Sunday, June 28, 2015

the road to character

David Brooks' The Road to Character (Allen Lane, 2015) is a book of two halves - that is, if we are able to be flexible and allow one of the halves to be only one-sixth of the book.

The Introduction (ix-xv) and The Shift (3-15) will make their way into the required reading list for countless courses around the world dealing with issues of spirituality and leadership. They are that good. The final chapter - The Big Me (241-270), with its 'The Humility Code' - will not be too far behind. Brooks takes just 50 pages to nail his argument.

In the other five-sixths he collects eight 'biographical essays' because 'moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed' (xiii). These people discovered their lives were made of 'crooked timber' (Kant) - and so they 'waged war' with it.  Frances Perkins, Ike Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), Augustine, and Samuel Johnson. As we meander through the stories, Brooks urges us to 'relearn a vocabulary of character' (15) that has been lost.

Brooks' argument builds on a distinction made by Rabbi Soloveitchik regarding the two sides of our nature, Adam I and Adam II. Brooks has a gift in drawing contrasts in a succinct manner. Adam I is interested in CV, or resume, virtues. Adam II is committed to eulogy virtues. Adam I is about what we say as we market ourselves for success, while Adam II is what people say at our funeral about our character.

While Adam I wants to conquer the world, 
Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world (x).

To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. 
To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses (x).

If you don't have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, 
your betrayal, will happen. Adam I ultimately depends on Adam II (12).

Adam I achieves success by winning victories over others. 
But Adam II builds character by winning victories over the weaknesses in himself (13).

Narcissism is the cultural setting in which the confrontation between these two Adams takes place. It is a 'gospel of self-trust' (7). 'You are special. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Don't accept limits...' For Brooks, 'a moral tradition has been left behind' (15), as people have become self-absorbed - or, in the words of George Eliot - we are 'taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves' (244).

This infects Christian communities. One of my own long-standing concerns is that so much teaching on topics like spiritual gifts and self-esteem owe more to the spirit of the age than to the Spirit of God. The very notion that our gifts and our strengths should determine our vocation beggars belief. Where and when will we then confront our weaknesses and our flaws? Vocation is determined by calling primarily, not gifting (which comes soon afterwards). Brooks' message is that we need 'to become strong in the weak places' (10) so that 'Adam I bows down to Adam II'.

Woven into the 'biographical essays' is all kinds of wisdom: the nature of sin (54-55); the value of suffering (93-96); a beautiful paragraph on what 'sensitive people do when other people are in trauma' (100-101 - it reminded me of my godly mother!); the nature of love (168-174); the nature of pride (198-201); a reflection on status updates on facebook (250-251); and on parenting (254-257). But the common denominator with the eight stories is clear and bold:
... each of the lives started with a deep vulnerability and undertook a lifelong effort to transcend that vulnerability ... And yet each person was redeemed by their weakness. Each person struggled against that weakness and used that problem to grow a beautiful strength. Each person traveled down into the valley of humility in order to ascend to the heights of tranquility and self-respect (268).
It is easy to overhear the wisdom and character of Jesus in these pages. I longed for references on the way the Holy Spirit provides the energising power to produce this kind of character - but not sure it would have worked. The way Brooks packages biblical wisdom for a readership that is increasingly skeptical about us, the people of the Book, is one of the attractions of his writing.

Speaking of people of the Book, this is the same David Brooks who wrote the heralded article on John Stott in his New York Times column, all those years ago. I do not know all the details, but that encounter with Stott greatly impacted Brooks' own spiritual journey. In a book that finds its way to an advocacy of humility as 'the greatest of all virtues' - it is humility that both Brooks and Stott have in common. I valued Brooks' vulnerability. 'This book is about Adam II ... I wrote it to save my own soul' (xi). The final paragraph - in the Acknowledgements (!) at the very end - took me by surprise and made me a little weepy (which is not particularly difficult to do), with all that is left unsaid.
Life has its vicissitudes and unexpected turns. My ex-wife, Sarah, has done and continues to do an amazing job raising our three children. Those children, Joshua, Naomi, and Aaron, are now spread around the globe, and exemplify the traits of character that any parent dreams of: courage, creativity, honesty, fortitude, and loving kindness. They don't really need this book, but I hope they profit from it. (273)

My own battle with these issues of the self and its place and profile in my life took a sweeping turn all those decades ago when I read 'Self-Understanding and Self-Giving' in Stott's The Cross of Christ. Have you read these pages? The words melted me and electrified me - as they do so again just now. They became a starting point. Self-denial and self-affirmation. Dignity and depravity. Worth and unworthiness.
On the one hand, the cross is the God-given measure of the value of our true self, since Christ loved us and died for us. On the other hand, it is the God-given model for the denial of our false self, since we are to nail it to the cross and put it to death. Or, more simply, standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die (285).
nice chatting


[PS: I see from the 'labels' section to the right that this is my 100th book review :)].

Thursday, June 25, 2015

mangoes, rice, preaching

How is this for a greeting at the front of our local grocery story - Nilgiri's in Kothanur (Bangalore)?

Look at the variety of mangoes. Alphonso seems to be king, but I ain't fussy. A mela is an event where people gather in a festival-like manner. Bring it on. We tend to take the mela back home with us and have mangoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner - and the occasional snack.

But what is going on here?

Is it not true that mangoes are so commonplace and so central to life here in South India that the culture develops and distinguishes the varieties in a way that we just would not do back home in NZ?

Step inside the doors of the store and the same thing happens again - with rice. A similar variety, this time each with its own bin. Once again ... is it not true that rice is so commonplace and so central to life here that the culture develops and distinguishes the varieties in a way that we just would not do back home? [But no mela for me this time. Rice glues up my alimentary canal, leading to ailments which will remain unstated here.]

Step inside the life of the early church in the book of Acts and a similar thing is happening - for those with eyes to see. Not mangoes. Not rice. Preaching. So commonplace and so central is preaching to its life that the early church develops and distinguishes varieties in a way that we just do not do in NZ, or in India - or any other country with which I am acquainted.

