Wednesday, April 28, 2010

the prodigal god

If you have a spare $20 and an extra 2 hours to go with it I have a great idea on how to use that cash and time.

Buy and read Tim Keller's little book, The Prodigal God. I read it on a return flight to Wellington last week. It has been around for a couple of years and is the author's second best-seller after The Reason for God, which I reviewed here.
And then if you have more money and more time there is a bit of an industry that has developed around the book. There is a teaching film on DVD ... also a step-by-step guide to offering the Prodigal God Church Experience ... the Prodigal God Curriculum Kit ... or, you could listen to Keller preach the Prodigal God series here.

But don't let the industry put you off. This is a seriously good little book and Keller is as close to a 'full of grace, full of truth' preacher as there is today. But as I read I found myself jotting down the things I'd love to chat with Keller about in an imaginary conversation about the book. I have a few questions for him! Here goes with a handful...

1. Yes, I can overhear Kenneth Bailey's material in your writing (as you acknowledge). The evangelical world took about two decades to wake-up to Bailey's work - but people got there in the end. But what I want to know is did you have an eye on Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal Son and Marsha Witten's All is Forgiven as well? It is these two authors who have arrested me in more recent years, with Witten's book being a most uncomfortable read. She examines the finest sermons on Luke 15 from some of America's most unimpeachable evangelicals and finds more than a trace of pure secularism as the urge to be relevant has overwhelmed them.

2. What about the parable that annoys people the most today: The Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20)? To what extent does it contain the same message as A Man had Two Sons in Luke 15? One parable set in the world of work and the other set in the world of family - but the same message? What do you think? I find the continuities in the messages to be intriguing - and maybe the discontinuities as well!

3. Yes, I understand the 'all is grace' message. There is nothing we can do to merit God's favour. Understood. The elder brother and the pharisees struggled to get this. If walking through the door marks the process/time of conversion then before the door there is nothing we can do to usher ourselves through the door. Yep. Got it. But what about after the door? How do we know we are through the door? This one troubles me deeply. I think the New Testament teaches that it is actually good works that demonstrate we are through the door. That is the reason James is in the New Testament, isn't it? Using a cricket analogy (which your English connections may help you to understand - kinda like baseball but far better - the New Zealand team is playing in Florida next month so keep an eye out for them) I tried to make a case for this here. I can't help thinking that in trying to expose the errors of the elder brother you have left this truth understated - apart from a few paragraphs related to Matthew 25 on p111f.

4. You close with the illustration of the plotline in the Danish film, Babette's Feast (by the way, your illustrations in this book are simply masterful). Ahh - a slow-moving movie of such beauty. But what do you think about Chocolat? Lacks the same charm - but does it cover the same plotline - or do you think there are significant differences?

5. As you did in The Reason for God, you put your finger on this problem of self-centeredness. We are at the centre of our world. Contrary to Rick Warren's opening line, Western Christianity points to the truth that "it IS all about me". But as you say, "We must learn to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness - the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord." (78) How do we help people towards a deeper conversion so that their world revolves around God, rather than God being one of many who revolve around them?

nice chatting, in an imaginary sort of way


Sunday, April 25, 2010

a mother's poem

Today is ANZAC Day in New Zealand. It is when we remember those who have died in wars - with a particular focus on Gallipoli (Turkey) in World War 1.

My mother's Uncle Edgar is one of those who died in Gallipoli. Today I heard my mum read a poem written by Edgar's mother Maria (my mother's grandmother; my great grandmother) after Edgar died.

It is beautiful. So tender. So sweet. A mother's heart. Read it aloud.
Here is a photo of the original...

Maria died four days before the second anniversary of Edgar's death.

nice chatting


Let me write the words out again just in case you cannot read them.

To a Lad That's Gone from New Zealand
When the shadows are falling soft and still,
And the heat of the day is done,
I see through the dusk as a mother will
The face of lad that's gone.

