Sunday, September 28, 2014

a real presence at पचपन

I am 55 today. In Hindi, 55 is the catchy little alliterative, puchpun (पचपन). My mum enjoys ticking off her children as they pass through this age and stage. Just one more to go, Mum.

I have moved past the expectation of real presents on my birthdays (although my son Joseph did send me a much-appreciated basketball this month). No - with this post I want to bear witness to the real presence of Christ in my life, surprising me at times beyond my expectation.

I've trawled the memory bank for episodes in which God has drawn near in Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit touched my life.

Episode One: A Sunday morning in Lagos (Nigeria)
It is almost twenty years ago. My first sustained visit to a non-Western country since my childhood in India. No direct flights from the USA in those days. New York's JFK airport had a big sign, prominently placed: 'Avoid Lagos Airport'. I arrived at the aforementioned Lagos airport before dawn. Humid. Eerie lighting. Fans whirling inches from my head. Guns everywhere. Custom officials viewing the contents of my bag like self-service at a lunch buffet. After three long flights, it was getting to me. The words of the woman next to me on the flight - 'thank-you for coming to my country to tell people about Jesus' - no longer seemed so thrilling.

The first conference in Ibadan went OK. Then, during the weekend, the thought of flying on my own to a little place in the jungle called Owerri became too much for me. I freaked out. Timid little me got a big dose of the fears and panics. Just as well I didn't know that there would be no one to meet me at the airport. Just as well I didn't know that soon after my arrival at the guesthouse, while I was left to rest and everyone else went into town for provisions, more big guns would arrive at the door and take away my passport. Just as well I didn't know that I would sit in transit in Port Harcourt airport reading a newspaper shouting headlines about the most unsafe airports in Africa - with #1 and #2 being ... you guessed it, Lagos and Port Harcourt.

But I was in better shape by that time. I had woken early on that Sunday morning in Lagos. Fear is a dependable alarm clock, I find. My mind was playing games. I resolved that I would not be getting on that plane. I would remain in Lagos. No Owerri for me. Then I heard it. Quietly at first. Then stronger and stronger. It was a dawn church service. I recognised the tune being sung. Then I picked out the words. Before I knew it I was singing along. 'Because He lives I can face tomorrow. Because He lives all fear is gone'. The real presence of Christ breathed peace into my life and gave me the power to pack my bags.

Episode Two: Multiple mornings in Auckland (New Zealand)
If you speak to my peers, in my late teens I was a huge advocate for global mission. One year we ran a World Christian group at university. The next year it was in our church. Once I counted a couple of dozen people for whom God's call overseas journeyed through one of those groups. I fully expected to be one of them. But it was not to be. God had other plans. After theological training and marriage to Barby, we were to spend 25 years focused on the church in New Zealand.

But midway through Year #20 something happened. I was taking my morning walk to get a newspaper from the Mobil Station on the corner of Dominion Rd and Mt Albert Rd. I was in good spirits. It was the day after Christmas. On the day before Christmas news came through that Nigel Pollock had agreed to come to NZ to head-up our TSCF/IFES work. Having been on the search group, I was elated. But now, on the day after Christmas, the headlines carried tragedy. Boxing Day 2004. The tsunami broke my heart. It just did. For many early mornings after that, in my little walk-in closet of an office perched in our home, I found myself weeping. It still affects me. I was retelling this story in Sri Lanka just last month and the moisture readily returned.

This molten moment matured into a refreshed call into global mission. I see this more clearly now. It was the turning point. Those who knew me best could see it happening as well. I knew not when or where things would change. But the real presence of Christ in my life was softening and redirecting me. As it turned out, my time as principal at Carey Baptist College still had five more years to run. And so, like Mary, I was left to ponder things in my heart, fed now by different authors ('Bless you, Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh'). When the time came for a new direction, I was surprised by the quickness with which everything happened. I shouldn't have been.

Episode Three: A Sunday evening in Bangalore (India)
Just over four years now. On this very SAIACS campus where I sit now. I had come for a long weekend (to speak at graduation) on my way to Assam to explore the feasibility of Langham Preaching commencing in Northeast India. But trouble had surfaced while I was in Vanuatu in the preceding week - with a tooth. The dentist in Auckland had no light to shed on the problem.

