Wednesday, April 27, 2016

letters to a young calvinist

'An emphasis in the teacher easily becomes an extreme in the student.'

This dictum comes to mind with the Reformed movement. While it is enjoying a global resurgence, there are a lot of 'students' running around out there, narrowing it all down to election and predestination with their 'full of truth, empty of grace' attitude. They are poor ambassadors for what they believe. The movement needs wise 'teachers' to demonstrate a wider vision and a more gracious tone.

In Jamie Smith's Letters to a Young Calvinist (Brazos, 2010) we find 'an invitation to the Reformed tradition' which accomplishes this very task. It is a small and short book, comprising 23 chatty letters to a young person drawn into some of these 'extremes' (a bit of an alias for the author's younger self, nurtured as it was in a Pentecostal church).

This genre in the hands of a witty writer makes it such fun to read. Keep reading until you reach the letter about his wife, in the late evening hour early in their marriage, 'draping' herself in all 3 volumes of WGT Shedd's Dogmatic Theology in order to secure the attention of her husband. He writes, 'I've never looked at those books the same way since'...

I am fully aware that the people who should read this book probably will not do so, but I write in the hope that there might be an exception or two...

Because I don't want to lose them myself, how about ten of the wise and/or witty comments which I've appreciated most?

1. On the the pride that often afflicts the younger Calvinist?
The reality is that 'battling other Christians should not be a very high priority ... polemical religious pride (is a) genetic defect in the Reformed tradition' (8).  While 'pride can swell in isolation' (12), good friends are like 'sacraments - means of grace given to us as indices of God's presence and conduits for our salvation' (13).
If Calvinism is just a system that gives us pride in denouncing the supposed simplicity and ignorance of our sisters and brothers in Christ, then you can keep it. I have no interest in flying under a banner that is just a cover for haughty theological speculation at the expense of charity (92).
2. On the Reformed tradition in a nutshell?
'Everything depends on God ... grace goes all the way down' (14-15). This grace commences with his initiative to create, at the very beginning - not just later on, in his response to the Fall. 'God didn't have to do it. It is a gift. God owes us nothing' (17).

3. On a reason why I keep being drawn back to the Reformed perspective?
'Contemporary evangelicalism, dominated by a kind of Arminian consensus, has become so thoroughly anthropocentric that it ends up making God into a servant responsible for taking care of our wants and needs' (24). This is so true! 'But Calvinism offers a radically different worldview and requires a paradigm shift in our thinking, from our wants and needs to a focus on God's glory' (24).

4. On one of the great enduring misconceptions?
'"Reformed theology" was not invented in the sixteenth century. It was a recovery and rearticulation of a basically Augustinian worldview, which was itself first and foremost an unpacking of Paul's vision of what it meant that Christ is risen' (39).

5. On the way Pentecostal, Baptist and Brethren traditions are given to 'leapfrogging'?
'... leaping over the gifts of teachers like Augustine and Ambrose, as if we are somehow better equipped to read the Scriptures on our own' (47). It is another variant on the CS Lewis 'chronological snobbery' theme and a contributor to the way these traditions, sadly, tend to be anti-creedal and anti-confessional.
I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert (of the Westminster Catechism) ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism is not just Sovereign Lord of the Universe, not merely the impartial Judge ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism keeps showing up as Father. For example, when expounding the first article of the Apostles' Creed ("I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth"), the Heidelberg Catechism discusses all the ways that God upholds the universe by his hand, but also affirms that this sovereign Creator attends to me, a speck in that universe. And it concludes the answer to question 26 by summarizing: "He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father". (55, emphasis mine)
6. On the implications of the 'you' in Scripture being so often plural?
'God - who, as Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, is already a kind of community of love - doesn't create the world in order to produce a collection of solitary individuals that are self-enclosed, utterly distinct, and thus 'privately' related to God in vertical silos. Right from creation, God creates a people ... I think there is an entire theology packed into the the pronouns of Scripture ... It is not me, but we. So it's not primarily that I am a chosen individual. Instead the gospel announces that we are a chosen people ... the merciful grace of God condescends to save a people, and thus God binds himself to an "us"' (66, 68, 72). This where the Reformed focus on covenants originates.

7. On 'wide-angle Calvinism'?
This is the bit I really, really like. 'It's less a foundational doctrine and more a comprehensive vision ... a "world- and life- view"' (97). He mentions the classic quote of Abraham Kuyper: 'There is not a single square inch of creation concerning which Christ does not say, 'Mine!'' (quoted on p99).
This is just another way of saying that Christ is not only Lord of our souls, but Lord of bodies, Lord of our families, Lord of our commerce and recreation and education. He is the Lord of science and art, dance and dipthongs, eating and drinking. There's no corner of creation that is immune from his lordship, no 'secular' sphere of life that is neutral with respect to the Creator's sovereignty (99).
If you find yourself saying 'Amen' to this, you owe more to the Reformed tradition than you might realise.

