Monday, January 17, 2022

in xanadu in rotoiti

I love the way Ephesians opens: "in Ephesus ... in Christ Jesus" (1.1).  Chapters 1-3 focuses on the 'in Christ Jesus', while chapters 4-6 leans across to the 'in Ephesus'.  It is the double identity of the believer—and it makes for some fun sermon series, like "In Invercargill, in Christ" and "In Kyrgyzstan, In Christ" (both of which I have tried!).

The idea also makes for some fun holidays.  This past week I travelled, in my imagination, through William Dalrymple's In Xanadu: A Quest while travelling, in my real life, around the lakes east of Rotorua, in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

This is Dalrymple's first book, written as a 22 year old on his summer break from Cambridge University.  He retraces the steps of Marco Polo, travelling with a phial of oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, all the way to Xanadu, the summer palace of Kublai Khan.  Dalrymple has gradually become more serious, as he transitioned from being a travel writer to an historian but, as with City of Djinns, this book was written during his halcyon days of fun.

We used the online 'bookabach' service to find a small caravan fixed to a site on the shores of Lake Rotoiti.  Our elderly hosts turned out to be Christians with a heart for mission here, there and everywhere. Whether it be fostering troubled children, or working for transformation in a village in Thailand, they have a story to tell.  I kept urging them to write it down so that others can hear what God can do through 'normal people', as they put it.

Our caravan on Tamatea Street, barely visible behind the agapanthus


Dalrymple's journey was epic, back when epic meant epic.  For starters, it involved travelling through the Ayatollah's Iran and through China without the required documentation.  Madness!

Jerusalem. Acre. Latakia. Aleppo. Ayas. Sivas. Tabriz. Osku. Sultaniya. Saveh.  In 1986 it was not possible to travel through Afghanistan, so the detour was to the south, through Pakistan.  Zahedan. Quetta. Lahore. Karakoram Highway (open briefly in 1986, which was what enabled the trip to take place). Pir Sar. Chini Bagh/Kashgar. Khotan. Keriya. Peking. Xanadu/Shang-tu.

As you can imagine, there were lots of visits to Google Maps and Wikipedia along the way.

I got out the maps and drew a black line between Jerusalem and Acre.  It was about a quarter of an inch long.  Lahore was three feet away at the edge of the map.  Peking lay halfway across the room on an entirely different sheet. It seemed a very long way indeed. (26) 

Our journeys were somewhat less than epic, but I did create a map just in case someone is interested, nine centuries from now.  We did a few walks like the Rotomā Bridle Track, Hongi's Track, Okere Falls Track and Ngahopua Track (our favourite).  Freshly outfitted in my floral blue rash shirt, together with matching blue shorts, I even had a few swims—but it was more blue balloon, than Blue Lagoon.

The lakes near Rotorua, highlighting the ones in the north and east.

Stories and Photos

Dalrymple can tell a story. 

Thursday, January 06, 2022

my mum

My mother (Gwen) turns 91 years of age in a few weeks.

It may surprise some readers of this blog that when the number 91 is mentioned, my mind does not go immediately to a cricket score (although listening to Viv Richards' 291 on a radio in the Himalayas as a lad in 1976 is a memory to cherish) — but to Psalm 91.  What a remarkable psalm it is.  As Philip Jenkins writes in The New Faces of Christianity, "In Christian Africa and Asia, this psalm is everywhere" (108).  More recently, a friend of mine in Latin America shared how his father read this psalm to his mother every night and then when his father died, he himself picked up this daily practice as he cared for his mother, right up until the day she died from Covid-19 in 2021.

I look forward to reading Psalm 91 to my mother on her birthday — and a few more times in the weeks that follow.  One of the highlights of the Christmas-New Year season for me has been the number of beautiful photos of my mother that have been taken.

We gathered at Christmas on blankets and chairs on the very patch of grass outside the family home where my mum used to gather as a little girl.  [She now lives in a flat next door].  Mum was the third generation to enjoy this home, with a sixth generation running across those blankets at Christmas.  

Here is my mum with baby Boaz.  Many years ago my parents offered hospitality to a Sri Lankan neighbour, a mum with her two boys, fleeing an abusive situation overseas.  Under God's hand, one thing led to another as this little family became part of our family, joining us for Christmas and at other times each year.  Jesus drew Indrani to himself and her son Rash followed in those footsteps.  With the heart and skill of an evangelist, Rash now works across schools in South Auckland.  One Sunday evening last year I went across to his church to hear him share his testimony and invite people to respond to Christ.  I found it moving, as I reflected on the ripples out from the hospitality ministry of an ordinary person like my mother.  It is a lot like how the church of those early centuries exercised its influence, through ordinary people living distinctive lives.  God has blessed Rash and Cheyenne with three boys — Isaiah, Solomon, and now Boaz, in my mother's arms this past Christmas. 