Off I went to India. Painkillers were popped like jellybeans. I made it through the Graduation Ceremony, speaking about how God's amazing grace is not just evident at conversion. It tracks with us through all of life. On the Sunday morning I had offered to preach in a local church. I still don't know where and I have no idea what I spoke about. Over lunch I confessed things to a couple of SAIACS staff who were hosting me. I was in trouble ... and I was leaving for Assam early in the morning. I had never been to Assam before, but I was sure I didn't want to visit a dentist there.

These SAIACS people immediately got onto their mobile phones. Eventually a dentist near to SAIACS was located in Chennai (some hours away), but returning later that Sunday. Would you believe it? He agreed to open up his Agape (!) Clinic for me on a Sunday night. In 120 minutes he completed an entire root canal procedure. Never before had such skilled hands - quick, decisive, gentle - entered my mouth. Meanwhile the principal of SAIACS, Ian Payne, sat in reception and waited for me all that time. Amazing grace tracking with us through all of life? I spoke about it one night and then on the next night, I experienced it as the real presence of Christ touched my life through his people.

Episode Four: A long weekend in Auckland - and Sydney
My precious Dad breathed his last breath on a Wednesday morning, just as the Hallelujah Chorus reached its crescendo on the tape recorder by his bed. Or, so I am told - because I did not get there in time to be with him. But his pain-filled ordeal was over - finally. Apart from the grief that gripped me, it created a huge dilemma. I was meant to be in the Blue Mountains (near Sydney) for Fri-Sat-Sun, speaking at the Reach Out Mission Conference. What do I do?

We decided that Dad would want me still to go. So between my Dad's death and my Dad's funeral I popped across the Tasman to give multiple messages at a mission conference. I did my best. I don't remember much, except feeling a little star-struck on the Saturday night because Reuben Morgan and his band from Hillsong led the service before I got up to give a mission message from the book of Ecclesiastes. Sunday morning it was straight home again, but given the unfriendly time zones, not reaching home until 6.00pm. And then ... the challenge of preaching at my Dad's funeral the next morning. What on earth was I thinking?

I went to bed almost straight away. Then from 2.00am until 10.00am I  experienced something as close to 2 Peter 1.21 as I am ever likely to experience: '... but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.' My mind, my heart - and my fingers - were 'carried along'. Romans 10 fell open with a message that captured my Dad so well, drawing us all into the orbit of the real presence of Christ - especially me.

It is good for me so to reflect and write.
I pray that my episodes can precipitate a few of your own.

nice chatting


[NB: Breakfast for a 55 year old birthday boy - pink guava, orange papaya and red pomegranate]

Friday, September 19, 2014

nilgiri tea plantations

I have fallen in love ... with tea plantations. Given that I am a teetotaller (as in totally-tea, I guess), one day I plan to eschew the pub-crawl in favour of a plantation-crawl around South Asia. Sri Lanka. Nilgiris. Darjeeling. Assam. Any takers?!

You don't think I am serious, do you?
You don't know me :).

nice looking


Monday, September 15, 2014

wounded tiger

The Bible says that God has planted eternity in our hearts. I've often wondered whether he has planted cricket in the human heart as well - but just like with eternity, it becomes a planting that is smothered and choked by other pursuits ... :).

I've always enjoyed the game of cricket. The rest of humanity is on a journey towards a similar enjoyment, but they just don't realise it yet. Ever since my Dad retold stories of his boyhood Aussie heroes on that flight from Brisbane to Sydney when I was a little boy, I've been captivated. I was never good enough to find great pleasure in playing the game. It is the stories and statistics that swirl around it that fascinate me. There is no other sport under the sun quite like it.

In more recent years, it is the social history that slips in with those stories that interests me. Ramachandra Guha did this so well with Indian cricket (reviewed here). Then when I spotted Peter Oborne's  Wounded Tiger among the new books at Blackwell's in Oxford, I was caressing it within seconds - and finishing it within days. A History of Cricket in Pakistan.