Scholars tell us that there are 37 references to the growth of the church in Acts. Six associate this growth with a quality of church life. Seven link this growth with the presence of signs & wonders - but 24 references link it with preaching the word of God, in all its nuance and variety. Even a basic understanding of the book of Acts picks up its theme: the church spreads, as the Word of God spreads. It is the biography – not of Peter, or Paul – but of the Word, carried forward by preachers. The final phrase in the original emphasizes this: ‘the unstoppable word’...
Speaking of scholars, my journey on this point has twisted and turned thanks to different scholars.

CH Dodd gave me a horrible start. He zeroed in on just two words - 'preaching' and 'teaching' - and argued that there was a 'clear distinction' between the two (when the biblical data is far less certain). His analysis was unnecessarily exclusivist (allowing for no overlap in meanings) and reductionist (giving priority to just two words, when there are many more) ... and had a generation heading up the wrong alley.

Along came word-study supremo, Gerhard Kittel, rescuing me with the news of thirty-three different words for preaching in the New Testament. The mela is still on. The bins are diverse, full - nuanced.

Then, on one sleepy Friday evening in Wanaka (NZ), I was commencing my favourite ministry opportunity of all: a local-church based preaching seminar for people at the grassroots. A dozen people this time. But then - ever so quietly, as is his manner - in slipped a thirteenth person into the back row. Murray Harris, arguably New Zealand's greatest ever New Testament scholar. Gulp?! He caught me waxing as eloquently as I could on this very point. Later in the week I received a hand-written note from the professor. He affirmed what I was saying and took me to the Mela in Thessalonica - Acts 17.2-4 - carefully scripting the six different Greek words (in just three verses!) that give colour and depth, diversity and nuance, to the ministry of preaching. 

Before too long, Aussie Peter Adam came along, bringing some order to the mela when he articulated 'the many different ministries of the Word' (Speaking God's Words, 75):
(a) words of information: teach, instruct, point out, make known, remind; 
(b) words of declaration: preach, proclaim, cry out, testify, bear witness, declare, write, read, pass on;
(c) words of exhortation: call, denounce, warn, rebuke, command, give judgement, encourage, appeal, urge; 
(d) words of persuasion: explain, make clear, prove, guard, debate, contend, refute, reason, persuade, convince, insist, defend. confirm, stress;
(e) words of conversation: say, speak, talks, answer, reply, give answer.

There is a need to thicken and deepen and broaden the 'ministry of the Word' that happens in and through local churches. Here is one application of what it could look like: preaching: acts and now.

nice chatting


Friday, June 19, 2015

lyrics for living 6 (but this i know)

When things get tough I try to look in two directions.

One is horizontal. Maybe chronological is a better word. I bring to mind the way God works with a 24 hour day and how dawn follows midnight. Always. Without Fail. Then in many countries, far from the equator, He works with a 4 season year. Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter. But then ... always ... without fail ... spring follows winter. What is true in the rhythm of creation is true in the rhythm of the new creation. The 24 and the 4 breathe hope into my life during difficult times.

The other direction is vertical. Deep though the pain may be, deeper still there is a God who is true and real and faithful. Ten years ago - last month - I began my message at the funeral of a young woman, who had a brain tumour accompany her through her entire (almost) life, with these words:

"There is this hymn that I love…
 The first line of every verse starts the same way: 'I cannot tell'
       …as if to say
                    I don’t understand
                    It is beyond me
                    I just don’t know
Then… further down – half way through the very same verses 
each time, there comes a response: 'But this I know'
       …as if to say
                   I am sure
                   I rest my life on this
                   I am convinced of this
The words in the hymn are great.

But it is actually the way these phrases are arranged 
on the page that gets me every time.
      The very fact that they even coexist…
       - 'I cannot tell' & 'But this I know' -
       and hang out together in the same verse is remarkable
                   - just like with life -
And then more subtly, the ‘But this I know’ always lies deeper and lower 
in the verse & on the page it is the foundational phrase
                   - just like in life it can be, as well -
By way of Reflection this morning I want to focus 
on the deeper and the foundational: the ‘But this I know' ... "

Here is another young woman (her name is Hope!) singing this hymn:

Ten years ago - next year - I visited Zambia with my son, Martin. Two days after returning to New Zealand I was to speak at a World Vision Prayer Day. I remember feeling panic, as I had no idea what to say. But then God dropped an idea into my mind. I had been immersed in the sadness of Meredith's State of Africa as I traveled and also the Psalms of Ascent. 

These psalms are borne in pain. I decided to hold these distressing stories of African nations emerging from colonization in one hand and these Psalms in the other hand. Context and Text. Just how I like the conversation to be in my heart and mind. I read bits from the book and then read bits from the Bible. Zambia - Psalm 120 - deceit. Rwanda - Psalm 121 - fear. Sudan - Psalm 122 - war ... On we went, through the countries and through the psalms ... even USA/UN/France - Psalm 130 - guilt.

When they engage with these stories, Christians around the world get knotted, and ask, "Where is God in all this pain? Has God left Africa?" But I didn't hear Christians in Africa asking those questions so much. They kept on worshiping God. But sometimes I thought I could hear them wanting to articulate, "Where are God's people - our brothers and sisters - in all this?" 

Oh yes, the worship weeps - but deeper down the worship knows certain things to be true about God. The experience changed me. I came home with a vibrant testimony of 'I cannot tell, but this I know' which will shape my life for forever. The pain is real. The suffering is huge. Don't minimise it. I cannot get my head and heart around it. But deep though the pain may be, there is something deeper going on. Down through the pain there is Someone else. 

Just as with the hymn, down lower and further in these Psalms can be found truths to know for sure. Psalm 120 and the God who saves. Psalm 121 and the God who protects. Psalm 122 and the God who peace-keeps. Psalm 123 and the God who shows mercy. Psalm 124 and the God who helps. Psalm 129 and the God who judges. Psalm 130 and the God who forgives. Psalm 131 and the God who stills...

