Sunday, November 24, 2013

sachin's speech

I've been exegeting Sachin's retirement speech. It provides such insight into an Indian worldview, often so different from those ones associated with 'the West'.

A full text of the speech can be found here.

[NB: For those who may be unaware (!), 'Sachin' refers to Sachin Tendulkar. His name has the fame that 'Roger' has with tennis, or 'Tiger' with golf - except that in Indian culture, much more is going on with Sachin than mere sport].

But back to the exegesis...

The priority of family
Father. Mother. Uncle & Auntie. Eldest brother. Sister. Other brother. Wife. Children. In-laws. Each receive a paragraph. Taken together this covers almost half of all that he says. Remarkable. Then when he gets to his team-mates, they are referred to as his 'family away from home'. Even his words for his manager have the same reference point - 'more like my family'. 'Family' is the prevailing motif in this speech. It is the primary means of self-understanding. These are the ties which bind people together the strongest. It is towards these people that the deepest gratitude is directed.

The integration of religion
A longtime missionary in South India, Lesslie Newbigin, is credited for raising the alarm in the West about the way religion has become a matter of private choice. But in India, religion remains more easily in the public world. Sachin's religion leaks into this speech. It is expected. It causes no offence. References to prayers and fasts find their way naturally into the stream of words. And it rings true for him. One of the great mistakes of Western-styled pluralism is that it diminishes the role of religion. The world's problems are never going to be resolved by downplaying the role which religion plays in public life.

The appeal of character
Humility. Grace. Warmth. It is not uncommon for people to say that while Sachin was a great cricketer, he was an even greater human being. I love the fact that he had a little list in his hand of all the people he wanted to thank. And it is challenging for Christians to be reminded that it is, primarily, a Hindu faith that nurtured this character (even though some rush to possible Christian influences). Plus I love the way he refers to his coach as 'sir', still offering him respect - even though he never heard the words 'well done' emerge from his mouth. In a land and a sport so closely linked to corruption, Sachin has walked a different track.

In training preachers over the years, I've emphasised the importance of the manner of the preacher. The manner is often a window into the character of a person. If you haven't done so, just listen and watch Sachin here for a bit. It amazes me how this quality has been retained amidst all the worship that has come his way...

The inescapability of hope
Back to Newbigin for this one. On his transition from India to the UK in retirement, Newbigin was struck by the contrast in the hopefulness of the kids on the streets of Madras with the hopelessness of the kids in the malls of Manchester. I'll never forget reading that line. And while it is changing, with much more of Manchester coming to Madras these days, there is something about Sachin's life and career that breathes a little light and hope into India's masses. It is there mingling with the worship. This past month it emerged that 68% of Indians still defecate outside in the open - and this at a time when India is trying to organise a mission to Mars. Oh, the irony of it. Even more ironic is how the fatalism in the Hindu worldview, so easily the antithesis of hope, can't stop the masses dreaming of better times. The writer of Ecclesiastes had a phrase for it. God has planted eternity in the hearts of every human being...

The endurance of eloquence
The manner may be soft and disarming, but out spilled some memorable lines. One media channel even offered the ten best quotes in the speech. Referring to his wife, Anjali, as the 'best partnership I had in my life' is a classic. So also is 'My life between 22 yards for 24 years ... has come to an end'. I actually missed the live event completely (grrr!) - but found myself reading the transcript to Barby from the newspaper the next day. It was hard to stop. It was good to be impacted by words being used well. A retiring All Black captain in New Zealand couldn't hope to speak with such eloquence - and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't bother Kiwis if he didn't.

The limits of influence
With that character in place, you'd expect Sachin to be the classic character-led leader who the troops easily follow into battle. With that capacity to raise the spirit of a nation with a word and a smile, you'd expect Sachin to be able to lift the morale of a team. With his embrace of his team as family, you'd expect Sachin to have an effective 'first-among-equals' leadership style. But history will record Sachin as a failure during his time as captain of the Indian cricket team. There is something more to leadership and he didn't have it.

After the speech Sachin headed off with his family to Mussoorie, where Barby and I grew up. This press release mentions Sanjay Narang, with whom we went to school. Sanjay bought Barby's childhood home. Three years ago we popped in for a cup of team with all the children. Sanjay has developed it significantly - well, that is what Barby tells the children, who listen to the unconvincing tale! The photo in this press release looks like it was taken at this home Barby associates most with her childhood. Pretty cool. The setting and the angles look to be just right...

nice chatting


Sunday, November 17, 2013

an open letter to those besotted with relevance


I don't know who you are. I don't know where you are. But I do know that there are heaps of you out there and I find myself thinking about you a lot. So much so that I thought I'd write you a letter.

