Sunday, July 29, 2012

governing church

I have been a closet-anglican and a small-b-baptist pretty much all my Christian life. But it is my love of being interdenominational, international ... and interserve (the mission family in which I grew up, known back then as bmmf) that has pretty much trumped everything else.

But God has a sense of humour. He called me to be the principal of a baptist seminary (Carey Baptist College) where I needed to put the capital into the 'b' and become Baptist for a season (although the student community was never much more than 50% baptist). And now he has called me to work in a mission organisation that is so deeply Anglican (although it is working to diversify and broaden), it is hard to remain in the closet.

But there is one area where I am clearly one and not the other: church governance. The New Testament does not appear to be explicit enough about the way a church should be governed. This is partly why so many different ways have emerged through history - and so I don't think the issue is a critical deal-breaker theologically. However, as I travel, I do hear far too many stories of below-average bishops with above-average power. I'd struggle in that world. My doctrine of human depravity is too strong to allow so much influence to be wrapped up in one person...

So, on church governance, I remain baptistic. While it is not without its frustrations, my own experience in my own local church in recent months has provided a surge of optimism. We've been having a tough ol' time - just the kind of time when it is important to hang in there and quietly be part of the solution and not the problem! In recent months we have had two meetings for the members. Given the state of the church I thought both meetings could be tricky, even divisive. The first meeting was about calling a pastor and the second was about houses and property and buying and selling. By instinct I did not think this latter issue needed a member's meeting - but I was proved to be wrong.

Anyhow I thought it was copybook, case study material. Incredibly full briefing papers canvassing all the issues were distributed well in advance of the meetings. I've never seen it done better. Information is power and passing it on, in writing, in good time and in fulness minimises the possibility of the abuse of power. The documents fueled lots of questions and filled me with confidence that the homework had been done. Then when the meetings came around I was impressed by the way they were convened. Loads of patience in evidence, with defensiveness of spirit held in check. In both meetings I was ready to vote after 10 minutes - but the questions flowed, and then flowed even some more (along with my fidgety-ness). The respect shown to the voices of the older ones in the church impacted me - as did the wisdom shared from among the members (rather than just the leaders up the front). On both occasions a common mind gradually took over the meeting as the questions ran out of steam. It came as no surprise that after what seemed forever, a vote was taken on these potentially polarising issues with the result being decisive, and probably close to unanimous. My sense was that the Spirit was present in the meeting largely because of the way individuals were honoured...

OK - it doesn't always work like this. I know that. But for a local church navigating some tough stuff, there was so much to like about this approach. But it did remind me of a conversation I had with a man many years ago. He came to our little baptist church as a refugee from an imploding pentecostal church. I cautioned him against any expectation that he was entering the 'promised land' of church governance. Afterall when things are going well in a local church, what could be better than a pentecostal, or anglican church, where the big decisions can be made by fewer people and the momentum allowed to race ahead? At such a time what could be more frustrating than a laboured and picky members' meeting? But when things go sour, a church hits the wall, the pastor disappoints with moral failure (as was the case with this friend) - the last place I'd want to be is in a pentecostal church. Because at such a time a church governance that honours and starts within the family of God in the search for wisdom and guidance is to be preferred. Well - for me anyway!

nice chatting


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

thirty years and counting

Today is our 30th wedding anniversary...

Barby and I met before we can remember. The year was 1963. The setting was probably a church creche in the Himalayan hill-station of Mussoorie. I may have pinched her, making her cry, and have spent the rest of my life trying to put things right. Her dad was pastor and my dad assisted him as choir director. Her parents (and grandparents) had clocked up 50 years in India and my parents had just arrived. They had commenced language study. My  future mother-in-law administered my father's Hindi exam and had a great story to tell...

Over the next ten years not much happened. Barby's family remained on the same hillside in the same house. Our family came and went a bit, staying in a different house each time. In the early 1970s both families moved to Delhi, Barby's parents as pastoral leaders within the Delhi Bible Fellowship (DBF) and my parents to pick up the international leadership of BMMF/Interserve. We attended DBF, with my future father-in-law becoming the first preacher I ever really listened to (whew?!). Our parents' friendship grew and this may be when their mischievous talk about arranged marriages originated. For some of the time we lived in the same suburb in Delhi. I could actually see Barby's house from the roof of our house - but we never hung out at all. I look back now on all those wasted winter weeks on holiday. What fun we could have had together - playing Yahtzee and Ludo, of course.