On New Year's Day, Barby and I decide to take mum on a drive.  Auckland's borders have been closed since August and so it was an opportunity to break free!  As a girl, Little Huia was the annual holiday destination for my mum and her family.  It has become a favourite for all of us (and it is where Barby and I self-isolated for 18 days on our return from India in March 2020 — see the link here).  I love the story of how mum and her siblings would set off early in the morning, walking to Huia.  Their mum and dad would get all packed-up and head off later in the day, picking up the children along the way.  But over all these years, mum had never seen beloved Huia 'from the other side', from the southern side of the Manukau Harbour.  So that was our goal for the day, driving all the way around (about 90min each way, from her home).

Mum at Wattle Bay, with Huia Bay just past her right elbow!

Monday, January 03, 2022

preaching being transformed

It seems to be becoming a trend.  If you don't like an author in one area, you ditch the author in every area.  Yikes.  That sounds kinda silly to me.  None of us would like to be treated in this way.

Tim Keller is one who receives this treatment.  I've heard people say that because of his perspective on the role of women in the church, they won't read anything he writes.  Then I have it on good authority that towards the conservative end of the theological spectrum, there are organisations that no longer sell his books.  I don't know the reasons.  And yet Keller is one of the most articulate and prophetic voices available to us.  I am loving the 'How to Reach the West Again' podcast at the moment.

If you are one who thinks in this kind of way, you may find it better to exit this post now!

Over Christmas I read two books on preaching at the same time.  One by a woman; the other by a man.  One very American; the other very British.  One emerging more from the world of the academic-scholar; the other from the world of the practitioner-preacher.  One coming from beyond the evangelical world; the other from within the evangelical world.  One reflecting on six decades on women preachers; the other a personal reflection on five decades in preaching.  One using words like herstory and foremothers; the other sticking to male pronouns and descriptors.  One focusing—primarily, for me, anyway—on a voice to be heard; the other focusing on a wisdom to be shared.

... and both of them claiming to be about transformation, with the word appearing in both titles.

Leonora Tubbs Tisdale's How Women Transform Preaching is the 2019 version of Yale's famous Lyman Beecher Lectures.  Three chapters; Eighty pages.  It is based on the results of interviewing 'sixteen of the foremothers of my professional society' (xv, ie the Academy of Homiletics), with the intriguing questions in the survey located on pp85-86.

The final chapter gathers responses to this question: 'From your vantage point, what difference has the presence of so many clergywomen and women homiletical scholars made in how we experience and perceive preaching today?' (50-51).  Ten affirmations are gathered together.  It is a testimony to which every preacher should draw near to listen.  Things like noting 'the significance of bringing women's life experience into the pulpit' (58); providing 'a safer space in which women and others oppressed can hear sermons' (62); recognising how 'authority in preaching is exercised in a less hierarchial, more invitational way' (64) ...

While I am not convinced that these are now the domain of women preachers alone, I acknowledge that women were early 'sounders of the alarm'.  Many years ago I invited a panel of women preachers into the classroom.  I asked a similar question of them and the response was along the lines of 'we are no different from men preachers'.  I think I understand what they were trying to affirm in that context at that time, but I remember being so deflated by the response—and I'm still not convinced they were right!  Years later, I wonder how they'd engage with this survey in that it assumes there is a distinctive contribution to be made by women.

One observation, given my work with Langham Preaching and its heart for preachers beyond the reach of the academy, is the author's almost exclusive focus on ordination as the mark of progress in the story she tells (see pp 87-93).  I recognise ordination to be an important step in the journey for some women, but not for all of them.  There is a lot of preaching that does happen and needs to happen outside of ordination.  My mind wanders across to countries with a high proportion of women participants in our training (like Indonesia and Pakistan, the two most populous Muslim countries in the world).  Making ordination the measurement of transformation would be unwise.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

cathedral reflections

Last week I sat in a cathedral thinking about mission...

It was Holy Trinity Cathedral, in Auckland.  We were there for the ordination into the priesthood of a close friend.  It is a newer building, but still a cavernous space, providing a place where people gather.

Down the sides are all these glass doors, enabling people to see and be seen by the world passing by, while also offering a means for direct entry into the cathedral from outside.  There is a foyer-like space just inside the doors, in which people can mingle, before making their way across to the seats. 