First let me try to ensure that we are talking about the same thing. By 'relevance' I mean that approach to church and mission where we flow with cultural trends in order to minimise the difference between the believer and the unbeliever. This becomes a central mission strategy. But I sense it goes a little further than this with you. Your hope for the church seems to lie with it becoming relevant. You might even be among those who say silly things like 'unless the church becomes relevant, it will die'. In your heart of hearts the church and the Bible are in need of an extreme makeover. Because of this you probably spend considerable energy scanning the horizon for the next big thing to make mission effective in your setting.

But let me rush on to say what I don't mean. And if this letter annoys you, this will be the paragraph you choose to ignore! I am not saying that you should go Amish (although the Amish:Mennonite story provides a fascinating case study). I am not even saying that relevance is bad. Goodness me, I travel with Langham training preachers to be 'faithful, clear and relevant'. I've developed courses on Gospel & Culture. One of my favourite teaching topics is what I call preaching worldviewishly. Relevance is OK, but it is this obsession with it that is not OK. Your instinct, even your hope, seems to lie here. Listen to yourself talk. Look at what you read. Your sociology drives your theology and shapes it. That is not good...

How are we doing so far? My guess is that with the first paragraph it was, 'yes, that sounds a bit like me' - but with this second paragraph, you are saying 'that is definitely not me'. Are you sure? Rather than making more exclamations, may I ask some questions of you? Please hang in there with me for a few more minutes.

The love and justice of God is probably at the core of why you get out of bed in the morning. That's great. But where does the holiness of God rank for you? It should be right up there with the others. I hardly ever hear it spoken about among relevance-besotted ones. But in Jesus-focused, biblically-based mission, we will be wowed by God's intention, in Exodus, to come and live with his people. Then we will linger in Leviticus discovering how hard it is for that to happen. For a holy God to live with his people, those people will need to become holy - and that means maximising their differences from the surrounding nations, at the risk of looking decidedly irrelevant. Is the holiness of God as important to you as his love and his justice?

By the way, can you ever imagine those shining examples of godly influence in the public world - Joseph, Esther, and Daniel - ever worrying about whether they are being relevant? I can't.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

on a date in chennai

I have often given the advice that the way to cope with big bureaucracy in India is to adopt the gait and manner of the big animals in India - elephant, camel and buffalo. Steady. Unruffled. Metronomic.

Here was my chance to prove it. 

Our shipment of goods from New Zealand (mainly my books) are stuck at Customs in Chennai. After Barby made an unsuccessful visit last week, we are off again with a smile on our faces, determined to enjoy our date to Chennai. 

It starts with a train trip. My first one back in India. It is a double-decker train. Yippee. At the Bangalore Cantonment station we are greeted with a board on which to match the coach number on our ticket with the place on the platform at which to stand. With only two minutes in which to board and with a clutter of colour in saris ahead of us, struggling to heave themselves up onto the train - we make it in time.

It is a six hour trip. Between me and the window is a beautiful woman discovering Angry Birds. I am pacing myself through Dancing in the Glory of Monsters which tells the story of the wars in Congo. Knowing that refugee camps housed 1000 people in a space the size of a football field makes being an unruffled elephant in India much easier. On arrival, we find our way to the YWCA Guest House. The two single beds adrift from each other are, as usual, a little short and a little hard - but the subsequent merger allows me to be the diagonal to which I have grown accustomed. 

We rise ready to tackle the day. The promised arrival of a car at around 9.00 does not materialise until 11.00 - but finally we are on our way to an area called George Town (where, in the Invercargill version, I had been a pastor). Our agent, Kasturi, takes us through a room with a sea of desks and mountains of paper and on into a little office. 

