Monday, April 20, 2015

lyrics for living 5 (wing my words)

To be known as a good listener is a great aspiration to have.

It is certainly one of mine. But inevitably, in my work (as with many of you, I'm sure), I do a lot of talking. Looking back through my google calendar over recent weeks, I find things like this:

teaching a module on preaching in Bangalore (India)
contributing to leadership meetings in London (UK)
facilitating a meeting in Amman (Jordan)
promoting the ministry in which I am involved in Phoenix AZ (USA)
encouraging people in A and Z (China)
speaking at a memorial for my special friend in Auckland (New Zealand)
discussing work among first nations peoples in Niagara Falls (Canada)
(later this week) preaching at a seminary in Wilmore KY (USA)

I wonder what your list looks like? That is a lot of variations on the talking theme.
But diverse though these settings may be, they all have one thing in common.

For each of them, I pray the same prayer.
The words of a hymn.

Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
In living echoes of Thy tone ...

O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.

What is it that draws me back to this hymn, again and again?

I like the way it originates with God
We are a channel. We live with God and spend time listening to Him.
What we pass onto others is what God has passed onto us.

I like the way it prioritises words
So much of the church has lost confidence in word and words.
There is a bias against words which God simply does not share.

I love the image of flight
The words originate with Him and He is the one who needs to fly them as well.
I can do my talking, but He is the one who must do the winging.
It means less manipulation and spinning - and more faithfulness.

I like the realism about the human heart
There are hidden depths, marked by secrecy, sadness, stubbornness and sin.
These things are not softened by human skill, but only by the Spirit.

Sadly, unlike other posts in this series, I could not find a you-tube version that I liked. Maybe there is a reader who can help me out here. One or two were OK, but then they excluded the verse I wanted. [This is the best I could do:].

nice chatting


Thursday, April 16, 2015

ten days in china

As this was my first ever visit to China, I thought I'd collect a few photos and reflections.

On Easter Sunday morning we attended one of the officially recognised churches. 1000 people, standing room only. Traditional, but not necessarily nominal or liberal. The Germans occupied the province for less than twenty years, but transformed the architecture (see below) and left behind a world-class brewery (not seen below - I don't believe in such promotion). After the service on the hill on high, we descended to the road below where a young man with a disability of some kind was chalking his version of the gospel on the footpath.

There was the thrill of driving over the longest bridge in the world. It never touches land. It takes 25min to cross - and it would cover the English Channel with some kilometers to spare. There was even a spaghetti junction in the middle of the ocean. Meanwhile, over on terra firma, a quick shot from the car captures the razor edges of the mountain ridges that took me back to sketches in the biographies I read as a child.

The cities were impressive. A majority of our time was based in Qingdao, China's 18th largest city - but still coming in at over 4 million (in a province, Shandong, with over 100 million people). It was the base for the sailing at the Beijing Olympics. It gave me an opportunity to share how New Zealand wins all its Olympic medals sitting down. The Chinese enjoyed that one...

For a country aiming at being the dominant nation in the 21st century, I was a little surprised at the paucity of English. I knew it was a challenge (and I confess to enjoying seeing indigenous languages to the fore) - but they won't dominate the world if they don't dominate English. Quite a contrast to India, with its British colonial ancestry. Then, rather ironically (and this is true throughout Asia), I am a little bemused by the dependence on Western models on billboards. The metanarrative for beauty and fashion (and wedding apparel) still tends to be written far from Asia. The new colonialism. Kinda sad.

The food was fun, as I appreciated the diversity of cuisine from the different regions of the country. Obesity was a rare sight and the link was made with the Chinese preference for savoury over sweetness. But I am still shaking my head on how these little sea slugs could fetch USD10/each - and that be considered a steal. They look more suitable for garden compost to me. And while the food was diverse, not everything that circulated around the table was edible.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my first visit to China would have me landing in a city just one hour from Weifang, where a big hero of mine (Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame) was confined during World War II ... and where he subsequently died of a brain tumour in his early 40s. There are various memorials, all of which I indulged. But there was a poignancy about the visit. As I stepped out of the car, a message came through that my best friend from way back, Martin Lovatt, had succumbed to cancer in his mid-50s back in New Zealand. Eric and Martin. Good men of deep and uncomplicated faith. Serving God with all that I am becomes a more straightforward choice because they are in my life. It is gonna be one of those days I remember for forever.

Partly because of the language barrier, I did find the person on the street and in the service industry to be a bit stern and unsmiling. I was not quite ready for this. I kept trying to make them smile - but to no avail. Oh well - it couldn't be said of the people with whom I hung out and who showed me around. Some of the warmest, most hospitable people I've encountered. Their kindness to me as I grappled with being so far from home when my friend died will remain with me.

 nice chatting


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

logos and google

'The Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other'.

