Sunday, January 18, 2015

a lovely sign of faith

At our age, an overnight flight leads to an afternoon nap. Once that was over, Barby and I wandered out onto the streets of Yangon. No map to follow. Nowhere to go, in particular.

From across the road we stumbled across this building. Just another church in all its faded glory? With more pigeons outside than people inside?

We drew near.

Having recently opened my head and heart to the horror of the massacre of the Armenian Christian community one hundred years ago (an event that gave our dictionaries the word 'genocide') which started the night before the Gallipoli invasion ... and then encountering John the Baptist again in our Bible readings just this week, I was hooked. 

We walked inside. Remember this is Yangon. A brutal repressive anti-Christian regime has been in power for a generation. But this is what we discovered...

A lovingly restored old church - and a reminder of how churches can be agents of restoration in Myanmar today. The simplicity of it all was beautiful, as was the medieval monastic music that filled the space. We lingered awhile, praying that all that was good inside would be shared outside, even in face of the resistance which so characterises the context.

We added our words to the book, but then left with someone else's words in our prayers - asking God to continue to preserve this 'lovely sign of faith'.

nice chatting


Monday, January 12, 2015

lyrics for living 3 (dews of quietness)

Last year my daughter Bethany asked me if she could cross-stitch some words that were precious to me.  It took a few seconds to make up my mind. And so it came to pass, over Christmas, that some wise words arrived from the east (well, more the south, I guess), simply framed and starkly beautiful.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness
'til all our strivings cease.
Take from our lives the strain and stress;
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of Thy peace.

It sits now in a prominent place on my desk. Just in front of the tissue roll that helps remove the 'strain and stress' from my far-too-frequent spillages of tea across my desk. Just behind the tangled web of cords that remind me of the 'strain and stress' in my life caused by technology. Just next to a picture of my other daughter (Alyssa) - and little Micah - who are coming to visit me in 15 days ... now, how's that for a 'strain and stress' reliever?

Sometimes we are led to believe that 'joy' and 'happiness' are somehow related to each other, maybe even synonyms. In reality, 'happiness' is a pathetic word, with its experience marked normally by something shallow and temporary. The experience is more thermometer (controlled by the environment) than it is thermostat (controlling the environment).

Far better, I think, to divorce joy from happiness and remarry it to peace. Because 'peace is joy resting; joy is peace dancing'. This is where oneness lies - maybe even synonymity. These lyrics speak about the beauty of God's peace and how God drops it like dew onto our lives - quietly, refreshingly, gently, daily - resting upon us in a way that takes away the strain and stress that comes with  living. And when the experience is rich and full, take another look - it might just be joy as well.

This verse gained some profile in the Dunkirk scene in the movie Atonement. I'll show it here, but it was far more impressive in the flow of the film where it took me so much by surprise:

There are many choral/organ performances of this hymn (Dear Lord and Father of Mankind) but here is a quirky version sung in an odd setting ... and yet with its own power (this verse is at 2.48).

nice chatting


Thursday, January 08, 2015

welcome and wapsi

About this time yesterday there was a tear in the eye. Barby and I were returning home after a 40 hour visit to Vizakhapatnam - or Vizag, for short. In expressing my gratitude to the couple who had welcomed us into their home, I became a bit misty. Here we were - so very different in so many ways which the world measures (age, ethnicity, income, education etc) and yet in a matter of hours we experienced such a bond together. I found myself going back into their home, after the prayers and goodbyes, to express this to them, in my own stumbling, fumbling way.

Two factors. One is the love we share for Jesus. There is this joy of salvation - and also the joy of service together. It creates such tight bonds among people who have so little in common - and it does so quickly. The other factor is hospitality. Barby and I experienced some of the sweetest hospitality known to humankind. It flooded into our lives. With so little to give (to our Kiwi eyes) in their little flat tucked behind and above their little church, they just gave and gave and gave.

My mind went to all those missional conversations back home. They need to be refreshed to recognise that this is family, this is home. Have we lived enough with the implications of what it means for the church to be 'the household of God'?

But here is the irony. This experience took place against the backdrop of a raging debate in the media here - every day, in every newspaper - over ghar wapsi. [NB: it is not wise for me to be too explicit about this in a public blog]. Literally, the phrase means something like 'home return'. My friend, Benji, helped me see that it is a bit like the story of the Prodigal Son - but in this case 'the far country' and the 'eating with pigs' is being a Christian and so we are talking about people returning home, or 'reconverting', back to the faith they once believed. It quickly becomes a fascinating discussion (with plenty going on behind the scenes which I'll leave to your own imagination - and internet research!).

