Thursday, July 30, 2015

mhairi black's speech

When my friend Pieter showed me this video of the maiden speech in the British parliament of the 20 year old Scot, Mhairi Black, my mind and imagination hatched a little plan.

A bit like coming to a biblical text for the first time, with a view to preaching it. I set myself to look and look, listen and listen - until I discovered twenty things to like and learn from this piece of communication.

Let's do it (in no particular order):

1. She honours the past
As a (very) young person, she stands up and immediately pays respect to those whom she follows. She looks for continuity. She places herself in a heritage which she values - and immediately all those older than her (ie the entire audience) who are wanting to think, 'who does this girl think she is?' - are not able to do so. She has disarmed them and from now on she owns their ears.

2. She understands humour
It is natural. It flows out. She doesn't tell jokes, as much as be someone who is funny. Instinctively, she knows to use humour early and, as a younger person, to keep it self-deprecating and freed of cynicism. It is a masterful performance of using humour as a way to gain entry into the heart, as well as the will. She sets herself up to be persuasive.

3. She uses words well
After the opening salvo of a little humour ('I was three at the time') and a little rapport-building (the William Wallace comment), there are 2-3 sentences that are almost lyrical in their quality. Perfect place. Perfect time. She reads them because she has prepared them carefully - but it doesn't matter. After just two minutes she is 'in' and from then on the audience is in the palm of her hand, as they say.

4. She is warm, and yet intense
I love this combination. The phrase I've used over the years is 'a warmth in the face and eyes and an urgency in the voice and manner'. In his recent book, Tim Keller talks about 'combining warmth and force'. That's it - and this twenty year old woman knows all about it.

5. She is brief
What she achieves in less than eight minutes is remarkable. No attention span issues here. Throw in the contemporary TED talk genre which comes in at under twenty minutes and there is clearly an ongoing place for monological speech - with the right combination of features (and length).

6. She is (relatively) note-free
There is a 'scripted informality'. The notes are there. That is OK. There are those who exalt note-free communication above all else - but then we listeners often have to submit ourselves to wandering, unprepared speech. Ugh. Not Mhairi. She has respected the occasion by preparing something and writing it out. People like that. But then she knows when to lift-off from her notes - particularly when she is in either story mode or testimony mode.

7. She gives testimony
Another phrase I like to use comes to mind - 'bearing witness to the truth you proclaim from the story of your own life'. The message is not over there somewhere, disconnected from her own life. Nope. Without turning the speech into something solely about herself, she deftly draws herself in from time-to-time. We are left to engage someone who comes across as credible, authentic - and humble.

8. She uses story powerfully
That story of the man early on takes up about one sixth of the speech. That is a big call - but the right call. She re-tells the story. There is detail. There is dialogue. There are short sentences. There is a slowing down in her pace. Watch the people around her. The raucous humour at the one minute mark has become a quiet stillness at the three minute mark.

9. She appreciates specificity
In her stories - and her facts and statistics - she demonstrates the value of being specific. Generalities wash over people - but so also does piling up the facts and the statistics. Mhairi gets it just right. Very judicious in her choices. 'Third highest'. 'One in five'.  They are like hooks into the imagination of listeners, earthing things and making what she says more difficult to escape.

10. She imagines a full house
I love this one. When I started as a pastor there was a congregation of 25 in an auditorium that seated 250. It is so hard to speak to empty rows! This clip opens and closes with rows of empty seats. And yet it doesn't seem to phase her at all. It would be so easy for a young, inexperienced communicator to take a cheap shot. She doesn't. She imagines the rows are full, she gives it her very best regardless - and makes them all feel so silly for not showing up.

11. She gets As from the twin As
When it comes to good speaking, Aristotle was about 'logos-ethos-pathos' and Augustine was about 'to delight - to inform - to persuade'. This one could be a post all of its own - or an assignment for preaching students (now - there's a good idea!). However you hold this speech up in the light of this ancient wisdom, Mhairi does well.

12. Speaking of As, she knows how to use assonance and alliteration
Not too much. Not drawing attention to it - in fact, you don't notice it unless you go looking for it. 'uncaring ... uncompromising'. 'deteriorate ... decline'. Yes, they are there. People love to make fun of this sort of feature in sermons, but the reality is that it is an effective and enduring feature of memorable communication.