8. On the 'rampant gnosticism' in the church today, elevating soul over body, eternal above temporal?
'The scope of God's redemptive work is bigger and wider than the rescue of individual souls. Christ's redemption is cosmic ... God's salvation is as big as his creation ... (quoting Kuyper) 'cosmic life has regained its worth not at the expense of things eternal, but by virtue of its capacity as God's handiwork and as a revelation of God's attributes' ... In my own pilgrimage, this has been the signal prophetic contribution of the Reformed tradition in the contemporary American church: to remind us that God himself announced that creation is "very good"' (emphasis mine, 102, 103).

9. On the purpose of our salvation?
'God places us in creation ... as his co-labourers, entrusting to us the task of unfolding all the potential that is packed into creation ... (and that) is going to take work - and that work is the labour of "culture", of cultivation, of unpacking ... So when God creates the world, he doesn't imagine its end to be a people just devoted to singing praise songs eternally. God's glory is most multiplied and expanded when all of the rich potential of his creation is unfolded and unpacked into the life-giving institutions that contribute to its flourishing. In a way, you could say that God has commissioned us to be his image bearers in order to help him show off his glory in what he has made. The creational work of culture - unpacking the stores of potential latent in creation 'to the praise of his glory' - is what we're made for. And since redemption is precisely the renewal and restoration of creation, then good culture-making is also what we're saved for' (108-109).

10. On 'we are what we love' (the title of his latest book, by the way)?
'For Augustine, we are what we love. In fact, we can't stop loving: even fallen, sinful humanity is still propelled to love; but as sinners, we love the wrong things in the wrong way. We end up, in the words of a great old Waylon Jennings song, "lookin' for love in all the wrong places." (In fact, if you look at the lyrics of that song, it almost reads like an Augustinian praise chorus). We can't stop looking for love (U2's entire discography is a meditation on this Augustinian point). But only by God's grace can that impulsion to love be rightly ordered, rightly directed to God himself. By the grace of God, our love can find the end point it was created for: God himself' (122).
And for Augustine, what I love and what I "enjoy" are synonymous. In fact, if I want to know what you ultimately love, I just have to look at what you ultimately enjoy - and makes you happy (122).
'Take up and read' (Augustine).

nice chatting


Sunday, April 24, 2016

leaving it lonely for a little longer

I travel a lot in my work. On those occasions when there is time to be a tourist for a day here and there, usually when Barby is with me, an odd pattern has developed. I find that books like Lonely Planet are more meaningful after I have visited a place, rather than before the visit. I don't think it is meant to be that way...

We've been living in India for almost three years and made multiple visits to places like Fort Kochi (Kerala) and Ooty in the Nilgiri Hills. Love them, more and more. But when I knew nothing about these places, Lonely Planet was kinda boring and full of detail that I could neither understand nor imagine. But after that first visit, I raced back to the travel books, to wikipedia and its footnote trail - in order to align my fresh experiences and observations with their deepening facts and background.

In recent months there have been first visits to Istanbul, Accra and Cairo.  Same thing every time. Just yesterday it was the Pyramids of Giza and the King Tutankhamun exhibition in Cairo.

It was a day for the ages. Once it was over, where do I go? I couldn't get online quickly enough - poring through wikipedia. Later today, passing through the airport, I'll be in a bookshop lost in the Lonely Planet guide to Egypt. Adding context to my observation, knowledge to my experience. Complicated names, obscure dates, and ancient events have suddenly come alive.

Goodness deary me, that King Tut exhibition is 'the greatest discovery in the history of archaeology'. I am standing there staring at his glove, his sandals, his fan and his camping bed ... from 3500 years ago and in pretty good nick, as well. It is scarcely believable. I find myself becoming fascinated by this guy's life (who lived for 19 years, 3500 years ago. Go figure).

I go back to my hotel. With Boltian speed I am on wikipedia and youtube, adding knowledge to my experience - and finding that knowledge to be so exhilarating, even though 24hrs earlier it might have put me to sleep.

How I wish people, particularly preachers, followed this pattern with the Bible.

Read it aloud. Read it in large chunks. Read it again. Learn simple principles of observation and use them. Let the imagination go. Get inside the text. Rub shoulders with the first readers. Make it a trans-sensory experience. Use legit methods of meditation. Enjoy The Message for what it is.
I stop, drop and stare. I stop thinking about what preachers usually think about first. I drop to my knees and pray for God’s help. I stare at the text. I look. I look again. The more we stop, drop and stare, the more we will see.  (O’Donnell, Beginning and End of Wisdom, 145).

Then go to the Lonely Planets and the wikipedias, otherwise known as (the best) commentaries. Don't rush to them too soon. Leave them lonely for a little longer! Let them fill the mind once the heart is aglow - 'adding context to observation, knowledge to experience' - oftentimes finding both to be surprisingly exhilarating.

nice chatting


Sunday, April 17, 2016

lyrics for living 8 (not what these hands)

There are a host of hymns that I have only ever sung in public worship when I have selected them. And that was mostly when I was a young pastor all those years ago.

Horatius Bonar (1808 - 1889)
When I found my heart growing cold - or even drifting a bit - I had a couple of default spiritual practices which coaxed confession from me. One was to read the book of Hebrews aloud, all in one go. The other was to head for my hymnbook and sing #434 and #450, one after the other, to myself. Same author (Horatius Bonar). Same meter, with a simple tune, and so even a non-musician like me could manage it. Then, every now and then I'd slip one of these hymns into public worship. The two of them became like precious friends.