Attributed to Karl Barth, this is the classic cliche about the need for preachers to remain connected to both the Word and the World, the Text and the Context, as they prepare and deliver sermons. Earlier this month in Amman, I heard Dr Yohanna Katanacho (Bethlehem Bible College) refresh the Barthian quotation, as he described his own approach to preaching:

'Using Logos helps me understand the text; using Google helps me understand the context'.
[NB: I am assuming that 'Logos' refers here to a Bible software package.]

These statements align with the Stottian quotation which I hear most frequently as I travel: the call for 'double listening'. We need to be listening to the Word and listening to the World on the way to relating the one to the other in the sermon - and in life itself. I've been reflecting again on how much this principle has been woven into the fabric of who I am and how I function in ministry.

As a young pastor, in my twenties, there was a bus company that moved us around in the lower South Island of New Zealand. It was called H & H. I remember articulating the 'H & H' that moved me in ministry: hermeneutics and homiletics. Interpreting the Bible. Preaching the Bible.

As a young lecturer in my thirties, I found myself teaching H & H. I was like a little boy in a licorice shop. As my thirties gained momentum I was asked to develop a course from scratch called The Gospel in a Post-Christian Society. WOW - those were the days... With H & H - and now GPCS - filling my waking hours, 'double listening' had embedded itself into my vocation. Text and Context. Word and World. Not surprisingly, my developing doctoral studies had a similar flavour as I wrestled with 'the parable in the postmodern'.

Into my forties and a 'jack of all trades' teaching career (at BCNZ/Laidlaw College I had taught in every department and at every academic level) was traded-in for a single, specific focus: homiletics, or preaching. As I lived in this area a model for teaching the subject took shape. At its core was a commitment to double listening - or, more accurately, quadruple (?!) listening - as we listened our way around the four corners of a room, engaging with text, listener, world and self - with the text having the strongest voice as these conversations morphed their way into a sermon. [NB: One ongoing incarnation of this 'four corners' approach is the impressive Kiwimade Preaching website where contributing articles are collected in these four corners.]

Now in my fifties and involved in a preacher training ministry with a global reach, the Barthian cliche continues to have its manifestations, sometimes in surprising places. My suitcase, for example. This morning I looked in there and noticed the two books, on a blue towel, selected for reading on this trip. Almost intuitively by now, this selection pulls me into double-listening. I really like it like that...

Well, that is a slice of one person's story into a life of 'double listening'.

What does your own story sound like?
Because we all need to be doing it, in every vocation.

nice chatting


Sunday, March 22, 2015


Earlier this month I enjoyed my first trip to the Arab world. After meetings in Amman (Jordan), I travelled to Lebanon to spend a few days with my colleague and friend, Riad, at his home in the Bekaa Valley (that flat bit above the central ridge in the map below).

Lebanon is a small country, taking two hours to drive its width and five hours its length. Before the troubles began Riad could drive to Damascus for an afternoon with his in-laws and be back home again the same evening. It has a similar population to New Zealand (4 million), although increased now by almost 50% with refugees from Syria (possibly as many as 2 million). It is a courageous and compassionate commitment, given that the influx of Palestinian refugees a few decades ago created the context which wrecked the country with 17 years of civil war.

Simply put, the country is beautiful. I saw beautiful places - and beautiful people.

Here is Byblos, with the longest continually populated community anywhere in the world. The ruins in the picture suggest that people lived here 8000 years ago - and pretty much every year since.

The ruins of Byblos are impressive - but so, too, are the restorations of Beirut. I couldn't get enough of the downtown buildings, marveling at the mastery involved in taking buildings back to their former glory, after being rubbilised by prolonged civil war (sometimes even with church as neighbour to mosque - see below). It is kinda like a picture of creation-fall-redemption...!

Then there is the first century Roman temple in Niha.

And what about that Bekaa Valley, with the view from Riad's upstairs' verandah?

The snowy slopes of Mt Hermon were a special thrill for me (here, the view at breakfast).

... and then a closer view, up on the Syrian border.

And how can a visit to Lebanon not sight a cedar?! Here is a relatively young one, at 1400 years of age (they go up to 3500 years of age!).

When it comes to the people, beautiful people, it is hard to go past a visit to the basement of an unfinished Baptist church, schooling 300 Syrian refugee children. Gorgeous kids. We walk into this classroom and the children stand up and recite the Lord's Prayer - 'your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven ... deliver us from evil ... forgive us, as we forgive others ...'. Yes, Lord, may it be so.

