Sunday, October 04, 2015

constantia conversions

It is always great to be back in Delhi. On this visit I decided to make a different pilgrimage. When we first moved here in 1970, Delhi Bible Fellowship (later to be pastored by my future father-in-law, Charles Warren) was just getting started. There were different congregations around the city and then a combined service on Sunday evenings - in Constantia Hall, at the YWCA in New Delhi.

We lived in Old Delhi. I was 11 years of age. Every Sunday evening my folks would have us all pack into a Morris Oxford taxi for the trip to church. A fervent Canadian pastor-evangelist would lead the services. He still receives our newsletters. I owe him a great deal. Thank-you, Murray. He often gave strong appeals at the end of his gospel-centered messages - and I often responded. He 'saw my hand' on many occasions, even though he may not remember.

While I do not have a dramatic testimony with a lightning-strike conversion experience that took me from the darkest night to the brightest noon - as I get older, I am increasingly grateful for the gracious dawning of the day which took over my heart. Slowly and securely, my heart turned towards God and I have been kept by Christ in the power of the Spirit ever since.

nice chatting


Friday, September 25, 2015

unity is our weakness

A billboard caught my eye last week. The driver kindly stopped so that I could take a photo - although I could tell that he wondered what I was doing. He was insistent on stopping in front of the neighbouring billboard - but, no, this is the one I wanted:

It is the conflictual relationship between word and image that draws me into this billboard. The words proclaim (almost) that 'unity is a strength'. But the image suggests that unity is a weakness in the construction of this billboard - because they did not work together to get it right.

But as I've lingered with this disturbed image, it still teaches me a lot about unity.

There is absence
Some panels are missing. This happens in practice as well. Many think that unity is just a function of the love shared among us - but it isn't. It is also about truth (of the gospel) shared among us. This is one of the enduring lessons from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the biggest crisis ever to face the church. Unity was preserved, even deepened, because James worked to ensure that there was a victory for love and a victory for truth.

There is chaos
Some panels are in the wrong place. Some are even upside down. This happens in practice as well. Unity needs some order and clarity, some gentle structure and cohesion. Panels and paint, images and words ... these need to work together, each playing their role in maximising the message of the billboard. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 comes to mind. The human body has a unity, but only as each part fulfills its role.

There is separation
The way the people are cut up is particularly troubling. This attitude lacks dignity. It ceases to treasure people. This happens in practice as well. The mind returns to Genesis 1 and the way human beings are image-bearers of the divine ('in our image') - but before that truth is even uttered, the divine as a unity and as a creative team is asserted ('Let us'). And so, as divine image-bearers, we are designed for the unity which defines the Trinity. The billboard needs to have people linking arms if word and image are to align their messages.

There is foolishness
The billboard proclaims a strong unity.  This happens in practice as well. It is a dumb thing to do. As soon as you wave this flag, it has a way of fluttering away from your grasp. It is not wise to draw attention to unity in such bold ways. Pray for it. Plead for it. Pursue it. But then let it slip in through the backdoor. Let its reality creep up and overwhelm you, as you get on with living the John 13 brand of servanthood, the 1 Corinthians 13 brand of love, and the Philippians 2 brand of humility.

There is deterioration
The billboard is crumbling. Paint is peeling. Nails are rusting. Dents are appearing. This happens in practice as well. Unity becomes weary and worn, as it succumbs to stress. Everywhere I go people speak to me of their context, as if it is unique. I listen as if for the first time, with empathy - but, in reality, it is often something I've heard before. Big Corruption - Poor Infrastructure - Bad Leadership - Crazy Traffic - etc etc ... these conspire together in the society (and sometimes even in the church) to undermine unity.

There is irony
This billboard sits in a context.

It is in a city (Kohima) where there is a tennis court, a few turns in the road from this billboard, that marks the very spot where the westward advance of the Japanese in World War 2 was halted. An easily forgotten story of sacrifice and heroism, punctuated by the unity of purpose that the fiercest battle engenders.

