Sunday, February 07, 2016

charles simeon

Charles Simeon was a big part of my life through my twenties.

Like many before me, I was introduced to him in the writings of John Stott, a man who lived his life with a similar symmetry more than a century later. As a young pastor I read the biographies, capturing numerous illustrations on my little 3x5 cards and using them often in sermons. When I finished life as a pastor, a group of friends within the church got together and gave me the 20+ volumes of all Simeon's sermons - if 'you read one a day, it will take you seven years'. Mid way through life as a parent having children, we gave the names 'Charles Simeon' to our middle son, Martin. Then as I started my masters, and then doctoral work, I was all set to do a little thesis on Simeon until my research became distracted, for more than twenty years, by the parables and postmodernism ...

But now, in my fifties, a new book on Simeon has been written and with it, the opportunity to be reminded of many old things. This is what Derek Prime's Charles Simeon: An ordinary pastor of extraordinary influence (Day One, 2011) has done for me. It has reminded me, more than it has instructed me - and sometimes that is a very good thing indeed. The stories came flooding back, bringing their encouragement with them.

There is Simeon's testimony about coming to faith in Christ through being forced to attend the Lord's Supper as a young student at university in Cambridge.  'From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul; and at the Lord's Table in our chapel I had the sweetest access to God through my blessed Saviour' (24).

There is the story about two girls giggling over Simeon's 'look and manner' as the young man spoke. Daddy told them to go outside and pick a peach (in early summer). The peach was green, unripe and inedible. 'Well, my dears, it is green now, and we must wait; but a little more sun and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr Simeon.' (43).

There is the testimony about how for the first ten years of his ministry at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge (out of 54 years in total!), such was the hostility in the congregation that people locked their pews and Simeon preached to a congregation gathered in the aisles. Ten years! 'He was learning to wait' (Prime, 52).

There is the illustration in his management of false teachers and leaders who disappoint from within his own congregation. 'If they chose to let off fire-works, they were at liberty to do so, only I desired they would not put them under my thatch, to burn down my house' (59).

There is the commitment to training young preachers and mentoring young leaders in a series of sermon classes and tea parties. Such was the care in which he broke down the steps on the journey from the biblical text to the finished sermon and such was the energy he gave to helping others do this ... 'it is not surprising that he has been called the father of homiletics' (Prime, 70). 'Three things (are) indispensably necessary in every discourse; unity in the design, perspicuity in the arrangement, and simplicity in the diction' (172). The final thing he did before his death was to finish his Horae Homileticae ('it took thirty two men sixteen months to achieve its printing', 177). As for sermon evaluation:
Does (your preaching) uniformly tend TO HUMBLE THE SINNER? TO EXALT THE SAVIOUR? TO PROMOTE HOLINESS? If in one single instance it lose sight of any of these points, let it be condemned without mercy. (as quoted in Prime, 243)
Two much-loved Charles Simeons, 250 years apart from each other
There are the stories of how he hung out with William Wilberforce, getting involved in mission at home and abroad. From Wilberforce's diary: 'Simeon with us - his heart is glowing with love for Christ ... How full he is of love, and of desire to promote the spiritual benefit of others' (128). The great missionary to India, Henry Martyn (dead at 31) was first Simeon's curate and after his death his portrait adorned Simeon's room: 'There, see the blessed man! What an expression of countenance! No one looks at me as he does; he never takes his eyes off me and seems always to be saying, "Be serious. Be in earnest. Don't trifle. Don't trifle. Then, smiling at the portrait and gently bowing, Simeon would add, "And I won't trifle. I won't trifle' (131).

There is his testimony about making simplicity a priority. 'The person who understands truth the most clearly gains the ability to express it most simply' (Prime, 69).  'We should not try to be clever but rather simple' (Prime, 86). 'The distinguishing mark of the religion of Christ is its simplicity, and its suitableness to the condition of all men, whether rich or poor, wise of unlearned' (75).

