Tuesday, August 23, 2011

english cricket

This English cricket team is exceptional. Who could have picked that they would beat the #1 side in the world 4-0 in a four Test series? Remarkable! And as was the case against the Aussies last summer, a number of the victories have been substantial.

The rise of English cricket is great for the global game. Not only did they bring the dominant Aussie era to a close, they have humbled the Indians as well. India has far too much power and when they won the World Cup, the Indian lad in me said "oh yes", while the cricket fan in me said "oh no". Things appear more equal now as the great game is reinvigorated (aided also by the new Test Championship). But can the English enjoy an era of dominance like the Aussies and the West Indies before them? I doubt it. Talented and balanced and youngish though they may be, they don't intimidate like the mental toughness of those Aussies and the swagger of those West Indians used to do.

I like my statistics. But one comparison has always made me grumpy. It has to do with batting averages. How can the comparison between English/Kiwis and Aussies/Indians ever be fair when the quality of the pitches and the conditions in which the game is played are so different? Aussies and Indians have slightly inflated averages, while the English and the Kiwis have slightly deflated averages. I'll go to my grave believing that Martin Crowe was far, far better than 45.36!

But this is where the English team is so impressive. While pitches have improved, they do not play on batting paradises like is usually the case in Australia and India. And yet their Top Seven average, 49, 42, 58, 50, 49, 38 and 44. Four of them rank in the best fifteen of all time in terms of English batsmen (5th, 9th, 11th, 13th). WOW!

The playing conditions in New Zealand are similar and the comparable statistics give ample evidence for the weakness in the NZ game. The Top Seven from NZ's most recent series averaged 27, 37, 35, 41, 45, 33, and 30. Sure, there is a big gap in experience - but still that suggests that the English team will average 80+ more runs from their top order in each innings - and 160+ over the course of a Test. You will win a lot of test matches with that kind of advantage. And where do the best four in our top order rank in the history of NZ cricket? It is not that dissimilar (3rd, 7th, 13th, 17th) which provides some evidence for our perennial weakness on the global stage.

[NB: With the Indian Top Seven they average almost exactly the same number of runs as the English and the best five in their top order rank 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 8th in the history of Indian cricket].

Then there are the pace bowlers in the English cricket team. I do not have the time to check the history - but when was the last time the front-line pace attack averaged just 13, 16, and then 25 when playing against the best team in the world, stacked with batting legends of the game, over at least a four game series? How is that your bowlers are taking such cheap wickets on the very same pitch that your batsmen are making such big runs? Amazing!

The English will need to win well in India and beat the South Africans convincingly to be seen as a great team - but it will not surprise me if they do so. I am not sure who will eventually humble the English - but I suspect it will not be the Kiwis.

But then, of course, there is always the rugby...

nice chatting


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

three movies

Now that I no longer teach a course on movies, my movie-watching has diminished greatly - and often just on planes through sleepy eyes (although I do limit myself to one per flight in order to ensure that I get some reading done!).

But not in the last ten days. There have been three movies to fill my screen.

First up, Of Gods and Men (we were watching this at the cinema when my brother was trying to contact me about my Dad's sudden decline in health). This is one for the ages and just must be seen. A small group of elderly monks keep alive both their own community and their incarnate presence in the wider Muslim society - at a time when the threat of extremism is real. I delighted in the slow pace, the struggle towards consensual decision-making and the joy which flows when this is discovered, and the salt:light tension with which they courageously and winsomely lived. And a true story as well - which I prefer. It took me back to favourites like The Elephant Man and The Lives of Others in terms of impact. A 'must' for a church leaders retreat with space to discuss - or a class on the Church.

Then it was Fire in Babylon. A film about the rise of West Indian cricket with some of my childhood heroes - Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts, Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, Michael Holding et al - to the fore, but also all kinds of musicians, historians, and culture-watchers interviewed as well. Terrific socio-historical insight into the reasons which drove West Indies cricket to the top. To think it is just for cricket fans would be a major mistake. One of my offspring (who shall remain nameless) sat glued to it. The editing and sound-track make it compulsive viewing. If anything, there are not enough clips of cricket action - but no one will ever really mind. I have my own copy - but you'll have to come watch it here, coz' it ain't leaving the house!