The face of a lad with a stalwart frame
Whom God once gave to me,
With a fearless heart and a stainless name,
And a soul of chivalry.

I see hin (him!) as he said farewell,
Gallant and tall and gay,
I hear the clanf (clang!) of the station bell,
The night that he went away.

I remember the day when the cable came,
And I knew that his race was run,
And that nothing was left but an honoured name,
And a grave for my son - - my son.

And every night when the sun goes west,
And the toil of the day is done,
Oh, I long for the boy who loved me best,
And the smile of a lad that's gone.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I am so loving this new picture of my son Stephen. I just had to post it with a few comments...
Stephen finished his BA/LLB(Hons) and immediately headed off to Uganda to work as a Volunteer with the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Kampala. It will be twelve months in a couple of weeks. Stephen's energies are devoted to "unaccompanied minors" - essentially the children caught up in the refugee crisis that continues to engulf the Democratic Republic of Congo, in particular. These children must be among the most forgotten people on earth. Whether it be the trauma associated with their individual lives or the trauma embedded in a dysfunctional system, it is an unimaginably horrific story and Stephen is deeply immersed in both. He lives simply (far too simply, for his parents liking!) and incarnationally, fired by a sense of justice tempered with seemingly limitless levels of patience and compassion.

I love the photo (above) for the smile and the embrace. Indeed the smile is as full as the embrace, covering not one, but two of his Congolese brothers. And they seem to be loving it too. The man on the left is Patrick, Stephen's closest colleague. I love the photo (on the right) for the intensity with which he is making the case for his children to a visitor from World Vision.

I am real proud of my big boy!

[PS - the photos are taken by my brother-in-law, Jon Warren, who works with World Vision and whose photos adorn many a World Vision magazine and calendar]

nice chatting


Thursday, April 15, 2010

poor johnny

You know a book has got under your skin when you go on thinking about it weeks after you finished reading it. Usually novels do this. That Poisonwood Bible ... or, that Life of Pi ... or, the other week - The Children of Men. Ugh!

But this time it isn't a novel. It is Johnny. The Johnny made famous by titles like Why Johnny Can't Read and Why Johnny Can't Write has now made his debut in Why Johnny Can't Preach.

Just 108 pages in length, it sure packs a punch. The author wrote the book while he was receiving treatment for cancer and this “concentrated my mind wonderfully” (9). His view of contemporary preaching is dire, to say the least and “before I die, I must express my opinion on this subject” (13). It is his contention that preaching is “ordinarily poor” (17) with “less than 30% of those ordained to the Christian ministry able to preach an even mediocre sermon” (11). Pretty bleak stuff - from within a basically Reformed tradition!

How can this siutation be improved?
Three simple suggestions from the author.

1. Every preacher/pastor should have an annual review of their preaching performance even though they are "terrified that they will discover that they are failing” (99). It is simply unprofessional not to have a regular review. He would argue that most preachers don't know how bad they are because they don't bother to ask anyone. Plus - very few people are willing to tell the truth to their face!

2. Cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely – with a particular focus on poetry and well-written literature. We need to rediscover the art of being careful readers of texts - and to read “at the pace of the tongue and the ear, not at the pace of the mind’s ability (or the eye’s?) to grasp information”(51). Push back on the influence of ‘electronic media’ and don't accept the way it makes us impatient, filling us with the insignificant and with ‘the buzz of the inconsequential’.

3. Cultivate the sensibility of composed communication, with a particular focus on writing handwritten letters - or a personal journal. Write out your prayers? Maybe take extra care over your blog posts?! This time the enemy is the telephone where conversation lacks unity, order or movement – “we have become a culture of telephone babblers, unskilled at the most basic questions of composition" (67). Interestingly, this guy has moved away from note-free preaching and back to using a full manuscript.