13. She utilises imagery
The mix of story and image is one of my favourite features of this speech. Gotta make room for both. A key story (about the man) draws her listeners in and then a key image leads her listeners on: the signpost and the weathercock. But don't miss the others, like 'wave of hope' and 'hold up a mirror' etc. Illustration is not just about story - it is also about imagery, transforming the listening exercise into an imaginative one.

14. She masters the personal pronouns
Sometime watch/listen to the speech with an ear only for her use of pronouns. The mingling of 'I' and 'we' ... the use of '(s)he/they' (be it used for the people in her constituency, or for the government) ... and then what about turning to 'you' and the way she addresses the (mostly empty rows of) Labourites? Log the time given to each pronoun. Note where they predominate in the speech. Again, it is masterful. I bet the Labour caucus had a few things to talk about next time they met.

15. She involves her body
Holding your notes as you speak is tricky, but she still manages to get her arms free and gesticulate in a manner which adds emphasis to what she says. Ya can't tie the hands of a storyteller! But beyond that I like the way moves her head/neck to include her party colleagues around her - and then the way she positions her feet/stance to speak directly to her fellow-opposition members in the Labour ranks.

16. She is articulate
Sure, there are stories and humour and testimony - but there is also logic and argument. She makes a series of quotable comments, pithy little statements that live on in the memory - and the press. The one about food banks and the welfare state. The one about waves of nationalism and waves of hope. The government takes a few hits, as you'd expect (she even mentions the T-word, 'Thatcher') - but it is the way she appeals to the Labour party, which I suspect is the overall point of her speech ('let's be in opposition together') where her argument is most compelling and articulate. I love the Acts 17 ploy of quoting their own authority back to them.

17. She uses rhetorical questions
It is one of most effective ways to transform a monologue into a dialogue, without giving your listeners time to speak! 'On whom is the sun shining?' was one of the high moments in the speech - but, given this fact, it is also an area that attracts a bit of critique. Apart from the story about the man near the beginning, she seemed to be in too much of a hurry. Was there a time limit? I don't know. After a rhetorical question, it helps to pause for a second or two...

18. She is winsome and authentic and passionate as a person
There is a quality about this speech that will have her political opponents drawing nearer. #1-17 will all play their part, but when all is said and done, it will be these personal qualities that do it for her. These attributes transcend politics. The benches will be full next time she speaks. She has credibility. She has some runs on the board. By being winsome like this, she is likely to win some...

19. She builds rapport
This is crucial - and it is multi-dimensional in that all of the features mentioned so far will play their part. If you don't have rapport, you don't have much. Trumping Burns with Wallace had all her own people with her - and then, as she moved on, she won everyone else as well.

20. ???
I think I'll give readers of this post the opportunity to add anything I've missed!

Well, that was great fun. Now I pray that Jesus will find her and, if he has found her already (I don't want to assume anything), that the Bible will fascinate her so much that these skills will be used in the service of her constituency for an additional purpose: communicating the gospel in all its appealing glory.

nice chatting


Sunday, July 26, 2015

words of life

It is like recalling a car with a deficient part. I would love to recall all our graduates and put a new part in them - an expository one.
These are the words of a president of a leading theological college in the Middle East North Africa region - words which I heard with my own ears earlier this year. I feel his longing. But I wonder if the issue is more basic than the 'expository' part ... might it be the deeper, more foundational issue of a theology of word, a doctrine of Scripture, that needs recalling and replacing?

A generation ago Jacques Ellul wrote a book on how the word has been 'humiliated'. The various philosophical trends have conspired to weaken the word, to create suspicion about its ability to represent meaning, and to raise the alarm about the way it oppresses peoples. We are told that it has a diminished place in popular culture and public life (... but try telling that to millions of TED talk enthusiasts and almost as many millions of fans of the maiden speech of a young Scottish MP - the word-filled monologue seems to be alive and well, no matter what the ivory towers tell us!).

Rehabilitation needs to be the response to humiliation. Too much is at stake. To help restore confidence it needs a course at the college - or, at least, part of one - and it needs some careful reading and the occasional preaching series in the church.

The resources are flowing.  Kevin deYoung's Taking God at His Word has been celebrated in an earlier post. Langham has just republished the little classic by John Stott - God's Word for Today's World ... and then there is this superb book by Timothy Ward: Words of Life (IVP, 2009). I can't believe it has taken be six years to get here... Ward's purpose is 'to describe the nature of the relationship between God and Scripture' (11).