Once seated with everyone, there is an awareness of facing a pulpit in the near-distance and then, in what seemed a long way away, up the front, there is a cross and a table.

I sat there, taking it all in, thinking about mission...

One thing I've noticed with the emerging generations—considering Christians especially here—is that they seem to have a bigger heart for the world than was the case with my generation.  There is an activism, a conscience that animates them.  They are shaped by causes.  They take to the streets.  They engage social media.  Fair Trade.  Climate Change.  Black Lives Matter.  Colonialism.  Gender Inequality.  Poverty.  Biodiversity.  Refugees.  Trafficked Children.  Income Gaps.  It goes on and on.  It can be easy to be critical of this limited focus, almost bubble-like in its intensity, identifying what is lacking in such devotion to a cause, or three.   

Maybe a better approach is to open the doors and welcome them into the mission of God.  Yes, to consider their cause to be one of those doors down the side of the cathedral and focus more on what is right with it, rather than on what is wrong with it.  With doors open and welcome extended, the foyer-like space enables these people to mix and mingle with each other, deepening the understanding of each other's activism and concerns.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

the poor at christmas

Covid has turned my heart towards the poor once again.  Poverty is not just a material issue.  It is a choice issue.  The wealthy have options, by definition.  They can choose to be vaccinated, or not to be — while so many among the poor just keep waiting for a vaccine, a second vaccine and a booster.  Throw in corruption, inequality, misinformation and the poor are at such a disadvantage. 

But there is a relativism about poverty, isn't there?  While every country has the poor among them, we need to be reminded that there is poverty and then there is ... poverty.  Followers of Jesus are called to wear bi-focals on their hearts, responding to the near & the local, without erasing the distant & the global.  To help me with the latter, I've been watching again the films of my friend, Peter.

The Voiceless [8 min] follows the progress of a 50 rupee note ($1).

The story fits right into Ecclesiastes 3 & 4, a collection of horrible things that the writer "saw" (3.16; 4.1; 4.4; 4.7).  The fake note travels among street vendors and metro students, day labourers and property developers, waiters and corporates in restaurants.  It will always end up in the hands of the poor and the powerless, who are forced to feed their family from their daily wage.  They will be the ones who can't dump the note on anyone else.

Stolen prayers [3 min] speaks into the challenge of lockdowns for migrants.

A Mother's Dilemma [3 min] engages the issues around the gender of her babies.

"It is what it is" is a phrase I've heard a lot since returning to Aotearoa-New Zealand.  I'm still trying to exegete it!  It doesn't appear to have much to do with the providence and sovereignty of God — rather, it suggests a lethargy that freezes us in a shrug-the-shoulders inactivity. 

That will not cut it with poverty.
It doesn't need to be what it is. 

It starts with me — and you!  After growing up in India, Barby and I returned to live there, almost 40 years later.  Early on, we were jolted by some words from Ajith Fernando (not for the first, or last, time — link here).  I felt ashamed of the attitudes from my childhood.  We decided to live differently.  Then, on return to living in 'the West' last year, it has been troubling to see how easily people erase the poor from their minds, especially in these covidian times (link here).  

I guess it is a bit more of 'it is what it is'.

But back to Peter...

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

on trees and books

I struggle to think of anything in the mission of God in the world today that enthuses me more than the work of Langham Literature.

That day when my Africa Bible Commentary (ABC) arrived remains a vivid memory.  I was in a seminar in the dining room at Carey Baptist College (Auckland) and Rachel, with whom I worked, came over with my copy, as soon as it arrived.  She knew not to leave it on my desk!  Within the cover of the one single volume were collected commentaries on every book of the Bible, together with 80 articles engaging the African context ... and everything was written by scholars from Africa.

That was almost 15 years ago ... and the seed of that vision has grown into a tree, with some unusual 'birds coming and perching in its branches' (Mt 13.32)!

The ABC is visible on the lower left of the trunk, with two branches carrying the six languages of Africa into which it has been translated.  Next to it is the Slavic Bible Commentary (in Russian).  Above them are the Latin American commentary (in Spanish) and the South Asia Bible Commentary (initially, in English, but now emerging in local languages, like Hindi, pictured here).  Across the top of the tree are the ones from and for the Arab world (in Arabic), the 'big country' and the Central & Eastern European Bible Commentary.  Amazing.

Each volume follows the same guidelines: within the one cover, commentaries on every book of the Bible and articles which engage the local context ... and everything written by indigenous scholars. 