Last night my son Stephen brought around a 1963 Peter Sellers' movie, Heavens Above. The story of a mistakenly appointed vicar, taking up a country parish run by the rich and powerful, who believes the New Testament more literally and develops a heart for the poor and needy. The economy of the town crashes when the chief benefactor of the town joins the vicar as charity trumps business. The ending is very odd and reflects the era/issues of that time - but there are some great lines in it and plenty of mischief in the Sellers' character. The willingness to be true to the gospel, regardless of the implications, kinda inspires amidst all the humour. With the emphasis on incarnational ministry today, this film could easily develop a bit of a cult following. [NB - the brains behind the movie is one Malcolm Muggeridge, with 1963 being some years before he was converted!].

nice chatting


Thursday, August 11, 2011

dad 1928-2011

After a long battle with Parkinson's, Dad died at home yesterday in the company of his family - with the sun streaming through the window as the Hallelujah Chorus filled the room.

If you would like to read the story of Dad's life, people around the world have been appreciating a little book by Mary Tallon - Surprised by Obedience.

The easiest way to purchase it is by using the Book Depository's free postage service at this
link here.

nice chatting


PS: the full funeral service can be viewed here:

Saturday, August 06, 2011

a stottian top ten

Ah yes, one more post to mark my appreciation for John Stott. Here I countdown the ‘top ten’ books (out of the 50+ he has written) that have shaped my life. No easy task – but here we go...

at number ten
‘The Bible speaks today’ not only names Stott’s deep conviction (“God still speaks through what he has spoken” – one of my favourite sentences), it also titles a commentary series edited by him and into which he contributed seven volumes. These books are the bread and butter of his influence on me. Don Carson would speak to us as students of how Stott could “tap, tap, tap away at a text and it would just break open so clearly”. It’s true. So it could be Ephesians or Thessalonians, Timothy or Romans – but I’ll start where I started as a young pastor: the Sermon on the Mount and Christian Counter-Culture and his desire “to let Christ speak it again” for today. (With one sadness being that so little of his work in the Gospels and the Old Testament has been published...)

at number nine
I have almost given up on the word ‘evangelical’ here in New Zealand – not because I don’t believe in what it represents (far from it), but I have grown weary of the caricatures which the word attracts. For example, the world of media and politics keeps dragging ‘evangelical’ back to the very fundamentalism from which it was separated fifty years ago. UGH! But then just when I am about to give up, I take up and read Evangelical Truth – and don’t miss the subtitle: “a personal plea for unity”. This is not the shallower ‘love-is-all-you-need’ brand of unity, this is the deeper unity which comes with having love and truth in common. As he explains this evangelicalism (and lives it), I really, really like it - goodness me, it even sounds like the fullness of the gospel. And so at times I turn Stott into an adjective and refer to myself as a Stottian evangelical (a phrase of which he’d disapprove, I'm sure).

at number eight
Maybe because conversion happened for me like the dawning of the day, rather than a lightning strike in my adult years, I have not been as impacted by Basic Christianity as the millions of others - although it is still a precious book. Rather it is one that follows on neatly from it, as a manual on discipleship, that influenced me: The Contemporary Christian, with the sub-title once again helpful: “an urgent plea for double listening”. He works his way through the gospel, the disciple, the Bible, the church, the world – and pleads with his readers to listen both to the ancient word and the modern world as this keeps us from unfaithfulness on the one hand, and irrelevance on the other. This is the book I have used to introduce more than one group of young adults to John Stott. They are not always as enamoured as I, it must be said - as the style is older and “he does quote an awful lot of dead Anglicans!”