I warmed to his dismissive approach to the short attention span issue. I hear this all the time and have never been convinced. Those preachers who go on about it already seem on the slippery slope to brief and boring preaching themselves. “When something is well done, we do not complain about its length” (28) and this can be true of the sermon. He suggests that sermon length not be measured in terms of minutes, but in “minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after he has lost the interest of his hearers” (31).

He also has a passing word for the "emerging" church and its disdain for traditional churches. Maybe the latter are not so much doing the wrong things – just the right things incompetently. “My challenge to the comtemporaneists and emergents”, says T. David Gordon, “is this: Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. I’ve never seen such a church. The moribund churches I’ve seen have been malpreached to death” (33).

If the cancer remains in remission, he is threatening to write a book called Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. Oh dear...

[NB - An extended version of this book review - and other books on preaching - can be found by clicking on 'books that engage' at the kiwi-made preaching site].

nice chatting


Saturday, April 10, 2010

sporting joys

In the week that Steve Price retired (from rugby league) and Tiger Woods returned (to golf) ... [and the week in which a bride/groom gave me a Black Caps jersey with "P-Dub" written on the back - how cool is that? - thanks so much Jess/Chris - I slept in it last night] ... I have been thinking about the sportspeople who I have enjoyed the most over the years.

I could include Steve Price and Tiger Woods in my list. With Price, it is that 'down-under' brand of charisma and leadership off the field that is so appealing. With Woods, we'll keep things on the field, shall we?! Yes, his skill - but also the mental pressure he is able to place on competitors. He is doing it again, even as I write. Watching the cream rise through the four days of a golfing Major is one of my great delights...

So here is my list of sportspeople who have brought me the most joy as a spectator:

Number 10
The early rise and rise of Michael Campbell as a golfer. A Kiwi makes good on one of the biggest sporting stages of all - and with warmth and style. Unfortunately (!), I was doing the Lord's work, teaching at Totara Springs in Matamata, when he won his Major and I missed every single minute of that final round with Tiger. UGH! Double UGH! Triple UGH! Oh, the crosses we have to bear... Now you can see why I am so frustrated now. I wish he would talk less about how he is on the verge of being at his best. I wish he had more of that tiger-ish mental strength.

Number 9
My three years of theological study in Chicago drew me into American sports and the turbulent life of a Chicago sports fan. It was the early 1980s and the situation was dire, but soon to be transformed with the Chicago Bears winning the Super Bowl and Michael Jordan being drafted by the Chicago Bulls. The internet reconnects me easily to this past - but nothing can match the joy of watching Ryne Sandberg at 2nd base for the Chicago Cubs at ivy-clad Wrigley Field and Walter Payton at running back, stepping and weaving for the Chicago Bears. They called him 'Sweetness'. I was introduced to him on a fuzzy 10inch black and white screen by my future brother-in-law in the basement of a house in Wheaton. Good times!

Number 8
As a basketball player myself special mention must be made of the skills of Michael Jordan. He was just a freshman at North Carolina when I first saw him play - in the Final Four against the might of Pat Ewing and Georgetown. But the way he could take control of a game and hit that 'game-winning shot' was remarkable. I hold these joys much more lightly now because I think the salaries these guys make are obscene and perverse.

Number 7
Football/soccer has never fully grabbed me. I try and I try, I really do. I tend to be a 'watch the highlights' person - until the World Cup rolls around. And yes, I did jump aboard the bandwagon in the year that Diego Maradona toyed with everyone else with both his feet and his hands.

Number 6
Sportswomen do figure in my list as well! The Kiwis so often combine an infectious, winsome, unaffected style with a supreme skill in their chosen sports. Gee - they could teach the male counterparts a few lessons, starting with those boring, emotionless All Blacks. UGH!? Swimmer Anna Simcic was the first one I enjoyed watching. Then there was netballer Waimarama Taumaunu (who once flashed a smile my way on a street in Sydney - I almost fell over), soon to be followed by Bernice Mene. What about Sarah Ulmer? Or the Evers-Swindell twins? It goes on and on... So skilled, so natural, so warm.