My hunch is that one response lies in ensuring that this sweetest of hospitalities is being practised. One that breaks down the factors that keep people apart because it lives the gospel of reconciliation. One that breaks through the idolatry of the nuclear family, wherever it may be worshipped, because it lives to include those who are excluded. One that embraces the household of God, locally and globally, as family and as home.

nice chatting


PS... We loved Vizag. As a little boy with my love of maps, I was fascinated by this city on India's east coast with the long name that stretched out into the Bay of Bengal. This was my first visit. I was kinda excited. On 12 October 2014 Vizag was viciously attacked by Cyclone HudHud, as our visit to the fishing harbour made clear.

Friday, January 02, 2015

200 and 2000

It has been hard living so far from New Zealand during the two hundredth year celebrations of the arrival of the gospel - on Christmas Day, 1814. I've been following all the facebook chatter closely.

I've loved that space at Oihi Bay for a number of years, even taking a horde of friends on a pilgrimage to Marsden Cross to mark my fiftieth birthday. One of the delights of that day five years ago was to ask Ben Carswell to bring a short devotional, only to discover later that his family was from the very same village in Yorkshire as Samuel Marsden. Incredible. Then, earlier this year, I was able to visit Ben's family in that village and see the Marsden memorials over there for myself.

But in the week of the bicentenary celebrations of the gospel's arrival in New Zealand, I've made a visit to one of the key sites that marks the arrival of the gospel here in India almost two thousand years ago. It is the Little Mount Church in Chennai, with a history associated with the Apostle Thomas. The taxi driver had no idea where it was and so we arrived late, as the sun was setting and the moon was rising...

But to be greeted by a favourite phrase from a favourite chapter in the Bible was a thrill:

A plaque by the front door of the church added some historic detail, while the fuller history can be found in various places - with this blog post helpful.

I am a little torn in my response.

I can hear the skepticism about the authenticity of such tradition (although my hunch is that religious devotees are pretty good at getting these things right). I also find the way Christian 'stuff' in South India (churches, symbols, icons etc) morphs into looking like 'stuff' from other religions to be a bit disconcerting. It is the same over-contextualising in order to try and make things relevant that seems to afflict the church everywhere, especially in Western countries.

Having said all that, I am stirred by the tradition. Christian worshippers continually on this very site for almost two thousand years? The possibility of Thomas himself walking on these paths and rocks? That was buzz-worthy. It is always good to have these reminders of the need to shed the snobbery that so easily and so often forgets that the people of God have an early and deep and wide history far from the borders of Europe and its legacy to us.

nice chatting


Sunday, December 21, 2014

lyrics for living 2 (a thrill of hope)

All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth ... to sit in a pew stuffed with my kids, giving O Holy Night a real rip together. But it ain't gonna happen this year.

The divas line up to sing this song, don't they? Go to youtube. They are all there. Mariah. Whitney. Celine. Gladys. Kelly. Christina. Carrie. Charlotte. Susan ... even NSync :). I guess they love the possibilities which the swelling melody provides to showcase their voices. Every year facebook is abuzz with the latest recording of this song. This year it seems to be Home Free that is all the rage - but when that guy gives his little smile at 2.28 and then again at 2.40, it almost makes me want to throw-up somewhere. What on earth was he thinking? Not too much about the words methinks.

I've watched about twenty versions of this song. There is something sad about divas singing 'fall on your knees' when they have no intention of doing so. There is something cynical about using a song designed to show-off Jesus as a way to show-off your own voice. Plus they have a way of playing with the lyrics: changing words ('weary soul' instead of 'weary world'); deleting words (where did 'Christ is the Lord' go?); and even avoiding entire verses. About four out of five recordings omit this verse:

Truly he taught us to love one another.
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
    and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
    let all within us praise his holy name.

This hymn gained some momentum during the American Civil War, 150+ years ago. I guess 'chains shall he break for the slave is our brother' becomes a bit unfashionable today, doesn't it? But this is the very 'lyric for living' on which I want to focus.

Firstly, slavery is still alive and wrecking lives - so let's guard how we think.

But I want to probe further. In the author's day the slave was at the other end of the scale, be it a socio-economic one, an education one - or, a freedom one. The glorious subversion in this verse is its affirmation that such a person - as far from the nuclear family as you can be - is drawn into that very family. As a brother. A sister. An uncle. An aunt.