at number seven
My copy of this next book was a gift from John Stott to my father-in-law (Charles Warren) with a little inscription. 'Charlie' (which suggests they knew each other pretty well) hosted John Stott on a visit to Mussoorie (India) in 1973. That visit is my first memory. I was 13 years of age. He spoke at an Assembly and classes were cancelled as a little revival broke out in the school. Anyhow - back to the book. Three quarters of Understanding the Bible is simple survey material and then he shifts gears to include two chapters that have shaped my own approach to the Bible - and the training we now do within Langham Preaching: 'the Authority of the Bible' and the Interpretation of the Bible'. Interestingly, this material (and much more) is included in a more recent DVD series with an elderly John Stott in full flight - but curiously it never seemed to receive the marketing that was warranted. Be in!

at number six
Having established himself as a teacher of the biblical text, his own 'double listening' with both ears open became so very credible when he delved into the cultural context with a book that has gone through four editions as the world around us grapples with new issues: Issues Facing Christians Today. Here Stott demonstrates just how ‘worldly’ the best in evangelicalism can be. It became the starting point for the discussion of numerous ethical issues for an entire generation. And don’t miss the bookends – oh, please don’t miss the bookends. That marvellous chapter on ‘thinking christianly’, where I first discovered the seed of ‘the good, the bad, the new, and the perfect’ near the beginning, and the equally marvellous ‘call for christian leadership’ at the end.

at number five
This one took some courage. Basically John Stott allows a “liberal” scholar to pull his writings apart, book by book, and then invites Stott to respond. He does so in letter form - each time with, “My dear David ... Yours as ever, John.” Off they went, back and forth, with the Bible, the cross, the miraculous, the moral, and the eschatological. And it was that final exchange which exploded a controversy around him, from all sides, because of a few paragraphs written right at the end about hell and eternity. It is a shame that Evangelical Essentials: a liberal:evangelical dialogue became stuck, in the eyes of so many, in those final paragraphs because for me the book is the model of how wisdom, clarity, depth, humility, respect, courage, and balance combines in the life of a saintly scholar. What he said in terms of content was terrific, but even that was trumped, again and again, by how he said it and the tone he demonstrated. While many regret the book being published (maybe even John Stott himself, I don't know), I am not counted among them. Now there is a great need for “a postmodern:evangelical dialogue” with similar content - and tone.

at number four
It is time for another ‘Bible speaks today’ and to a biblical book I found difficult to preach through as a pastor, paralysed (a bit) by the danger of turning description into prescription inappropriately. Pauline scholar though he may be, it is Stott’s commentary on the Message of Acts that I love the most. And it is not just the ‘tap, tap, tapping’ going on – it is this writing style of his that I have grown to love. He takes a passage. He develops the strands of teaching in the passage. Oh, the clarity of the explanation! And then towards the end something invariably happens. He takes those strands, the imaginative eye goes to work, and he weaves those strands into something fresh that is compelling which captures both the essence of the passage and its relevance for today. The Bible speaks today. Preaching as science and art. Go on - read his chapter on Acts 2 to see what I mean. I have force-fed it to a generation of students, pleading with them to aim at such faithful, and imaginative, clarity.

at number three
So many churches today have mission statements that are variations on the ‘creating lifelong followers of Jesus’ theme. True – but just not true enough. Following ‘after’ Jesus in order to be ‘like’ Jesus says a lot, but it does not say it all. This is where Focus on Christ (or, Understanding Jesus) – “an enquiry into the theology of prepositions” – has left its mark on me. Stott attaches ‘through’ and ‘on’ and ‘in’ and ‘under’ and ‘with’ and ‘unto’ and ‘for’ to Jesus to give a more complete picture of what it means to be a Christ-ian, uniting with Christ in all these diverse ways. I taught Spirituality only once, but this book was looming as required reading as a means of bringing biblical anchorage to a discipline that has a tendency to float a little free. It has even transformed my facebook identity (“horrors, let’s not get too carried away, Paul”) where I describe myself as wanting to be a ‘prepositional Christian’. But all the best in trying to track the book down as it has not seemed to grab a readership and so lingers 'out of print'.

