Sunday, June 28, 2015

the road to character

David Brooks' The Road to Character (Allen Lane, 2015) is a book of two halves - that is, if we are able to be flexible and allow one of the halves to be only one-sixth of the book.

The Introduction (ix-xv) and The Shift (3-15) will make their way into the required reading list for countless courses around the world dealing with issues of spirituality and leadership. They are that good. The final chapter - The Big Me (241-270), with its 'The Humility Code' - will not be too far behind. Brooks takes just 50 pages to nail his argument.

In the other five-sixths he collects eight 'biographical essays' because 'moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed' (xiii). These people discovered their lives were made of 'crooked timber' (Kant) - and so they 'waged war' with it.  Frances Perkins, Ike Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), Augustine, and Samuel Johnson. As we meander through the stories, Brooks urges us to 'relearn a vocabulary of character' (15) that has been lost.

Brooks' argument builds on a distinction made by Rabbi Soloveitchik regarding the two sides of our nature, Adam I and Adam II. Brooks has a gift in drawing contrasts in a succinct manner. Adam I is interested in CV, or resume, virtues. Adam II is committed to eulogy virtues. Adam I is about what we say as we market ourselves for success, while Adam II is what people say at our funeral about our character.

While Adam I wants to conquer the world, 
Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world (x).

To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. 
To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses (x).

If you don't have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, 
your betrayal, will happen. Adam I ultimately depends on Adam II (12).

Adam I achieves success by winning victories over others. 
But Adam II builds character by winning victories over the weaknesses in himself (13).

Narcissism is the cultural setting in which the confrontation between these two Adams takes place. It is a 'gospel of self-trust' (7). 'You are special. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Don't accept limits...' For Brooks, 'a moral tradition has been left behind' (15), as people have become self-absorbed - or, in the words of George Eliot - we are 'taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves' (244).

This infects Christian communities. One of my own long-standing concerns is that so much teaching on topics like spiritual gifts and self-esteem owe more to the spirit of the age than to the Spirit of God. The very notion that our gifts and our strengths should determine our vocation beggars belief. Where and when will we then confront our weaknesses and our flaws? Vocation is determined by calling primarily, not gifting (which comes soon afterwards). Brooks' message is that we need 'to become strong in the weak places' (10) so that 'Adam I bows down to Adam II'.

Woven into the 'biographical essays' is all kinds of wisdom: the nature of sin (54-55); the value of suffering (93-96); a beautiful paragraph on what 'sensitive people do when other people are in trauma' (100-101 - it reminded me of my godly mother!); the nature of love (168-174); the nature of pride (198-201); a reflection on status updates on facebook (250-251); and on parenting (254-257). But the common denominator with the eight stories is clear and bold:
... each of the lives started with a deep vulnerability and undertook a lifelong effort to transcend that vulnerability ... And yet each person was redeemed by their weakness. Each person struggled against that weakness and used that problem to grow a beautiful strength. Each person traveled down into the valley of humility in order to ascend to the heights of tranquility and self-respect (268).
It is easy to overhear the wisdom and character of Jesus in these pages. I longed for references on the way the Holy Spirit provides the energising power to produce this kind of character - but not sure it would have worked. The way Brooks packages biblical wisdom for a readership that is increasingly skeptical about us, the people of the Book, is one of the attractions of his writing.

Speaking of people of the Book, this is the same David Brooks who wrote the heralded article on John Stott in his New York Times column, all those years ago. I do not know all the details, but that encounter with Stott greatly impacted Brooks' own spiritual journey. In a book that finds its way to an advocacy of humility as 'the greatest of all virtues' - it is humility that both Brooks and Stott have in common. I valued Brooks' vulnerability. 'This book is about Adam II ... I wrote it to save my own soul' (xi). The final paragraph - in the Acknowledgements (!) at the very end - took me by surprise and made me a little weepy (which is not particularly difficult to do), with all that is left unsaid.
Life has its vicissitudes and unexpected turns. My ex-wife, Sarah, has done and continues to do an amazing job raising our three children. Those children, Joshua, Naomi, and Aaron, are now spread around the globe, and exemplify the traits of character that any parent dreams of: courage, creativity, honesty, fortitude, and loving kindness. They don't really need this book, but I hope they profit from it. (273)