The horizontals and the verticals. 
It is the way to live. 
May God help me so to do.

nice chatting


Saturday, June 13, 2015

taking flight with frances

Seldom do I remember flights taking-off these days. I am asleep by that time, as an involuntary nap overwhelms me on the way to the runway. On this occasion I could be excused for such behaviour befitting a baby. Eight long days of listening, facilitating and note-taking had left me a little weary.

I boarded the plane. As I settled into my customary aisle seat, my eye caught an empty row of three up ahead. It was a clear day. Lima to Sao Paulo. Across the Andes, for goodness sake. Five hours. What about a window seat? Yes, why not?! So I settled into my new digs, with imaginary toothpicks holding up my eyelids so that I can remain alert until after take-off.

In the end sleep was the least of all likelihoods...

Julia Cameron's John Stott's Right Hand (Piquant, 2014), 'the untold story of Frances Whitehead', was the book of choice for this flight. The story of the woman who worked alongside John Stott for 55 years - in 'a unique partnership ... for which the English language perhaps has no word' (86). One can only imagine how a Hollywood scriptwriter would mess with the characters and the plot. And yet Frances occupies so much of 'the back-story to John Stott's colossal influence' (189).

The book was finished on this single flight despite frequent interruptions to savour the view outside my window.

Oh, those mountains, barren but beautiful, range upon range, as we head inland towards the Andes. 
I love the zigging and zagging pathways up their steep sides.

The dignity of work. A simple observation in the final pages caught my eye. 'Appendix II: Books typed by Frances Whitehead'. Typed? When did you last see a typist featured in such a list? It seems such a basic task. But books cannot be completed if they are not typed. This story legitimates basic, but essential, work. It dignifies the simplest of callings. Sure, Frances became something special as 'Frances the Omnicompetent', the 'source of all knowledge' (SOAK). But like you and me, she had to make a start somewhere - and typing was it.

Goodness me - is that a volcano out my window?

The work of grace. It was not an easy life. Her only sibling, an older sister, died far too young. Her parents' marriage was unhappy, ending in separation. The bond with her mother 'was never deep' (140). Frances led a solitary and 'rootless' life, leading to a shy and 'diffident' personality. Her father, her 'rock', died suddenly just before her 19th birthday. But through it all God drew Frances to himself - with the preaching of one John Stott being the key: 'the sheer authenticity of the preacher had convinced Frances to listen and to focus' (41). It was as she listened that 'the light of Christ first dawned on me' (11). This is the story of someone like us. God chose to make Frances His own - just like he wants to do with you and me.

On the distant horizon, can I make out some blue below the horizon as well as above it?
Is there some sky and some water? Surely not. 
But then, for no apparent reason, the pilot takes a sharp left turn
... and we travel along the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The grace of obedience. After a season working with the BBC, Frances was appointed as secretary to John Stott. This was to be the setting for her obedience to God for the rest of her working life. Typist - yes! But also gatekeeper, administrator, encourager ... and very much the 'right hand' of John Stott. 'A servant of the servant of the Lord'. It is a shared legacy. Their ability 'to work together so closely for so long was a mark of grace' (86). 'They resolutely did not allow for romantic hopes to take root' (86) in order to obey this higher calling at 'an unrelenting pace for over half a century' (189). We may not all be as gifted as John Stott, but we can all be as obedient as Frances Whitehead and that is what God desires from us. That is enough. He can do amazing things with obedience.

As soon as Titicaca fades from view, the city of La Paz appears right underneath me.

Accessible stories of ordinary people who are deeply consecrated to Christ appeal to me. They become special people. This story of Frances Whitehead ticks this box for me. I read it right through without stopping. The dignity of work - the work of grace - the grace of obedience.

It is the Good Life. It is the beauty of the new creation (as read in these pages) which complements the beauty of creation (as seen out that window) ... and a beauty in which God draws near.

nice chatting


PS. May I add one more thing? I do not find the title to be convincing. Such is the ignorance about John Stott among emerging generations that any new books dealing with this story should try to draw near to these younger ones. This is a title for the insider, not the outsider, to the story. An opportunity has been missed. Moreover, I wonder how those generations respond to a title in which a woman is being defined in this way? I guess it is OK if you know the people (and I am sure Frances does not mind) - but if you don't, I wonder if they will draw near to read and be transformed?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

spurgeon's sorrows

The word is used so much today. I hesitate to bear witness to depression in my own life, lest by doing so it mocks those whose struggle with it is so serious, so debilitating. Down through the years ... the names, the faces, the situations. They fill my heart and mind as I sit down to write - as does the memory of the sheer helplessness of stumbling alongside them as they walked through the valley.

One thing I do know is that my life has been messed around enough by melancholy to ensure that there are depths of empathy inside me. I suspect Zack Eswine is the same. There is a knowingness about the way he writes Spurgeon's Sorrows (Christian Focus, 2014). He has been there too. He seems to have set himself the task of reading every sermon preached by Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the Victorian era, accumulating everything he ever says about depression and engaging with it.

In passing, Spurgeon's own battle with depression is sourced to an experience as a pastor of just 22 years of age. He was preaching to a congregation of 10,000 at the Music Hall in Royal Surrey Gardens in London when some idiot yelled, 'Fire!' - and in the panic which ensued seven people died and many more were injured. Spurgeon never recovered from this experience. It haunted him and softened him through until his death, 36 years later - and his sermons are touched by this experience, often with a surprising transparency.

There is so much to like about Eswine's book. It is short (143 pages). It is practical. Every single chapter is laced with wisdom for both 'sufferer' and 'caregiver' - for example, 'Helps that Harm' (75-83); 'Suicide and Choosing Life' (119-132). It is tender, nowhere more so than in the final chapter - 'The Benefits of Sorrow' (133-143) - and the way he writes about 'Charles', rather than 'Spurgeon'. And, in a field like counseling, where I do not always have confidence in the theological foundations underpinning the perspectives being advocated, it is good theology - like here: 'even hope demolished can become hope rebuilt, if it is realistic and rooted, not just in the cross and the empty tomb but also in the garden and the sweat-like blood' (131).