The site of the Battle of the Tennis Court, 'Britain's Thermopylae'
That city is in a state (Nagaland) which has the highest concentration of Baptists anywhere in the world. But as the arrival of the gospel recedes with the generations, the advance of nominalism and the arrival of Malachi-like challenges is everywhere to be seen ... and 'unity is our strength' becomes a quality which the church needs to embody. May it be so, Lord Jesus.

nice chatting


Friday, September 18, 2015

the hills are alive

Gazing out the window thinking about God. That is what I've been doing this week. Situated at Siloam, on the fringe of Barapani (literally, 'big water') near Shillong in Northeast India, Barby and I have had a room that looks out across the lake to some rolling hills. As the light and the weather changes, the hills tell a story - even a testimony, every believer's testimony of walking with God.

Sometimes the view is partial, as the light is just dawning and the fuzzy outline of the hills is barely visible.

Sometimes the view is bright, as the early sun splashes onto the hills, highlighting specific features with a singular enthusiasm.

Sometimes the view is imperfect, but reflected still in the lives of others with such beauty that we are drawn back to the original with thanksgiving.

Sometimes the view is obstructed, as the drizzle of doubts, the fog of fears, the cloud of confusions, or the wind of worries begin to get in the way.

Sometimes the view is gone, because the drizzle of doubts, the fog of fears, the cloud of confusions, or the wind of worries have fully got in the way and blotted it out.

Sometimes the view is tinted, as a certain light dances with a certain perspective to transform everything connected with the hills.

Sometimes the view is full, as colours and shades, ranges and ridges emerge with a detail and vibrancy that satisfies the deepest longings.

Sometimes the view disappears and all becomes dark ... but the hills are still there and they will be seen again.

nice chatting


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

no religion

Talking about religion can be a bit like talking about the traffic. Everywhere you go, people lament about how hard it is - and yet, in reality, it is all relative. While Bangaloreans and Aucklanders may both complain, driving in Bangalore is definitely more difficult than driving in Auckland.

So it is with the religious landscape. When I go to Australia, I hear how hard it is to be a believer in that setting. I believe them. When I go to the USA and to the UK, the same thing happens. I believe them too. I felt this same difficulty when living and working in New Zealand. Every now and then, there is even a hint of a competition about who has it worse...

For years the 'no religion' statistics in census results has been of interest - partly because they were a major focus in my doctoral research. This statistic captures the presence of atheists, agnostics, rationalists, humanists - and the full range of religious cynics and skeptics present in a society. It is (just) one indicator of how difficult it is for (Christian) belief in a country.

Incidently, I've always said to people that 'it is harder in NZ than it is in the US, the UK, or Australia. It is much more like continental Europe'. Recent census figures on 'no religion' suggest some support for this view (although I realise that each country asks questions a little differently from the other).

In New Zealand in 2013 'no religion' was 41.9%, up from 29.6% in 2001.
In England & Wales in 2011 it was 25%, up from 14.8% in 2001.
In the USA in 2014 it was 22.8%, up from 16.1% in 2007.
In Australia in 2011 it was 22.3%, up from 16.6% in 1996.
[NB: The 'religion' question on the census is voluntary in Australia - but even if you add ALL the 'not stated/inadequately described' results, which is probably inappropriate, the total figure reaches 31.7%]
In France in 2010 it was 42%, up from 35% in 2007.

Intriguingly, India produced its 2011 census figures last week. Look at this little headline on their 'no religion' statistics. Read carefully. Note the location of the decimal point. It is not a misprint.

.24%      or, 2.87 million out of a total of 1.21 billion people!
[NB: the '1L in K'taka' means that there are 1 lakh - or 100,000 - people with 'no religion' in the state of Karnataka where we live. It has a population of 61 million, so that is only .16% of the total].

It is staggering, isn't it?!  Let's play with the numbers for a moment.
(a) While India is just less than 300 times the size of New Zealand, it's total number of 'no religion' people is just less than 2 times what it is in New Zealand.
(b) If New Zealand had the same proportion of 'no religion' people as Karnataka, then all the 'no religion' people in the entire country of NZ could be housed in Kawerau.

In reality, I am not that surprised. If I could take photos of the shock on Indian faces when I give NZ's 'no religion' stats, you would not be that surprised either. They just don't get it. How can religious belief have such a low profile in a country? How can such belief not be an integral part of a person's identity? They are stunned by it. They really are.

