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


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