The role of metaphor and of 'a larger story' are two features which stand out for me.

1. In a world where words can be of little value, I was a little surprised by the focus on words. For example, in 'A Language for our Sorrows' (67-74), Eswine writes of the value of 'leaning on metaphors' - word-pictures, essentially. 'Poetry from God for our sorrows' (73). Spurgeon used them so much in reference to depression: 'traversing the howling desert - enduring winters, or a foggy day - caught in a hurricane - crushed, trodden in the winepress' (68-69). He reached for metaphor so often. So did the Psalmist. For Eswine, 'metaphor can handle mystery ... metaphor leaves room ... metaphor allows for nuance ... metaphor requires further exploration' (71-72). Sufferers need 'to search for metaphors to describe their experience ... and (caregivers) need to learn patience and appreciation for metaphor' (73).
Sometimes those of us who suffer depression feel the sting of the irony - the inability to find empathy and comfort from the very people who read the Bible every day but do not recognise the gift of metaphor for the sorrowing within its pages (72-73).
2. Spurgeon recognised that any current melancholy is a chapter in a bigger book, a season in a fuller year, and a midnight with a following dawn. It is this larger story that brings hope in the midst of the heavier story. Nevertheless, 'our salvation messages will prove inadequate if they do not  meaningfully account for the large portions of reality that cause screaming in the world; particularly with depression' (78). Quoting William James, Eswine writes of this 'remoter scheme' (79), or larger story, or metanarrative:
A larger story about God exists that possesses within it a language of sorrows so that the gloomy, the anguished, the dark-pathed, and the inhabitants of deep night are given voice. Such a god-story is neither cruel nor trite. Such a story begins to reveal the sympathy of God (74).
And again, later, in what is something of a summary of the book:
We think of the Bible as a violent book, of God as angry, and god-talkers as sloganeers. But Charles saw in the Bible a language for the sorrowing, an advocacy to disrupt helpers who harm, and a man of sorrows sent from God out of love for the wailing world so that those who sat in darkness could finally feel the home they were made for and enjoy the sun again. This remoter scheme or larger story becomes the means by which Charles daily reckoned with the proximity of his despair. God had offered a reason for hope that matched the intensity of our reasons for despondency (90). 

One more word on tenderness. It is there in quotation after quotation, word picture after word picture. It makes for a beautiful reading that touches the affections. Be it Spurgeon: 'The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits' (25); depression is 'a kind of mental arthritis' (61) - or, Eswine himself: 'Depression is a darkness that drapes over us wherever we go' (35); 'God's promises are a sort of lighthouse reaching out into our night seas' (94); and 'Laughter gave our tears room to breathe' (106).

Two more pieces of wisdom. One quoting Andrew Solomon: 'Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance ... depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance' (quoted on page 29). Isn't that a great discussion starter?

Then, if Spurgeon, Eswine and Solomon don't grab you, what about my grandson, Micah - barely three years of age? He loves strumming his guitar and drumming anything that can be arrayed in front of him (with his parents, over time, wising up to the need for these things to be noiseless). He has latched onto a lyric from a song played in the home. So with either guitar in hand, or pounding away on shoes, plants, boxes, or cushions - he blurts out the line: 'joy comes in the morning'.

nice chatting


PS. Both this book and A Nervous Splendor were recommended to me by my friend, Mark Meynell. Mark's blog occupies a different stratosphere to this one. More recently he has focused on writing books, with A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World, officially released later this week.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

maori martyrs

Te Manihera and Kereopa.

It is Keith Newman (in Bible and Treaty) who introduced me to these two Christian Maori men, martyred near Tokaanu (situated 'at 6 o'clock', on the southern edge of Lake Taupo) in 1847. When our family took a holiday earlier this month in nearby Kuratau ('at 7 o'clock' on the lake), I became consumed with the need for pilgrimage. The graveside was only 15 minutes away, by car.

The memorial lies in the cemetery of St Paul's Anglican Church, just off the highway from Turangi to Taumarunui. By 1850 there were more Maori Christians in New Zealand than European Christians. The vast majority of these Maori had been brought to Christ by other Maori. There are stories of European missionaries pioneering the gospel into new regions, only to find little churches, reading the Bible and singing hymns, already functioning - planted by Maori missionaries who reached there first. At his conversion,
Te Manihera is said to have spoken of how they had received the Gospel and the Christian faith from English missionaries; if the missionaries could leave their homeland to go out to the world and preach the Gospel, then it was the duty of Maori missionaries to go among their own countrymen. (Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
Te Manihera and Kereopa were early Maori missionaries. Their tribe in South Taranaki was mired in a cycle of war with a neighbouring tribe. Rather than exacting vengeance, they headed off, motivated by the gospel, in a spirit of peace and reconciliation - and it cost them their lives.

Someone needs to respect these graves a little more and make the script a little clearer! But I suspect the phrase at the bottom is echoing the words from Revelation:
They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb 
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death (Revelation 12.11).

The fuller story of the martyrdom can be read in Newman's book, but also in Manihera's Farewell (Hero Stories of New Zealand). Some years later, in 1916, the New Zealand Herald adds one consequence of the story:
A native teacher, speaking of their death, likened them to a lofty kahikatea tree, full of fruit, which it sheds on every side around, causing thick grove of young trees to spring up; so that although the parent tree may be cut down its place is more than supplied by those which proceed from it—this is but a Maori way of saying the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. The Rev. R. Taylor tells us that Huitahi, the murderer, afterwards gave land as a site for a mission station, and built a nice little church upon it, and when Mr. Taylor went to conduct the opening service at it, he found some thirty Maoris asking for baptism. 