But just because religious belief is more common does not mean that it is easier for people with such beliefs. Christians make up 2.3% of India and it is not at all easy for many of them. But it doesn't stop people turning to Christ in significant numbers. Is it like a boat being blown along by the winds of belief? Maybe it is easier to turn around a boat whose sails are already filled with some belief than it is to turn around a boat that is becalmed by no belief at all?

Two stories. One admiration. One observation.

In 1989, the MV Doulos visited New Zealand. They did what they do all around the world. Visiting ports down the east coasts of both islands, they opened their ship to the public and split into teams for evangelistic forays into local communities. Barby and I were living in Southland at the time and when the ship reached Dunedin for its final stop, I was asked to organise the team's week-long visit to Southland. Very little was said, or done, during that week. The team was too shattered by their Kiwi experience. Exhausted. 'Never have we encountered a people so resistant to the gospel'.

In 2008, the US and NZ general elections coincided. On one evening - I kid you not - we watched a political debate between Barack Obama and John McCain and then, immediately afterwards, on another channel, John Key and Helen Clark were also going head-to-head in a debate. In both debates the focus shifted to Christian faith. With Obama and McCain, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic Christians because they knew this would win votes. With Key and Clark, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic agnostics because they knew this would win votes.

To all my friends at the interface of mission and culture in New Zealand, in particular, I admire you. I really do. I salute you. Be truth-full. Be grace-full. Be intriguing. Hold your nerve and, for God's sake, be patient.  Push the urge to be relevant to the periphery. Discern the deep, hidden tap roots of your culture and determine to live an attractive, appealing life of resistance at those very points - and then be prepared to suffer the consequences for Jesus' sake.

It is interesting to observe that the politicians, lawyers, economists, celebrities, and diplomats leading the charge to resolve the world's problems seem to be represented disproportionately by people from the ranks of 'no religion', with little affinity or empathy for religious belief. That's a worry. The world's problems will only be resolved by taking religious belief more seriously, not less seriously. They may think they are trendy, but I suspect that atheists and agnostics have far less to contribute than they think. Across the global terrain their beliefs, for that is what they still are, will be seen to be an irrelevance.
In 1900 well over 99% of the world's population was religiously affiliated. By 2015 the figure had fallen below 89%, but this 115-year trend hides the fact that the high point for the nonreligious was around 1970, when almost 20% of the world's population was either agnostic or atheist ... (but) the future of the world is likely to be a religious one (emphasis mine).    [Todd Johnson & Cindy Wu, Our Global Families (IVP, 2015) 22]
nice chatting


Friday, August 21, 2015

preaching by pictures

If I was ever to paint a painting, my only option would be to paint by numbers. The entire endeavour is beyond me. However, if I was ever to write a book on preaching - something I think about periodically ... but briefly - the latest option to come to mind is how to preach by pictures.

It is easy for those who are most committed to exposition to be the ones who are most image-deficient. This is not hard to understand. Their minds are so filled with the importance of the propositions they speak that it is difficult for them to squeeze in a picture here and there.

Well - it is not good enough.

With a UESI (the IFES-related student movement in India) training week starting on Sunday, I 'clicked refresh' on my resources and prepared a simple, little how-to-preach-by-pictures curriculum.

The anchor: preaching well needs a theology
Be held, amidst all the shifting tides of trends/methodologies, by what is forever contemporary.

The corners: preaching well needs a vision
Unpack the Word, the listener, the world, and the preacher and draw them all to Christ, every time.

The Olympic rings: preaching well needs a vocabulary
Remember that preaching fits within a wider, diverse range of ministries of the Word.

The magnifying glass: preaching well needs the text
Linger much longer with the details of the text, thereby igniting the joy of discovery.

The jigsaw puzzle: preaching well needs the context
Avoid error and heresy by embracing 'the restraining influence of context' (Carson).

The chairs: preaching well needs the plotline
Place every message within the good-bad-new-perfect story, getting started in biblical theology.

The map: preaching well needs a shape
Birthing the sermon from a passage needs a midwife to help it emerge through the labour.

The bridge: preaching well needs a connection
Once the meaning of the text is clear, build rapport and impact with listeners in multiple ways.

The tree: preaching well needs a depth
Surface the invisible beliefs which drive visible behaviour by preaching worldviewishly.

The spectrum: preaching well needs a sensitivity
Respecting where the listener is on their way to Christ, develop multiple designs with the sermon.