In their wisdom our parents sent us back up to Woodstock for our high school years - and so we had four years in boarding school to conjure up a little mischief of our own. But alas, we were model students. Barby was in my younger brother's class and it was not until being in a Latin class together that we got to know each other. The dead language stirred to life as 'amo, amas, amat' gradually became the mantra of our lives. Through high school we became friends in that ultra-safe brother:sister sort of way. However we did go to the Junior:Senior Banquet together.

In 1976 I returned home to NZ for a final year of school designed to facilitate an easier entrance into medical school than what had proved to be the case for my older brother, John. (NB: John now has a global reputation as a surgeon and I can't stand the sight of blood. Go figure!). But back I came and the one commitment Barby and I made to each other was that we would write letters. And write letters we did - about 100 of them each way over the five years. No email - and not even a single phone call. But assisted by our favourite photos of each other on our walls (NB: it is entirely coincidental that Barby is found here gazing delightedly in my direction), we managed to get through some difficult months. After three years I had saved enough money to go to the USA to attend the IVCF Urbana conference - and to visit Barby. We had five weeks together, managing to hold hands for the first time (previously, the Pacific Ocean had made this difficult) - and doing so while listening to Billy Graham. We also managed a first kiss as well, before deciding to - you guessed it - keep writing letters. Ahh, the platonic was beginning to drift irretrievably into neo-platonic activism...

At this point our parents became decidedly active in their advice. Plus they showed a penchant for visiting their future in-laws to stoke the fires. Then on the same day (we think at the same hour), on different continents and independent from each other (or, so they maintain!) - our fathers offered the very same advice to us. Barby should visit New Zealand. And so at 20 years of age, demonstrating plenty of courage and grace, Barby came out to visit. My father planned an itinerary around the North Island (ensuring we were staying with family and friends!) - and when we reached Palmerston North to stay with someone I had never met, David Penman (who went on to become Archbishop of Melbourne), our host took me into the Asia Room in the Vicarage and over a few hours convinced me that it would be a good idea to pop upstairs and ask Barby to marry me before she dropped off to sleep. I did so and the wisdom of that decision has grown on me, year by year.

We headed back to the USA together - Barby to complete her study at Wheaton College and me to commence mine at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School - providentially just 60 mins apart and so we saw each other on weekends. Then on a hot and humid day in the western suburbs of Chicago we were married - 17 July 1982. Barby graciously changed her name from Warren to Windsor, as I whisked her away from rabbits and into the embrace of royalty. We arrived back home in NZ on the day David Lange came to power. The only cash I had to my name was a solitary USD20 bill. Lange promptly devalued the NZ currency and my increased wealth was marvelous in my eyes. Over the next 9 years God blessed us with five children (Stephen, Alyssa, Martin, Bethany, Joseph) - the very same five children who, over the past 3 years, have been leaving home with rather alarming haste.

And so another new chapter together beckons. We are grateful for God's gracious hand upon us over the years. It is true that the finger that points the way is part of the hand which provides. And it is true that the love grows.

nice chatting


PS. This photo was taken in a South Delhi park (Suraj Kund) in about 1975, capturing a bunch of missionary-kids playing the ol' favourite: 'red light, green light'.

It is all good innocent stuff, until you look more closely. Out to the left more mischief is afoot. To help us celebrate our anniversary feel free to submit a caption for this photo...  

Friday, July 13, 2012

the intolerance of tolerance

On a series of recent flights, I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with DA Carson's latest book, The Intolerance of Tolerance. His central premise is that the word 'tolerance' has become slippery and changed its meaning over time. There is an old tolerance (which is good) and a new tolerance (which is bad). Carson circles around this distinction, returning to it again and again for fuller description.

For example:
The old tolerance is the willingness to put up with, allow, or endure people and ideas with whom we disagree; in its purest form, the new tolerance is the social commitment to treat all people and ideas as equally right, save for those people who disagree with this view of tolerance (98).
Or, again - quoting J. Daryl Charles:
Where the old tolerance allowed hard differences on religion and morality to rub shoulders and compete freely in the public square, the new variety wishes to lock them all indoors as matters of private judgement; the public square must be given over to indistinctness ... (and it has) a disposition of hostility to any suggestion that one thing is "better" than another (76-77).
One of the features of the book is that Carson includes dozens of examples of this new tolerance at work in public life - and some of the nonsense that proliferates as a result. However I thought I'd focus on five implications of this distinction as they impacted me and my culture-watching.