My own battle with these issues of the self and its place and profile in my life took a sweeping turn all those decades ago when I read 'Self-Understanding and Self-Giving' in Stott's The Cross of Christ. Have you read these pages? The words melted me and electrified me - as they do so again just now. They became a starting point. Self-denial and self-affirmation. Dignity and depravity. Worth and unworthiness.
On the one hand, the cross is the God-given measure of the value of our true self, since Christ loved us and died for us. On the other hand, it is the God-given model for the denial of our false self, since we are to nail it to the cross and put it to death. Or, more simply, standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die (285).
nice chatting


[PS: I see from the 'labels' section to the right that this is my 100th book review :)].

Thursday, June 25, 2015

mangoes, rice, preaching

How is this for a greeting at the front of our local grocery story - Nilgiri's in Kothanur (Bangalore)?

Look at the variety of mangoes. Alphonso seems to be king, but I ain't fussy. A mela is an event where people gather in a festival-like manner. Bring it on. We tend to take the mela back home with us and have mangoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner - and the occasional snack.

But what is going on here?

Is it not true that mangoes are so commonplace and so central to life here in South India that the culture develops and distinguishes the varieties in a way that we just would not do back home in NZ?

Step inside the doors of the store and the same thing happens again - with rice. A similar variety, this time each with its own bin. Once again ... is it not true that rice is so commonplace and so central to life here that the culture develops and distinguishes the varieties in a way that we just would not do back home? [But no mela for me this time. Rice glues up my alimentary canal, leading to ailments which will remain unstated here.]

Step inside the life of the early church in the book of Acts and a similar thing is happening - for those with eyes to see. Not mangoes. Not rice. Preaching. So commonplace and so central is preaching to its life that the early church develops and distinguishes varieties in a way that we just do not do in NZ, or in India - or any other country with which I am acquainted.

Scholars tell us that there are 37 references to the growth of the church in Acts. Six associate this growth with a quality of church life. Seven link this growth with the presence of signs & wonders - but 24 references link it with preaching the word of God, in all its nuance and variety. Even a basic understanding of the book of Acts picks up its theme: the church spreads, as the Word of God spreads. It is the biography – not of Peter, or Paul – but of the Word, carried forward by preachers. The final phrase in the original emphasizes this: ‘the unstoppable word’...
Speaking of scholars, my journey on this point has twisted and turned thanks to different scholars.

CH Dodd gave me a horrible start. He zeroed in on just two words - 'preaching' and 'teaching' - and argued that there was a 'clear distinction' between the two (when the biblical data is far less certain). His analysis was unnecessarily exclusivist (allowing for no overlap in meanings) and reductionist (giving priority to just two words, when there are many more) ... and had a generation heading up the wrong alley.

Along came word-study supremo, Gerhard Kittel, rescuing me with the news of thirty-three different words for preaching in the New Testament. The mela is still on. The bins are diverse, full - nuanced.

Then, on one sleepy Friday evening in Wanaka (NZ), I was commencing my favourite ministry opportunity of all: a local-church based preaching seminar for people at the grassroots. A dozen people this time. But then - ever so quietly, as is his manner - in slipped a thirteenth person into the back row. Murray Harris, arguably New Zealand's greatest ever New Testament scholar. Gulp?! He caught me waxing as eloquently as I could on this very point. Later in the week I received a hand-written note from the professor. He affirmed what I was saying and took me to the Mela in Thessalonica - Acts 17.2-4 - carefully scripting the six different Greek words (in just three verses!) that give colour and depth, diversity and nuance, to the ministry of preaching. 

Before too long, Aussie Peter Adam came along, bringing some order to the mela when he articulated 'the many different ministries of the Word' (Speaking God's Words, 75):
(a) words of information: teach, instruct, point out, make known, remind; 
(b) words of declaration: preach, proclaim, cry out, testify, bear witness, declare, write, read, pass on;
(c) words of exhortation: call, denounce, warn, rebuke, command, give judgement, encourage, appeal, urge; 
(d) words of persuasion: explain, make clear, prove, guard, debate, contend, refute, reason, persuade, convince, insist, defend. confirm, stress;
(e) words of conversation: say, speak, talks, answer, reply, give answer.