at number two

It just has to reach this high in the list because Line #3 in Chapter #3 so arrested me as a theological student that it became a mantra for my life ever since. It is why I believe so deeply in the priority of both biblical preaching and theological training: "The essential secret is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions ... theology is more important than methodology". Yes, it was while I heard John Stott expound Romans 1-5 at Urbana '79, as a 19 year old, that I experienced God's call to Bible teaching and it was through reading Between Two Worlds (or, I Believe in Preaching) three years later that the call was cemented into place. With it being a little dated now, Langham Preaching Resources has revised and shortened this book as The Challenge of Preaching in the hope of lengthening its life and broadening its appeal still further around the world.

at number one
I once had a student who was not warming to his academic work. One summer, rather than be placed in a church to practise being a pastor, he was placed with the principal (me!) to practise being a student. I developed a reading list and we read a book each week and met to discuss it – all in an effort to jump start a love for study. Never, ever will I forget the conversation that followed his reading of The Cross of Christ - not an easy book for someone struggling to be a student. It was transformative for him - and for me. Years ago it was the chapter on 'Self-understanding' ("what has that got to do with the cross ... everything!") that God used to bring clarity into the muddied discussions on self-esteem - and healing as well. But the feature about the book which I love is how each chapter commences with a serious work-out for the mind (well, for me anyway) - but by chapter's close the heart was soaring in weepy worship of Jesus. I delight in people who keep my mind and heart together - just as it should be and just as John Stott does in this book. I once wrote to John Stott, thanking him for this book and he wrote back (as you do - far out!) and acknowledged that this was his most important book. That does not surprise because he gloried in the cross and urged others to cling to the cross.

Do continue to visit the Memorial Site. Do access his sermons - free of charge - on the All Souls website. Do buy a book from the list above, or from the comprehensive bibliography. If you 'know not John Stott', do browse the messages being left in the Remembrance Book, pushing on towards 1000 in number now - that is such a staggering number.

And do make it a priority to thank and respect the contribution which John Stott has made to the mission of God worldwide by attending a Memorial Service near you (a list is constantly being updated on the Memorial Site). The New Zealand one will be at 5pm on Sunday 4 September at the Cathedral in Parnell (Auckland).

nice chatting


Monday, August 01, 2011

john stott: a portrait by his friends

This past weekend has been in the diary for months as a family holiday. This book, John Stott: a portrait by his friends, has been targeted as my weekend reading matter for almost as long. The fact that John Stott died just the day before we left added a poignancy to the time in its pages.

John Stott had an “incredible capacity for friendship” (13). This little book, released to honour his 90th birthday, collects the reflections of 35 friends from the eras and time zones in which his life was lived. While this sounds like a recipe for unadulterated adulation, I did not find this to be the case. With both text and photo this compilation uncovers an honesty, humour, and humanity in Stott's life which maybe the earlier biographies - by Timothy Dudley-Smith by Roger Steer - did not achieve quite as readily.

As a way to nurture the honesty it was Stott’s desire that it be a ‘warts and all’ story which he had no interest in reading before publication (in fact, his initial preference was that it be published posthumously). One only needs to read the chapter by Myra Chave-Jones where the younger Stott is described as an inhibited person, known to become angry, and “not always a good judge of character” (36) - or, how his assistant for 50 years, Frances Whitehead, observes how he has "wonderfully mellowed" (55) over the years - to discover that more than adulation is suggested in these pages.

The book is littered with a mixture of humorous Stottian quips ('Flattery is like cigarette smoke – it does you no harm so long as you don't inhale’) and stories. There are lots of laughs in these pages. My favourite story is of the 'rather large' pastor in Florida ('it had likely been some years since he saw his feet') who introduced Stott with a flourish: 'I would crawl on my knees, 500 miles, just to hear John Stott speak'. But then he sat down in the front row and promptly fell asleep. Stott's conclusion? "I can only assume that the poor man was utterly exhausted from his 500 mile crawl" (140).

And the humanity is evident as well. For many, Stott remains ‘the most Christ-like person they have ever met’ – but his obsession with Christ was mixed with lesser obsessions with birds (if there was an index to the book, this might be the largest entry as they are flying all over these pages about a self-confessed 'ornitheologian'), chocolate (except in Lent), the cold baths every morning, the writer Saki, "digging a hole for his hip" (159) on some random hillside to enable his 'horizontal half hour' – and even a penchant for James Bond movies.

