Sunday, January 31, 2016

two generals

A day to remember in Yangon. A visit to the family homes of two great leaders of the twentieth century: General Aung San and Secretary-General U Thant.

General Aung San is the father of the nation - and the father of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, whose party is soon to assume political power, as the nation opens up further to democracy. For decades, his home was open to the public on just one day in July each year - but now it is open every day. No cameras inside. The array of furniture and beds and photos is simple, yet poignant.

[Aung Sang Suu Kyi is in her mother's arms in this photo.] Her father - 'the general' - led the move against British colonial rule and on into independence. Then on one tragic day (almost exactly one month before India's first independence day, in 1947), as he met with his cabinet, a group of soldiers burst into the room and murdered all but three of them. Aung San was just 33 years of age. The country never recovered. The general never fulfilled his potential as a leader of his people.

Secretary-General U Thant was the leader of the United Nations through two terms right through those difficult 1960s, with the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, wars in the Middle East, Vietnam, Congo, India/Pakistan etc. His family home fell into disrepair and was forgotten about, until his grandson discovered it just a handful of years ago. It has been restored and there are plans to expand it with library, lecture, and cafe facilities.

One general caught up in war in the service of his people, the other caught up in peace in the service of all peoples. One home with just a few photos accompanying wife and family, the other home with so many photos accompanying heads of state. One general dying so young, unable to fulfil his potential in such a short career - the other able to fulfil that potential in a long and enduring career. And as I wandered through both homes, it was the soft gentleness in their faces and their eyes that remains with me - a common characteristic of the beautiful people of this land.

nice chatting


PS (1): If you are interested in Myanmar, my earlier visits have provoked other posts: including a reflective time in an Armenian church, a meditation on dozens of bridges off the main road and a review of a book on the life of Aung San Suu Kyi.

PS (2): Not just two generals in Yangon, but also two sisters. Remarkably, my sister (Diane) and Barby's sister (Dora) - two years apart in age - live just 20 minutes walking distance from each other.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

the devil's trinity

Corruption. Prosperity teaching. 'Big Man' leadership.

The evil trio. The devil's trinity. Everywhere I go in this job, it does not take long for these three to surface in the conversation. I am just home from a visit to Ghana, and the combo was present there, too.

It started at the airport, on arrival in Accra. I had a long wait in Baggage Claim - with ample time to read a huge mural about an 'Action Chapel' having an 'Impact' conference. It took me awhile to notice that the conference had already happened, leaving me to wonder about the action and its impact. No photos were allowed - but no matter, the city streets had plenty of editions of the same billboard.

I was taken to Independence Square, commemorating the first nation in Africa to gain independence. Such a thrill for me - a dream ever since I read Martin Meredith's State of Africa ten years ago. Adjoining the Square is a massive concrete space and in the hot, mid-afternoon sun a crowd was already gathering for a thrill. Gradually the vast space was filling, together with the boutique stadiums around the periphery. What was going on? The bonnet of a parked car revealed the answer: some kind of crusade by a youthful Nigerian couple, one being the Apostle Professor and the other being the Reverend Doctor Mrs.

Out the back the book tables were taking shape and attracting customers. The wheelbarrow may have contained towers of Bibles built on a foundational Matthew Henry commentary...

... but everyone's eyes were drawn to what was on the ground:

This is just a glimpse of it - but when you string a few glimpses together it becomes a gaze and it is hard to miss what is happening. It is all so very sad.

Prosperity teaching and Big Man leadership ... and with that combination in place, just under the surface somewhere, sometime - corruption will be there. Not just in Ghana (where most of the judiciary has recently been fired due to corruption - goodness me, if you can't trust your judges, who can you trust?!). And not just Africa. Not just Asia. Not just Latin America. It is everywhere. Take just as one example, the big target - and so the easy target. The USA.

