Wednesday, June 27, 2012

pure gold

With a British Olympics around the corner, I suspect David McClasland's Pure Gold (Lion, 2012) has been republished with the possibility of a fresh readership in mind. If so, I succumbed - and am so glad I did. It caught my eye at Auckland Airport - and it filled that eye with more than few tears.

It is such a sad book. Liddell was just 43 when he died of a brain tumour in an internment camp, just months before the war ended. He waited and waited for the love-of-his-life (Florence) to reach a marriageable age and then spent more time apart from her than with her, in an 11 year marriage. He never met his youngest daughter Maureen. And his own childhood in a missionary family was full of separation: 'Between the ages of six and a half and thirteen, Eric had lived in a family home with both parents for only a hundred days' (43). And then there is Florence as well - left as she was without a husband at 33, with three little girls for which to care. An incredibly sad book.

Then there is a tenderness as well. I love the way McCasland describes Eric and Flo's relationship. After the decision to marry: 'They were both hopelessly and fearlessly in love with the most wonderful person they knew' (143). After a year of separation on the way to marriage: 'They embraced for a long time without speaking, trying to make up for the yearnings of a year apart' (166). Describing their honeymoon: 'The reality of being husband and wife sank in slowly but deliciously each day' (176). Then when discussing remarriage after the death of either one of them, Eric twinkled away with 'Now, Flo, you know I'm always happy to do whatever you ask. However since you chose my first wife for me, I think it would only be fair if I was allowed to do my own choosing' (190).

The more I reflect on the story, the more I am convinced that Eric is the kind of Christian we need to be nurturing today. Eric was 'an ordinary man who lived so extraordinarily' (281) and that is possible for us all. He was a simple chemistry teacher. Sure, he was an Olympic champion but 'part of what endeared him to others was his ability to enjoy his success while being completely detached from any sense that he was responsible for it' (94). 

There is a rich spirituality here. Positive and relational. Salt and Light. Truth and grace. Thinking about my previous post on fashion and relevance, Eric would not stoop to care about either of them (he wore 'gaudy floral print shirts...made from his wife's curtains' (259) at the internment camp). Then there are the Four Absolutes by which he lived: 'absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love' (105). 'He was serious about God, but never about himself' (137). He was 'never too busy to accommodate himself to the wishes of others' (236). I love how he described living his faith in the workplace of a high school in China: 'The Spirit of our Master slowly works his way into our games, works, and services' (153). And when things became so uncertain, he concluded that 'in every daily contact he had, whether with British, Japanese, or Chinese, he wanted to be part of God's "amazing offensive of love".' (226). His approach to Bible study was to 'read accurately, interpret honestly, apply drastically' (162). When 300 children from Chefoo School arrived at the camp, they loved Uncle Eric 'because he was concerned and available' (266) - with a number of them prominent in the story of his final days.

None of these qualities are out of reach for any of us. The story inspires, but more importantly, it gives the reader something to which to aspire which is realistic. Eric is just the sort of believer and follower which God desperately needs to sign up for his mission in the world. His is an example which can be followed. 

It is a beautifully written book. It starts where it should start: that final farewell to Flo and the girls beside the ship in Kobe, as they head back to Canada. The author writes the personal story against the backdrop of the history of the world. I love it when that happens. For example, Florence discovers that her Eric had died (she received the news two months after he died) on the very day the world celebrated Hitler's death, with newspaper headlines 'as tall as a man's hand' (282). While the world around her was euphoric, she was swallowed up in grief. 

I'll be watching Chariots of Fire yet again when I get home, buoyed by the fact that Flo reckoned it captured Eric so well, particularly his 'winsome and humble spirit' (13). 

Why not infuse this British Olympic season with a book that will do you a lot of good?

nice chatting


Monday, June 25, 2012

winds and waves

Fashion really is a bit of a joke.