There is a need to thicken and deepen and broaden the 'ministry of the Word' that happens in and through local churches. Here is one application of what it could look like: preaching: acts and now.

nice chatting


Friday, June 19, 2015

lyrics for living 6 (but this i know)

When things get tough I try to look in two directions.

One is horizontal. Maybe chronological is a better word. I bring to mind the way God works with a 24 hour day and how dawn follows midnight. Always. Without Fail. Then in many countries, far from the equator, He works with a 4 season year. Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter. But then ... always ... without fail ... spring follows winter. What is true in the rhythm of creation is true in the rhythm of the new creation. The 24 and the 4 breathe hope into my life during difficult times.

The other direction is vertical. Deep though the pain may be, deeper still there is a God who is true and real and faithful. Ten years ago - last month - I began my message at the funeral of a young woman, who had a brain tumour accompany her through her entire (almost) life, with these words:

"There is this hymn that I love…
 The first line of every verse starts the same way: 'I cannot tell'
       …as if to say
                    I don’t understand
                    It is beyond me
                    I just don’t know
Then… further down – half way through the very same verses 
each time, there comes a response: 'But this I know'
       …as if to say
                   I am sure
                   I rest my life on this
                   I am convinced of this
The words in the hymn are great.

But it is actually the way these phrases are arranged 
on the page that gets me every time.
      The very fact that they even coexist…
       - 'I cannot tell' & 'But this I know' -
       and hang out together in the same verse is remarkable
                   - just like with life -
And then more subtly, the ‘But this I know’ always lies deeper and lower 
in the verse & on the page it is the foundational phrase
                   - just like in life it can be, as well -
By way of Reflection this morning I want to focus 
on the deeper and the foundational: the ‘But this I know' ... "

Here is another young woman (her name is Hope!) singing this hymn:

Ten years ago - next year - I visited Zambia with my son, Martin. Two days after returning to New Zealand I was to speak at a World Vision Prayer Day. I remember feeling panic, as I had no idea what to say. But then God dropped an idea into my mind. I had been immersed in the sadness of Meredith's State of Africa as I traveled and also the Psalms of Ascent. 

These psalms are borne in pain. I decided to hold these distressing stories of African nations emerging from colonization in one hand and these Psalms in the other hand. Context and Text. Just how I like the conversation to be in my heart and mind. I read bits from the book and then read bits from the Bible. Zambia - Psalm 120 - deceit. Rwanda - Psalm 121 - fear. Sudan - Psalm 122 - war ... On we went, through the countries and through the psalms ... even USA/UN/France - Psalm 130 - guilt.

When they engage with these stories, Christians around the world get knotted, and ask, "Where is God in all this pain? Has God left Africa?" But I didn't hear Christians in Africa asking those questions so much. They kept on worshiping God. But sometimes I thought I could hear them wanting to articulate, "Where are God's people - our brothers and sisters - in all this?" 

Oh yes, the worship weeps - but deeper down the worship knows certain things to be true about God. The experience changed me. I came home with a vibrant testimony of 'I cannot tell, but this I know' which will shape my life for forever. The pain is real. The suffering is huge. Don't minimise it. I cannot get my head and heart around it. But deep though the pain may be, there is something deeper going on. Down through the pain there is Someone else. 

Just as with the hymn, down lower and further in these Psalms can be found truths to know for sure. Psalm 120 and the God who saves. Psalm 121 and the God who protects. Psalm 122 and the God who peace-keeps. Psalm 123 and the God who shows mercy. Psalm 124 and the God who helps. Psalm 129 and the God who judges. Psalm 130 and the God who forgives. Psalm 131 and the God who stills...

The horizontals and the verticals. 
It is the way to live. 
May God help me so to do.

nice chatting


Saturday, June 13, 2015

taking flight with frances

Seldom do I remember flights taking-off these days. I am asleep by that time, as an involuntary nap overwhelms me on the way to the runway. On this occasion I could be excused for such behaviour befitting a baby. Eight long days of listening, facilitating and note-taking had left me a little weary.