There is his testimony about making balance a priority. He was caught up in the Calvinism:Arminian debate: 'although more of a Calvinist than an Arminian, Simeon was not a fierce enemy of the latter' (Prime, 181). With this debate and others like it. 'the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes' (241). 'Rather than setting the truths in opposition he wanted to dwell upon both 'with equal pleasure' (Prime, 187). On reading all this again, I realise how much this has influenced me. ['Speak all that the Scripture speaks, and as the Scripture speaks it: and leave all nice distinctions alone' (235).] This must be the source of my mild suspicion of systematic theology, particularly when it enamours young students into taking sides long before they've fully absorbed the breadth and balance and beauty of the Scriptures.
The difference between young and old ministers, in general, consists of this; that the statements of the former are crude and unqualified, whilst those of the latter have such limitations and distinctions, as the Scriptures authorize and the subjects require. The doctrines of salvation by faith alone, predestination etc are often, it is well know, so stated, as to become a stumbling block to thousands; whilst, when Scripturally stated, they approve themselves to those who have been most prejudiced against them. (quoted in Prime, 197).
There is the quotation for which I was waiting but which does not appear until the very final paragraphs of the book. Simeon struggled all his life with feelings of 'self-importance' (201). He once wrote in large letters, on two consecutive pages in his notebook, the words: 'Talk not about myself, Speak evil of no man' (250) ... and then the quotation for which I had waited:
Alas, alas! how apt are young ministers (I speak feelingly) to be talking of the great letter I. It would be easier to erase that letter from all the books in the kingdom, than to hide it for one hour from the eyes of the vain person. Another observation has not escaped my remembrance - the three lessons which a minister has to learn, 1. Humility - 2. Humility - 3. Humility. (quoted in Prime, 251).

Of course, there were a few new things...

Remember Pride & Prejudice? The way Mr Collins is owned by Lady Catherine de Burgh? It was a practice called advowsons, or 'livings', and was a primary cause for the weakness of the church at the time. Simeon was so smart. He bought into the system, setting up a Trust and raising money to acquire these advowsons and then filling them with good people - like John Newton, writer of Amazing Grace, at St Mary Woolnoth ... and eventually subverting the very system itself.

As death approached, Simeon gave thanks for his church ... 'so beautiful to be the ornament instead of the disgrace of the town' (223). And when a friend expressed to him that many were praying for him, Simeon responded, 'In prayer? aye, and I trust in praise too - praise for countless, endless mercies' (225).

I'll be in Cambridge  in April. I will need to take some time out to see a bit more of Simeon...

nice chatting


PS (1): Charles Simeon is exactly four days - and two centuries - older than me. Cool, eh?!
PS (2): As I read, the resonance with John Stott and Langham Partnership, including the Langham Scholars, Langham Literature and Langham Preaching programmes really is uncanny. Maybe it will be the subject of another post one day.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

two generals

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

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

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

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

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

nice chatting


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

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

Sunday, January 24, 2016

the devil's trinity

Corruption. Prosperity teaching. 'Big Man' leadership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nice chatting


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

saturday and sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nice chatting


Friday, January 08, 2016

kiwi beauty

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

The beauty of creation:

The beauty of grandchildren:

nice viewing


Monday, January 04, 2016

being mortal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 26, 2015

on sailing, leadership and preaching

Yachting in New Zealand has always turned my mind towards leadership and preaching.

Ever since I read that Peter Blake's secret of success with winning the America's Cup was 'spreading leadership throughout the organisation', and wished that we leaders could adopt this mantra more often. Ever since I listened to Peter Montgomery's radio and television commentaries, and wished that we preachers could exhibit that same manner and skill more often...

The other day, as I passed through Palmerston North airport, my eye rested on Bill Francis' Peter Montgomery, The Voice of Yachting ... and I thought 'why not?'. The book was finished before I reached Sydney. Not so much because it is particularly well-written (the author's John Graham biography is much better) - but because it took me back to leadership and preaching.

Leadership is still there. Woven into the narrative are reflections from Montgomery himself on the prominent 'yachties' with whom he worked: Chris Dickson (91-93), Peter Blake (131-133; see also 117, 152), Russell Coutts (164-167; see also 152), and Dean Barker (197-199). The raw material for a captivating study on diverse Kiwi leadership styles is all there, especially when you add in the chapter about Grant Dalton (168-182). If it hasn't been done yet, there is a doctoral thesis here  - or, at the very least, an engaging seminar on good and bad leadership. After reading this book, my opinion of Dickson and Blake stayed the same. My opinion of Coutts and Barker rose. My opinion of Dalton dropped.

Preaching is still there. So many features of 'PJ' as a man and as a commentator transfer across to preachers and preaching - both with his manner and his skills.

With his manner...
There is his passion. He had 'the ability to bring (the America's Cup) to life through his enthusiasm and sense of excitement' (78). If mere yachting could do this to someone, why not the gospel? There is his warmth. 'It was like talking to someone with a smile on their face' (210). There is his rapport. He was 'totally relatable' (211) to his audience, willing to pitch his words to 'the little lady with the blue rinse in Riverton' (26) - the very lady most preachers wish to overlook in the pursuit of some sort of shallow relevance. There is his wisdom. He had the ability to win the trust of the central players (often at odds with each other) and build friendships with them, maintaining confidentiality always. There is his composure. I remember well his awful gaffe at the end of an Olympic rowing final. He stuffed it up completely. So embarrassing. He was vilified mercilessly by the New Zealand Herald among others - cartoons, editorials etc. But he saw it through (with the television authorities helping out by editing the gaffe out of the official version!).