The library: preaching well needs a variety
Noting the diverse literature in the Bible, enjoy adapting the sermon to fit the different genre.

The backstage: preaching well needs a character
In this very public ministry, attend to the very private matter of building a godly life.

nice chatting


Monday, August 17, 2015

lyrics for living 7 (ever, only, all)

This hymn nourished me as a child. It still challenges me as an adult.

The first two lines go like this:
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

Then the lyrics go on a tour, covering my moments/days, my hands, feet, voice, lips, silver/gold, intellect, will, heart and love. Each time crafting words which voice a desire for these specific areas to be consecrated to Christ. I've never been too good at giving appeals after sermons, but on one occasion I asked the congregation to remain seated while we sang this hymn - and then to stand when the lyrics arrived that captured the area of their lives which they needed to consecrate again to Christ. It was a moving sight.

The last two lines return to a similar idea as the opening line (using self instead of life), but now with every area consecrated and under His control, the singer is able to affirm 'I will be' in offering this stunning climax:
Take my self and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.

These little words capture me. Small words with big implications. It reminds me of how one scholar described the parable: 'what they say is minimal; what they intend is maximal'.

Ever        there is no time in my life when he is not Lord. It is lifelong.
Only        there are no other lords in my life competing with him. It is exclusive.
All           there is no space in my life where he is not Lord. It is total.

What a challenge. Tie these little words to that big word - consecration - and we've found the life worth living in response to God's gracious initiative in our lives through Christ. And what I love about 'consecration' is that it pushes to the sidelines things like skill and talent and charisma and appearance and education and any of the other things that society rates as critical for success.

Nah! With 'ever-only-all' in place, the highly unspectacular person can be so beautifully used by Christ, if they are consecrated. That is one of the things I love about grace and abut the Spirit.

Sometimes I think about adding another a verse to this hymn. Is there something missing? When Frances Havergal takes us on this tour with these lyrics should she have lingered anywhere else? What do you think? Would you have remained seated at the end of the appeal because the lyrics do not go where they need to go with you? I wonder.

Sadly, the youtube clips which stick to an 'ever-only-all' climax tend to be the rather old, fuddy-duddy versions. But then the two I like most play around with the lyrics a bit much. Chris Tomlin has a beautiful updated version, but 'ever-only-all' gets lost a bit in words which he chooses to add - and repeat ... a lot! Then there is this powerful version by Kari Jobe. WOW. Just listen to the passion in her voice. Love it, except she deleted 'ever-only-all' completely and decided not to bother with some of the verses. What?! I can barely bring myself to embed it after this most grievous error! But listen to her sing ... and almost all can be forgiven :).

For a little history of the hymn, here are Havergal's own words:

Perhaps you will be interested to know the origin of the consecration hymn 'Take my life.' I went for a little visit of five days [to Areley House, Worcester, in 1874]. There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, some converted, but not rejoicing Christians. He gave me the prayer 'Lord, give me all in this house!' And He just did! Before I left the house every one had got a blessing. The last night of my visit after I had retired, the governess asked me to go to the two daughters. They were crying; then and there both of them trusted and rejoiced; it was nearly midnight. I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration; and these little couplets formed themselves, and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with 'Ever, Only, ALL for Thee!'"

nice chatting


Here are the links to previous Lyrics for Living posts:
#1 (touched by a loving hand)
#2 (a thrill of hope)
#3 (dews of quietness)
#4 (trace the rainbow)
#5 (wing my words)
#6 (but this I know)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

transforming august

As a child August was kinda bland with a pinch of boring. Indian Independence Day came along, bang in the middle (15th), and after an early flag-raising anthem-singing service, the rest of the day was a holiday. Excellent. But that was pretty much it for August.

Not much for a sentimental chap like me. But then, ever so gradually, four generations have conspired together to fill this forgettable month with significance.