My favourite story around this growing tree comes from Pieter (Langham Literature) visiting a library in a theological college in Zimbabwe.  He wanders through the aisles and the shelves.  He locates two volumes of the ABC, but finds their binding in tatters.  "Oh no, there must have been some fault in the printing".  He locates the librarian, offering to replace the volumes.  "Oh no, Pieter.  The binding is not the issue.  They are in tatters from overuse.  The students love them because they are theirs".  

You can find all these commentaries at this link here — with two volumes (the ABC, currently being revised, and the SABC) available in English.  Sometimes I think the prophetic ministry can be over-spiritualized.  A lot of it is about having our blindspots exposed.  There is no better way to have this happen than by engaging commentaries written from a different, even distant, cultural context. 

But, wait — there's more... 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

the trust bank

In our church's worship service last Sunday, our pastor observed that this had been the most divisive period of church life that he can remember.  The issues around public worship and re-gathering together, when there are both vaccinated and unvaccinated people present, have been difficult.  

This division, even polarization in some settings, follows on from the months of discussions around the The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, which itself follows on from the rise and fall of Ravi Zacharias — among a flurry of other, less prominent leaders.  Abusive leaders, with controlling leadership styles, have garnered a lot of attention recently, especially across in the US and the UK. 

When I first stepped into pastoral leadership, we used a bank called the Trust Bank.  At the time it felt like it was a metaphor sent from heaven, designed to give me a push and a prod in the right direction.  'Paul, if you don't have trust, you don't have much'.  As I reflected, in my simple way with images, it seemed that trust worked a bit like a bank account.  You need to make deposits because one day you will need to make withdrawals.  Things will become difficult and it is the build-up of trust, under God's good hand, that will help find the pathway forward.

I am not that close to the action at our church as we've been overseas for almost a decade, but as I listened to our pastor explain the situation and what our church's practice will be, I was transported back to the Trust Bank metaphor.  I thought to myself, "I reckon he and the other leaders in the church must have been making a few deposits over the years" — in contrast to listening to the Mars Hill podcast and thinking to myself, "He just didn't take time and care with making enough deposits".

One of the prompts for this post was a newsletter received with these two attachments...

Sunday, December 05, 2021

not one, but two

One of the perverse joys in my life is to discover statistics in cricket that nobody else has noticed.  I am not sure what you think this means.  Maybe put me on a couch and offer some therapy?  Maybe keep me in your prayers for a fuller, wider, deeper sanctification?  Whatever you think best...

For months I have been watching Kyle Jamieson's Test bowling career, waiting for the day when it reaches 2000 balls bowled because then he qualifies for this list on  Finally, the day arrived — just yesterday.  And if he hadn't had his first forgettable day in Test cricket, he might have entered the list at #3 ... which would have created some satisfying symmetry, but more on that later.  

In the 150 year history of Test cricket these are the bowlers with the 'best averages' — namely, they give away the least amount of runs for every person they get out.  It is pretty much the leading bowling statistic by which to measure a bowler's skill.  But a little caveat before we go any further.  Before World War 2, cricket pitches (ie the ground they played on) were left 'uncovered', or exposed to the elements — like rain.  This gave a significant advantage to the bowler.  So for our purposes here, let's remove them, momentarily, from the list.

When we do this editing, what happens to this list of the Top Thirty bowlers in history?

Well, Kyle Jamieson leads the pack — followed by Frank ("Typhoon") Tyson — Johnny Wardle ("Yes, Ben Carswell, he is from Yorkshire", with the best average for a spin bowler) — Alan Davidson (who died recently, a favourite player of my father, who was born in the Torres Strait and had a few Aussie favourites) — Ken HiggsMalcolm Marshall & Joel Garner & Curtly Ambrose ("Yes, I had noticed they were so incredibly close to each other on this list") — Neil Adcock (part of NZ folklore, as the key South African bowler in the Tangiwai Test) — Jim Laker — Freddie Trueman ("Yes, Ben Carswell, he is from Yorkshire as well") — Pat Cummins (the new captain of Australia) — and Glenn McGrath.

Keep up the good work, Kyle!  

His average will rise slowly in the years ahead.  And, yes, a majority of his wickets have been taken in NZ conditions.  But that fact could be countered a bit by noticing both how far ahead his current average is and how well he bowled in Kanpur last week on a lifeless pitch.  He is a special bowler. 

I've been waiting months, literally, to announce and celebrate this special statistical day for him.

Then along came Ajaz — later in the afternoon of the very same day.  What?!  Give me a break.  "Are you going to steal Kyle's statistical thunder?"  Yes. Yes.  He is — and he did.  "Are you going to spoil my fun in the statistical sun?"  No. No.  He is going to add so much to it!  