With his skill...
In Montgomery's commentaries, we see the power of words. As a kid, Russell Coutts listened to PJ's commentary: 'What it did was create a dream' (152). We see the value of imagination. He created pictures with his words. People did not just hear things, they saw things as they heard them. Referring to the waves of the Southern Ocean as 'liquid himalayas' is one that comes to mind. We also see the importance of preparation. The cult of spontaneity is not the answer. His great line - 'The America's Cup is now New Zealand's Cup' - was totally and carefully rehearsed. 'He brought to his work not only the artistry of a rich vocabulary, but was able to complement his outgoing natural flow by the studied aside' (211). Ahh, the 'studied aside'. We could do with more of that ingredient in preaching.

One more thing. There is the signature opening line which Montgomery used as he contacted yachties in every distant corner of the oceans of the world: "How are you? Where are you?" (67). What great questions for the preacher-evangelist, probing to find a resting place for the gospel in every restless human heart where that gospel can live and transform.

Here is a piece of commentary from Peter Montgomery. It is from one of the dark days in the history of yachting: when One Australia sank in a matter of seconds...

nice chatting


Monday, December 21, 2015

feel the magic

A little more from my "New Zealand is the most secular English-speaking country of all, even if I receive disbelieving looks from American, Canadian, British and Australian friends whenever I say so" file.

This week I was in Sydney and a friend of mine expressed how he has regular opportunities in local civic contexts to open council meetings in prayer. I almost fell off my chair from the shock of such a thought.

I returned to Palmerston North (in New Zealand) only to find this Christmas card on the dining room table.

It has origins in a local shopping mall. I investigated the website a little bit further - and found these words:
See the magic; love the magic; FEEL THE MAGIC...
Your Winter Wonderland is real and it's here.
Have fun with the penguins and play with the reindeer;
Come and see for yourself and all will be clear...
Step into your own Winter Wonderland this Christmas...;
your amazing augmented reality experience is here and it's FREE!!
Four different playtime scenarios have been created for you,
featuring penguins, reindeer, a snowman, and a yeti.
This is so wrong at so many levels.

It is about knowing a mystery, not feeling a magic.
Christmas is about the Creator becoming a creature, about God becoming a baby. But it doesn't stop there. God was only born so that he could die, dying our death so that we could live his life. This is something to know on the way to being something to feel.

It is about summer, not winter.
Christmas is a summer season in New Zealand. To hold onto winter imagery serves only to make the true celebrations seem more distant, more irrelevant, and more remote.

It is about the really real, not the fakey real.
Christmas is an historical reality. They are events which can be trusted and on which life can be rested. To describe it in the manner of this card leaves the season at the gates of Disneyland.

It is about the truly free, not the 'amazing augmented reality experience' that is free.
Christmas continues a story of liberation - and not just for Mary and Zechariah (although their liberation is so beautifully expressed in Luke 1). Stay with the story to the end and having some 'augmented reality experience' is so far from what happens to you.

It is about worship, not play.
Christmas, from every angle and through every perspective, is about worship. The angels spark it, the shepherds start it ... and people across every time and timezone have been worshipping ever since.

It is about shepherds, angels, parents and a baby, not yetis, penguins, reindeer and a snowman.
Christmas is about people, people, and more people. Why must all these animals intrude into the story and eclipse what God is doing for humans by becoming a human?

It is about a Star Maker, not just a star.
As this little childrens' book expresses it, 'Jesus the Star Maker became a little baby. And the Star Maker lay underneath the star that he had made'. Ah yes, there is the mystery...

nice chatting


PS: my records show that this is my 500th post - just as my 10th year as a blogger draws to a close. To mark the occasion, I've changed the list of 'Popular Posts' (down the right hand side of this page) from being the latest monthly list to being the 'all time' list. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

christmas giving

We've had our fill of separations - or, so we thought. All those agonising good-byes to parents during our boarding school years. UGH. Goodness me - Barby has not lived within two long-haul flights of her parents since she was in her mid-teens (and that was when she was at boarding school!). But as we enter our mid50s, it is yet more separation that God requires of us - and that is why the season of giving is so special this year.