Last year, the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon, issued an 'Urgent Appeal' to the wider, global evangelical community. The current situation verges on 'being bona fide genocide' ... (they warn of) 'the annihilation of Christian presence in the Middle East' ... 'we must work together to heal the wounds and to preserve what is left of the Christian community in these lands'. They call for partnership, with that word solidarity featuring prominently at beginning and end. And so I leave Lebanon with a heart full of longings - that innumerable Christians in the wider world will give up their small and silly ambitions and get lost in something bigger than themselves - and that God will hold his church in Lebanon-Syria, keep his people, and lead them onwards and upwards...

nice chatting


PS: for another post sparked by Syria - see the messiah above syria.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

a female leadership quality?!

It is a headline that catches the eye, isn't it?
Why women make better CEOs in the 21st century.

It is Sunday morning. I am browsing The Sunday Telegraph at Heathrow. It is International Women's Day and the paper is making a bit of a splash with an eye-catching headline. I've always found women preachers to be reluctant to say that there is a distinctive voice which they offer to preaching. Could the same be said of women leadership styles?

Not according to this article. Out with masculine command-and-control styles and in with 'feminine' collaboration-and-listening ones. Less kings and macho-heroes - and more orchestrators. According to Simon Sinek, what we need are 'more leaders with female qualities such as empathy and humanity. Aggression and self-interest are the qualities of bad leadership.'

Hmmm...  I am tempted to leave my response with Sir Ian Richardson, from yesteryear's House of Cards: 'you might think that - I could not possibly comment'.  But I won't. I suspect a stronger case can be made for a distinctive voice (and style) in the field of leadership than it can be made for preaching. While there are times when I have seen this to be the case - I still can't help feeling a little sorry for the male leader who has empathy and humanity!

The online article omits a box embedded in the print version of the article. Five Keys to Good Leadership. They are so good, I quote them in full here (partly because I do not want to lose them):
1 Good leadership is about communicating a vision of something that does not exist yet. Hitting revenue targets is not a vision. The worst combination is a leader who keeps a tight grip while offering no vision.
2 Once you have defined that vision, you need to articulate it. Employees are increasingly questioning why they work for a company. So CEOs have to convince others to get on board, leading sideways rather than just downwards. Instead of vision, many CEOs prefer to use the word 'purpose'.
3 Surround yourself with people who are better than you, [ie appoint your weakness] developing and building that talent. Nurturing talent is like being a parent, in that you take pride when your executives achieve independence.
4 Avoid being pushed into instant decisions. Think about what you are doing. Too many CEOs are pushed around by social media. Don't let yourself be bullied by a fickle public.
5 Walk the walk. You need to embody qualities such as collaboration, encouragement, and listening rather than just pay lip-service to them You need to be an exemplary role model.
Intuitively, this seems to hit that proverbial nail on its equally proverbial head - although they missed the opportunity to speak of how #1 can be done through collaboration and listening. In my experience, 'the vision thing' is one area that still receives the controlling, macho, directive, 'downwards' treatment ... but maybe that is just my feminine side speaking:).

nice chatting


Sunday, March 01, 2015

holding on

Barby and I have enjoyed five weeks with Micah and Amaliya, our little grandchildren, filling our Bangalorean lives with joy. The fact that our Lovely Lys and her hubbie, Tim, came with the package deal only makes the visit that much sweeter. Tonight I say good-bye to all of them as I head to London for Langham meetings. I feel sad.

I've loved a lot this month - and learned a bit too.

When a weary, or a scared, Micah flings his little arms upwards with pentecostal fervour accompanied by the plea, "I want to hold you", I think he means, "I want you to hold me". Either way, the key to rest for the weary and shelter for the fearful in this situation is the 'holding' - be it the tightness of his little arms holding on to me - or, my big arms holding on to him.

And yes, as you might imagine, it does make me think of how I relate to God.

Weariness and fear are two of the great challenges for me in living life. They never seem to be too far away. They are always prowling around in the neighborhood of my heart. Many a contemporary worship song urges me to sing something akin to "I want to hold you, God - and I never want to let You go". And I am happy to oblige, with fervency and with meaning.

But is the strength of my 'hold' really worth singing about? Micah's hold on me is not the key to his sense of security. It is my hold on him that makes the difference. I love to hold him. And so it is with God. Sing all you like about how much you want to hold Him (and I will continue to do so) - but, ultimately, the rest and the shelter is found in knowing that He holds onto me and will not let go. He loves me that much ... and that is worth singing about.

I love a little letter in the New Testament. It is written by Jude.
It uses the word 'keep' in a similar way to this idea of holding.

Jude opens up, writing to those who are 'loved ... called ... and kept for Jesus Christ' (1).
He urges his readers to 'keep yourselves in God's love' (21, a bit like Micah's holding of me).
Then: 'To him who is able to keep you from falling...' (24, a bit like my holding of Micah).

While he was in Bangalore, Micah and I enjoyed our walks...

He loved the animals - be it the tiger on the wall, or the crab on the beach (in Kochi)...

And taking little breaks for rest and refreshment together was important too...

nice chatting


By the way, Micah's little sister, Amaliya, is pretty cute too.
Here she is with her grandma in a little restaurant in the Jewish Quarter of Fort Kochi.