One little personal aside. Part of my wider family/whanau married direct descendents of Edward Lawry, the early missionary to Tonga. Te Manihera's name before he became a believer was Poutama. Look at this story in Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
Poutama was born in South Taranaki, probably early in the nineteenth century. He was captured during a Waikato raid near the mouth of the Tamaki River. From there he was taken captive a second time, by Nga Puhi. They were travelling north when, off Cape Brett, he was put on board a mission schooner carrying the Reverend Walter Lawry from Kororareka (Russell) to Tonga; his release was secured by the gift of a few biscuits. On the voyage to Tonga, Poutama rescued Lawry's son, Henry, when a wave washed the child overboard. For 18 months in Tonga Poutama was educated by the Lawrys; he transferred to the CMS station at Norfolk Island when they returned to England. Eventually he made his way back to Waokena, near Hawera, where he married Harata ...
nice chatting


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

down the other side

'I told you so'.
It is such an ugly phrase, isn't it?!

I told you so.

In the midst of the mess over Ross Taylor being pushed out of the captaincy and then the debacle in South Africa after Brendon McCullum took charge, I posted a piece entitled, black caps at midnight?, in which I opened with these comments:
Things are looking  bleak for the NZ cricket team. It feels like the darkest of midnights, with a long time until dawn. Dismissed for 45 and losing by an innings and 27 runs? Sounds pretty bad. But people are over-reacting in their criticism of the team. Here are five reasons for the darkness and why it could still prove to be 4am, rather than midnight... (5 January 2013)
And it came to pass that it was 4.00am, not midnight. The dawn came quickly. Soon the people of New Zealand were lost in a sunny euphoric forgiveness as the team climbed from the bottom to #3 in the world in both Test cricket and One Day International (ODI) cricket. A truly stunning achievement.

But maybe our peak has been reached. Elliot's six. It did take me awhile to enjoy the view. My plane took off from Dubai just as the final over of the semi-final started. A row of Indian lads was keeping me updated. 12 off 6. Not looking good. I waited 4+ hours for the result. On arrival in Bangalore, as the seat-belt sign went off and I stood up, the news came through that we had won, and the entire cabin stood up (I suspect they were intending to do so anyway) in a moving standing ovation in response to my boisterous exclamation of victory.

But I fear that Grant Elliot's six will mark New Zealand cricket's high noon...
'C'mon, Paul, why the pessimism?. NZ cricket usually brings out your optimistic side.'

The Everest in every cricketer's career starts tomorrow. A Test match at Lord's in London. New Zealand is woefully unprepared. This post has been building for some time, but what drove me over the cliff are some headlines from the incomparable Sir Richard Hadlee. Everything happening around the England team will make them focused and determined to prove themselves at home. They are anything but ripe for the picking. Meanwhile the core of the NZ team has been flying around India for six weeks, masquerading as IPL cricketers, but not doing much at all.

There are other things on my mind which, when taken together, leave me concluding that altitude sickness is an ailment unlikely to afflict this NZ cricket team.

The tactics
Much though I love him as a captain, Brendon McCullum's innings in the World Cup final was some of the dumbest cricket I've ever seen. And the dumb cricket continued with Grant Elliot down the order. He decided to go beserk, with two handy wickets and numerous overs still remaining. But everyone knows that while it is OK to go beserk at the end of a Test match innings, you do not do so at the end of an ODI innings. You play out the overs. NZ's ultra-aggressive approach, in the final, was a poor tactical decision. I said so before, during and after the game. The Aussies would be too smart and in their home conditions they would have too much skill for NZ aggression. They'd come out ready for it. And so it came to pass. Plus, in order to scale the highest peaks in professional sports, you gotta give more innovative attention to defense, not just offense.

[LATER. JUNE 8. Although I seldom agree with this writer, on this occasion I think he has it right. Ignore the headline. Read the substance of the article. In wanting to be ultra-aggressive, McCullum is on occasion - rather too regularly, for my liking - being reckless and careless. It is dumb cricket].

The administration
New Zealand Cricket has let Bruce Edgar go from his role in selection and talent identification. The more I read, the more I reckon he had a lot to do with the team's success. Plus he was handled so badly. A poor decision carried out poorly. Not a good sign at all. And how it is that Messrs McCullum, Boult, Southee, Williamson and Anderson can be allowed to stay in the IPL until two days before a Lord's Test is beyond me... Who is running this game anyway?
Then there is the small matter of the administration of the international game by the International Cricket Council (ICC) - now controlled largely by India but with England and Australia as its lap dogs. If New Zealand is to stay competitive with these types of teams (and therefore improve their standing), a tight FIFA-like administration will be needed. But the Indian administrators tend to be too greedy, too powerful and too corrupt for that to happen any time soon.

The media
Goodness, deary me - what has gone on while I've been away from New Zealand? Where is the sober critique and the balanced evaluation? Maybe I've missed it - like I missed the euphoria of the World Cup weeks (which has possibly left me bitter and twisted, providing the real reason for this post!). Too many journalists have slipped into an over-heated, drooling sychophancy with this New Zealand team. For example, as I travel, moderate Kiwi performances in the IPL keep filling my NZ Herald and Stuff apps with gushy headlines. And it's not just Sir Richard's comments yesterday - what about this piece on Kane Williamson this morning? Saying Kane is 'prepared' is not the same as him being prepared. How on earth can he be prepared? Who is writing this stuff? He hasn't played a proper innings for weeks and weeks ... and tomorrow it is Lord's of all places.

All this to say, I hope I am wrong. I hope I have to eat my own words, spiced with intolerable chilly. I hope those of you who disagree with me will let 'I told you so' rain down on me (although you will need to say so in the next 24 hours, or you will lack credibility) - even as the late English spring rains probably pour down on this little two Test series. Just two?! Yes, only two! Why? Did I mention India, Australia and England...

nice chatting


Monday, May 18, 2015

a nervous splendor

It was like driving into spring. In Toronto the trees were leafless, but as I made my way by train to Windsor (Ontario) - and then by car to Ohio and on to Kentucky - the trees and countryside came alive with a fresh and velvety green. It was beautiful.

That was last month. Last week it was like driving into autumn. We left Auckland in the morning, driving south to Turangi. In a few brief hours the colours on the trees deepened and brightened in their final flourish before the onset of winter. It was beautiful.