I have sung neither of these hymns publically in the intervening twenty-seven years. Baptists in New Zealand aren't great at public confession and so it is not that surprising. Nor are we that flash at singing anything before our own time (NB: CS Lewis called this chronological snobbery, by the way - it sounds bad and it is bad) and so the chances of either of them appearing in public worship were somewhere between nil and zero.

So imagine my surprise and joy when I walked into St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Hollywood (Florida) last Sunday - and saw the first hymn?! Yes, for sookie me the eyes moistened as I lapped up every phrase (sung to a newer Aaron Keyes 2009 arrangement). It was like embracing an ol' friend after a long absence.

Barby and I found a simple version on youtube this morning, with only 12 views (!) when we watched and listened. Here it is:

The simple honesty in the lyrics gives me the words I need. The simple theology reminds me of the load I carry with my sin, while also reassuring me of the capacity Christ has to lift that load and 'set my spirit free' from the 'dark unrest'. The chorus, added by Keyes, picks up the Pauline clothing imagery of taking off our sin, 'filthy rags' in the song - and putting on, or 'wearing Your righteousness' in the song. Then there is that line he adds: 'we are broken and we are yours'. It is beautiful.

Truth be told, last Sunday we sang a variant of this version on youtube. This is because there is a surplus of verses in #434 and #450 (and if I went scurrying around google I could probably find even more verses). But can I conclude with the original words from the hymnbook that I have loved for so long? That is a rhetorical question because I am going to include them anyway, regardless of how you might respond :).

Baptist Hymnbook 434
I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call the Saviour mine.

His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear, each lingering shade of gloom.

I praise the God of grace; I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my Joy, my Light.

In Him is only good, in me is only ill;
My ill but draws His goodness forth, and me He loveth still.

'Tis He who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives.

My life with Him is hid, my death has passed away,
My clouds have melted into light, my midnight into day.

Baptist Hymnbook  450
Not what these hands have done can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.

Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers, and sighs, and tears can bear my heavy load.

Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.

Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, and set my spirit free.

Thy grace alone, O God, to me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God, can this sore bondage break.

I bless the Christ of God, I rest on life divine
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call this Saviour mine.

(Notice how the first verse of the first hymn and the last verse of the second hymn are exactly the same. Kinda like an inclusio, or a frame ... which is why I think I liked to keep them together].

nice chatting


Saturday, April 16, 2016

fire and sword

Sometimes a page is difficult to turn. Like this one. It lists most of the names of those who died in a massacre of 159 missionaries over a few weeks in the summer of 1900 in 'Shansi'. The right hand side contains the names of those who died from the China Inland Mission, known today as OMF.

Barby had discovered the book on the shelves of the SAIACS library here in Bangalore where we live. I had just awoken from my first sleep after a lengthy trip away when she showed it to me. I couldn't put it down, skimming through the entire book over a couple of hours that same afternoon.

My eye was drawn to the brief 'Introductory Note' by Alexander MacLaren, a name I knew. MacLaren was a famous Baptist minister whose biography and commentaries I read as a young pastor. He was a peer of CH Spurgeon, based in the Union Baptist Chapel in Manchester for 45 years. 'The prince of expository preachers'.

[Of MacLaren, one biographer wrote: 'a man who reads one of MacLaren's sermons must either take his outline or take another text'. In other words, his stuff was so good it was impossible not to steal it. He goes on to say, 'MacLaren touched every text with a silver hammer and it broke into three natural and memorable divisions.'  I do hope that those divisions did not each start with 'P'...!]

I digress. Back to Fire and Sword in Shansi and MacLaren's Introductory Note:
The page which these martyrdoms has added to the Book of Martyrs is of a piece with all the preceding pages - the same Christ-sustained heroism displayed by tender women, mothers, maidens and children; the same meek forgiveness, the same unalterable constancy. Stephen need not be ashamed of his last successors. Nor were the Chinese converts a whit behind in their devotion.
The cynical belittlers of Missions, both of the missionaries and the 'rice Christians', as they call the converts, would be silenced, if they have any fairness or sense of shame, by the unshrinking fidelity of these dimly-seeing but deeply-loving Chinese Christians. They could not argue for Him, but they could and did die for Him ... 
The Church at home has not sufficiently realised the sad, glorious story told in the succeeding pages, and some of us have wondered and sorrowed that so little impression has been produced by it ... These English men and women, these Chinese converts, gladly died for their Lord. Surely their example will point the sharp arrow of questioning to some of us, whether we really believe that a Christian life is a daily dying, and that, whether martyrs or not, we are scarcely Christians, unless we continually yield life, self, and all to Jesus Christ.
Ahh, 'the church at home'...