Monday, February 23, 2015


I am a little worried.

I believe in contextualisation. Oh yes, I do. Isn't the incarnation, the divine becoming human, the ultimate in contextualised activity? The Big-C is as necessary as it is unavoidable.

But still I am worried.

As I travel I am a little surprised at the appetite that there is for contextualisation. It has a huge profile. Not only is there plenty of talk about it, it is the subject where the pulse quickens and the adrenalin rushes. When it comes to missional effectiveness, this is where the hope seems to lie.

Here is a handful of anxieties which I feel...

1. When I train people to preach, I help them live in the content of what the text actually says for awhile. Draw near to it like a train approaching the Himalayas - 'stop, drop, stare' (O'Donnell). See all the detail. Be pedantic. Let the observations thrill you. Let the embryo of the sermon be born as you make space for the 'joy of discovery'. Then go deeper and wider. Live in the critical historical-literary-theological context ... and allow that 'restraining influence of context' (DA Carson) to bring accuracy to your study. As I look and listen to missional conversations, I do worry that the thrill and the joy lie more with the contextualisation of the gospel than with its content.

2. Whether it be grassroots training, or classroom training, I find people can overstate the uniqueness of their own context. In our grassroots work we have a session on  'making the connection'. Participants emerge from a game with the biggest contextual issues which they face in family, in church and in nation. While there are unique things on the lists, it interests me how many issues travel from country to country. In classroom work I am surprised how quickly some students are prepared to play the 'context card', shut down their learning apparatus, and affirm that a particular approach to teaching the Bible simply and clearly will not work, or is not relevant, in their context. As I look and listen, I do worry that people can become a bit precious (as we say back home in New Zealand) about their own cultural context.

3. Last week I watched some young kids perform a Michael Jackson song in an outdoor concert at a beach in Kochi. Last night, in Mysore, McDonalds was awash with young couples with heads in their smartphones, looking up every now and then for a selfie. I know there are those who are addressing it, but could I just slip my hand up and suggest quietly that the global contextual - and not just the local contextual - really does need a lot more attention? The uncritical acceptance of the globalised in popular culture hitched up to the staunch defense of the localised in the classroom could make for compelling conversation. As I look and listen, I do worry whether that conversation is happening often enough.

4. Where are the danger signs, the text running across the screen saying, Warning: syncretism is dangerous to your mission? Every conversation which contextualisation inhabits should be inhabited by syncretism as well. Every assignment that covers contextualisation should expect an appendix on what over-contextualisation, or syncretism, looks like for this topic (and include one on under-contextualisation as well!). It is that important. Bend over too far and you fall in. That is the picture. That is the principle. It is difficult to be the light of the world when you are covered in mud. Every cultural context should produce its equivalent of Marsha Witten's All is Forgiven and make it required reading for every theological student. As I look and listen, I do worry that 'becoming all things to all people to save some' might be, unintentionally, a license for syncretism.

5. Now a word to teachers and academics. Please come down from the excitement of your scholarship in your fifth floor study and incarnate yourself among your students on the ground floor. The same ol' foundations need to be laid for every generation of students. Don't become bored, or weary, with the fundamentals of the faith. Teach them with an enthusiasm and passion that will be transformative under God's hand. 'If it goes without saying it needs to be said'. If it isn't established in the core, it will slip to the periphery - and the periphery will soon take up residence in the core. As I look and listen, I do worry that fifth floors are being built without ground floors being in place first.

5+. Some months ago I posted an open letter to those besotted with relevance. The issues in this post are similar. As I said at the start - with the gospel, contextualisation is both necessary and unavoidable. I guess my anxiety lies with where our hope lies: might it be more with a contextualised gospel, than it is with a contextualised gospel?

nice chatting


NB: As regular readers know, my approach with this blog is simply to chat away. Quite intentionally, I choose not to read around a topic, or linger with wider research. But when I was looking for some imagery, I came across this picture from Tim Keller. I am not a missiologist, but I like it. Be assured. My anxieties evaporate if my looking and listening is always about blue becoming yellow, with no change to the triangle!

Sunday, February 08, 2015

lyrics for living 4 (trace the rainbow)

I know CS Lewis is 'the man'. One day when I have nothing to do, I am going to go through Mere Christianity and list all the times he finds the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary and everyday. That is the simple secret of compelling illustration and nobody does it better.

But there is one celebrated Lewis quotation I don't really like. It may well be true - but, on its own and out of context (which is how it is usually used), I don't like it.
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (from The Problem of Pain).
Sitting there, all isolated, it does not capture enough of the truth. It is too harsh. Too abrasive. I know critiquing Lewis is worse than critiquing God for some people, but when people use this quotation on its own, damage can be done. When it comes to pain, there is more to God than 'shouts' and 'megaphones'.

