against the odds

Church as it is meant to be. That is what I remember from my first visit to Spreydon. Struggling as a pastor of a little church 'on the south side of the tracks' in distant Invercargill I, like dozens of other pastors around New Zealand, made my pilgrimage to Spreydon and came away with my soul steeled for the next season.

But the story for me had started a few years earlier. Within hours (or, so it seemed) of arriving back in NZ in 1984 after my theological training, it became clear that two churches were on peoples' lips: Te Atatu Bible Chapel (with Open Brethren roots) under Brian Hathaway's leadership and Spreydon Baptist Church, under Murray Robertson's leadership. Brian wrote Beyond Renewal, engaging the Te Atatu story, almost thirty years ago - and now, finally, we have Kevin Ward's Against the Odds which covers Murray's years at Spreydon.

I had the privilege of getting to know both Brian and Murray. There were family links with Brian (my father worked with him on The Kingdom Manifesto - an appendix in the book - and his son married my cousin!). Sadly, Brian dropped dead while jogging one Sunday morning. I was drawn in to lead the funeral. Then in my various seasons of service in NZ - as a pastor, lecturer, principal - Murray's friendship and support became stronger and stronger.

However there is a sadness I associate quickly with both of their ministries. I dug up my own words from nine years ago, in a talk where I reflected on theological education in NZ over the twenty years of my involvement:
At the height of the Life in the Kingdom seminars in the early 1990s I heard Brian developing his key theme: the integration of word:deed:sign, except there wasn’t much emphasis on ‘word’. I remember suggesting to him that the key to Te Atatu’s effectiveness was not just in the integration, but in the order of the integration. As a good Brethren lad he was overlooking the significance of his own foundation in the Word and the ‘cut and paste’ merchants on his doorstep needed to hear that too. Similarly, with Murray Robertson and the Spreydon Leadership Conferences, also known for visitations from the cut-and-pasters. I remember pleading, “C’mon Murray – give them the full story – you trained with James Stewart in Edinburgh, for God’s sake. Don’t just talk about spiritual gifts and the poor and mission and leadership and community ministries and let that be all that people take home with them. Speak about this systematic biblical preaching ministry of yours which God has used to spark and sustain operation motivation and operation mobilisation into these other areas.”
So while the word:deed:sign trio was captivating, the 'word' bit tended to be assumed rather than articulated. It was sad. How many participants in those Spreydon Leadership Conferences went home determined to work hard at their expository preaching, Murray's brand of which was the unheralded backdrop to the inspiring stuff they were hearing? Very few, I suspect. Deed and Sign were all the rage (maybe it is a case of 'two outta three ain't bad') - and yet it is only through Word that we know about them, figure out how and where they fit in, and remain energised to persevere with them [NB: This is why the coordinate relationship depicted by word:sign:deed is not convincing. The latter two only find their proper place as we commit ourselves to the first one].

Anyhow Against the Odds provided some delayed therapy for me. Thank-you. Again and again, Kevin returns to the foundational role which Murray's biblical preaching played (even making a similar point, on pp77-78, to the one above). He includes the manuscript of a sermon from Luke 4 where Murray doesn't make the mistake of so many and focus only on the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed - and miss the focus in this passage on Jesus the preacher-teacher and peoples' response to his words (160-164). And yet, rather strangely, when Kevin adds John 20.19-23 as a similarly critical passage (a fresh observation for me), he misses the fourfold repetition of 'said' in the text, affirming 'community, Jesus, mission and Spirit' (206-207) - and yet missing word. It feels like that besetting sin of the church in NZ, 'assuming without articulating', all over again.

Speaking of 'besetting sins', I mark books with pencil as I read them. Plenty of exclamation marks inhabit the margins of this book! Kevin was far closer to the action than I ever was and I delighted in the fuller exploration of the things about Murray's ministry that I glimpsed from a distance. The critical and creative mind which gave him this capacity for reinvention, contextualising stuff from overseas without being recolonized by it. The dozens of community-bridging ministries (with pp 141-142 providing a sample), each targeting the intrigue which creates a curiosity about the gospel and then, oftentimes, the opportunity to respond to the gospel. The permission-giving leadership style, advocating for the unlikely and the unproven again and again. The ongoing wrestle with the tension between local church as a base for mission and for pastoral care. On and on it goes.

I loved the stories about specific people. Murray's influence on Daphne Marsden (73-74) followed by Daphne's influence on Gay Oakes (143-144) need to be read together in order to appreciate the ripples that happen in leadership. Mick Duncan's two paragraphs, as anyone who knows him would expect, captures so much (224). The outgoing mayor of Christchurch, Gary Moore, coming to all three Spreydon services to thank them for their contribution to the city (147). What?! Now, there is something for churches to target. The story of the transition to Alan Jamieson as senior pastor (152-155). And I always enjoyed Marj's entry into the story at so many places. And what about their eldest son, Stephen, coming back to Christ after eight years in the wilderness? For Murray, the 'highlight' of the forty years at Spreydon (181).

I have only one hesitancy about the book. How many people who know nothing about Spreydon or Murray will pick it up and read it? Not sure. It does feel a bit 'in-house'. [Although I did manage to tell some stories from it here in Hong Kong this week, with 100 pastors from you know where...]. There is not a lot Kevin can do about being so close to the action. For those who have reached this far in this post and who are now uncertain about making the effort, I would urge you to start with the two chapters at the end - one with Murray unplugged and in his own words (165-188) and the other with Kevin (189-215) offering some concluding insights. Valuable pages.

[NB: I could offer a little squeal about one other thing. I don't like the title at all. Maybe it is deliberate but what place do 'odds' have in the purposes of God in our lives?].

It was a BIG surprise to be reading my merry way through the book and to stumble across - not once, but twice - references to my own conversations with Murray. But the conversation which delighted me the most - and him, too, I suspect - was when I interviewed him in a preaching class at Laidlaw College in the early 1990s. I referred to his preaching delivery as 'aw-shucks' and asked him to 'please, explain'. This caused him great enjoyment. I listened carefully and then came up with the acronym, LUCIS (Laidback, Understated, Conversational, Informal, Self-deprecating) which I then commended to a generation of Kiwi-preachers.

nice chatting



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