Today the person at the other end of such scales is almost always a poor person.

We know that poverty is not so much the absence of wealth, but the absence of opportunity. But a visit to Mother (Teresa) House in Kolkata earlier this month thickened my understanding of poverty even further. She identified with 'the unloved, the unwanted, the unclaimed'. The poor. Did you know that in the morgues of Delhi, 10 bodies arrive each day who are unclaimed - presumably because they are unwanted and unloved? Just one such body in a morgue in a year in New Zealand would make a screaming headline.

This leads to a further thickening of definition. Is poverty linked to the absence of mediated attention? [Please tell me if there is a better phrase]. One of the shameful scars which will continue to identify 2014 is the way the world woke up to the Ebola virus only when it infected a person who was not poor (and who was white...!) and so who had the 'power' to attract the attention of the media. Poverty thrives in places where the media headline and image does not go. We need to do a better job of finding those places - through committed friendships and attentive learning, for starters - and not leave the media to control the direction and flow of our compassion.

On receiving his Nobel Prize earlier this month, Kailash Satyarthi - a Hindu from India, committed to freeing children from slavery - gave a brilliant speech. Here is an extract:

You and I live in the age of rapid globalisation. We are connected through high-speed Internet. We exchange goods and services in a single global market. Each day, thousands of flights connect us to every corner of the globe.
But there is one serious disconnect. It is the lack of compassion. Let us inculcate and transform the individuals' compassion into a global movement. Let us globalise compassion. Not passive compassion, but transformative compassion that leads to justice, equality, and freedom.
Mahatma Gandhi said, "If we are to teach real peace in this world... we shall have to begin with the children.” I humbly add, let us unite the world through the compassion for our children.
Whose children are they who stitch footballs, yet have never played with one? They are our children. Whose children are they who mine stones and minerals? They are our children. Whose children are they who harvest cocoa, yet do not know the taste of a chocolate? They are all our children.
I am glad that he has said this. But I do feel a sadness, even a shame again. I wish that followers of Jesus were universally synonymous with this kind of talk. I am no Kailash. My sense of call has not driven me to identify as he has done. But ever since that tsunami struck ten years ago this week, I have been convinced that this 'globalising of compassion' is what the world needs and what the Lord requires of us. I have written and spoken about it - frequently. The best way to globalise compassion is to think in terms of a global family, as this hymn suggests.

Not many of us can identify with the 'unloved, the unwanted, the unclaimed' like Mother Theresa did - but we can all identify more fully with those who do. [NB: for example, we came across one such possibility while in Kolkata]. And closer to home, there will be the 'unloved, the unwanted, the unclaimed' whom we can transform into our brother or sister, our uncle or auntie - even our child.

Look carefully this Christmas. How can the family be extended? Give it a go and be part of spreading 'a thrill of hope (in which) a weary world rejoices'.

I struggled to find a recording of this song that I like. While not everything about this version draws me, the power and passion in David Phelps' voice and the sense I get that he believes what he is singing makes it my choice.

That is a refreshing change from the divas, let me tell you.

nice chatting


Saturday, December 13, 2014

home again

It was fun for Barby and I to go back 'home' to North India - and to introduce it to our friends of many years, Jan & Bill Dewar and Stephen & Bonnie Bond, whom we first met almost 30 years ago when we started in pastoral ministry in Invercargill.

We find that there is so much to love up there in the north...

the people
The waiters in the restaurants; the drivers of the taxis; the guides at the monuments... When I was young these people tended to be annoying - but now it is all about enjoying them. My pathetic Hindi goes to work as I discover a naam (name), a gaon (village), a bibi/buchha (wife and family) etc. On and on it goes until I run out of vocabulary, or the syntax gets too complicated - or Barby comes to my rescue. I love watching their faces open up and the smiles spread across their faces, with the pahari (mountain) people to the fore. Here is Shyam taking such delight in showing us the only assymetrical piece of imperfection in the Taj Mahal.

the scenery
Not only are the people beautiful, so also are the mountains. Whether it be the Himalayan foothills (on whose steep slopes we grew up);

or, the distant snow clad peaks, there are some views from which we never tire.