CS Lewis needs a companion.
I nominate George Matheson.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel that the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

Naming God as Joy amidst the pain is bold enough. But then, just when He is reputed to abandon a person, becoming unseen and silent, it is the hymn-writer's experience that God-as-Joy is seeking him in pain - that is a long, long way from being abandoned.

What about cannot close? Not 'should not'. Not 'will not'. Not 'might not'. No, the experience of God's love has been so real and so full and for so long that when the season of pain comes, it is not possible to close the heart to God. No wonder the hymn opens with 'O Love that will not let me go'...

But it is the spatial imagery and the temporal imagery to which I return, again and again.

The spatial imagery is of rain - and yet such is the presence of light in that same space - that there is a rainbow as well. It becomes possible to trace the rainbow through the rain. The rain has not gone away. The pain remains. But through it - a rainbow can be seen and traced. Tracing is a slow, careful, and quiet activity. Attentive and tentative. And for this writer in the midst of pain, the rainbow, forever symbolising the promises of God, can be located and experienced ... maybe even without the shouting and the megaphones?!

The temporal imagery utilises the picture of hope that is woven into the rhythm of the 24 hour day. As dark as the tearful midnight may appear to be - it is never the ultimate, or the final, reality ... because the tearless morn is on the way. The (rainbow) promise is not vain. This is a truth to know, but also a truth to feel. Read Martin Luther King's Strength to Love - or, mingle with God's harassed people around the world ... or, live in this hymn and the significance of hope comes alive.

And of course hope can only ever mean something for people in the midst of pain, or persecution. Why long for something better when the good times roll? When things are comfy and cruisey, why wait for something better? Dawn means zilch if life is lived always in the daylight ... and when that happens, a central strand of biblical teaching gets quietly excised from our experience. Hope is drained of any significance. Life can be lived without it.

It is at the (temporal) dawn that the Sun - often hidden, yet still reflected in the (spatial) rainbow - becomes gloriously visible. The book of Revelation shows us that as bad as things can be right now, it is never the end of the story. That Sun (God) is in control. The Son (Jesus) wins. Believers way back then rested their lives on this hope - as do pained and persecuted believers all around the world today. So can I - and so can you. It is possible to let George's words become our words too.

Here, have a go at singing along with this recording of the hymn. A motley-looking bunch of students randomly gather to fill a cathedral with the most exquisite sound (our verse starts at 1.18).

If interested, the earlier posts in this lyrics for living series can be found here:
touched by a loving handa thrill of hope; and dews of quietness.
Catch you next month.

nice chatting


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

ode to georgetown

It is thirty years ago this month (February 1985) since I started as a pastor - at Georgetown Baptist Church in Invercargill, on the south coast of the South Island in New Zealand.

Ten years ago this church closed its doors (although another church still uses the facilities). I was overwhelmed by an uncommon grief. I wrote a little article to work out that grief - Ode to Georgetown. As a mark of my gratitude for all that this church taught me and for the generous way in which they shaped me, I post it again here...

I have no electronic photos with me in India from this era of our lives
- but here is a photo of the Georgetown church which I found on the internet.

[written in 2005] 
The grief clung to me for weeks. It was not a family member who had died. Nor was it a friend. On this occasion it was a church. Georgetown (Invercargill) - the only church I ever pastored, back in the 1980s - was closing its doors. But not before opening my life in so many ways…

Like connecting the pastoral to the parental. Being a pastor is ‘like a mother … (and) as a father’ (I Thess 2). I learned that the love at work in both is the same brand. I was taught that if my people are convinced that I love them, virtually no weakness in me will seem too great; however, if there is even a hint of doubt about my love for them, then no strength in me will seem to be enough. I will never quite make it in their eyes. Georgetown showed me that this is true. Today it is too easy to fast forward to leadership too soon, rather than pressing play and slowly giving time for love to be proven.

Like breaking the grip of statistics. It is tough to have numbers look good when you are in a small church in a declining area. It is demoralising to go to pastors’ gatherings where the repeating default question is ‘how many do you get on a Sunday? ’ It is not that numbers aren’t important. The book of Acts demonstrates that they are. But they are not the full story, or even the bottom line. I never ever ask that question of a pastor now. Georgetown showed me that God can be doing a big work in a tiny turnout. To this day I delight in thumbing my nose at ‘but its not strategic’ and taking training to the nooks and crannies of this country. I find this surge of excitement as I realise what God can do among a handful of people. That is because I’d seen it happen at Georgetown.