When we arrived in the lakeside town of Kuratau, I found myself driving, unexpectedly, into autumn and spring once again. However this time the journey took place in my imagination, as I was transported to a city I have never visited and into a century in which I have never lived.

Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendour: Vienna 1888/1889 (Viking, 1981) absorbed me in the darkened hours of each morning before the family awakened. When the author writes a sentence like this, before he leaves even the first paragraph of his Preface, were there any other plausible options than absorption?
I've tried to trace local tremors that began along a curve of the Danube, then echoed across the world to come thundering down into our own century (vii).
The story gains momentum through the Autumn of 1888. Morton weaves together the stories of different ones as the splendour of Vienna's high society moves towards the celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph's birthday and beyond.

Composers Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Hugo Wolf and Anton Bruckner are there. A young neurologist called Sigmund Freud is there. The founding father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, is there. So also is the painter Gustav Klimt, the conductor Gustav Mahler, the composer-painter Arnold Schonberg, and the doctor-turned-writer Arthur Schnitzler. All their stories are told. Even philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is there (albeit 'in his mother's belly ... (about to) haunt the philosophy of the next century', 70). Add to these Viennese residents, the visits of Edward, Prince of Wales, and the German Emperor Wilhelm, and it is quite a muster of (male, yes I did notice!) characters. Never before has wikipedia received such an intense workout at my hands.

At the centre of the story is the Crown Prince Rudolf, with his thirtieth birthday falling in this same season. Rudolf was 'the hero of a living fairytale' (172). 'He entranced crowds and leaders alike. Queen Victoria's crustiness dissolved at the sight of him' (34). When his turn to rule arrived, he would be determined to make 'Vienna more seriously modern' (42), separating himself from his father's legacy.

The story passes through a midwinter's day (30 January 1889) at Mayerling. You see, Rudolf was a troubled chap. He was both 'lofty and lost' (188). He was 'wracked by protocol and emptiness ... laboring through the posturings of high hospitality' (215).
'Politics had become futility ... hopes for nourishment receded from his public to his private life. By the end of 1888 he saw in the gilded labyrinth around him only one figure worth clinging to: Mary Vetsera' (175). 
Yes, Rudolf became entwined with Mary, aged 17, who had 'learned the art of consent though she never lived to reach the age of it' (130). Together, it seemed as if they tried 'to overcome an uncontrollably failing life with a controlled, willed, carefully shaped death' (66). They entered together into some kind of suicide pact and at Mayerling they took their own lives. [So intrigued has the world been with this story that wikipedia references more than 15 movies, musicals, documentaries and ballets covering the events of that day].

Vienna was in the season of carnival. That was brought to a grinding halt as high society escaped the city - 'only the people were left in the city, to starve, to shiver and to grieve' (272). But the interwoven stories of the Viennese geniuses - Brahms, Strauss, Freud, Herzl, Mahler et al - continue on, retold in the finest detail.
All these talents served an intuition maturing first in Vienna; something important and green had turned golden and sick and petrified ... (315) 
By such paradox Vienna attained greatness after all. It bred the geniuses who foretold the modern wound. And Rudolf, too, became in time a sad but significant precursor. He was the herald of an alienation common to the youth of our day ... Under today's system the young often appear to be a generation of Rudolfs: free and glamorous in theory, crushingly impotent in action; ... free to see themselves as unbounded individuals without ever arriving at successful individuality; free to press pleasure to numb excess; ... free to sound the depths of sophisticated frustration.
The shots in the Vienna Woods were fired in 1889. Today and every day hundreds of other unnerved fingers are already crooked into hundreds of other triggers. Each time we hear of another strange young death in a 'good' house we hear of another Mayerling (316).
The story travels on to Easter Saturday in the Spring of 1889. 'Everything swelled and brightened toward Easter' (316). That Viennese specialty, 'the art of making life unserious' (299) reasserts itself. 'The chill had passed' (301). 'There was not a branch in the Vienna Woods that wasn't greening' (317). As yet another grand musical event fills the city with sound, Morton concludes his book with mention of a thin cry, first uttered on that Easter Saturday, commemorating the darkest day that history has ever known - a cry which carries with it a chill all of its own.
It was the thin cry of a baby born that afternoon. The parents were Alois and Klara Hitler. They named their little one Adolf (317).
And next week it is back to spring-less, autumn-less life in Bangalore, filled with heat and rain and the delights which come with it - like mangoes.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

exodus: gods and kings

On my recent flight from San Francisco to Singapore I decided to create a conversation in my mind, by watching a movie and reading a book.

The movie was Exodus: Gods and Kings. With Batman (Christian Bale) as Moses, it tells the story of the Hebrew slaves gaining freedom from the Pharoah of Egypt. Even on a tiny screen with average sound, it was visually stunning. Generally speaking, I don't get too uptight with directors taking a little license to tell their version of epic biblical stories - as I enjoy watching how they interpret the story's features.

The other partner in the conversation was the book by Andrew Sach & Richard Alldritt: Dig Even Deeper: Unearthing Old Testament Treasure (IVP, 2010) - or DED, for short. It is a follow-up to an earlier book (Dig Deeper) in which is collected the 'toolkit' needed to interpret the Bible accurately. 16 tools. The two books make the subject of biblical interpretation as simple as it can possibly be made. What makes DED ideal as a conversation partner is that its subject matter is the book of Exodus. 'In DED the toolkit goes 'live' ... this is a book about what Exodus means for us today' (14). DED is developed around a 'fourteen-word summary' (17) of the story: beatings, bush, plagues, passover, water, whingeing, father-in-law, fear, case law, covenant, tabernacle, calf, cleft, tabernacle...

'So ... how did the conversation go between the movie and the book during the flight?'

For me, it was directed by the same three options which I face when I work with my automatic payments in an electronic banking service. Adding. Deleting. Altering.

The opening tension created by 'pharoah-preferring-general-over-son' was taken straight out of the script of Ridley Scott's earlier Gladiator film and so it felt a bit stale.