When it comes to scenery, I am particularly partial to the beauty of an ordered and colourful fruit stall amidst the chaotic dirtiness of an Old Delhi street.

the monuments
I align myself fully with historian-novelist William Dalrymple on this one. The eurocentrism in our education system means that we miss the historical and cultural marvels of a place like Delhi. Not so with me. Five hours after our friends arrived from New Zealand I had them at the Qutb Minar - for many decades the tallest building in the world (almost a millennium ago!). Me and the Qutb are great mates from way back.

We climbed a minaret at the Jama Masjid mosque, enjoying the view across to the Red Fort.

and, of course, the view towards the Feroshah Kotla cricket ground in the distance :).

the spelling
Again and again, I realise that their English is far better than my Hindi - but that doesn't stop me from enjoying their mistakes anymore than I let them enjoy me making my mistakes. And so when I discovered a left-wing eco-friendly vegetarian item on the menu, I smiled.

But what about the pepper called Anand facing charges of harassment from the salt? More smiles.

the transportation
Where do you start? How about a regal wave from a very English mode of transport?

I always feel the welcome of the Indian train. I didn't really need to be reminded, but the reminder couldn't be missed.

the leaders
Are there two more influential figures in the twentieth century than Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa? Maybe. Maybe not. To visit the places commemorating their deaths is a must on any visit to India. Going to Gandhi Smriti (where he was assassinated), seeing the photos, reading the words and walking the final steps is always worthwhile. The poignancy of Nehru's speech catches me every time. In the darkening gloom of the evening, he announces to the nation that the 'light has gone out of our lives'.

Then there is the simple story-telling, with word and image, at Mother House in Kolkata.
"I want to be only all for Jesus, truly and not only by name and dress." (Mother Teresa) 

the memories
A lot of the memories return to my Dad. When I was about 11 he bought us a unique Christmas present. An annual pass to the swimming pool of a five star hotel (Oberoi Maidens) next door to where we lived. Every afternoon, for months...

But lots of other memories for Barby and I. Like the place where we said goodbye to each other at Woodstock School in November 1976, with five years of letter-writing to follow - with no phone calls or email...

We love being 'daughter of...' and 'son of...' much-loved and respected parents in this land. Nothing lightens our faces quite like coming across people who remember our folks. On a visit to Delhi Bible Fellowship one Sunday (where Barby's Dad was pastor and where I gave my heart to Jesus a zillion times under the ministry of his predecessor - an evangelist!), Stephen met a man who remembered Dad...

nice chatting


PS... and we are so grateful for great friends who have stuck with us over the years - and here they are on the steps leading up to the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. Thanks for more memories.

Friday, December 12, 2014

nice chaating

I am a Dilly-wallah - or, a person from Delhi. [NB: 'Dilly' is the way the name sounds in Hindi]. Delhi was my home from the age of 10 right through until I was 17 - first over in Old Delhi (near Kashmere Gate) and then in New Delhi (in Jangpura Extension).

I love the city. The history and culture surprises and fascinates anyhow who draws near. Amidst the mess, there are places of rare beauty. Then there is the food - particularly, the street food and Delhi's famous chaat. We've just returned from a few days in Delhi, staying in Hotel Tara Palace in the heart of Old Delhi. An affordable hotel in an ideal location. 5min walk to Chandni Chowk; 10min to both the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid ... with chaat options abounding.

Aloo tikki is a favourite. Potato patties drenched in both mint and imli sauces. Yummy.

... with me then partaking thereof!

Another favourite is pani puri - or, gol guppa. On this occasion you tap-tap-tap on a small, hollow, crisp puri, creating a hole into which you spoon a mixture of vegetables - usually potato and a chickpea of some kind. A generous pouring of imli sauce follows. Then it is baptism by immersion into the green pepper water (pani) - filling the little puri to overflowing - before a quick and skillful transference of the entire entity into my open and willing mouth. This is repeated six times with one serving (for a cost of something less than one dollar).

In the words of the James Bond anthem of yesteryear - when it comes to chaat 'nobody does it better' than the Dilly-wallahs of Chandni Chowk.

nice chatting


PS. Barby's favourite chaat is called raj kachori. Similar ingredients but then the whole thing is swamped in dahi (yoghurt). We've been travelling in India with our good friends from Invercargill days thirty years ago (Bill & Jan Dewar and Bonnie & Stephen Bond). Here they are about to be transported to raj kachori heaven...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 on the couch

Our first two children, Stephen and Alyssa (1987)

Our first two grandchildren, Micah and Amaliya (2014)

good looking