Number 5
Then I must touch down in West Indian cricket of the 70s and 80s. Oh, the joy of watching the swaggering brutality of Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards who batted in test cricket like it was Twenty20. His fastest test century is only marginally slower than the fastest T20 international centuries. Of course, as soon as you've seen the back of Richards, you have to face-up to the front of his fellow Antiguan Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts coming at you at full speed. Good times - for a spectator like me.

Number 4
I am a Kiwi, so let's talk the All Blacks. One would have to be that blond lad from Southland when we lived there. When Jeff Wilson burst onto the scene, it was magical. The other would have to be Michael Jones - as much for his skill as for his consistent Christian character in the public world. As a tackler and a Christian he continues to be about "it is more blessed to give than to receive".

... drum roll for my top three, please...

Number 3
Erupting in joy and kissing everything in sight while visiting in a very reserved West Auckland home when Danyon Loader won his first gold ... and then cancelling class at Bible College so that we could watch him win his second gold. Sheer bliss.

Number 2
Watching Nick Willis come around that final corner of the 1500m at Beijing and power his way to a bronze (and then a silver!). The entire family had to be at the screen in the middle of the night and the entire neighbourhood knew of my joy.

Number 1
Yep, he has always been a controversial and unliked Kiwi. The talkback and reporting of his strained relationship with Ken Rutherford was one of my first insights into the Kiwi psyche, but watching Martin Crowe bat is my all-time favourite joy. A textbook in motion. If he had been from a country that played more test cricket and if he had played it on better pitches and if he had remained injury-free (a few big "if"s, I know), he would be remembered as the finest batsmen of his generation.

And Woods is now tied for third at the Masters. Amazing! And all the best, Price, for your farewell party in Sydney this evening. I hope you find a job in New Zealand.

nice chatting


Monday, April 05, 2010

easter sunday on tv

I often receive disbelieving looks from friends in Britain, Australia and the USA when I claim that New Zealand is more secular, more anti-Christian, than any of their countries. So conscious are they of the challenge which they face that they find it difficult to believe that somewhere else could be harder.

But maybe this Easter Sunday provided me with a teeny weeny piece of evidence...

Glancing down the schedule of our leading public broadcaster (TVNZ), I noticed that apart from the usual Praise Be segment, there was nothing on the schedule with either an Easter or a Christian theme. [NB - Praise Be is another topic of interest for me. I suspect the NZ version is more secularised and pluralised than the equivalent versions in Britain and Australia. That is my initial impression after seeing bits of all three].

So I went onto the internet to compare the situation with other countries.

In Britain, BBC1 had its Praise Be but also had a 60min church service from Winchester Cathedral in the morning and a 60min documentary in the evening entitled "Are Christians Being Persecuted?"

In Australia, ABC1 had its Praise Be but also had a 60min morning documentary entitled "The Passion: Films, Faith and Fury" in which the relationship between Hollywood and Christianity was explored. Then in the evening there was a 55min Compass programme discussing a piece of art by Caravaggio called "The Taking of Christ".

In the USA, it is more difficult as things vary with 'local programming' and 'paid programming' (which are so often Christian in content) even within the public broadcasters like ABC, CBS, and NBC. So it is difficult to tell. I confess that while I was surprised that I did not see more explicitly Christian material on those channels, the situation in the USA is such that Christian content does tend to flood TV channels which are readily accessible. No one can doubt the strength of the Christian voice in the US when compared with these other countries.

So I kind of wrest my case! New Zealand is a tough, tough country and I respect all those pastors who have given it their best over this recent weekend. I hope you are able to get some rest and refreshment this week. I feel as motivated as I have ever been to do what I can to encourage and equip you in your role. I particularly admire those who remain faithful to the gospel and yet find a way in which to do so in a creative and compelling manner. Good job!

nice chatting