Oborne (chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph) had me from the moment he wrote these words in the opening paragraph of his Preface.
Cricket writing about Pakistan has sometimes fallen into the wrong hands. It has been carried out by people who do not like Pakistan, are suspicious of Pakistanis, and have their own preconceptions. Autobiographies by England cricketers, with some exceptions are blind to the beauty of Pakistan and the warmth and generosity of its people (xvii).
Preach it, brother. And he does... Without loss of a critical objectivity, Oborne writes with such empathy (it is reminiscent of Lieven's Pakistan: A Hard Country, reviewed here). Believe it or not, the final chapter moistened the eye with its gentle tenderness. Entitled "White on Green" (the Pakistani flag mirrors the colours of a cricket field, with white flannel set against green grass), Oborne revisits some of the main protagonists in the story in their final - or, post-cricketing - days. Kardar, Saeed, Fazal, Hanif, Cornelius - and Imran. A grace shines in their latter years in these closing pages. This mingles with the author's self-reflection on his own journey in writing the book.
Like everyone who gets to know Pakistan at all well, I fell in love with the country, and always felt an intense excitement whenever I returned (506) ... [On his train trips on visits for research] - I would go to bed watching the sunset over Sindh and wake up to sunrise over the Punjab (505) ... [And then his final words] - (Cricket in Pakistan) is magical and marvelous. Nothing else expresses half so well the singularity, the genius, the occasional madness of the people of Pakistan, and their contribution to the world sporting community (509).
Enough for sentiment. Now for substance.

The book is structured with two pairs of sections: (a) the age of (AH) Kardar, 1947-1975 followed by the age of (Imran) Khan, 1976-1992; and then (b) the age of expansion (1992-2000, after winning the World Cup) followed by the age of isolation (2001-present, while 9/11 is in mind - it is the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2007 that sticks with me). Neatly done.

Here are a few highlights:

The birth of Pakistani cricket is told through the eyes of a 20 year old strike bowler, Fazal Mahmood. His heart set on being in the Indian team for a tour to Australia - and the opportunity to bowl at Don Bradman. He makes the squad and is told to report, some months later, 'to training camp at Poona on 15 August 1947'. [This is the very day of Indian independence, with Pakistan's day being the 14 August]. Fazal's hopes sank in the horrors of partition. Friends with 'a common inheritance' (40) became enemies by powers beyond their control. Hindus moved from west to east. Muslims moved from east to west. 'The whole of the Punjab was aflame amid the complete collapse of civilization' (12). It is just 35 miles from Amritsar to Lahore and, for decades, they were part of the 'same easygoing and tolerant Northern India culture' (78). After Partition, 'there were no Muslims in Amritsar and no Sikhs or Hindus in Lahore' (78). Fazal never made it to Poona.

While Indian cricket retained the cricketing infrastructure, Pakistani cricket needed to be born against this bloody backdrop. In time two Pakistani cricketing families came to the fore - the Burki clan in Lahore (offering many of the Khans, including Imran and his cousin Majid) and the Mohammed clan in Karachi (offering four brothers, Wazir, Hanif, Mushtaq, Sadiq) - but both families have their origins in the India of today. They are among the ones who moved home. The Mohammed family traveled by boat from Gujarat to Karachi and established their home in a vacated Hindu temple. One of the Mohammed brothers played in each of Pakistan's first 89 Tests. There is a delightful photo of three Burki sisters who each became mothers of Pakistani cricket captains.

But the story flows the other way as well. One of the early captains of India, Lala Amarnath, was a Hindu from Lahore. He had to leave. In the very first test between India and Pakistan, the two captains (Kardar and Amarnath) 'would have understood each other very well':
They had been brought up in the same same city, played as boys on the same streets, represented the same clubs, and tested their skills against the same players. They spoke the same language, ate the same food, and wore the same clothes. But for accident of religion and history, Amarnath and Kardar would have been on the same side (70).
Years later (1978), when Amarnath returned to Pakistan with the Indian team as a commentator, a Mercedes was waiting at the Lahore airport. The manager of the Indian team thought it was for him - but, no, it was for 'Lala-sahib' - being welcomed back to his hometown. Still today, at a national level there is conflict and tension across the border - but at a personal level there can be real affection.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

oxbridge journeys of heart and mind

I am sitting here in Wycliffe Hall (Oxford). Wikipedia tells me that before I sat here, such assorted luminaries as JC Ryle, Nicky Gumbell, JI Packer, NT Wright, Alister McGrath and Lord Coggan sat here as well.