Like pressing on with obedience through despair. No nostalgia could ever change the reality that Georgetown was hard work for me. God seemed so inactive. I remember those periods of despair when a stubborn obedience to the call of God was the only thing I had to offer. I kept preaching the Word as best I could. Georgetown showed me that God can still create something out of nothing in me by his Word. Like hope and restoration. Like life into those dry bones. Every first-time pastor should experience this. It sets them up for life. I remember five minutes in Habakkuk that were miraculous. God is always active. When he seems to be doing his least through me, he is doing his most in me.

Like starting with what you are and what you have. We had one person in the church between 13 and 25. The parents of this age group were scarce as well. That is a lot of absenteeism when it comes to energy and wisdom. Welcome to the challenge of pastoral leadership in the provinces! And this was happening in a denomination where my impression was that if you didn’t have a youth group, you weren’t a proper church. I battled with this guilt and shame for months. Georgetown showed me that the call of God starts with what is in front of you on a Sunday morning. And so the children and the elderly received a lot of attention and gradually the other gaps filled in.

Like confirming the value of systematic biblical preaching. Book after book. Series after series. Feeding the people I loved. It was decidedly unspectacular stuff, but I stuck at it. Georgetown showed me that the local church has its best opportunity to be effective in the missional drama on its stage when the backdrop to that stage is filled with systematic and sustained preaching through the Bible. Few people may make the links, but the links are there. We saw harmony and maturity and growth quietly overtake us as we sat together under God’s word each week.

Like believing multiplication to be more strategic than addition. Leadership development was the priority. Taking 75% of the church through Ian Malins’ Discipleship course was the spark. Suddenly we were awash with leaders. Adding all kinds of initiatives became possible. But God had other ideas. Georgetown showed me that releasing your best for the sake of the mission of the wider church is far more strategic. Multiplying resources for that cause is far smarter than adding resources to our own cause. A tithe of the membership went off into further training for mission and pastoral work. A tithe! Imagine if every local church contributed to the wider mission to this extent. This had always been Georgetown’s vocation and I do wonder now whether this contributed to its eventual closure. Georgetown may have died but the life it has breathed into God’s work elsewhere is remarkable. It was an honour to serve you for a season. Thank you for that privilege.

nice chatting


Saturday, January 31, 2015

the arabs: a history

There is this hunger within to learn about the peoples of the world, particularly those ones about whom I know so little. Almost ten years ago I got lost in Meredith's The State of AfricaIt changed me.

With my first visit to the Middle East looming in March, recent months have been devoted to Eugene Rogan's The Arabs: A History. I made it to the end, as evidenced by the 13 boarding passes interspersed through the 700 pages of the book.

Rogan tells the modern history of the Arab people, starting with the Ottoman occupation in 1516 and travelling all the way to 2011, with the Arab Spring. Not one, not two - but three collections of photo pages are a feature, as are the maps.

I'm wanting to live my life in a way which considers 1 Corinthians 12 to be true of the global church, not just the local church. Honouring those who may feel dishonoured. Treating as indispensable those that may consider themselves dispensable. Then when I come to Rogan - in his very last paragraph - he is quoting an Arab aspiration that they no longer be 'a lowly pawn on the global chessboard' (644) ... and I feel that I have found a companion for my life's journey.

As I reflect on how the book has impacted me, here are a handful of responses...

I feel sad
There is one sadness that stands out above all others. It is heard in the opening pages. It is heard in the closing pages. It is overheard in all the pages in between. Since 1516, 'the Arabs would negotiate their place in the world through rules set in foreign capitals' (24). Six hundred pages later, covering five hundred years, Rogan concludes that if there is any hope, it lies in these peoples being able 'to break the cycle of subordination to other people's rules' (625).

First it was the Ottomans (Istanbul). Then it was the imperialists, the British and French (London and Paris). Along came the Cold War (Washington DC and Moscow), before it gave way to the age of the 'unipolar superpower', the USA (Washington DC). Lest you scurry off to think otherwise, 'the rules of the unipolar age of American dominance proved the most disadvantageous to the Arab world in modern times ... the first decade of the twenty-first century is the worst in modern Arab history' (13).

By the way, how would you like to live your entire life with a sense that the destiny of your people is determined by some foreign power - and then not just your life, but also the lives of 500 years of your family ancestry? There is some serious sadness going on here.

This is partly why the recent Arab Spring has had so much momentum. It appears to be 'a new age of citizen action for human and political rights that (has) endowed the region with a new found sense of dignity and common purpose' (626). So when Mohammed Bouazizi 'doused himself with paint thinner outside the gates of the governor's office and set himself on fire' (629) in Tunisia - rather than pay a small fine - it set off a chain reaction that is still travelling.
An individual tragedy, a communal protest movement, a discontented nation, social networking websites, Arabic satellite television, and Wikileaks: it was the making of the perfect twenty-first century political storm ... (and) the Tunisian people, without outside encouragement or assistance, had toppled one of the Arab world's most autocratic rulers through a non-violence movement (630).
Against that 500 year backdrop, these 3 years have been remarkable - but where and how will it end? It seems the sadness continues to spread and to deepen.