a. the myth of neutrality
Secularist advocates of the 'new tolerance' claim a neutrality and fair-mindedness which religious people just cannot attain. It is almost as if 'tolerance comes naturally to the secular person, whilst intolerance comes naturally to the religious person' (92, quoting Coffey). There is a delicious irony here - because it is many of the gurus of these secularists who raised the alarm about the unavoidability of the involvement of a subject in any interpretative exercise in the first place. They are the ones who asserted that neutrality was impossible. And yet their disciples can appear to be exempt from this reality. But since neutrality is not possible for anyone, is it not far wiser to surface the presuppositions at work and weigh their relative merits as a part of that debate? 
But no - 'all religious beliefs must be banished to the private sphere so that we secularists can occupy the public sphere' (with their own brand of religious beliefs remaining under cover). Is this not intolerance in the guise of tolerance? It is a biggie - and right at the heart of the debate about Religious Education in Schools in New Zealand, a debate that was always going to arrive and one which Christians will struggle to win.

b. the infrequency of civility
The relevance of Carson's argument is self-evident. It does not take long to reach issues related to sexuality, race, gender, religion, and life & death. This shift from the old to the new tolerance as the prevailing view in society is making civility in debate to be so difficult. If accusations of 'homophobe' or 'racist' are on the tip of peoples' tongues, the debate that is needed is less likely to occur. There are exceptions - thankfully. Here in New Zealand, two come to mind from recent weeks. One in the area of sexuality and the other in the area of race.

(1) Notice the civility in the tone of the discussion on gay marriage on TVNZ's Close Up programme (06/06/12). While credit goes to both Laurie Guy (Carey Baptist College) and Alison Mau for this, because Laurie's view is the one under attack, the example of civility which he gave is most instructive. He didn't back down - but nor did he lose his cool either. If I was in that situation myself, I would struggle to do either of these. It was very impressive. Stuart Lange (Laidlaw College) is another Kiwi who comes to mind with this ability when placed in the public square. If Christians are to re-enter the public square, we need this civility.

(2) A young lad, Joshua Iosefa, recently gave the most remarkable prefect speech at Mt Roskill Grammar School, called 'Brown Brother'. Seriously, it is weep-worthy. It is profound. It is prophetic. It is delivered with skill and style. What strikes me is that he raises issues that from someone else's mouth could readily be labelled racist - but he has such charisma, humility, humour, courage, truth-filled conviction ...and civility(!) that a deeper debate becomes possible. I include a link to the original delivery at the school's assembly, rather than the more canned version that appeared later on television.

In this area I find that throwing around the phrase 'political correctness' to be singularly unhelpful. It lifts the temperature of the debate (in a manner reminiscent of 'homophobe' from the 'other side') and injects a lack of sanity (which I guess means 'insanity') into what follows. Plus it is becoming a phrase that is assigned to people with whom we disagree. Far better to engage in debate without the phrase being used.

c. the oddity of 'no religion'
Here in New Zealand we like to celebrate the way our last census (2006) revealed that one third of Kiwis say they have 'no religion'. I can't wait to see the results of the next census to see how high the figure is now. We hail this result as progressive and the mark of civilisation advancing towards the elimination of conflict. Really?! Even when the vast majority of humanity thinks it to be so silly? When I share this with peoples in Asia they are invariably dumb-founded, stunned. Fed by this 'new tolerance', taking religion casually is not going to advance the cause of peace in the world. The bloodiest messes in the bloodiest century (20th) were done by the hands of atheists, not theists. As Carson observes,
... cultures in other parts of the world often see in Western (new) tolerance, not a mature and civilized culture worth emulating, but a childish and maniulative culture that refuses to engage with serious moral issues ... Far from bringing peace, the new tolerance is progressively becoming more intolerant, fostering moral myopia, proving unable to engage in serious and competent discussions about truth, letting personal and social evils fester, and remaining blind to the political and international perceptions of our tolerant cultural profile (139).
On this it is also important to note the shallowness of much of what passes for inter-faith dialogue with its search for 'contentless agreement' (123) in which there emerges 'a sort of happy friendship provided no participant believes very much to be true within his or her respective traditions' (124). It doesn't work like that with people of faith - which is the vast majority of the world! "A Muslim who believes very little and a Christian who believes very little and a Jew who believes very little will have a lot in common: very little' (124).