I love the shape of the book.
Ward moves from the 'biblical' (dealing with specific texts), to the 'theological' (discussing the relationship between Scripture and each member of the Trinity), to the 'doctrinal' (explaining the attributes of Scripture: necessity, sufficiency, clarity and authority) - and then onto the 'applied' (earthing his findings in the life of the believer and the community). In doing so he provides a model on how to grapple with issues of significance.

I love the way he addresses the big issues in my journey.
It is uncanny. Turn a page and there is another one. Forgive me for becoming more personal here. But so many of my issues seem to be here - simply and directly explained. Plus the guy is a wise and winsome pastor. It is obvious. Reminiscent of Tim Keller's writings, in these pages we discover someone acquainted with the issues of real people, immersed in real life with real (and thoughtful) questions about the Bible.

From my years as a student: there are words for my confusion over where Karl Barth fits (60-67); for my struggle with being confident in the formation of the biblical canon (89-92); and then for my sifting through words like inspiration (79-84) and inerrancy (130-140) - first, trying to understand them and then trying to decide whether they are useful or not - in the midst of those polemical 80s in the USA.

From my years as a pastor: there are words for my frustration with the YWAM-generation and the way they kept using the word 'inspiration' when they meant 'illumination' (92-94, 168-174); for my confusion over whether the divine:human incarnation is an accurate model for a divine:human Scripture (74-78); for my annoyance with the sovereignty of an individual's personal interpretation of scripture - what Ward calls solo scriptura, rather than sola scriptura (146-151) ... and the entire book speaks into my disappointment about the way Word always trailed so far behind Sign and Deed in the priorities and passions of churches and their leaders.

From my years in theological education: there are words for my conversation in a car with a senior Baptist leader on Balmoral Rd (Auckland), in my first weeks as a principal, when he expressed horror that I should want to make the Bible the basis of the curriculum, and as he drove his car he drove this wedge between Christ and Scripture as the word of God, elevating the former while diminishing the latter (67-74); for my intention to slow down the theologians' rush to systematization (50-51; 96-97); for my desire to be pro-Word and pro-Spirit at the same time (78-95, another wedge to dismantle!); and for my struggle to understand, and then appreciate, speech-act theory (57-60).

And now, for my years as a trainer of preachers: the entire book strengthens my convictions about the ongoing place of words in the mission of God. 'God acts by speaking (23) ... in biblical language and theology, God speaking and God acting are often one and the same thing (26) ... God has so identified himself with his words that whatever someone does to God's words they do directly to God himself.' (27). And then there is a little purple patch on the Bible and preaching (156-170) which so refreshed and renewed me.

A couple more comments:
In his discussions of the necessity, the clarity, the sufficiency, and the authority of Scripture (96-140), Ward acknowledges that 'none is a term given to us in Scripture, so we are not bound to them' (106) ... but then he builds his case for each one by making it clear 'what I am saying', but also 'what I am not saying'. It is a masterful piece of wise, winsome and irenic reasoning in a debate so plagued by polemics.

And striking a blow to the chronological snobs out there, he takes us back, repeatedly, to the tried and the true - and the very, very old: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, BB Warfield, and Herman Bavinck - with the relatively unfamiliar Turretin the stand-out to me. For example, on the relationship between Word and Spirit:
The former works objectively, the latter efficiently; the former strikes the ears from without, the latter opens the heart from within (93).
nice chatting - and with the rather forlorn hope that those who most need to read this book will actually do so.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

a perfect (scottish) seven, plus one

It has always been a dream to visit Scotland.

My parents loved it enough to name my sister, just 15 months older than me, Heather. I had visited it on two previous occasions. Once to visit a college in Glasgow (for 6 hours); and once, travelling all the way from New Zealand, to interview a possible faculty member in Edinburgh (for 24 hours, and led on to George & Jo Wieland, together with Lindsey, Joanne and Jonathan, coming to NZ).

But visits lasting a few hours hardly constitute visiting a country. And so after Langham meetings in Wales, to which Barby had also been invited, we headed off for a five day holiday in Scotland (during which we enjoyed a total of five hours of sunshine, as we traveled 1106 miles).

Never before have I been in a country where the letters are so familiar to me, but my pronunciation of those letters, as they assemble together in place names, seem so unfamiliar to them. The only words I got right were the rivers - Tay, Don, Esk, Tweed and other such complicated assemblages. Maybe the five years of living in Invercargill, where every street name seems to come from Scotland (we lived on Tweed St), prepared me for this daunting assignment.