There is some recalibrating which 'the church at home' needs to do if it wishes to be a force for the kingdom of God. Three areas immediately come to mind. One is to replace relevance with resistance as the primary mode of engagement with the surrounding culture. Two is to shed this compulsive anthropocentrism in matters of spirituality, embracing a radical theocentrism in its place. Three is to repent of the fascination with successful celebrities, Christian or otherwise, in order to become fixed on true heroes - with martyrs like these ones heading the list. There have been more Christian martyrs since this massacre than there were in all those centuries before this massacre - and so we are without excuse. Let them be the inspiration. Even more than that, let them be the aspiration.
They triumphed (over him) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death (Rev 12.11).
nice chatting


PS: I have Alexander McLaren's personal Bible. Seriously. He gave it to a missionary from his church who went to work in India. When that missionary retired he gave it to his pastor in India, my father-in-law ... who then gave it to me. Every second page is blank so that he could write his own notes. Here are the twin pages from the start of Ephesians.

Skeptical?! Don't believe me?!  I can prove it. In The Company of Preachers, David Larsen (the man who taught me preaching, by the way) mentions one of MacLaren's most loved sermons. From Genesis 32, entitled 'Mahanaim: Two Camps'. Here is the outline:
1. The angels of God meet us on the dusty road of common life
2. The angels of God meet us punctually at the hour of need
3. The angels of God come in the shape we need

You can guess what I did next, can't you?
I went to Genesis 32 in MacLaren's Bible and I found this - the outline above in his own hand-writing:

Sunday, March 20, 2016

the return of a king

It is the story of the greatest military failure for any colonial power in the nineteenth century.
... a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed it, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated. (the words of an army chaplain who lived through the experience, as quoted on 489).
Or, in the words of the author himself:
It was ... an extraordinary defeat for the British and an almost miraculous victory for the Afghan resistance. At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialised colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation (388).
Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler
Before I go any further, as an aside, let me get a couple things off my chest.

The person most responsible for this disaster is an upper class chap called Lord Auckland, who lent his name to my home city in New Zealand. His other name is George Eden which lends its name to two great cricket grounds, Eden Park (Auckland) and Eden Gardens (Kolkata). This guy Auckland was hopeless, dying 'in disgrace' in Kensington in 1849. 'Sent to rule a world of which he was completely ignorant', his leadership got lost in his own complacency and incompetence. In the recent spirit of tearing down statutes of Rhodes in Oxford, it almost makes me want to sign a petition for a name change to my home town?! However, rather ironically, in the very same month (February 1840) when it becomes clear that this invasion of Afghanistan was to provoke a mass uprising, or jihad, in another part of the world Britain was doing far better. Brokered by fine Christians (in Britain) and fine missionaries (in NZ), they were busy negotiating a treaty with the Maori of faraway New Zealand.

Moving from the chief protagonist to the author himself for a further aside. Many histories of the First Afghan War have been written - but no one had ever bothered to see if there were any Afghani records of the story. So off Dalrymple goes to Afghanistan (in 2008-2009 no less) and, eventually, is taken to an 'unpromising-looking book stall in (Kabul's) old city' where he 'acquires eight previously unused contemporary Persian language sources for the First Afghan War' (496) left behind by Afghan noble families who emigrated during the Soviet occupation. Here opens up that immeasurably important principle of life: the opportunity 'to see ourselves as others see us' (Robbie Burns). There is eye witness material - but also the most beautiful epic poems which Dalrymple seamlessly weaves into his narrative. How cool is that?! And, as you'd expect,
These rich and detailed Afghan sources tell us much that the European sources neglect to mention or are ignorant of ... The caricature 'treacherous Muslim' of the British sources transforms before our eyes into an Afghan matinee idol (498, 500). 
I guess it is about time I got to the book itself...

In Return of a KingWilliam Dalrymple tells the story of a regime change in Afghanistan where the global power at the time invades Afghanistan - 'an unjustified, unprovoked and unnecessary British invasion of an independent country' (143) - in order to install a different leader, one malleable to their own interests. Sound familiar? It is eerily familiar (see 490-491). Even the two puppet rulers (Shuja and Karzai are from the same sub-tribe...). The invasion is marked by incompetence and the subsequent retreat is marked by massacre. Although hundreds of British troops retreated from Kabul, only one single British person (a surgeon) stumbled into Jalalabad on horseback a few days later (as described in the painting above).

An 'unparalleled disaster' (468) with 'striking parallels' (482). I'll let the author tease this open a bit more in this short 3.30min clip. Needless to say, it would have been advisable for Bush and Blair, and other political leaders, to spend more time reading history. The most recent invasion of Afghanistan is the fourth and each one has terminated 'in an embarassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat' (493).

A few other things that will remain with me from the book...

The importance of competence
This is not just about knowledge - although it is not less than knowledge, with a chapter in the book being titled, hauntingly, 'we fail from our ignorance' (270) - but also skills and character and wisdom. The British class system has a rather annoying way of promoting incompetence, particularly in the military. Maybe at half a dozen strategic times in this story alone. Scratch away and get deep into the story and a lot of it can be attributed to one man's (Macnaghten) abiding jealousy of another (Burnes).

The foolishness of opulence
I was staggered by what was involved in moving the British army from one place to another in South Asia. I had no idea. When the Army of the Indus was readied for its invasion (1000 Europeans, but also 14,000 'sepoys' - Indians in the British Army - and then 38,000 'Indian camp followers' (152)), 'one brigadier claimed that he needed fifty camels to carry his kit ... three hundred camels were earmarked to carry the military wine-cellar ... one regiment has two camels carrying the best manila cigars' (152-153). This opulence must have aggrieved the sepoys, made worse by the way that in both the height and the aftermath of battle, the British abandoned so many of them, with many dying or going into slavery throughout Central Asia. No wonder there was a mutiny by the sepoys in India just 15 years later (the subject of Dalrymple's The Last Mughal)...

