly stunning achievement.

But maybe our peak has been reached. Elliot's six. It did take me awhile to enjoy the view. My plane took off from Dubai just as the final over of the semi-final started. A row of Indian lads was keeping me updated. 12 off 6. Not looking good. I waited 4+ hours for the result. On arrival in Bangalore, as the seat-belt sign went off and I stood up, the news came through that we had won, and the entire cabin stood up (I suspect they were intending to do so anyway) in a moving standing ovation in response to my boisterous exclamation of victory.

But I fear that Grant Elliot's six will mark New Zealand cricket's high noon...
'C'mon, Paul, why the pessimism?. NZ cricket usually brings out your optimistic side.'

The Everest in every cricketer's career starts tomorrow. A Test match at Lord's in London. New Zealand is woefully unprepared. This post has been building for some time, but what drove me over the cliff are some headlines from the incomparable Sir Richard Hadlee. Everything happening around the England team will make them focused and determined to prove themselves at home. They are anything but ripe for the picking. Meanwhile the core of the NZ team has been flying around India for six weeks, masquerading as IPL cricketers, but not doing much at all.

There are other things on my mind which, when taken together, leave me concluding that altitude sickness is an ailment unlikely to afflict this NZ cricket team.

The tactics
Much though I love him as a captain, Brendon McCullum's innings in the World Cup final was some of the dumbest cricket I've ever seen. And the dumb cricket continued with Grant Elliot down the order. He decided to go beserk, with two handy wickets and numerous overs still remaining. But everyone knows that while it is OK to go beserk at the end of a Test match innings, you do not do so at the end of an ODI innings. You play out the overs. NZ's ultra-aggressive approach, in the final, was a poor tactical decision. I said so before, during and after the game. The Aussies would be too smart and in their home conditions they would have too much skill for NZ aggression. They'd come out ready for it. And so it came to pass. Plus, in order to scale the highest peaks in professional sports, you gotta give more innovative attention to defense, not just offense.

[LATER. JUNE 8. Although I seldom agree with this writer, on this occasion I think he has it right. Ignore the headline. Read the substance of the article. In wanting to be ultra-aggressive, McCullum is on occasion - rather too regularly, for my liking - being reckless and careless. It is dumb cricket].

The administration
New Zealand Cricket has let Bruce Edgar go from his role in selection and talent identification. The more I read, the more I reckon he had a lot to do with the team's success. Plus he was handled so badly. A poor decision carried out poorly. Not a good sign at all. And how it is that Messrs McCullum, Boult, Southee, Williamson and Anderson can be allowed to stay in the IPL until two days before a Lord's Test is beyond me... Who is running this game anyway?
Then there is the small matter of the administration of the international game by the International Cricket Council (ICC) - now controlled largely by India but with England and Australia as its lap dogs. If New Zealand is to stay competitive with these types of teams (and therefore improve their standing), a tight FIFA-like administration will be needed. But the Indian administrators tend to be too greedy, too powerful and too corrupt for that to happen any time soon.

The media
Goodness, deary me - what has gone on while I've been away from New Zealand? Where is the sober critique and the balanced evaluation? Maybe I've missed it - like I missed the euphoria of the World Cup weeks (which has possibly left me bitter and twisted, providing the real reason for this post!). Too many journalists have slipped into an over-heated, drooling sychophancy with this New Zealand team. For example, as I travel, moderate Kiwi performances in the IPL keep filling my NZ Herald and Stuff apps with gushy headlines. And it's not just Sir Richard's comments yesterday - what about this piece on Kane Williamson this morning? Saying Kane is 'prepared' is not the same as him being prepared. How on earth can he be prepared? Who is writing this stuff? He hasn't played a proper innings for weeks and weeks ... and tomorrow it is Lord's of all places.

All this to say, I hope I am wrong. I hope I have to eat my own words, spiced with intolerable chilly. I hope those of you who disagree with me will let 'I told you so' rain down on me (although you will need to say so in the next 24 hours, or you will lack credibility) - even as the late English spring rains probably pour down on this little two Test series. Just two?! Yes, only two! Why? Did I mention India, Australia and England...

nice chatting


Sunday, May 17, 2015

a nervous splendor

It was like driving into spring. In Toronto the trees were leafless, but as I made my way by train to Windsor (Ontario) - and then by car to Ohio and on to Kentucky - the trees and countryside came alive with a fresh and velvety green. It was beautiful.

That was last month. Last week it was like driving into autumn. We left Auckland in the morning, driving south to Turangi. In a few brief hours the colours on the trees deepened and brightened in their final flourish before the onset of winter. It was beautiful.