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

oecd: four letter acronym

If you are attentive to the news, there is a lot of pain to feel in the world today.

Income Gaps. Loneliness. Housing Affordability. Health Care Availability. Unemployment. Child Poverty. Gross Domestic Product. Tax Rates. Youth Suicide. Refugees. Homelessness. Fossil Fuels. Vaccination Rates. Broadband Speed. Mathematics Literacy.

It goes on and on. 

The data is collected.  It is graphed.  The analysis is made.  Then we start hearing about how the country we call home, has the 'fifth highest ____', 'the second lowest ____', 'the seventh slowest ____', 'the third largest ____' ... and so we become alarmed at the state of our country.

But when you dig a bit into the data, often it is data collected from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  And who is the OECD, you might ask?  Its 'roots lie in the rubble' of World War II, with The Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe.  It does many good things, like its recent advocacy of a global agreement to tax the super-rich.

It is hard to find an accurate, current map of the member countries in the OECD.  This is the best I could do.  It seems there are 38 member countries.  However they work to progress their various causes, like democracy and free-market principles, among 70+ other non-member countries.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

naming neoliberalism

I hear the word often enough, but I haven't known what it means.  To this uncertainty is added confusion because the only time I've used the word in the past, it is has been as a theological description — rather than a cultural one.

So when Rodney Clapp's Naming Neoliberalism: Exposing the Spirit of the Age entered my horizon, I decided to partake and learn more about the world in which I live.

The "-ism" at the end is a giveaway.  We are in the realm here of worldview.  'Neoliberalism likes to go unnamed and unnoticed' (ix, the second sentence of the book), while also presenting itself as 'natural and neutral' (54).  In reality, it is a religion, 'a faith, a totalizing way of life' (57).  These are characteristics of worldview.  Then, wading into the language of the New Testament, it is a 'preeminent principality and power of our time' (206).  It is a stoicheia (Gal 4.3; Col 2.8, 20), a "basic element of this world" (NIV), which presents itself, together with its mates, like the free-market and capitalism, as 'the pervasive and all-encompassing context for the proper and final workings of our world' (113).

It is at this point that I reach, instinctively now, for the image of a lens.  The question to ask is, "What is it that we are looking through and what is it that we are looking at?"  It has been a passion of my life to encourage lens-switching as a purpose for both theological education and biblical preaching — and Clapp provides an illustration of what doing this looks like in practice. 

Looking at the world, through neoliberalism

In 'The Special Case for Neoliberalism' (31-61), Clapp describes neoliberalism and the way it becomes the lens through which people look.  It is 'a panoply of cultural and political-economic practices that set marketized competition at the center of social life — even as the sole ruler of social life' (32).  All kinds of assumptions are held a-critically: (1) There is the 'enshrinement of freedom' (37) because people are constituted as individuals with a 'freedom from the interference of or dependence on others' (1); (2) competition becomes 'the primary virtue and solidarity and genuine care for others are signs of weakness, to be ignored or exploited' (52); (3) 'the necessary outcome of unrelenting competition is inequality' (41); (4) the entrepreneur becomes the 'ideal and model human being' (44); and when all these operate together and unrestrained, (5) 'a start of precarity' (49) prevails, creating lots of 'losers' in the world — maybe a bit like this cartoon that appeared in our media recently — with David Seymour, the leader of our libertarian ACT political party. 

In this world we find reality-TV shows like Survivor which 'are nothing if not preeminent neoliberal training films' (53).  And yes, I know what you are thinking — but neoliberalism does not align as easily as you think with political affiliations.  Sure, Thatcher and Reagan championed its ascent, but Clinton and Obama did little to facilitate its descent (38-41). 
Rodney Clapp suggests another way of looking, by switching the lens at work.

Looking at neoliberalism, through the gospel

The first thing Clapp does is probe the vulnerabilities in neoliberalism.  There are 'cracks' (54) appearing.  He identifies 'The Five Crises of Neoliberalism' (54-57):
1. An epistemological crisis: it goes 'unnamed ... (presenting) itself as neutral and natural' (54).
2. A social crisis: its 'atomistic individualism cannibalizes society and erodes familial binds, ethnic bonds and bonds of faith' (54).
3. A moral crisis: it 'ignores justice' (54).
4. A demographic crisis: it wants 'few and perfect children, if any at all' (55).
5. An ecological crisis: it is not sustainable in 'a clearly finite and much-exhausted world' (56).