As I've been sitting, I've been thinking and feeling.

Today it is one year since Barby and I left home and family in Auckland to set up a new life together in Bangalore. It has been a big change, even bigger than we anticipated.

As I've been reflecting, my heart and mind have been journeying through Oxford and across to Cambridge.

I've been feeling with CS Lewis, who used to gather at The Eagle and Child, barely 800m from where I sit, with JR Tolkien. Of all his quotes, the one I reflect on the most is that 'there is a joy deeper than happiness, just as there is a grief deeper than pain' (or, words to that effect). A generation later, Wycliffe alumnus JI Packer comes along and plays with this idea and extends it in his book, Laidback Religion. He writes something about how Christians have 'larger hearts than others' (or, words to that effect) as God gives us this capacity to feel both grief and joy intensely - and at the same time. One does not always expel the other. To say that joy eclipses grief is inhumane. But they can coexist.

So much for my heart - and for Oxford.
Now for my mind.

It journeys across to Cambridge to the imagery of one of my heroes, Charles Simeon, pastor of Holy Trinity church for 54 years. It is on my mind because when in Sri Lanka last week I tried to paraphrase it. It was so humid. A dysfunctional fan and a bumpy pillow added to the challenges. Then there was the cold shower - a nice prospect in such humidity - but entering it at first light still remains a challenge for someone accustomed to finer luxuries, like hot water. But I found that if I got my head wet first, then the rest of my body followed more easily. A bit like Simeon and the hedge, a story in one of his biographies. He is talking to one of his friends, encouraging him not to worry about a little suffering. 'When I am getting through a hedge, if my head is safely through, then I can handle a little prickling on my body and legs.' (or, words to that effect). It is true. If my head can understand, then my heart and hands can follow more readily.

So I am processing the real shift from Auckland to Bangalore by taking an imaginary journey to Oxford and Cambridge. The greatest challenge is learning to live with separation from the family, at a time when grandchildren are being added to children. Some do this better than others. Maybe we don't do it so well. Maybe our own lengthy separations from parents as teenagers hovers in the background. Maybe we need to get over ourselves and show a little maturity. Whatever.

My journey to Oxford reminds me that, as a Christian, I have a very large heart that can embrace the ache of separation and the joy of obedience at the same time. It can - and it does. It is the oddest of realities and I feel it fully.

My journey to Cambridge reminds me that mind needs to lead heart. Let facts direct the flow of my feelings. Let truths be the wellspring for my emotion. 'God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life - and for the lives of those I love' ... now, that ain't such a bad truth with which to begin, is it?

nice chatting


Sunday, August 17, 2014

encountering jesus with john and mark

I have loved John 1 for many years. This week I have added Mark 1 to my deeper affections.

In John 1
we encounter Jesus in the pile-up of nouns which describe who Jesus is.
  • Word, God (1)
  • life, light (4-5, 8-9)
  • grace, truth (14)        
  • Jesus Christ (17)     
  • Lord (23)
  • the Lamb of God (29, 36)
  • the Son of God (34, 49)     
  • Rabbi (38, 49)
  • Messiah (41)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (45)
  • the son of Joseph (45)     
  • king of Israel (49)
  • Son of Man (51) ... and maybe even more :)     
Look at that list. Consider what it opens up about Jesus. His humanity. His divinity. His Jewish identity, fulfillment, ministry. His historical reality. His salvation purpose ... and then one of my favourite sermons: Jesus is light to a dark world, life to a dying world, grace to an undeserving world, and truth to a deceived world. You gotta love the johannine christology found in John chapter one!