This Christmas we have the joy of having a few days with our children and grandchildren back in New Zealand. A gift. With our daughter and her husband having won a 'mystery weekend' away together, we even had the fun of looking after these two munchkins for a couple of days:

But not only have we received this Christmas, we have the joy of giving as well. I couldn't get home fast enough in order to open the boxes containing our Christmas presents to our children this year (oops, so much for surprises!):

The South Asia Bible Commentary contains a commentary on every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, with each commentary written by a South Asian scholar. In addition to this explanation of the text of Scripture, there are 100 articles relating to the context of South Asia. It is beautifully presented and expertly edited. I know of nothing more strategic in the mission of God in the world today than the production of these one volume commentaries. The Africa Bible Commentary emerged eight years ago (it is now translated into six languages of Africa) and the Arabic, Latin American and Slavic commentaries are all within 2-3 years of publication.

Barby and I were at the launch of the SABC in New Delhi in October, with the Vice-President of India being the honoured guest. Given that both their sets of grandparents gave more than 65 years (between them) to strengthening the church in South Asia, we hope it can be a gift that our children will cherish for forever. In so may ways, this is where their Christian heritage lies.

I was a bit surprised to see the name of 'DA Carson' on the cover of a study Bible (as General Editor). When I sat in his classroom all those years ago, we were left in no doubt that such Bibles were rather dubious publications. Having the notes of contemporary authors sharing the same page as the word of God might encourage people to equate, subconsciously, those 'notes' with that 'word', in terms of authority. While the argument still has merit, Carson has stepped back from it a bit.

So what is it that sets apart the 2880 page Zondervan NIV Study Bible [NB: this link includes a helpful little video of Carson explaining the features of this Bible] from all the others and so worthy of investment and use? In the Editor's Preface, Carson gives his reasons and it is the fifth and final one that caught my eye:
This study Bible emphasizes biblical theology ... (and so) we have tried to highlight the way various themes develop within the Bible across time. In this way we hope to encourage readers of the Bible to spot these themes for themselves as they read their Bibles, becoming adept at tracing them throughout the Scriptures.
So while the Bible is diverse, with dozens of authors spread over hundreds of years, it is still one single rescue story of God at work in the world. There is a unity as well, with trajectories to follow that all reach their destination in Jesus.

And not only is South Asia a part of the Christian heritage of our children, so also is DA Carson - given his influence on me as a student and he and Joy's ongoing prayerful interest in us as a family. I'll never ever forget gate-crashing a conference at which he was speaking in New Zealand some years ago - and taking my daughter with me. We joined the groupies in the foyer afterwards. When we had our opportunity to catch up with him (after a number of years), he addressed my daughter by name. WOW. The measure of the man. I ain't gonna forget that in this lifetime.

From 'ugh' to 'wow', via a couple of books. Such is the trajectory of life - and through it all, God proves his love and faithfulness.

nice chatting


Saturday, December 12, 2015

ninety eight

New Zealand's Brendon McCullum is sitting on two 98s, although this may change before this day endeth.

He has played in every Test match in which New Zealand has played since the start of his career, almost twelve years ago. That is 98 Test matches. If you, like me, think that to be amazing - then be impressed by the fact that there are four other players above him on the list: Allan Border, Alistair Cook, Mark Waugh and Sunil Gavaskar. [NB: McCullum does have the record for most consecutive games from debut...].

But the other 98 is the one that has not been mentioned as much. McCullum is on the verge of a remarkable record: most sixes in a Test career. He has 98 sixes and only Australian Adam Gilchrist is ahead of him, with an even 100 sixes hit over his Test career.

The media will wake-up to this milestone eventually...
But take a closer look at that list.
What they are more likely to miss is that there is no one in sight of McCullum.

The next 23 names are all people who have retired, or are very close to retiring. Then you reach McCullum's teammate, Tim Southee, with 55 sixes. [I wrote about Southee's six-hitting four years ago when he was not just on the verge of entering the list - but entering the list at 'number two' in terms of the frequency with which he hits sixes - although he has dropped down to third or fourth now]. At 27 years of age - and even as a bowler - Southee has some prospect of passing McCullum one day, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

The other possibilities on the list are AB deVilliers (31 years of age, 54 sixes); David Warner (29 years of age, 41 sixes); and Angelo Mathews (28 years of age, 37 sixes). They are all possibilities, especially Warner - but I wouldn't bet on it happening. The likelihood is that the record will be broken by someone who is not on the list at all at the moment - and that suggests it could stand for a decade, or more. Maybe even the twelve years it has taken McCullum to get to the top.

It is a fine tribute to a man who has changed the face of Test cricket with his attacking mindset, even if for this purist he has tended to be reckless and foolish a little bit too often.

nice chatting