The centrality of honour and shame
The longer I live outside the West, the more I see this one. It is such a big part of this story, both in the lines and between the lines - particularly with the sexual abuse of Afghan women by the British. There is a James Bond figure in the story - Alexander Burnes (cousin of the aforementioned Robbie). Brilliant, but flawed. The tipping point in the entire story was when Burnes played David with an Afghan Bathsheba - seeing her, stealing her, incurring the wrath, and far more importantly the dishonour of the locals. It was not long before 'the sharp blades of two hundred brave Afghans worked his body into shreds of bone (305, from one of the Afghan sources) and they were playing football with his head in the streets ... and 'all order is at an end' (another poignant chapter title).
This growing slight to Afghan honour was the biggest cause of the alienation of the Afghans from their new (puppet) government (226, quoted from an Afghan source) ... It is a consistent complaint in the Afghan sources that the British had no respect for women, raping and dishonouring wherever they went ... (as they are) depicted as treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect Afghans to look at us (500-501).
The futility of revenge
One of the repulsive parts of the story is how quickly the British mounted an Army of Retribution, headed by a nasty piece of work called George Pollock. They returned to Afghanistan for just two weeks, simply to set the place on fire, dynamiting beautiful places and murdering people ... in order 'to leave decisive proof of the power of the British army' (440). Ridiculous. At times I wanted to shut my eyes as I read. I am not the only one. 'We are nothing but licensed assassins' (458) is how one more noble British officer expressed it. It is the stuff of 'war crimes' (460). 'What we are staying here for I am utterly at a loss to know, unless it be to be laughed at by the Afghans, and the whole world' (461)

It makes me long for the return of the King of Kings, with whom suffering was absorbed, rather than inflicted ... and through that suffering, He walked the path to glory and victory. It is with Him, the Judge of all the earth, that revenge can be left - and it is only in Him that reconciliation with God and with all humanity can be found.

The power of story-telling
This is almost another post: taking Dalrymple's skill and applying it to preaching. Two quick points. One is the significance of using specific details. The other is embedding anticipatory comments in the early narrative which come to fruition later on. Maybe a character, or a place. Teasing the reader in this manner helps the narrative become a page-tuner. Dalrymple is a master of the craft.

nice chatting


PS: Because I don't want to lose it and because I am a child of the Himalayas (from Mussoorie, rather than Simla), here is a little purple patch in the Dalrymple narrative:
The existence of Simla was itself a comment on the astonishing complacency of the British in India at this period: for seven months of the year, the (East India) Company ruled one-fifth of mankind from a Himalayan village overlooking the borders of Tibet and connected to the outside world by a road little better than a goat path. Here, over the two decades since the area had been 'discovered' ... the Company had begun building on a long, narrow, high-altitude Himalayan saddle a small fantasy England, a sort of early Victorian theme park of their own imagination, complete with Gothic churches, half-timbered cottages and Scots baronial mansions. Simla was all about homesickness and the nostalgia of the exile for home: it was an escape from the heat, but it was also, tacitly, an escape from India. As one disapproving official later put it, 'Sedition, unrest and even murderous riots may have been going on elsewhere in India, but in Simla the burning questions are polo finals, racing and the all-absorbing cricket tournaments (130-131).

Friday, March 18, 2016

agonda beach

Trip Advisor rates it 22nd in their latest 'best beaches in the world' list, 3rd in Asia and ahead of anything in Australia and New Zealand (hmmm?!) - but we didn't know that until after we arrived here for a few days away together. It is Agonda Beach in Goa - and it is spectacular.

Here is the view from our little beachfront cottage:

The beach is 3km long - here is looking from the north and then the south ends of the beach:

I love the boats of Goa. I could take photos of them all day long. One thing I enjoy is the way their names reflect the plurality of religions in this former (Catholic) Portugese colony...

One morning we were woken before dawn by a barking dog. Eventually the cause of the commotion became clear. A turtle had come ashore to lay its eggs, just 20 meters from our cottage ... and then off it waddled back to the ocean.

The next morning I discovered that I had become a celebrity. I had made it into The Goan newspaper. That is me in the top right hand corner of the photo:

As always, the signs that inhabit the bazaars of India bring great joy - for all sorts of reasons. Here is just a sample. One can only imagine the impact of a '9-11 Super Store'. My favourite is 'spacial food'. Had a fair bit of that experience in my time in India...

For us it was a time for reading. I may have been in Goa, but my imagination was a long way away - in Afghanistan - after devouring another Dalrymple masterpiece ... (now with a little review here).

... eating dinners on the beach ...

... (with the coastline facing the west), enjoying the sunsets ...

... and even watching some cricket. The Sandy Feet (not to be confused with The Deep Fine Leg) was the neighbouring establishment. Not only did they enjoy playing a little cricket on the sand, using their menu as a wicket, they had a TV inside where we watched one of NZ's finest ever victories - over India no less ... and then a victory over Australia as well, just three days later.

nice chatting


a selfie in the setting sun

Thursday, March 17, 2016

trump - again?!