d. the disappointment with universities
I can understand the media and politics losing the plot here - but universities? 'Historically the bastions of free speech and free thinking, have repeatedly, in the name of tolerance, exhibited remarkable intolerance' (31).  If they were truly fair-minded they would offer a Stage Three course which analyses the contribution which adherents of the Christian faith have made to the advance of civilisation. Can you see it in the History department at the University of Auckland? Even a critical engagement with the topic would lead to a string of positive outcomes by Christians. Even an inclusion of Islam in such a course handled even-handedly would lead to numerous positive contributions made by Christian believers. But our universities can be so hostile to Christian faith, often stuck back in the Crusades. It is part of why I would argue, if we are thinking strategically and investing in the long haul, that it is our campuses which are the most urgent mission priority for the church in New Zealand.

e. the intolerance of jesus
Leaning heavily on Jesus' "Get out - I never knew you" conclusion to his celebrated sermon (Matthew 7. 21-23), Carson touches on the intolerance which Jesus can show to those who claim to be his followers. Although Carson does not mention them, I am reflecting on them at the moment and we could add Jesus' messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2 & 3 as further examples of this intolerance. 'A central myth of our time is that God is infinitely tolerant, that Jesus is infinitely tolerant' (102). We need to quit creating Jesus in the image of our interests and agendas and allow the biblical record to shape our understanding of who Jesus is. Surely anything else leads to idolatry?

There are two sections in the book where Carson helps strengthen the resolve of believers in this demanding area. From pp111-125, he discusses 'Aspects of Christian Truth Claims' - and then in pp161-176 he offers 'Ways Ahead: Ten Words'. Let me give a taste by concluding with these 'words':
+ Expose the New Tolerance's Moral and Epistemological Bankruptcy
+ Preserve a Place for Truth
+ Expose the New Tolerance's Condescending Arrogance
+ Insist that the New Tolerance is not 'Progress'
+ Distinguish between Empirical Diversity and the Inherent Goodness of All Diversity
+ Challenge Secularism's Ostensible Neutrality and Superiority
+ Practice and Encourage Civility
+ Evangelize
+ Be Prepared to Suffer
+ Delight and Trust in God

I'd add an eleventh (yes, I know - this is incredibly brave of me!) - from my own research and reflection:
+ Live a Life (and Speak Words) which Intrigue
(which is a little different - and a little more - than mere civility)

nice chatting


Sunday, July 08, 2012

lydia, steve, jacko, kane

As I reflect on my time as a leader, one of the great delights was to watch and listen to young adults take their first steps in service - then to pray and lean on some Spirit-given (I hope!) discernment - before taking the risk of boldly speaking some words into their life about what they could become under God's good hand and trying to walk with them into that future. Young adults tend to be grossly-under-affirmed and desperate to have someone to believe in them. I loved wading into that world.

Maybe this is why I get so excited about following four young people emerging in NZ sporting life. Please let me tell you about them...

As I write, Lydia Ko is playing in her first major golf tournament (US Women's Open) alongside Karrie Webb, Michelle Wie and all the others. Lydia is the top-ranked "women's" amateur golfer in the world. I write "women's" because Lydia is 15 years old. Yes, you heard me right - fifteen. The other night I saw her interviewed and there it was - the same winsome self-effacing effervescence that has characterized so many leading Kiwi sportswomen down through the years.

I am not sure what Steven Adams is doing as I write. But stick with me here. Steve stands 7 feet tall (2.13m). He has just finished high school in the USA. He hasn't even started college yet. But in one reputable 'NBA mock draft 2013' (yes, a bit of a guess - as it is one year away), where the top college players are recruited by the professional NBA teams, Steven is projected to go 6th - and he is not even in college yet. I am not sure where to start in trying to convey how remarkable this is. Maybe I can do so by reminding you that NZ's greatest ever basketball player, Sean Marks, was drafted 44th, after four years in college, when it was his turn. And yes, Steve is the little brother of Valerie Adams, Olympic-gold-medlalist-in-waiting in the Shot Put.

Nor am I sure what Jacko Gill is doing as I write. Probably training like he does in this video. In 2010 he beat a world record held by Usain Bolt to become the youngest ever junior world champion in any discipline in track and field. He won the Shot Put - aged 15 (beating 19 year olds along the way). Sadly, someone made some mistakes somewhere along the way and Jacko is not going to the London Olympics. But as shot-putters reach their prime in their thirties, Jacko probably has four more Olympics in him.