But I loved the way he created a character out of Joshua's father - Nun (as in 'Joshua, son of Nun') - played by Ben Kingsley. I don't think it is just his Gandhi-aura, but every time Nun/Kingsley was on the screen I leaned forward - particularly the scene when Nun tells Moses of his Hebrew origins.

In a story loaded with testosterone, I welcomed the development of characters like Miriam and Zipporah. Hollywood can't help itself when it comes to family troubles and romance. Two of the more compelling scenes are where Pharoah demands the truth about the family ties and then the subsequent one in the wilderness when Moses is exiled. More on the romance below.

A bit like with 2014's other biblical epic - Noah - it is interesting to watch Hollywood wrestle with how to portray the miraculous elements, like the plagues (or, 'catastrophes') and crossing the Red Sea. They seem to be caught between not giving God too much credit and explaining it simply as natural phenomena.

Whereas a faithful portrayal of the biblical story would have God be an easy winner of the Best Actor award, in this movie he does not even surface as a candidate for Best Supporting Actor. He is the subject of so much of the action in Exodus - but you'd never know it from the movie.

But more concerning than this is the fact that the bits of God being displayed on the screen bear so little resemblance to the God living in the pages of Exodus. So much is missing. Exodus 34.6-7 contains 'perhaps the fullest explanation of God's name in the whole of the Old Testament' (DED, 172).
Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin...
And yet does this God make an appearance in the movie at all? I don't think so. Similar truths can be found in earlier passages, like Exodus 5.22-6.8 and Exodus 19.1-6. 'You've seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself'. This God is not in the movie. I find myself jealous for God and his name, as I watch. I feel grieved about the multitude who see the movie, but miss seeing God as he truly is.

Linked to this is the way the movie makes an effort to portray what happened and how it happened, but make so little effort to engage the question of why it happened. This can be typical of Hollywood where special effects often trump an absorbing storyline. One of the 'tools' in DED is the 'Author's Purpose tool: The biggest question we can ever ask of a passage in the Bible is simple, 'Why did the author write this?' (DED, 199). Nah. Here the Director/reader does what he likes with the storyline, with the author's purpose inconsequential.

The movie would have been so much deeper if he had played with the 'hardening of the heart' theme amidst the plagues. 'The Bible is clear: we are responsible for our actions and God is in control of them' (DED, 51). I missed the the poetry and music of Exodus 15. I missed the Jethro story in Exodus 18 and the way 'he acts like a giant hinge, holding the two halves of Exodus together. People rescued by God need to live God's way' (DED, 96). And I wish that the movie had extended beyond barely touching Exodus 20 and moved on to the wonder of the tabernacle and God's desire to come and live with His people. Even though the God-boy walks alongside the ark of the covenant at the end, we have no sense of 'the breathtaking truth that Yahweh intends to dwell with his people' (DED, 143).

I am still trying to figure out what I think about using a little boy to represent God - or, is he actually God himself because he does utter the phrase, 'I am'? I do not warm to the boy at all. He seems like a bit of a brat to me. He is cold and calculating, a bit petulant and disengaged. My hunch is that the director want us to see these qualities and to be a little confused and uncertain and then to allow all these qualities to drift across to God, altering the witness of the biblical story.

In the opening scenes, a high priestess sets the framework for the story: 'a leader will be saved and his saviour will some day lead'. From this point forward the story lives within the orbit of the Moses:Pharoah relationship. It is framed in the language of revolution and of slaves demanding their rights for freedom, with Moses as their leader. God needs a general with a special sword, rather than a shepherd with a special staff.

The profile which the nuclear family receives, rather than the more likely tribal/national identity, betrays a further Western/Hollywood tampering. I doubt whether Zipporah would ever ask, 'What kind of God tells a man to leave his family?' The most cringing moment in the movie comes when Zipporah challenges Moses about the way he is raising their son.
Z: 'Is it good for a boy to grow up believing in nothing?' 
M: 'Is it bad to grow up believing in yourself?'. 
I winced. Just because Hollywood preaches the gospel of self-belief, doesn't mean Exodus needs to do so as well. That was a terrible moment.

Linked to this is the development of the romantic storyline. I struggle to imagine the question, 'Would you trade your faith in order to keep me?', being a real issue. On two occasions the movie lingers with the promises, or covenant, made between Moses and Zipporah. It comes out like a short catechism of four questions with corresponding answers:
What makes you happy?  
You do.
What is the most important thing in your life?
You are.
Where would you rather be?
When will you leave me?

Interestingly, in this little covenant between Moses and Zipporah, we can almost overhear little echoes of of the covenant between Yahweh and his people which is so strikingly absent from the movie. 'Behind-the-scenes faithfulness is God's style' (DED, 29).

I know we can't expect a Hollywood film director to be accurate with this, but Christians watching the movie must not lose sight of how this story fits into a far wider and bigger story. 'As we read the big story from beginning to end, we discover, like Russian dolls, miniature versions of the story hidden inside.' (DED, 147). Exodus is one of those stories 'hidden inside', as so many of the details in its story point forward to the Jesus story and find fulfillment in the gospel.

Oh yes - and if I was still teaching movie courses, or even Gospel & Culture ones, I'd be making an assignment out of watching this movie alongside the Charlton Heston Ten Commandments one from 50+ years ago. Compare and contrast these two and allow this conversation to follow the trajectory of cultural change, particularly in matters of faith and religion, and you'll need an around-the-world flight to grasp all the implications

nice chatting


marty roy lovatt

[I avoid using this blog to post sermons, messages and the like. Blogs feel like a different genre and I prefer to chat away. But on this occasion I'd like to pay tribute to my special friend, Marty Roy, who died earlier this month after a battle with cancer. The family asked me to share about Reflections on Friendship at the Memorial Service.]

Here is a slightly edited version of my comments...

My first memory of Martin Lovatt’s name was from my grandmother. The Lovatt family had moved from Whangarei to Auckland and had rented our family home while we were in India. On one home leave, Martin had just vacated a bedroom which I then occupied. As she wandered down the hallway and looked in my room (more property manager, than grandmother at this moment), she said… “I wish you’d keep your bedroom as tidy as Martin Lovatt kept it.”