When we arrived in the lakeside town of Kuratau, I found myself driving, unexpectedly, into autumn and spring once again. However this time the journey took place in my imagination, as I was transported to a city I have never visited and into a century in which I have never lived.

Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendour: Vienna 1888/1889 (Viking, 1981) absorbed me in the darkened hours of each morning before the family awakened. When the author writes a sentence like this, before he leaves even the first paragraph of his Preface, were there any other plausible options than absorption?
I've tried to trace local tremors that began along a curve of the Danube, then echoed across the world to come thundering down into our own century (vii).
The story gains momentum through the Autumn of 1888. Morton weaves together the stories of different ones as the splendour of Vienna's high society moves towards the celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph's birthday and beyond.

Composers Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Hugo Wolf and Anton Bruckner are there. A young neurologist called Sigmund Freud is there. The founding father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, is there. So also is the painter Gustav Klimt, the conductor Gustav Mahler, the composer-painter Arnold Schonberg, and the doctor-turned-writer Arthur Schnitzler. All their stories are told. Even philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is there (albeit 'in his mother's belly ... (about to) haunt the philosophy of the next century', 70). Add to these Viennese residents, the visits of Edward, Prince of Wales, and the German Emperor Wilhelm, and it is quite a muster of (male, yes I did notice!) characters. Never before has wikipedia received such an intense workout at my hands.

At the centre of the story is the Crown Prince Rudolf, with his thirtieth birthday falling in this same season. Rudolf was 'the hero of a living fairytale' (172). 'He entranced crowds and leaders alike. Queen Victoria's crustiness dissolved at the sight of him' (34). When his turn to rule arrived, he would be determined to make 'Vienna more seriously modern' (42), separating himself from his father's legacy.

The story passes through a midwinter's day (30 January 1889) at Mayerling. You see, Rudolf was a troubled chap. He was both 'lofty and lost' (188). He was 'wracked by protocol and emptiness ... laboring through the posturings of high hospitality' (215).
'Politics had become futility ... hopes for nourishment receded from his public to his private life. By the end of 1888 he saw in the gilded labyrinth around him only one figure worth clinging to: Mary Vetsera' (175). 
Yes, Rudolf became entwined with Mary, aged 17, who had 'learned the art of consent though she never lived to reach the age of it' (130). Together, it seemed as if they tried 'to overcome an uncontrollably failing life with a controlled, willed, carefully shaped death' (66). They entered together into some kind of suicide pact and at Mayerling they took their own lives. [So intrigued has the world been with this story that wikipedia references more than 15 movies, musicals, documentaries and ballets covering the events of that day].

Vienna was in the season of carnival. That was brought to a grinding halt as high society escaped the city - 'only the people were left in the city, to starve, to shiver and to grieve' (272). But the interwoven stories of the Viennese geniuses - Brahms, Strauss, Freud, Herzl, Mahler et al - continue on, retold in the finest detail.
All these talents served an intuition maturing first in Vienna; something important and green had turned golden and sick and petrified ... (315) 
By such paradox Vienna attained greatness after all. It bred the geniuses who foretold the modern wound. And Rudolf, too, became in time a sad but significant precursor. He was the herald of an alienation common to the youth of our day ... Under today's system the young often appear to be a generation of Rudolfs: free and glamorous in theory, crushingly impotent in action; ... free to see themselves as unbounded individuals without ever arriving at successful individuality; free to press pleasure to numb excess; ... free to sound the depths of sophisticated frustration.
The shots in the Vienna Woods were fired in 1889. Today and every day hundreds of other unnerved fingers are already crooked into hundreds of other triggers. Each time we hear of another strange young death in a 'good' house we hear of another Mayerling (316).
The story travels on to Easter Saturday in the Spring of 1889. 'Everything swelled and brightened toward Easter' (316). That Viennese specialty, 'the art of making life unserious' (299) reasserts itself. 'The chill had passed' (301). 'There was not a branch in the Vienna Woods that wasn't greening' (317). As yet another grand musical event fills the city with sound, Morton concludes his book with mention of a thin cry, first uttered on that Easter Saturday, commemorating the darkest day that history has ever known - a cry which carries with it a chill all of its own.
It was the thin cry of a baby born that afternoon. The parents were Alois and Klara Hitler. They named their little one Adolf (317).
And next week it is back to spring-less, autumn-less life in Bangalore, filled with heat and rain and the delights which come with it - like mangoes.