Along came Barby, with a birthday on the 6th and my wife now for more than 33 years. After sharing our childhood in India the idea of sharing our lives together only gained momentum after we left India. But that is exactly what we are doing... Here is Barby adding some beauty to a cottage in Murree, a beautiful place in the Pakistani Himalayas.
The sixth will never be the same

After two years of marriage the children started arriving every two years. We are forever grateful for God blessing us in this way. Plus, a wonderfully 'long straight' was emerging, with family birthdays in June, August, September, October, November. Add a July and a December and we'd have a run of seven. But Bethany couldn't wait for December (30 November) ... and Joseph? Well, Joseph wasn't even close to July, joining his Mum in August by arriving on the 26th. Here he is using his vertical leap - the guy has 'hops', let me tell you - to diversify the sky above a Northland beach in NZ.
The twenty sixth will never be the same

But transforming is not just about thanksgiving and blessing. Sometimes there is sadness and lament. The minor key joins the major key in the music of life. And so it came to pass. On the 10th, just four years ago, my precious Dad died after a lingering struggle with Parkinson's. Here he is in a church in Geneva (Illinois), looking so well as he prepares his speech at our wedding.
The tenth will never be the same

As the years have gone by our little ones got all growed up. Our daughter became a mum. And just last year, Alyssa and Tim - together with big brudder, Micah - welcomed a little baby girl on the 2nd. Amaliya Grace. Here she is in a home and in a family that loves and adores her. Just what every child needs in order to thrive.
The second will never be the same

When all is said and done (and there will be more saying and doing to be said and done), these are august transformations indeed. Bland and boring be gone. The month can never be the same again.

nice chatting


Monday, August 03, 2015

keller on preaching

I used to play a little football - or, soccer, as my American friends refer to it. Here the word 'little' refers both to time and talent. I didn't play for long and I didn't play very well. One of the challenges for me was that as I approached a position where I could shoot for goal, the goal-keeper would put this magnetic spell on my foot so that the ball would always go straight to him. Ugh. It was so difficult to strike the ball into the open spaces in the goal.

This is why I love Timothy Keller's new book on preaching - Preaching (H&S, 2015). He shoots into the spaces. He writes into the gaps - and here are the ones which I find to be compelling:

His tone
Yes, let's start with the spirit in which he writes. With Keller you always get the sense that he doesn't just love the gospel, he loves the unbeliever and enjoys the challenge of their skepticism. This was true of Reason for God all those years ago. For example, not too many proponents of expository preaching are perceived to be like this:
Try to remember that you are at odds with a system of beliefs far more than you are at war with a group of people. Contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators. Seen in this light the Christian gospel is more of a prison break than a battle (155-6). 
His purpose
This is not 'a manual, but a manifesto' (213). While plenty of others have written the textbooks on 'how to write an expository sermon' (although there is space for a valuable Appendix on this topic, 213-240), Keller contributes a 'foundation for thinking about Christian communication of the Bible in a skeptical age ... (it is about) preaching the Word, preaching the gospel, preaching to the culture, preaching to the heart, all by preaching Christ' (241, emphasis mine).

His practice
The North American literature on preaching creaks under the burden of theory that is so difficult to translate into practice for unspectacular preachers - which is the vast majority of us. This book feels so much lighter and more accessible because it is laced together by so many examples and illustrations from Keller's own ministry (and the font is huge!).

His space
Keller is not narrow. At one point he takes a little potshot at 'expository legalism' (250). There is a place for topical preaching (30-31) and, even more satisfying, there is an advocacy of a more inductive approach to the sermon (102, 271-275, 305-308). These pages include a fascinating case study on how Jonathan Edwards shifted to a more inductive approach when he moved upstate to work among indigenous peoples.

His worldliness
Finally - an evangelical who takes the world seriously in their book on preaching. Hallelujah. Almost 40% of the book is devoted to this topic. About jolly time.

Yeah, I know this a hobby horse of mine. For years I have worked on a session which I call 'preaching worldviewishly' and now I have some required reading that I can give my students. Very exciting for me. Keller prefers to use the phrase 'baseline cultural narrative' (he identifies five of them, 121-156) noting the need to surface them, as they do tend to be assumed - and therefore invisible.
They are so pervasive, and felt to be so self-evident, that they are not visible as beliefs to those who hold them (127).
Then there is a chapter on Preaching Christ to the Culture (93-120) in which he provides 'six sound practices for preaching to and reaching a culture'.