In Mark 1
we encounter Jesus in the pile-up of verbs which describe what Jesus does (or has done to him).
  • baptising with the Holy Spirit (8)
  • having the Spirit descend on him like a dove (10)
  • knowing the Father's love and pleasure (11)
  • being sent by the Spirit in to the desert - and tempted by Satan there (13)
  • proclaiming the good news of God (14)
  • calling fishermen to follow him and making them fishers of men and women (17-20)
  • teaching with authority in a way that amazed people (21-22, 27)
  • casting out an evil spirit in a way that amazed people (25, 27)
  • healing a woman with a fever (31) and many other diseases (34)
  • driving out demons (34)
  • retreating to a solitary place for prayer (35)
  • preaching in synagogues and driving out demons (39)
  • filled with compassion, touching a man to cure leprosy (42)
  • staying out in lonely places (45) ... and maybe even more :)
Look at that list. Consider what it opens up about Jesus. All the Father-Spirit-Son stuff going on. Proclaiming. Teaching. Healing. Casting out. The authority. The compassion. The reality of temptation. The need for retreat. You gotta love the markan christology found in Mark chapter one!

How do we respond to this twin encounter with Jesus?
Here is my response - and in this order:

1. Put myself at his feet and, as the hymn-writer expresses it, becoming 'lost in wonder, love, and praise' - and 'casting down my crowns' while I am at it. So worship is the first response - a worship of Jesus as a unique person with a unique mission.

2. Put myself in the audience: hanging out with John the Baptist, giving my life to preparing the way for Jesus; with the listeners and observers, being amazed at Jesus' authoritative teaching and healing; with the disciples, obeying Jesus' call to follow him; with the sick and demon-possessed, knowing Jesus can and does heal. My primary identification is with the people like me in the story.

Then I am ready to engage the assumption with which so many commence: mission is about doing what Jesus does. 'We are to follow him and so let's expect to do what he did'.
No - and yes.

3. No - because #1 and #2 are where we should find ourselves first. Some things that Jesus does are unrepeatable. With the full revelation of Jesus that we have in scripture now, it is sharing who Jesus is (evangelism) and doing what Jesus says (obedience) that are to grab the headlines in our lives.

4. Yes - because 'doing what Jesus does', particularly the signs and wonders, can still be part of what he wants us to do. However I remain persuaded that this happens, primarily, in settings where the gospel is pioneering its way into new frontiers where the knowledge of Jesus is limited. I remain skeptical about claims from those who have a full revelation of Jesus available to them, and yet who still hunger for the miraculous. I find myself wanting to say, 'blessed are those who have not seen - and yet have believed' ... or words to that effect.

nice chatting


Sunday, August 10, 2014

the power of listening

I'd love to be a really good listener. In fact three longings cluster together for me. I'd love to be more humble, to be more holy - and to be a really good listener. Why? As far as I can observe, this is the combo that God delights in using and I really want to be used by God. Simple as that.

Don't get me wrong. I can listen well - particularly if the expectation for such listening is in place. For example, over the years I've developed different structured listening exercises in which the perspectives of others are given precedence. The trust it builds and the team it develops is terrific. This facilitative leadership makes space for others. It draws them into setting the agenda. I love it.

But ne'er a week goes by without me having three or four self-flagellating debriefs for not listening better in a conversation. I am an enthusiast. Sometimes I jump in at inappropriate times. I am curious. Sometimes my questions flow far too fast and furious. I have a mind that is as active as it is forgetful. Sometimes the only way I won't lose a gem is by expressing it verbally - immediately. I am frustrated. Sometimes I am with people who have an unrelenting need to talk and I barge into the conversation to remind them that I am here too.  It's bad. You'd think that by my age I'd have learned to do this better.

This is why I jumped on the opportunity to read Lynne Baab's The Power of Listening. I've enjoyed her books before (see here). She has a distinctive style. It is chatty and accessible. It is practical and realistic. It is collaborative with much of what she writes being generated by what she hears from others. It is transparent as she lives in her own vulnerabilities without wallowing there (check out p119). Plus there is an authenticity here, as Lynne has worked at becoming a good listener herself. I've benefited from this.

The focus in the book tends to be on congregations and communities, with the first half of the book making its way around the power of listening in this setting: 'healthy congregations are composed of people who listen well (ix).'