In my first post, over ten years ago, I laid claim to a 30:30:30:10 identity (India:USA:NZ:Southland(NZ)). Each of these worlds has shaped me. Because of this I tend to claim some right, even responsibility, to wade into these worlds and reflect on them critically.

Right now I am as concerned for the church in the USA as I am for the church in India.

The reason for my concern? A revelation about Revelation. The entire book is a letter (cf 1.4-8; 22.21) written to the seven churches and, like any other letter, it must make sense to its original recipients first. This is where it becomes interesting. Most people live under the impression that Revelation is only for the suffering, harassed and persecuted church. They are wrong. Why? Because when you look closely at these seven churches, not all of them are being persecuted. So how does this letter make sense to those churches? Only by affirming, with Ramsey Michaels, that the enemies of God 'are within, as well as outside, the Christian congregation' (20).

When we draw near to these churches in their cities we find one of two situations: either (a) it is a time of poverty and/or persecution where the enemy is more external and there is little hope for justice; or, (b) it is a time of complacency and/or compromise where the enemy is more internal and there is great need for warning. The book of Revelation is written into both settings. 'It is the complex relationship between the presence or absence of accommodation and persecution that drives this letter' (Michael Gorman, 25).

So, I say it again: I am as concerned for the church in the USA as I am for the church in India. India nestles, increasingly and alarmingly, into setting (a) above, while the USA settles, increasingly and alarmingly, into setting (b).

And yes, the rise of Donald Trump has focused these concerns. I was under the impression that there were enough fair-minded Americans, many of them genuine Christians, on the right side of the political aisle who would rise up, eventually, and send this outrageous, arrogant, ungodly, naive, narcissistic, ethnocentric phenomenon back to Trump Towers with his tail between his legs.

I was wrong. Why? One reason may be because Trump is articulating what people - many of them genuine Christians, apparently - are saying around their dining room tables and in the quiet corridors of their lives. Their response to him is positive because his spoken words resonate with their quietly-spoken thoughts. He appeals to them as courageous. But I wonder if there is a deeper reason behind this one...

As a little aside... In my teaching of preaching over the years there has been a commitment to learning how to preach worldviewishly. Together we picture society to be like a tree, with its fruits and roots. The fruit tends to be visible behaviour. The root tends to be invisible assumptions. In class, we tend to focus on the fruit that is bad and then explore how to trace that fruit to its root, or cause, where the issues of worldview lie. Most people cannot do this tracing at all. And yet, the invisible is the influential. The root is the real issue. It determines the fruit. Too much preaching is too shallow. Every sermon needs to make this effort to surface roots and engage them with the gospel.

I wonder if part of Trump's success - among many genuine Christians, apparently - lies with what is going on at the 'root' in the lives of these people. Gospel roots are mingling with roots that are far from the gospel. It is called syncretism and it is a worldview challenge for Christians in every culture. This mingling expresses itself in muddied conversations in those corridors and around those tables in people's lives.

Yes, there is confusion. Lots of it. People - including many genuine Christians, apparently - are not thinking biblically enough, or even clearly enough. 'American' roots are mingling with 'biblical' roots, producing fruits that are just bad. For example, the 'pursuit of happiness', mandated in the Constitution, actually runs counter to the call of the gospel. Personal individual freedoms, so celebrated in the USA, are not unlimited. They need restraints placed on them, with an eye on the greater, even global, good. Social ethics is as important as personal ethics (and so addressing the evil of racism sits alongside addressing the evil of abortion in importance). The Constitution does not carry the same authoritative weight as the Bible/Christ combo - in theory, or in practice. The right to bear arms is really about the right to bare arms, to roll up your sleeves, and give yourself in selfless service of others (!). And don't get me started on the wanton hijacking of the word 'evangelical' because I've been there before. It is a scandal.

And I'm sorry, but Americans are not an extra special people in the eyes of God. Neither the doctrine of 'American exceptionalism', nor the 'make America great again' slogan, together with the patriotic, nationalistic fervour whipped up by them, have anything to do with God's strategic rescue plan for the world. That plan is wrapped up with a global church, rather than a local nation. [NB: Seeing Jerry Falwell Jr make such a mess of things - first by urging his students to carry a firearm and then by endorsing Trump - reminded me of the visit of Jerry Falwell Sr to the TEDS campus in the early 1980s when I was a student there. He had the foolish audacity to say that the success of the mission of God in the world is dependent on the USA remaining a superpower.]

Maybe the tide of people flowing towards Trump - many of whom are genuine Christians, apparently - has some source in this muddied thinking below the surface. Being American is not being separated adequately enough from being Christian. Even at their very best, they are not the same. Maybe that is partly why so many Christians are flocking to this obnoxious pagan. How can it be possible to soak in a biblical worldview and be a supporter of Donald Trump? I can't see it.