I feel angry
I had no idea that the Arab world endured an unseemly imperialist land-grab, much like what happened in Africa. Once the Ottoman Empire started to break up (and the Gallipoli invasion, so sacred to New Zealanders like me, was aimed at facilitating that break-up), the British and French sat down and treated the lands of the Arabs like it was some sort of lunch buffet where they could help themselves to whatever they liked. For dessert they drew a few new borders before painting the map with pretty European colours. Men behaving badly. It is an appalling story, punctuated by a fair amount of foolishness.

And so Iraq was formed from three very different Ottoman provinces. How smart was that? As for Palestine, it was 'doomed form the outset' (245).
Palestine would prove Britain's gravest imperial failure in the Middle East, a failure that would condemn the whole of the Middle East to conflict and violence that persist to the present day ... (it was) a new country in an ancient land, cobbled together from parts of the Ottoman provinces to suit imperial convenience (245). 
I had no idea that the British bore such responsibility for the mess in the Middle East today. Let's just stick with the Palestinian story for a little longer. 'Palestine was a problem made in Europe' (348). The Balfour Declaration set itself to create 'a national home for the Jewish people' without prejudice to the 'rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine'. Impossible! Those who had lived in the land for millennia did not agree, but the British went ahead and tried to do so 'without consultation and without consent' (247). In fact in the Balfour Declaration, 'the British government had promised most of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia to at last two parties, and in the case of Palestine, to no less than three' (192). What?!

Rogan titles his chapter 'The Palestine Disaster' (311-348).

The Americans started so well in the Arab World (see President Woodrow Wilson's initiative below). Then, more recently, was anyone else electrified by President Obama's speech at Cairo University in the way I was? It seemed to make so much sense to me, but I am not sure much has changed...

In the intervening years, the Americans became so obsessed with 'the Soviet menace' abroad and so controlled by the Zionist lobby at home that it led to an increasingly faltering presence in the Arab World. They have this ability to 'turn a blind eye' to disproportionate Israeli aggression in the region.  In 1967 Israel went in and stole land and the USA, together with the international community, has just grown accustomed to the face of the Israeli occupation of lands that are not theirs.
As far as Western public opinion was concerned, the displaced Arabs of Palestine were no different than Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt and would be absorbed by their host countries in due course (431).
The inconsistencies in the story are everywhere to be seen. Even Sadaam Hussein had a field day with them. At the height of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, he galvanized Arab opinion by asking how his action was any different from the Israeli occupation of Palestine?

What about today? With all the history that has gone before, Rogan concludes that to the Arab-on-the-street, 'the war on terror (looked increasingly) like an American-Israeli partnership to impose their full control over the Middle East' (621). Ouch. One of the questions that the USA has yet to sort out is that in trumpeting democracy as the way forward, are they willing for democracies that don't look how they want them to look?  'The inconvenient truth about democracy in the Arab world is that, in any free and fair election, those parties most hostile to the United States are most likely to win' (616). There are things more important than democracy.

I feel informed
I am embarassed by how little I knew about this region. But I've made a start and now I have a tiny bit of pre-understanding into which I can add new information as it arrives. And yes, Rogan is offering a single perspective - and history is always perspectival - and so there will be still more for me to learn.  But here is a taste of some of the things I enjoyed learning.

At the time of Napoleon's brief occupation of Egypt there was this fascinating clash at the level of worldview. What a case study it provides - from 200 years ago. The French sent 'learned men' with Napolean to civilise the Egyptians...! Revolutionary ideas and revealed religion. Enlightenment constitutions and Muslim monarchies. As the 'astonishing technology' caught the eye of the Egyptians, the French thought they'd puff out their chests and show off a bit. A huge crowd gathered for the launch of a hot-air balloon ... WOW ... and then it crashed.

The United Arab Republic (UAR) in the 1950s is another story that caught my eye. It is where Egypt and Syria kinda became one nation, on the way to an anticipated pan-Arab unity, which might 'break the cycle of foreign domination' (400). 'For one brief, heady moment' (400) it looked like the dream might be realised as Iraq - and even Jordan and Lebanon - considered signing-up. But when they backed away, it left Egypt and Syria to 'the mundane business of making their hybrid state work ... (only to find the 1960s) to be a decade of defeat' (400).

'The great wealth that oil confers makes a state more vulnerable to outside threats' (446-447) - and it took awhile for Arab states to figure how to make oil work for them. The way they made oil a 'weapon' is another absorbing section. It picks up my own earliest memories with the Yom Kippur 1973 Arab:Israeli War and then immediately raising the price of oil, leaving Western powers in such a pickle - and 'hey presto', all of a sudden Henry Kissinger is interested in the Palestinian question again! Even though they lived by foreign rules, again and again the Arabs learned to use the rules for their own advantage.