It is all good stuff, as each chapter concludes with a list of questions for discussion - and then each list concludes with an encouragement to 'pay a compliment' to someone. A nice touch.

But for me the book finds another gear towards the end. The final chapters on The Listening Toolbox, Anxiety and Listening, Humility and Listening, and Listening, Receptivity and Speaking Up ... this is where I was helped the most. For example, in the 'Toolbox' chapter (107-126), Lynne opens up (a) the skills that encourage people to keep talking; (b) conversational directing skills; (c) reflecting-back skills; and (d) skills that build empathy. Anyone involved in the caring and forming of others (which is pretty much all of us, isn't it?) will benefit from this chapter. The pages on 'Roadblocks to Listening' (150-153) are likely to make some others feel as uncomfortable as they did for me ...

Tomorrow I return to India after a three week visit home to New Zealand. It has been a personal visit with a threefold purpose: take my niece's wedding, gain a longer visa for living in India, and be present for the birth of our second grandchild (just slipping in a little photo of Amaliya Grace - afterall it is my blog and I can do with it as I please!).

Over these few days at home I've been struck again by how much listening we do. And not just to wedding vows and High Commissioners and baby cries.

To live well is to listen well.

I've been to a large funeral, a concert (Grieg's Piano Concerto), a party (or three), a lunch (with Don & Joy Carson!), a lecture (with Richard Bauckham), a breakfast (with an accountability group), a lunch (with another accountability group), numerous family chats - and then, remarkably, 14 different lingering conversations with friends, facing all kinds of situations, mostly difficult, and mostly at their initiative: redundancy, sickness, separation, life intersections, disappointment etc. And while this is all going on I am doing my Langham work - comprised mainly over these weeks with capturing the essence of a week-long meeting with our key leaders ... which was really one long listening exercise for me.

To listen well is to live well.

In her book Lynne Baab takes me back to my cluster of longings. The essence of humility is not so much 'to think less of myself , but to think of myself less' (Keller) so that I can attend to others and listen to them well. I wonder, too, whether holiness begins with being so absorbed with God, listening to him well - so well, in fact, that I take his primary expectation of holiness seriously - so seriously, in fact, that I give his Holy Spirit full reign in my life to do his primary thing - help make me holy.

nice chatting


Friday, August 08, 2014

evaluating the sermon

Offering critique is always tricky.

While it is possible that a preacher can develop without being critiqued, it is not possible for a trainer of preachers to do so. They must learn to give and receive critique. In Langham our goal is to develop trainers and so it is critical that we think about critique.

The most learnable moment in our training process comes late in each afternoon. The work from the small groups is hung up around the room - a bit like an art gallery. They've been in a biblical passage all afternoon and now here is their 'sermon in a sentence' and a basic shape to their message. Learners roam around, enjoying each other's handiwork (see photo).

Then we evaluate each group's work together. But how?
It helps to be evaluating a group's work - not an individual's work.

I try to lay down some ground rules, for starters.
'We are a community of learners together. Let's make this a safe place, an honest place, an encouraging place. But let's commit to improvement in our preaching. I want you to know right now - at the start - that I will always find one area in which you can improve. After I preach later this evening, I want you to do the same with me. OK?'

From my time in New Zealand, there is the sandwich
Here you begin and you finish with affirmation and in the middle you offer some meaty critique. I don't use this approach any more. The affirmation tends to become a forgettable frame for the picture! It is too easy for learners to go away with just the picture (ie critique) in their hearts.

From my learning from others in the Pacific, there is the 'giving a helping hand'
No negative words. No disheartening comments. No shaming in front of others. Just the gentle image of extending a hand to help them move onward and upward in their preaching.

From my learning from others in Cambodia, there is the 'honour - advice'
The words are beautiful. 'Honour' is so exalted and 'advice' is so non-threatening. And so this is how they say it: First, 'we give honour to the preacher and then we give advice'.
(see photo from Cambodia)

After my years in Asia, I've stumbled across this phrase: 'if you had more time, this is what I'd work on...' .
I use it a lot. It works well.