I boarded the plane. As I settled into my customary aisle seat, my eye caught an empty row of three up ahead. It was a clear day. Lima to Sao Paulo. Across the Andes, for goodness sake. Five hours. What about a window seat? Yes, why not?! So I settled into my new digs, with imaginary toothpicks holding up my eyelids so that I can remain alert until after take-off.

In the end sleep was the least of all likelihoods...

Julia Cameron's John Stott's Right Hand (Piquant, 2014), 'the untold story of Frances Whitehead', was the book of choice for this flight. The story of the woman who worked alongside John Stott for 55 years - in 'a unique partnership ... for which the English language perhaps has no word' (86). One can only imagine how a Hollywood scriptwriter would mess with the characters and the plot. And yet Frances occupies so much of 'the back-story to John Stott's colossal influence' (189).

The book was finished on this single flight despite frequent interruptions to savour the view outside my window.

Oh, those mountains, barren but beautiful, range upon range, as we head inland towards the Andes. 
I love the zigging and zagging pathways up their steep sides.

The dignity of work. A simple observation in the final pages caught my eye. 'Appendix II: Books typed by Frances Whitehead'. Typed? When did you last see a typist featured in such a list? It seems such a basic task. But books cannot be completed if they are not typed. This story legitimates basic, but essential, work. It dignifies the simplest of callings. Sure, Frances became something special as 'Frances the Omnicompetent', the 'source of all knowledge' (SOAK). But like you and me, she had to make a start somewhere - and typing was it.

Goodness me - is that a volcano out my window?

The work of grace. It was not an easy life. Her only sibling, an older sister, died far too young. Her parents' marriage was unhappy, ending in separation. The bond with her mother 'was never deep' (140). Frances led a solitary and 'rootless' life, leading to a shy and 'diffident' personality. Her father, her 'rock', died suddenly just before her 19th birthday. But through it all God drew Frances to himself - with the preaching of one John Stott being the key: 'the sheer authenticity of the preacher had convinced Frances to listen and to focus' (41). It was as she listened that 'the light of Christ first dawned on me' (11). This is the story of someone like us. God chose to make Frances His own - just like he wants to do with you and me.

On the distant horizon, can I make out some blue below the horizon as well as above it?
Is there some sky and some water? Surely not. 
But then, for no apparent reason, the pilot takes a sharp left turn
... and we travel along the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The grace of obedience. After a season working with the BBC, Frances was appointed as secretary to John Stott. This was to be the setting for her obedience to God for the rest of her working life. Typist - yes! But also gatekeeper, administrator, encourager ... and very much the 'right hand' of John Stott. 'A servant of the servant of the Lord'. It is a shared legacy. Their ability 'to work together so closely for so long was a mark of grace' (86). 'They resolutely did not allow for romantic hopes to take root' (86) in order to obey this higher calling at 'an unrelenting pace for over half a century' (189). We may not all be as gifted as John Stott, but we can all be as obedient as Frances Whitehead and that is what God desires from us. That is enough. He can do amazing things with obedience.

As soon as Titicaca fades from view, the city of La Paz appears right underneath me.

Accessible stories of ordinary people who are deeply consecrated to Christ appeal to me. They become special people. This story of Frances Whitehead ticks this box for me. I read it right through without stopping. The dignity of work - the work of grace - the grace of obedience.

It is the Good Life. It is the beauty of the new creation (as read in these pages) which complements the beauty of creation (as seen out that window) ... and a beauty in which God draws near.

nice chatting


PS. May I add one more thing? I do not find the title to be convincing. Such is the ignorance about John Stott among emerging generations that any new books dealing with this story should try to draw near to these younger ones. This is a title for the insider, not the outsider, to the story. An opportunity has been missed. Moreover, I wonder how those generations respond to a title in which a woman is being defined in this way? I guess it is OK if you know the people (and I am sure Frances does not mind) - but if you don't, I wonder if they will draw near to read and be transformed?