Afterall is there anything which provokes greater shrieks of laughter than poring over old photos? 'Look at that hair' ... 'Those glasses are terrible'. Then on it progresses to the likes of shoes and make-up and shorts...

Here is my question. If these styles can cause so much mirth a generation later, why are they so important to people at the time? Fashion has an enduring ability to come and go. And yet, in the moment, mountains of money and care and time are spent on things like hair and glasses, only to endure the shrieks of the children a few years later. I don't get it. How can something so transitory, be so important? How can we invest so much emotion in something which blows away with the wind?

The corresponding issue in the church is the one of relevance. The need to be relevant can hold the mind of leaders in a vice. They fear the alternative more than anything else. I sat atop Mt Maunganui once and watched the waves roll in. I counted 21 waves in the process of making their way to the beach, before doing what waves do: crashing into the sand and being forgotten forever. As I sat there, I counted 21 different waves (almost) that have held the heart and mind of the church in New Zealand in my time.  These waves just had to be surfed, if your church was to be relevant and to grow. Each one was the next big thing that must not be missed. The Hybelsian Wave. The Toronto Wave. The Saddleback Wave. On and on it really did go, placing enormous pressure on pastors and leaders to get with the trends, or miss out. While each was helpful for a time, they all did crash into the sand and become forgotten - with the church, a generation later, not much bigger or better. Questions need to be asked.

We are suckers for fashions and trends. These winds and waves just must be obeyed. No. They need to be watched and listened and read (keeping the head in the sand is not the answer), but they do not need to be obeyed.

The secret in being relevant starts with a clear, strong grasp of the things that do not change, long before the things that do change. Decide what they are and hold on to them. Better still, be held by them - for forever. 

The secret of beauty and attraction has nothing to do with the fashionable look. It lies with liberating the authentic person, made and loved by God, to shine through all the inconsequential wrappings and paintings in order to be loved for who they really are.

nice chatting


Wednesday, June 06, 2012

the story of mission, seat by seat

I wonder if the history of modern mission is like travelling in a car.

It started with the pioneers. The missionaries sat in the driving seat with the steering wheel in hand and with foot to the floor. Taylor, Carey, Judson - and the like. They took control, being very directive with their leadership. The cynics will go on about colonialism and imperialism and I am sure that catching that wave often was unavoidably true - but it was not the only truth. There was also the little matter of a great commission which drove them along their way.

Then came an awareness of the place of partnerships. Missionaries realised the need to slip across to the passenger seat. The focus shifted to nurturing national leaders, giving them responsibility and leadership. It was all about strengthening the national church by serving it, not steering it. This captured the passion of my parents' and so many in their generation of missionaries. My father was devoted to building friendships with national leaders and doing what he could to help them take the limelight, shining in their service of Jesus. But always sitting nearby to offer comment and support, when asked.

But I wonder if the shift carries on ... I am at home for three days, in between visits to large M-majority countries in Asia. As I gave myself fully to last week, it dawned on me that being in the passenger seat is not really my goal at all. It is being in the back seat which compels me. No - not so that I can be a back-seat driver (I can read your mind!) - but so that, literally and metaphorically, I can be working from behind. [NB: the sentiment sounds noble, but it is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds]. Last week a skilled and servant-hearted team of national leaders were in the driving seat - with lifelong missionaries, who have won the affection and trust of the locals, in the passenger seat. I was in the back seat where I gave myself to the training as best as I could - and then a moment of sheer joy in that back seat on the final day. The goal is to train trainers of preachers. The opportunity was given for them to train us, as we assumed the persona of novices. Some of them were just so good.

And so, mission accomplished - right? Once they demonstrate the skills, do I just hit the button for the ejector seat and fly outta there and leave them to it? I guess those wallowing in post-colonial guilt would assume this to be the case. I am far less convinced. I think we keep travelling in the car together, celebrating the deepening unity and friendship which comes because we share a love for Jesus - enjoying being members of the global church together and all that this means in a 1 Corinthians 12 kinda way.

nice chatting