In  fact, this post was prompted by an email from Pakistan that arrived just one hour ago. Two local trainers, Tariq and Nancy, are leading a basic Level One seminar in that country this week. My expat colleague writes,
I'm sitting here smiling in a Langham group feedback session - led by Tariq, but hearing your voice. he started by praising him and then your sentence, 'If you had more time...'. The same from Nancy yesterday. I hadn't reminded them and so it is great to hear this in a culture where the teacher can be so devastatingly critical...
So, here is another one to add...
From my learning with others in Pakistan, there is the 'if you had more time...'

[Do readers of this post have other approaches which you use? I'd love to learn from others a little more...]

Some of the deepest and most joyful community experiences have occurred late in the afternoon, late in the week of a Langham seminar (it takes a few days to get the hang of it). I love it. Getting evaluation right can be so satisfying for everyone.

But sometimes it goes wrong. My worst experience of giving an evaluation to a student happened just this past February in a classroom at SAIACS (Bangalore). I still can't believe I handled it so badly. I apologised to the student in front of the class the next day. On other occasions it can be hard to receive an evaluation. At a Langham seminar in the Pacific, they were working on Amos 3 & 4 through the afternoon. I preached in the evening after which a senior, respected participant offered this evaluating comment of my sermon: 'the Amos passage came alive for us this afternoon - but this evening, in your sermon, the passage died again.' Hmmm

nice chatting


Friday, August 01, 2014

preaching trio

Someone somewhere has flipped the switch. After spending more than two decades moaning about the lack of basic books on how to preach, such books have been rushing off the press in the last few months (see here and here and here).

In the last couple of weeks, I have read three more and it is hard to be too critical of any of them. Quick and easy reading. Ideal for the beginner - but still so useful for the one who has been around the clock as a preacher.

Alec Motyer's Preaching? (Christian Focus, 2013). For those who don't know the name, Motyer (pronounced 'moteer', as Don Carson corrected me earlier this week!) comes out of that sage and saintly Stottian tradition. It is easy to be captured by the tone of the book, as this voice of experience engages the topic with such warmth, humility and gentleness. It is a lovely book. But the content makes its mark too - as he moves seamlessly between instruction and example. Lots of examples. We are looking over the shoulder of a seasoned preacher. The only thing that detracts from the book is all the exclamation marks. Maybe the editor had one eye on the cricket at Lord's! (please note the exclamation mark).

David Helm's Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014). This book fits within The Gospel Coalition world coming out of North America. A little tight theologically - for example, the critique of lectio divina (30-31) is over-the-top. But lots of good stuff. Lives a lot in Acts 17. Great little introduction to biblical theology. Puts the pursuits of relevance and contextualization in their place because they do have a place - but it ain't the primary place. People can talk about contextualisation like it is some new gospel - but 'a healthy gospel ministry is always contextually informed, but textually driven' (106). The only thing that detracts from the book is the diagrams. I might be a bit thick (although I love images) - but they just don't do it for me.

Tim Chester & Marcus Honeysett's Gospel Centred Preaching (Good Book Company, 2014). Preaching is introduced in a chatty, interactive way. If you are developing a team of preachers, this is a great resource to go through together. Each chapter targets an explanation of the simplest of principles - for example, 'Effective preachers trust in the power of the Spirit' (45-52). The advice is so wise, but if you don't read carefully, you'll miss it - for example, 'work on the text until it moves you' (17). The interactivity cements the learning well. - 'ideas for action', 'questions for reflection' etc. The only thing that detracts from the book is that this commitment to interactivity kinda felt like an annoying interruption for me from time to time.

For a couple of decades (1990-2010), when I was developing courses in homiletics, I easily got a bit lost in the more academic world of North American homiletics. On reflection, this world can become so arid. I wish books like these had been around to keep me hydrated.

nice chatting


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

tawharanui (nz)

A wedding. A visa. A birth.

Barby and I are back in New Zealand for three purposes. My niece's wedding was last Saturday in Matakana and I had the privilege of taking the service. Then on the next day we sneaked a visit to one of the celebrated beaches in New Zealand which I had yet to visit. Tawharanui.

After living in the squallor of Bangalore (a city that has doubled in size in the last decade - and now sits at almost 10 million) and being seduced by the beauty of England on a couple of recent visits, it was lovely to experience New Zealand at its finest.