His 'yes, but no, but yes' logic
Here he addresses the silly, shallow relevance that has so often marked the life of churches across the spectrum. For them is all about connection, but never confrontation. All salt. Little light. With Keller, the 'yes' is about affirming the deep cultural aspirations of the skeptic (cf Paul in Acts 17) ... the 'but no' is about demonstrating the futility of the search  ... and the 'but yes' is the rejoicing that 'only in Christ can this aspiration have a happy ending'. He uses this very logic in his engagement with each of the baseline cultural narratives. This is 'true contextualisation'. It is authentic relevance.
It means to resonate with, yet defy, the culture around you. It means to antagonize a society's idols while showing respect for its people and many of its hopes and aspirations. It means expressing the gospel in a way that is not only comprehensible but also convincing (99).
His balance
No wedges here. Keller is big on the Word, both in its written (Scripture) and living (Christ) forms. They go together. His double warning could not be more explicit: 'not to preach Christ without preaching the text, and not to preach the text without preaching Christ' (67). Scripture becomes the basis of the sermon because 'as we unfold the meaning of the language of Scripture, God becomes powerfully active in our lives. The Bible is ... God's power in verbal form' (34). Jesus is the focus of the sermon, as demonstrated in an exquisite chapter on 'preaching Christ from all of scripture' (70-90) - 'pull on the thread' (73) and find this to be true.

His wisdom
Plenty of wisdom to be 'caught and taught' here. For those who teach preaching, the 70 pages of 'Notes' at the end are full of wisdom. Maybe the easiest thing is to let some assorted quotations provide some flavour...
When the preacher solves Christians' problems with the gospel - not by calling them to try harder but by pointing them to deeper faith in Christ's salvation - then believers are being edified and nonbelievers are hearing the gospel, all at the same time (120).
It's fine if listeners are taking notes in the first part of the sermon, but if they are doing so at the end, you are probably not reaching their affections (166).
(On the need for a 'nondeliberate transparency) ... they can sniff out if you are more concerned about looking good or sounding authoritative than you are about honoring God and loving them. (166-167).
(It is about text, context ...) and subtext, the message under your message (201).
You may not have strong public-speaking gifts, but if you are godly, your wisdom and love and courage will make you an interesting preacher. You may not have strong pastoral or counseling gifts (eg., you may be very shy or introverted), but if you are godly, your wisdom and love and courage will enable you to comfort and guide people. You may not have strong leadership gifts (eg., you may be disorganized or cautious by nature), but if you are godly, your wisdom and love and courage will mean that people will respect and follow you (196).
Insightful preaching comes from depth of research and reading and experimentation (177). 
(Because of the mobility of people today) ... a strict, consecutive, whole-Bible-book approach will guarantee that most of your people will actually be exposed to less of the Bible's variety (40). 
(Illustration is) anything that connects an abstract proposition with the memory of an experience in the sensory world … (this) makes the truth real both by helping listeners better understand it and by inclining their hearts more to love it (169, 173).
Resist ending your sermon with 'live like this' and rather end with some form of 'You can't live like this. Oh, but there's one who did! And through faith in Him you can begin to live like this too'. The change in the room will be palpable as the sermon moves from being primarily about them to being about Jesus (179).
If your heart isn't regularly engaged in praise and repentance, if you aren't constantly astonished at God's grace in your solitude, there's no way it can happen in public. You won't touch hearts because your own heart isn't touched (168). 
His bibliography
I need to read everything Alan Stibbs and Alec Motyer have written - and then there is the grieving to be done for leaving Ryken's Dictionary of Biblical Imagery and Sam Logan's The Preacher and Preaching in storage at home in New Zealand. Silly boy.

Preach biblically. 
Preach to cultural narratives. 
Preach to the heart. 
... and preach the gospel every time.

A little personal aside, especially for my past and future students...
In teaching preaching I've enjoyed developing the 'four corners' model where the road to the sermon needs to visit Word, listener, world and preacher (neatly illustrated here, a wonderful site for preachers). There is exegesis to do and story to tell in each corner. Sometimes there has been a fifth corner, directing preachers back to the Word. Keller's book has been so energising because for the first time I overhear all four corners in a single book on preaching. What's more he has given me ideas on how to improve things. What about 1 Corinthians 1.18-2.5 providing a biblical basis - from a single passage - for all four corners? What about the first corner being Word (written) - beginning with a basis in the Scripture ... and the fifth corner being Word (living) - climaxing with a focus on Christ, ensuring the sermon is truly christotelic?

nice chatting


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.