(I was thrilled to find this photo, as it has John Stott sitting in the 'seat' in the cliff near The Hookses from which he wrote books like Basic Christianity).

However what will remain with me is that this book engages with the people who knew him best and these people are themselves trying to capture the essence of their friend in just a few paragraphs. There are so many phrases which add such insight: “the gracious, perceptive leader” (Michael Green); the “compelling seriousness” (Frances Whitehead); that enigmatic “blend of passion and balance, humility and authority, scholarship and simplicity, austerity and warmth” (David Turner); listeners being “held in thoughtful wonder as John Stott illumined the text” (Keith & Gladys Hunt); “the clarity, forcefulness and pastoral wealth of his words” (Samuel Escobar); “a veritable modern-day church father” (Peter Kuzmic); “a drive for clarity, a confidence in rationality, an expectation of competency” (Mark Labberton).

On and on it goes ... pausing here and there for nuggets of wisdom as well. With young Kiwi, Ted Schroeder, developing as a preacher: "guard your flanks" (61). With a young Chris Wright, developing as a scholar: "preserve your independence" (144).

The freshest contributions for me came in the chapters from David Turner (80-86, a judge who I see has written the obituary for the Guardian), Peter Harris (155-161, the founder of A Rocha), and Mark Labberton (187-192, a study-assistant who is now the Preaching lecturer at Fuller Seminary). The most memorable story came from Ajith Fernando where he discovers that his heavily annotated copy of The Cross of Christ has fallen out the window of a Sri Lankan bus. He stops the bus so that he can go in search of his copy of “the most enriching doctrinal book I have ever read” (107). You'll have to read the book to discover how he gets on...

I think the book works well - even better than I expected when I started reading. The 'approximately chronological' flow to the chapters helps. With John Stott's death placing him in the headlines and with a generation that 'know him not' occupying our churches - we need to look for ways to introduce the man and his writings to people. On the Sunday evening before he died, the pastor where I was preaching asked for a show-of-hands from 250+ young adults - "how many of you have heard of John Stott?". A generous estimate is that three people raised their hands. The reasons are there - but it was still a sad sight ... and this ‘portrait by his friends’ could serve well as a place where a new antipodean generation can meet the most influential leader in the worldwide (evangelical) church over the past generation, or three. Now neither Jesus nor John Stott would talk or think like that - but sometimes the facts need to be stated!

As I read the same old question surfaced yet again. Why did the church in New Zealand need to be so inhospitable to John Stott, with his last visit to our shores being more than forty years ago? How many Kiwis had to resort to crossing waters or opening pages to be influenced by this man? His visits to Australia must have out-numbered NZ by 10 to 1. It shows up in the paucity of our traditions of saintly scholarship, of authoritative and relevant biblical exposition, of a 'double listening' to word and world, and the best in a clear, yet spacious, evangelicalism. There may be a generation that 'knows not John Stott' but I hope and pray that it can still be a generation that rests its thoughts on similar convictions, even as it lives its life with similar habits.

Towards the end of the book is recorded Stott’s response to the doctor when asked for an explanation of his wishes should he become incapacitated or unconscious. He does so before concluding with: “... the reason that I do not wish to cling to life is that I have a living hope of a yet more glorious life beyond death, and I do not wish to be unnecessarily hindered from inheriting it” (211). In God’s goodness, he inherited it just last week. As with his sermons, so also in his birth and death there can be found clarity and symmetry - because the year within the decade and the date within the month are the same: John Stott, 27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011.

While John Stott has been my hero and my inspiration throughout my working life, it is also true, as Chris Wright expresses it, that “the key thing is not to try to imitate him, but to imitate the Christ who so demonstrably lived within him” (216). He lived for Christ and his greater glory and our response should be “above all, to cling to the cross” (198).

nice chatting


[NB - with thanks to Kieran Dodds for the final photo in this post]