It is July. Mid-winter in the southern hemisphere. In the midst of a bitterly cold southerly weather pattern. But still the kids stripped off and jumped in and swam to shore.

Just a shame about the motel in which we stayed with its ridiculous sign on the wall.

That rules out most of the world. Good work. Back to Tourism 101 methinks.
Now the attention turns to a visa and a birth.

nice chatting


Sunday, July 20, 2014

the revenge of geography

There are eight boarding passes in this book. That is how many flights it took me to finish it. But don't let that put you off. It is well worth the effort: Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012). One easily missable sentence captures his thesis neatly.
 I believe that while geography does not necessarily determine the future, it does set contours on what is achievable and what isn't (339).
Geography is more significant than I realised. It morphs into geopolitics: 'to know a nation's geography is to know its foreign policy' (Napoleon, 60). Kaplan calls on a host of scholar-witnesses - or, 'visionaries' - to prove his point. Mackinder, Spykman, McNeill, Hodgson, Mahan, Haushofer, Braudel. I knew none of these names before I took up this book. But someone else's blog can be bogged down by those guys. Let's keep it a bit lighter here. What does Kaplan include within 'geography'?
... everything from persistent national characteristics to the location of trade routes to the life-or-death requirement for natural resources - oil, water, strategic metals and minerals ... The global elite want to escape from geography ... to engineer reality based on the beauty of ideas and the power of new technology and financial mechanisms (347-348).
Uh-uh. Not so fast.
Geography will have its revenge in the twenty-first century.

Here is a taste. Let's accumulate some of Kaplan's observations about different countries/regions.

On Russia:
[After the Golden Horde of Mongols swept through in the 13th century]. The ultimate land-based empire, with no natural barriers against invasion..., Russia would know forevermore what it was like to be brutally conquered, and as a result would become perennially obsessed with expanding and holding territory, or at least dominating its contiguous zones (65) ... For Russians, geography means simply that without expansion there is the danger of being overrun (79) ... Insecurity is the quintessential Russian national emotion (159).
On China:
China, as Eurasia's largest continental nation with a coastline in both the tropics and the temperate zone, occupies the globe's most advantageous position (189) ... Unlike Russia (China extends) its territorial influence much more through commerce than coercion (196) ... China has built advantageous power relationships both in contiguous territories and in distant locales rich in the very resources it requires to fuel its growth ... It seeks to develop an eerie, colonial-like presence throughout the parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are well-endowed with oil and minerals (199) ... [In contrast with the USA] Military deployments are ephemeral: roads, rail links, and pipelines can be virtually forever (205) ... A new Silk Road, built on natural resource exploitation, is quietly coming into being in Central Asia that could make China the pivotal Eurasia power of the twenty-first century (351).
On Mongolia:
[In Russia and Mongolia] it is not a question of an invading army or of formal annexation, but of creeping Chinese demographic and corporate control over a region (202).
On Tibet:
Tibet, with the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangzi, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej rivers, may constitute the world's most enormous storehouse of freshwater, even as China by 2030 is expected to fall short of its water demands by 25 per cent (204).
On Europe:
It is the delicious complexity of Europe's geography, with its multiplicity of seas, peninsulas, river valleys, and mountain masses that have assisted in the formation of separate language groups and nation-states, which will contribute to political and economic disunity in the years to come, despite pan-European institutions ... Europe has a deviating and shattered coastline, indented with many good natural harbors ... This very elaborate interface between land and water, and the fact that Europe is protected from - and yet accessible to - a vast ocean, has led to maritime dynamism and a mobility among Europe's peoples (136-137).
On Africa, answering the question, 'Why is Africa so poor?'
Though Africa is the second largest continent, with an area five times that of Europe, its coastline south of the Sahara is little more than a quarter as long. Moreover, this coastline lacks many good natural harbors ... Few of Africa's rivers are navigable from the sea, dropping as they do from interior tableland to coastal plains by a series of falls and rapids, so that inland Africa is particularly isolated from the coast. Moreover the Sahara Desert hindered human contact from the north for too many centuries... (31).