I've already posted photos on the staggering views of the Isle of Skye from Elbol and Applecross - but here are eight other places we enjoyed.

new abbey

An unheralded little abbey, known also as Sweetheart Abbey.
We loved the grass carpet and the Mogul-coloured stone that reminded us a bit of Delhi.


Everyone raves about this one - and so they should.
My stunt-double, Daniel Craig, helped me out with a few scenes here in a recent movie.

We stayed overnight in a little B&B and then a still morning led to lots of reflection photos.
This is Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.

eilean donan
The iconic castle which so often introduces Scotland to the world.

An historic location, with the Robert the Bruce statue in the foreground and the William Wallace memorial in the distance.
And in the valley between, marked by the Stirling Bridge ... and all kinds of brave-hearted battles.

This William Wallace memorial is nowhere near Stirling - and was announced only by a simple sign
on a tiny lane in the middle of the Borders. It is deserving of far, far more marketing!
east neuk

The sun shone as we moved through this sequence of jigsaw puzzle villages south of St Andrews.

So many of the cathedrals in the UK seem so removed from mission and ministry.
Not this one. All the explanations for the tourist were tinged by the gospel. 
The surrounding area inspired Beatrix Potter
royal mile (edinburgh)

Not usually a big fan of wherever it is that the crowds wander, but this 'mile' is an exception.
Here is John Knox in the courtyard of New College, made famous for me by John 'Diary of Private Prayer' Baillie,
Thomas 'the expulsive power of a new affection' Chalmers, James 'prince of preachers' Stewart ... all very exciting.
It is also where Kiwi Murray Robertson trained.
Then around the corner, presiding over 'the mile', staring down the church
and subverting much of what New College stood for is ... philosopher David Hume.

nice chatting


PS: ... and England's Lake District ain't too bad either!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

skye watch

Sometimes a Lone Person is better than a Lonely Planet.

With just a day in our schedule to explore the Scottish Highlands that Lone Person for us was Graham Slater, a dedicated 'Munro-bagger' (NB: a Munro is a mountain in Scotland over 3000' and Graham has 'bagged', or climbed, all 282 of them - and is now up to 70 on his second time around!).

Graham knows his stuff. He directed us to the Isle of Skye and left us with two words: Elgol (on Skye) and Applecross (across from Skye). Off we went, dutifully obedient - and then delightfully overwhelmed. WOW. The sun never shone through - but it didn't seem to matter...

the view from elgol

the view from applecross 

Oh yes - and the road into Elgol ain't too bad either...

And what about the road into Applecross? Goodness deary me...

nice chatting and watching
(and thanks, Graham)


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

in the (lowest) corner of a rural field

Some people have lived such important lives.

In a recent wander through a cemetery in Pembrokeshire (SW Wales) one memorial is designed to attract attention more than any other. And it does. High above all else. The erect, stone figure can be seen from some distance. A military man of some kind, I suspect. Maybe a general? In life he commanded armies and now in death he is commanding graves.

But I am not wandering for his sake.

I am on a little pilgrimage. My eyes look here and there for the headstone I have come to see. Ahh, there it is. Down at the lowest point in the cemetery, close to the boundary, in a nondescript little space. Having been added far more recently than its neighbours, the colouring (and the material being used) is a little different, making it easier to locate.

I draw nearer ...

... and still nearer.

It is my first time back to The Hookses in Dale since John Stott died, four years ago (later this month). This is the place where John Stott came to write his books and to retreat from the busyness of a global ministry. It was his wish to be buried here.

I had heard about the content of what he wanted written as a memorial (echoing the words chosen by Charles Simeon, a 19th century inspiration with a remarkably similar ministry) but I was not prepared for this context. I mean we are talking about arguably the most influential person in the global evangelical church in the last five decades, maybe more. This is not exactly St Paul's, or Westminster Abbey, is it?!

But why should I have been surprised? A life characterized by simplicity and humility was followed by a death characterized by the same. In the lowest corner of a rural field.

The cemetery begins as the row of houses concludes - with our 'general' elevating upwards
in the middle and Stott's grave in the lower right corner (maybe expand this one a bit!). 
As for that content, let's draw nearer, one more time.

nice chatting