What ?! The evil trio, the devil's trinity - in the USA?! Of course. Right at the core. Prosperity preachers aplenty, seducing their own as well as those overseas. Big Man leadership never far from the headlines, with Donald Trump an archetype that other Big Men aspire to be like: authoritarian and arrogant. People's growing attraction to Trump over the past year is as bemusing as people's growing hatred of Obama over the past eight years - both slightly irrational. What about corruption? Surely not?! Money buying votes? Hilary Clinton's USD235k speeches on Wall Street? Increasingly, the race to the White House is won by a mega-wealthy person who taps into the resources of even wealthier people to whom they are then beholden in a variety of ways. Is that so different from what happens in those countries that we look at down the end of our long noses?

personal postscript
When I think of the influence of Corruption, Prosperity teaching and Big Man leadership around the world, I thank the Lord for the privilege of working with Langham. May I be permitted to say that? When its three programmes - Scholars, Literature, Preaching - work in concert together under God's hand, a dent can be made in this toxic stuff. Scholars who know and teach the scriptures? Literature that brings 'text and context' together, seeping into mother-tongue languages? Movements of grassroots biblical preaching, carried forward by local trainers, sweeping through countries? This is the depth and breadth that is needed.

Then, by God's grace, add in a pinch of the Stottian legacy from his character (humility, integrity, simplicity) and from his ministry ('who resolved both as the ground of his salvation and as the subject of his ministry to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified' - on his tombstone) ... and then move forward in partnership with other similarly-wired ministries, making their own dents, and this evil trio can begin to be dismantled, as we await its total destruction on the day of Christ's return.

nice chatting


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

saturday and sunday

Not so long ago, Barby and I had a pretty typical weekend in Bangalore.

On the Saturday, Barby and I wandered through the local shopping area. She is dressed in salwar kameez (and I am occasionally wearing a kurta). As we wander, it is hard not to notice the many Indians, young adults and young families, dressed in jeans and t-shirts. As they stream in and out of McDonalds, KFC, Dominos, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, we find ourselves seeking out the latest little Indian dhaba to sample some simple authentic Indian cuisine. This time it is an upstairs room, almost with a view.

On the Sunday, Barby and I wandered into church. In the opening half of the service every single song we sing is written and arranged by people foreign to India. In the second half of the service, every single illustration in an illustration-laden sermon is sourced from, or about, people who are foreign to India. And there I sit, as a preacher who can spend 6-8 hours trying to turn a NZ sermon into an Indian one - and as a teacher of preaching who can spend 6-8 months gathering local newspaper editorials to ensure that my NZ preaching class becomes an Indian one.

Why do I bother?
We are trying so hard to be local. They are trying so hard to be global.
I feel a few things as I process these observations.

I feel understanding. There is a global culture - marked by things like fashion and food in society; by worship and teaching in church - which works like a tide flooding into every local bay around the world. This tide is powered by the media and the internet. It is unavoidable. Waterfalls do not turn off with a tap. I understand the attraction for the global by the local, particularly when it feeds hopes and distracts fears. I will not resort to cheap criticism.

I feel surprise. In the mind-shaping arenas of media and politics and education, including theological education, there is just so much rhetoric around contextualisation and the importance of being Indian (in this setting). The public debates. The academic papers. They are full of it. And yet, the masses so often seem to want to walk in another direction.

I feel empathy. There are huge challenges in all this for India. India is a bit like Europe, with all that diversity within a common, yet fractious, identity ... except that India has almost twice the population and it remains one single nation.  It is astonishing. So when we climb our ivory towers and rabbit-on about being local, which 'local' will it be?! Sometimes people find it easier to meet around the global.

I feel sadness. May I be permitted to say that much, with respect and care? Without merely playing the nostalgia card and living in my (Indian) missionary-kid past, I do feel a sadness, particularly in church. As I participate in worship and as I listen to teaching, could the space given to local be increased just a little bit more? In the fullness of time, we may find that it is needed by the global.

nice chatting


Friday, January 08, 2016

kiwi beauty

Barby and I have just returned to India - after thirty days in New Zealand (over Christmas) where we engaged some Kiwi beauty: in creation and in grandchildren.

The beauty of creation:

The beauty of grandchildren:

nice viewing


Sunday, January 03, 2016

being mortal

Atul Gawande's Being Mortal takes me back to grace and truth.

The author is concerned that we lack 'a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, (as) we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers' (9). Drawing a little on his alternative Indian heritage, Gawande grieves over the way 'old age and infirmity have gone from being a shared, multi-generational responsibility to a more or less private state - something experienced largely alone or with the aid of doctors and institutions' (17).

Gawande channels that grief into being one who provokes conversation and presses for change. This is how he writes and this is how we should respond.

But let's do it with grace, like Gawande.
His tone is irresistible. There is a combination of humility and compassion in the way he writes. He is learning as he writes. He is feeling as he writes. One of the stories of dying and death which he tells is that of his own father. It is so tender.