A better way forward is to call the church in the USA to get its eyes off politics as a route to 'wealth, power and might' ... and to sit humbly, graciously and courageously in Revelation once again and hear its message for them. It still speaks into a time of complacency and/or compromise where the enemy is more internal and there is a great need for warning. Such listening would open the door to many more genuine Christians living in a way that serves the purposes of God in our day - with no 'apparently' about it whatsoever.

nice chatting


Saturday, March 05, 2016

two martins

They even looked a bit alike. They were even diagnosed with cancer at about the same time. And now they have both died, just 11 months apart from each other. Having both enriched my life in such different ways, I took such delight in knowing that there was that day when they met each other, through a mutual friend, David Lyle Morris, who loved - and sung - his way into their hearts and homes.

My very favourite friend Martin (Lovatt). My very favourite cricketer Martin (Crowe).

I've mentioned Martin Lovatt a few times in this blog. There is the lovely photo of him at my 21st birthday party all those years ago. And a couple of posts around the time of his death last April (I was in China). I will always have an empathy now for those who endure grief at a distance and on their own. But God knew - and he sent an angel to me. Here is a little extract from a later sermon:

            At Hong Kong airport, on my way, I received the news
that my special friend from childhood
was in his final days in his battle with cancer.
          Off I went into a country with no gmail, no facebook.
           Martin died while I was in China. I experienced real grief. 
      Within an hour I was sitting around a circular table
having lunch with a group of people,
whom I had never met in my life,
who did not speak a syllable of English
& who kept an eye on my chopstick technique.
            They wanted me to say something about my work after lunch.
            ‘What could I say?’
 I decided to share about Martin, his friendship, his death
& the difficulty of being so far from home.

Afterwards one of the pastors stood up & through translation, simply said to me: 
“Today this is your home. We are your family. You are always welcome here.”

That taste of what it means to belong to the (global) family of God will never, ever leave me. Under God's gracious hand - and through an extraordinary series of events - I was able to get home to Auckland for Martin's funeral (four out of five nights spent on 10+hr flights and hardly noticing the impact) and to bear witness to his loyalty, his gentleness and his goodness.

I've mentioned Martin Crowe a few times in this blog. Quite a few times, actually. A big fan - ever since I saw him batting, at 14 years of age, in the school nets just weeks after my return to NZ from India, and concluding to myself, "if this is the level of talent in New Zealand, I am never going to play cricket here." My fullest reflections came in a review of Raw. I've lived overseas ever since I wrote this piece and a joy for me - from a distance - has been to see the rehabilitation of MD Crowe in the eyes of the NZ public. People have short memories! For most of his career, he was treated very poorly. Not unlike Brendon McCullum's journey. Does anyone else remember the vitriol around the Rutherford-Crowe captaincy debate? Or, the press coverage during the build-up to the World Cup in 1992? Some of these journalists change their colours pretty easily...?!

On the day after his death, it was amazing to find Crowe mentioned with the header on the front page
... and then to be the dominant story in the sports pages.
There have been a few other posts ... like his presence on my 'first eleven' list of cricket memories AND my passing moan about his deflated Test average AND his entry at Number One in the list of my all time favourite sportspeople (mind you, Lydia Ko was only 12 at the time!). One obituary speaks of his 'elegance and eloquence'. That is it for me, too. As the elegant batting drifted from view, the eloquent writing came into focus ... and my enjoyment of MD Crowe's talent continued on uninterrupted.

I am not really a 'Rest-in-Peace' man. Partly because I don't understand what it means. Sorry. Maybe someone can explain it to me. I am more of a 'Rest-in-the-certainty-that-God-will-receive-you-in-accordance-with-His-mercy-and-justice' man. But I hope my enduring prayers have been answered and that an encounter with the mercy and justice of God in Christ has brought to Martin Crowe the peace that I know Martin Lovatt experiences.

Now and then I ask myself why I have been drawn to these two Martins who are now both gone at such a young age. With the Crowe Martin, it does come back to the 'tortured genius' phrase (the title of an early biography). While the 'genius' drew us all forward in our seats, it was the 'tortured' that drew from me an uncommon empathy and, yes, even the occasional identification. With the Lovatt Martin, it is about liking him with a friendship that prevailed through seasons and separations - but also about a longing to be like him, following his example, as he followed Christ's (1 Corinthians 11.1).

nice chatting


Friday, February 19, 2016

prw cricket rankings II

Six years ago I published my first 'prw cricket rankings'. With six of the eight nations playing each other at the moment and the Twenty20 World Cup around the corner, it seems a good time for an update.

These are rankings with a difference. Highly and intentionally subjective. As a cricket fan, it doesn't matter too much who is playing, I enjoy watching. But as I stand outside myself, I do find myself favouring one team over the other. As in 2010, what follows is the ranking of my favourite teams. When any one of these teams is playing, I find myself cheering for it when it plays any team below it in these rankings.

1. [NO CHANGE]  New Zealand
While I am a Kiwi, I am not one that is given to boorish nationalistic fervour. Nevertheless there is a heartbeat inside that keeps New Zealand atop my rankings. With the brand of cricket being played under Brendon McCullum, a small multitude have NZ moving up their rankings as well. Pulsating cricket. McCullum's leadership has revolutionised the 50-over format of the global game. Even England's resurgence after the World Cup is due, in large part, to McCullum. For me, however, I tend to be a fan that keeps the handbrake on! He has been too reckless at crucial times. His dismissal in the World Cup Final was dumb. Even more annoying is the cavalier way in which our lower order has batted in Test matches under his leadership [NB: it is the reason for Ross Taylor missing out on a triple century]. So I feel no great grief with McCullum's imminent retirement, because longtime favourites like Boult and Williamson are well able to deliver the enjoyment that will keep New Zealand #1 for me.