As I write, Kane Williamson is about to go into bat as captain of the New Zealand one-day cricket team. He is just 21 - an almost ridiculous age to be thrown into that kind of cauldron. He is the fourth-youngest to do so - and the youngest ever from a major cricket-playing nation. Plus he has to operate within a ridiculous governance system and with a talent-challenged team decimated by the ridiculous Indian Premier League (sorry, I had to add those two realities as well). One of the great joys of the next decade for me will be to watch him achieve greatness as a cricketer and as a leader.

When I engage these stories some sort of switch gets flipped inside me. I can't quite describe it. I long to see them do well. I love seeing the next generation come along and be given the opportunity to become all that they can possibly be. I defy the Kiwi fear of giving people a 'big head' (maximum cranial phobia, as I like to call it) as the utter rubbish that it is. And yes, I do pray that Jesus will find them and that they will become the Eric Liddells and Michael Jones of their generation...

Oops - gotta go because Kane has just come into bat. But whether you be 15 or 18, 17 or 21 - pursue excellence and do it for Jesus' sake and in Jesus' name.

nice chatting


Tuesday, July 03, 2012

sadness and surprise in asia major

After a month in Asia Major I return home with a heavy heart. Indonesia, UAE, Pakistan and Malaysia. Places where the Christian minority have it tough. Harassed. Marginalised. Shunned. Slandered. And yes, persecuted. One man with whom we work was kidnapped earlier this year...

a big sadness
It saddens me, even annoys me. I guess I should shift across to it being lament-able in a biblical way, but at the moment I am still annoyed. I'll get there eventually. People from the majority faith in these countries demand a brand of freedom of religion when they immigrate to the West (and become a minority themselves) - but this is the very freedom which they have refused to give to Christians as a minority back in their homelands. It is never right. It is always wrong. It does not endear this faith to me.

While in these countries I lived a lot in two letters in the New Testament written to churches all around Asia Minor: 1 Peter and Revelation. I have been captivated by the first book for decades - but now the second one is taking hold of me as well. Wonderful books for Asia Major today where issues of security and persecution and corruption head the list of concerns. They understand the sadness. At a conference I had the opportunity to hear a Filipino scholar, Rico, speak about the 'lament psalms' and an Indian scholar, Paulson, speak about the 'imprecatory psalms' - more biblical raw material by which to help me interpret this annoyance. Rico actually gave me a copy of his new little book on lament, It's OK to be Not OK.

a little surprise
It surprises me, even makes me nervous. At one point in the month I attended a Consultation on Scripture for 100 evangelical scholars from all around Asia Major. I listened to 27 papers being presented and debated. Fascinating. Again and again, I heard evangelicals default to the need for a contextual theology, letting the context help shape the agenda for an engagement with the biblical text. At one level this is a given. Of course this needs to happen. The last thing that is needed is a recycling and a cutting-and-pasting of Western categories and agendas. [NB: the fact  that in the majority of countries which I visit in Asia Major people are still singing the hymns given to them by the missionaries is an example of this need].

But the quickness with which this bunch of evangelical scholars defaulted to the importance of context caught me by surprise. Defaulting to context so easily closes a good door and opens a bad door. If we too quickly advocate the uniqueness of our own context, we will rush on from the opportunity to listen humbly and openly to the Word in the company of both the Lord of the Word and his people from other contexts. I do wonder if there is  more that remains constant in human nature and across these cultures than is readily recognised? I do wonder if something good is lost by not letting the 'hermeneutical spiral' kick-in and the asymptotic journey to true truth progress? A good door is closed too quickly.

And if careful care is not taken, a bad door is opened. When the context becomes too important it is so often the first step in the journey toward cultural accommodation and capture. There is a slippery slope. Truth becomes made in the image of the culture. This is exactly what we see in popular brands of Western Christianity where relevance becomes an idolatrous pursuit - and also in its brands of theological education. Self-proclaimed contextual theological education is exactly the brand which I try to dissuade people from engaging, simply because it does not respect the content of the text enough. Now I hasten to add that while I heard nothing that caused me alarm at the Consultation, I did get nervous and twitchy - and I was a bit surprised.

POSTSCRIPT: My sense is that one of the biggest adjustments for foreigners visiting these countries in Asia Major is the sight of women completely covered up, with only their eyes visible. On my return home, in transit in Melbourne airport, I came across this piece in The Age about young women in Oz. More sadness and surprise. It does make me wonder which cultural context has the bigger problem.

nice chatting