Then there are stories of other people with similar grace. My favourite would be the one about Bill Thomas (111-125) transforming a nursing home with plants and animals and children ('literally putting life into it' - 116). Green plants - and a bird - in every room. Vegetable and flower gardens instead of acres of lawn. Dogs and cats roaming the property. 'People who had been completely withdrawn and nonambulatory started coming to the nurses' station and saying, 'I'll take the dog for a walk''(122). Even on-site child-care for staff and an after-school programme for children, with residents helping children with their homework on World War 2. Gracious tone. Gracious stories.

Medical professionals are not known for their simplicity of language. Acronyms and polysyllabic constructions fill their sentences. Another expression of grace is the one shown to me as a reader. There are 12 pages stuffed with academic sources at the end - but you'd never know it. Gawande writes with such ease, seamlessly integrating the academic analysis into the narrative of peoples' lives. I grew a little weary of the stories after awhile - but loved these pauses to reflect and to conclude - and to skill me. It is a model for a similar discipline known for its complexity: theology.

There is one exception to all this. I don't know enough to recognise whether it is true beyond the United States - but Gawande is pretty tough on facilities like nursing homes. One is left wondering if they are all like the TV show, Keeping Up Appearances. Because here the grace is exchanged for some surprising invective at times: for eg., phrases like 'depressingly penitentiary' (129) ... 'a warehoused oblivion' (188).

Let's do it with truth, unlike Gawande.
OK - that is a bit tough on Gawande and I'll address that issue in a moment.

However, for me, as a committed Christian, this was such a dissatisfying book. It was so incomplete. I found myself longing to see theology in its words, the Bible in its footnotes, and Jesus walking through its pages. When it comes to dying well along that 'trajectory' towards death, there is so much more that needs to be said. What about God's sovereignty? God's eternity? God's providence? God's love? What about our union with Christ, in his suffering, death and resurrection - and the certain hope which this cultivates? What about the power of the Spirit, bringing comfort and enabling perseverance? What about the church waking from its slumbers and its preoccupation with youth? There were times when I felt so desperate for a little 1 Corinthians 12 and 15, a little Ecclesiastes 11 and 12, a little John 13 and John 20 ... and a whole lot of Psalms. I felt grief knowing there are millions of people reading this book without considering these truths.

Gawande writes as an agnostic (I think) and he must be true to who he is. But the majority of the world's people are spiritual believers and this book misses an opportunity to speak into that world. [Actually - there is a fabulous assignment here for a pastoral theology class. Imagine this book, with all its people and stories, being collected into a single picture ... and then have students go away and develop a biblical-theological frame which both draws out the significant hues in that picture and completes it.]

But this is not fair to Gawande. Biblical truths may be absent, but wisdom is still present - a wisdom about the world and the people in it whom God has made and wired. As 'all truth is God's truth', it is great to see Gawande uncovering the wisdom in these truths.

For example, the way the trajectory of death is 'less like a cliff and more like a hilly road down the mountain ... a long, slow fade ... the body's decline creeps like a vine' (27, 28, 42). Or, the echoes of Paul Brand in the way a close examination of the feet of the elderly tells so much of their story - and why keeping them from falling is such a gift (40-41). Or, the danger of succumbing to the belief that 'once you lose your physical independence, a life of worth and freedom is simply not possible' (75). Or, the brake applied to the euthanasia camp in his call for assisted living to take priority over assisted dying: 'our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end' (245). Why not have both?!

There are a few sobering home truths for the medical profession. 'Medicine's focus is too narrow. medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul ... (it should be about) helping people in a state of dependence sustain the value of existence' (128) ... and 'resisting the urge to fiddle and fix and control' (149).

There is some truth to be found in statistics, often as he integrates scholarly research. In a hospice, 'Ninety-nine percent understand they're dying, but one hundred percent hope that they are not' (161). Drawing on Susan Block's work - 'about two-thirds of patients are willing to undergo therapies they don't want if that is what their loved ones want' (186). What about the plummeting numbers of people entering geriatrics: 'a lot of doctors don't like taking care of the elderly ... 87% of medical students take no course in geriatrics' (52).
The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one's life - to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. Sickness and old age make the struggle hard enough. The professionals and institutions we turn to should not make it worse. But we have at last entered an era in which an increasing number of them believe their job is not to confine people's choices, in the name of safety, but to expand them, in the name of living a worthwhile life. (141)
...our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one's story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone's lives. (243) 
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