Osama bin Laden makes his appearance. It is one of the many places where this book of fact-filled history becomes like a page-turner novel. Rogan is a master of weaving personal story into regional history. I loved it. Bin Laden enters the story almost by stealth. The thing that so emboldened Bin Laden was the decision by Saudi Arabia to allow American troops to come onto Saudi soil on the way to liberating Kuwait - 'the biggest shock of my life' (563), he is reputed to have said. This is what 'rallied the country's Islamists into action' (562). Supposedly, Bin Laden had written to the Saudis and said he could mount an army from among those whom had driven out the Soviets in Afghanistan and they would drive Sadaam out of Kuwait - but 'the letter was ignored' (562).  Bin Laden called for jihad, committing his life to ridding the Muslim world of every vestige of an American presence - and we all know what happened next.

I feel inspired
I met some amazing people in its pages. There are at least a dozen movies in this book.

Where do I start?

What about a guy called Muhammad 'Ali, an Albanian who became 'master of Egypt' in 1805 - and then whose family line ruled until 1952! Or, Abd al-Qadir (nineteenth century, Algeria) - 'it is no exaggeration to say that he was a legend in his own lifetime' (142) in the way he outwitted the brutal French colonial power - at the age of 24, for more than a decade. Then there is Abd el-Krim (twentieth century, Morocco) who organised a five year rebellion from the Rif Mountains that led to 'the worst defeat of a colonial army in Africa in the twentieth century' (277).

What about Fatiha Bouhired in Algeria? 'Oh, hang on - they did make a movie about her.' It is called The Battle of Algiers. Women pop up more often than one might expect in a book about the Arab World. What about Huda Sha'rawi facing down the British in Egypt in 1919? More recently, there is Hanan Ashrawi (Palestine). 'A brilliant woman of great eloquence from a Christian family, Ashrawi was the antithesis of the stereotype of a terrorist that many in the West associated with the Palestinian cause' (587). She was just too smart for Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu.

The pages on Abdel Nasser (Egypt) are compelling. 'No Arab leader has exercised such influence on the Arab stage before or since' (363). One story stands out. The USA defaults on a loan
for the building of the Aswan Dam. Nasser needs cash - in a hurry. Within 24 hours he comes up with this plan to nationalise the Suez Canal and create a revenue stream. He is to give this speech in Alexandria. He instructs his Colonel Younes to walk in and take over the Suez Canal offices during his speech - but only if he hears the mention of the name 'Ferdinand de Lesseps' (architect of the Suez Canal) in the speech. That is the signal. Nasser electrifies the crowd with a speech dripping with nationalist fervour and talk of taking back the Suez Canal. 'Ferdinand de Lesseps' is mentioned a dozen times (some listeners wondered why someone Egyptians dislike figured so prominently in the speech!) - just in case the Colonel was sleeping, I guess. By the time Nasser reaches the climax of his speech, 'the canal was securely in Egyptian  hands' (378) and then the international community had an almighty fit, leading to the 'Suez Crisis'. In the end Nasser lost - but it is 'the classic example of a military defeat turned to a political victory' (382).

I also love the story of the (Henry) King-(Charles)Crane Commission organised by President Woodrow Wilson. [NB: King was President of Oberlin College, founded by Charles Finney, at the time]. It was a six week listening exercise which moved around the Arab World in 1919. Amazing. The British and French wanted no part of it. It is possibly the high point of the US involvement in the Middle East. They heard quite clearly that a Jewish national home in Palestine could not be reconciled with 'the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine' (201). And the Europeans' response (still the big geopolitical players)? The report was 'an inconvenient document ... shelved without further consultation' (201). It was not made public until three years later when Britain and France had finished helping themselves at the Arab land buffet. I want a movie.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali is another person I enjoyed. A Coptic Christian, with a wife from a prominent Jewish family - he was drawn into Anwar Sadat's inner circle in the staggering journey towards a peace treaty with Israel. The guy later became the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

What about the five people - three Palestinians and two Israelis - who met in secret to build relationships 'in the isolation of a Norwegian winter' (592) in 1993? Eight brief months later - and the 'Oslo Accords' which led onto the scarcely believable Rabin:Arafat handshake and the most promising period for some kind of resolution of the Palestinian issue. Amazing what investing in building trust in relationships, even at this global level, can achieve?! Then Rabin was assassinated by extremists and the hope has never been the same again.

I feel some hope
If we can find the resolve

to listen past the din of our own voices and tune our hearts to the cries of others;
to talk past the calls for democracy and address the deeper issues of justice;
to feel past the shallow empathy and on to the deeper experience of costly solidarity;
to walk past a self-interested patriotism and embrace the longings of other peoples;

there is hope - there always is for those who believe and live the gospel of reconciliation.

nice chatting