2. [UP FOUR]  Pakistan
So much has happened in these past six years, none more significant than getting to know Pakistan through books (a history and a history of cricket) and through the people I've met on visits there. I feel an uncommon empathy for the people. Because of the terrorist threat that has destroyed peoples' perceptions of their country, the Pakistani cricket team never gets to play in front of their own friends and family anymore. How would you like that to be the case, as a fan? At partition, India kept all the cricket infrastructure and Pakistan had to start from scratch - and then, within a handful of years, against incredible odds, but with this seemingly endless source of mercurial talent, they proceeded to beat India, Australia, West Indies, and England. Incredible.

3. [UP ONE]  Sri Lanka
Once again, I am affected by having made visits to this country. A special people. Never, ever will I forget waking up in Colombo one morning to three TV channels covering the Christchurch earthquake - and then hearing Sri Lankans each day at our seminar pouring out their hearts in prayer for my people (against the backdrop of their own tsunami that caused far, far more death and destruction). And then there is ... Sangakkara. I like sportspeople who are skilled, gracious, smart and articulate. 'Sanga' has all four in abundance. Sri Lanka is a bit like NZ in that it is a smaller country that produces such talent. Shame on the media for not making more of Chandimal's astonishing innings. It was Botham-esque. And when the young Chameera carved up NZ the other week, I did taste some joy. I confess it.

4. [UP ONE]   England
While I am not a great fan of Cook or Anderson (an over-rated player - of the 21 highest wicket-takers among fast bowlers in history, 18 of them have lower averages than Anderson and the only two with a higher average played on lifeless South Asian wickets: Kapil Dev and Vaas) - when I turn on the TV and see a Root or a Buttler or a Stokes, it is seduction time. It really is. Root is something else. Throw in Broad's uncanny capacity to turn a match in half an hour ... yeah, I like this team. Got a good manager and their administration dealt decisively and finally with Kevin Pieterson.

5. [NEW]   Bangladesh
Decided to add them in this time. I don't know the players well, but I gain such enjoyment when this unsung team does well.

6. [DOWN THREE]   West Indies
Oh dear. What a mess. I LOVED this team as a kid, but the local administrators can't seem to hold it all together - and with so little money in the Caribbean, their stars forsake playing for the inter-nation West Indies team, for whom they must feel less loyalty than for their own nations, as they disperse around the world in pursuit of the highest bidder. Meanwhile the game back home deconstructs. It is pretty sad. I find it hard it to blame the players, but it is also hard to see the West Indies ever being strong again.

7. [SAME]   South Africa
It is odd. This team doesn't quicken my pulse at all. It leaves me neutral, even kinda disinterested. Maybe I need to go live there for a season. Sure, de Villiers may be a talent. Amla may be one of the most impressive Muslims on earth ... but the guy who is going to be such fun to watch over the next decade is Rabada.

8. [DOWN SIX]   India
Big drop here. All sorts of reasons. The Fab Four are missed. It is a long, long time since this post was written. Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag are all gone. Skilled players each one of them ... but such classy people and their replacements just don't seem to be in the same league, with skill or character. Then there is that IPL, chewing-gum cricket around which the cricketing world now spins, as it works covertly to dismantle the world of cricket in countries that cannot afford to pay its players handsomely. At the moment, my favourite Indian cricketer is Shashank Manohar, an administrator. He has risen to power amidst the ashes of the most shameful corruption and among the first things he did was call into question the greedy, short-sighted hijack of global cricket by the Big Three (India, Australia, England). He is da man.

My favourite Indian cricketer
9. [DOWN ONE]   Australia
I don't really buy into the cross-Tasman rivalry. The Aussies are the greatest sporting nation in the world. I admire their mental strength, in particular. In the two most recent Tests, NZ gets the rough end of the most appalling, game-changing, umpiring decisions and we just disintegrate as a team. The Aussies would have come back all the harder. That is the difference between the two countries. But until Australia gets a Sangakkara-type person at the helm and the culture of their cricket changes, they will not rise far in my rankings. They love to speak of playing 'aggressive' cricket - when, in fact, all too often it is just a bit of graceless, ugly and arrogant cricket. Throw in those infuriating commentators who work more as adoring fans, than objective critics ... and the bottom of my rankings ain't gonna change in a hurry.

nice chatting


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

simeon and stott

A couple of weeks ago I shared my admiration for the person and ministry of Charles Simeon, reawakened by a book that I had read. This renewed a conversation with Mark Meynell, the leader of our ministry in Europe & the Caribbean - and in the recent past, a member of the pastoral team at All Souls in London and so a friend and colleague of John Stott.

Mark was in the final stages of bringing this comparison together which he has posted now, with commentary, on his blog. But I just love this infographic and so I decided to post it as well. Thanks so much, Mark. Many years ago, this was going to be the exact topic of my thesis...

nice chatting