It was when I returned from India for the final time, that Martin and I became friends. 
Gradually our lives became entwined…

We enjoyed our sport together:
He endured my cricket and I endured his tennis…
He even hid me on the tennis court somewhere on our way to winning the men’s doubles title at the Mt Albert Baptist Tennis Club.
But it was on the basketball court where we had our most fun together.
Martin was so fluid, so naturally athletic and, let’s face it, so cool.
And he was far better than I at retaining his sanctification
in our periodic efforts to dispose of Northcote Baptist Church.

We enjoyed our food together:
We’d wander down Wellesley St during our university days
to spend our student allowance on steak sandwiches.

Given the demise of my culinary skills, it should be placed on record
that it was I who actually taught Martin how to make an Indian curry
… on his way to becoming the great chef that he was.

When Barby came out to NZ that first time,
we became engaged and then headed off to Cape Reinga
on a road trip with Martin and his Mum.
I remember arriving at the Edwards’ bach in the Bay of Islands
with so many tamarillos that, in preparing them
for their subsequent encounter with the ice cream and then our bellies,
Martin and I had to use a bucket rather than a bowl.

We enjoyed our music and movies together
with George Benson, Billy Joel … and Chevy Chase leading the way.

Sadly, some things have been left undone:
I was never able to show my India to Martin.
He was never able to show me his Tata Beach in Golden Bay.

I always marvelled at the work of his hands:
initially, the sketches & paintings:
he did two for me that hung on the walls wherever we lived:
one of the family home just up the road
& the other of the old church in Russell;
and then the working with wood and the graphic design.

We both crossed the waters to be Best Man at each other’s weddings.
He traveled from Auckland to Chicago.
I traveled from Auckland to Nelson.

Just 11 days older than me, Martin’s middle name is Roy, mine is Royston.
But on many flights these days, there is not enough space
on my boarding pass for my full name – and so, across the top, I wait to see
if it will just say Windsor, Paul Roy … because I kinda like it when it does that.

We named our second son after Martin.
Martin said to our Martin not so long ago that he was ‘a symbol of our friendship’.       
While the name was given to honour Martin,
       there is also the prayer that God might use
       his own brand of genetics to graft the qualities
       of Martin the elder into Martin the younger
& Barby and I have loved watching the evidence of this happening.

At one level these are the kinds of comments expected from a friend at a memorial service.
But I have to say they are not the first things which came to mind – special though they are.
When I think of my friendship with Martin,
my immediate thoughts are of two profound truths in the Christian journey.
              One is that we carry the image of God in us.
              & the other is that Christ is formed progressively in us.

On an occasion like this it is wonderful to say of my friend:
            In him, I’ve glimpsed Jesus. He reminds me of the way God is.
            Because of Martin, I understand God & love Jesus that little bit more.

Martin was loyal
All the time I’ve known Martin – he has lived within a few kms of this spot.
while I’ve been a bit of here, there and everywhere
(& that is always a challenge for a friendship).
          The ‘here there and everywhere’ was never Martin’s concern.
          I was always met with that same combo:
                the expansive smile, the warm eyes and the committed hug
                that together worked to sweep away the time and the distance.
    A stable, loyal rock of a friend whose steadfast love did not cease.

Martin was gentle
Not outspoken.             Not aggressive.      
Not brash.                    Not needing to be the centre of attention.
Always the impulse to listen, rather than to speak.
I loved watching my kids warm to him at the different stages of their lives.
One wrote to me this week, simply saying:
‘Without a doubt, Uncle Marty was the kindest, gentlest man I have ever met.’
            & I found this gentleness to be soothing.
            When a little weary, a little burdened
– his gentle, humble heart did provide a little rest for the soul.

The loyalty of God, the gentleness of Jesus was reflected in Martin’s life.

Martin was good
In more recent years Martin and I were part of a men’s breakfast group
       And on the drive across town – I’d ask about his health & the family.
       Then over breakfast, similar questions would be asked.  
He was so good in the way he drew us in,
patiently giving us the opportunity to be part of this journey.
But then, every time, this brightness would come over him when the subject shifted to us.
        He wasn’t absorbed in what was happening to him.
        He wanted to be there for others. He remained so interested.
        He took our little challenges, by comparison, to heart
                   listening attentively and then praying fervently.
  Martin was such a thoroughly good man.

In some of the most difficult places in the world today,
the people of God enter into a little response together:
       from the front: ‘God is good’    with the people responding: ‘all the time’.
    then from the people: ‘all the time’  & from the front ‘God is good’

At times I’ve struggled to find God’s goodness in all this.
I remember reading a psalm with Martin in the car outside his home.
            As I got started – ‘ohh, I’ve picked the wrong psalm’
The words felt hollow. So few of the assurances seemed true for Martin.
I started skipping phrases and then verses.
I remember being so angry as I drove home.
I was ready to rip pages out of the Bible.
But… the appeal of the Psalms and of the God to whom they direct us
is that we can turn over a few pages
and find a psalm that expresses just how we are feeling.
Part of God’s goodness is that he is not unhinged by those feelings.
In fact, the Bible says that ‘in our distress, he is distressed’.
            He finds cancer to be sinister and evil.
And the goodness of God is seen most fully in his restorative plans
for us and for creation as we move into the future – a place Martin has reached.
            It is the certainty that these plans will come to pass
            that enables us to endure – plans that come to us as pictures in Revelation.
‘He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
            Never again will they hunger
            Never again will they thirst
The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat
For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd
            He will lead them to springs of living water
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Loyal. Gentle. Good. How many of us could bear witness to the same three?
This is what Martin brought to friendships. I knew it truly. I knew it deeply.

And it is in the loyalty and goodness of God and the gentleness of Christ that Martin would want us to place our confidence as we try to move forward from this place with him alive in our memories and hearts.

Paul Roy Windsor