We sit there. No explanations. He comes and goes for brief encounters. A signature here. A photo there. We play Angry Birds and read Monsters. On one occasion he is accompanied by lunch, with an almost christological announcement on the packaging. This breathes hope into the day, as we still have no idea what is happening...
At close to 4pm, and with government offices closing at 5pm, Kasturi enters the room with the curl of a smile on his face. ‘Come on, now we can go and see the Deputy Commissioner’. Off we go, walking in the third lane of the traffic coming toward us – as the footpath is fully occupied with extraneous items. Into Custom House we go. The reception area has three elevators. A cavernous hole exists where one once was. A second is out of order. The third seems stuck at the third floor, with the arrow pointing up, and a small crowd awaiting its arrival which appears to be far from imminent. With time against us, I suggest that we walk to the third floor instead. The offer is accepted! Into a packed corridor we walk. Oh dear! But I am greeted with an outstretched arm of a warm uniformed man - and a belly that reached me not so long after his hand. On it was fastened a buckle the size of a number plate from which gleamed the words ‘India Customs’. I could see I was in safe hands. 

He gave me his chair. He ordered tea. I love this India. Warm and hospitable. I feel ashamed of my childhood when so often I allowed people in these situations to be the enemy, rather than the friend. We start chatting – except I just can not understand him. The array of odd questions, coming out of nowhere, did not help. 'Are you RC or CSI?’ This is a question about religious affiliation, not TV viewing habits. A little later, after 4-5 efforts, it was ‘What is your salary?’ 

When the predictable ‘how many children?’ came, I had my opportunity to show-off photos to the entire corridor. For a brief moment in time Micah-worship rivalled the Sachin-worship which has gripped this nation. Headlines proclaiming 'God-bye' are not spelling mistakes, as for so many he is 'The Light of Their World'.

Finally, the door opened. I was about to enter the office of the Deputy Commissioner himself...
In I go - but I can hardly see the man. The room is huge. The desk is expansive. And when his mobile phones keep ringing and interrupting, I conclude that this is one important man. But once again he is warm. After a few questions, a few flicks of the hand, a few wobbles of the head –  we had the signature. The deed was done. I think. I'll believe it when my books are on my shelves. I thanked Kasturi profusely for his help. To which he responded, 'No, sir. We are not helping you. This is our service.'

It is almost 5pm. Move over bureaucracy. Start your engines. It is time for the date after the date. ‘C’mon let’s go to the beach’. The famous Chennai beach is wide and long. We overshoot the start and walk back along the beach, with the sun setting behind us, colouring everything just how I like it. The camera on the smartphone gets a workout. [NB: Don’t miss the towers of floodlights at Chepauk, the cricket ground - the only thing I knew about 'Madras' in my childhood]. 

We walk along the beach, then through a lane of little shops the width of the beach. Being world famous in my family for long urban walks in India, off we set again – this time in and through Chennai. Rural train trips and urban walks are the only way to see the real India. After a wee while(!), it is dark and we are in the midst of clogged traffic. It is time to eat. The moment overtakes me. No more elephants and camels. It is time to be raja and rani (king and queen). Plus, so much has been happening in our lives (and we hadn't celebrated my birthday, five weeks earlier, because we had spent it in a Catholic convent on a staff retreat). Rationalising reasons for a little luxury is such fun.

A check on google for 'best restaurants in Chennai', as we walk, reveals that we were not far from the Taj Coromandel hotel. What a delightful confluence of our India and Kiwi identity (NB: 'Coromandel' is a favoured holiday destination in NZ).

WOW. When we arrive at Taj Coromandel, we realise that it is not fit for rajis and ranis, but rather for a greater glory - IPL cricketers. This must be where they stay?! Sure enough, within minutes the waiter, Lokesh, has his mobile phone out showing me photos of him standing Tussaud-like, next to every Kiwi IPL cricketer that has ever graced this country. Jimmy Franklin is his favourite. 'We are good friends'. Lokesh and I get on well - until I realise that he never asks to have his photo with me. The food is sumptuous. All the usual suspects. Dosa. Aloo Jeera. Tandoori chicken. Naan. Sweet lime soda. Lokesh keeps bringing things we didn't order ... and it all amounts to NZD50.  

Our travels through not one, but two, dates in Chennai has almost taken us in a complete circle. We duly complete the circle, returning to the YWCA, and finding our beds still merged - this horizontal hypoteneuse was out like a light. 

nice chatting


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

the messiah above syria

The irony was going to be sufficiently delicious for me.

Earlier this morning I was on a flight from London to Dubai on an Arab airlines (Emirates). I decided to listen to Handel's Messiah, that supreme piece of Christian music, on its entertainment system.

But God had other ideas. He wanted me to have an encounter with him...

I am in a window seat. I never have a window seat. I am too tall. It is pitch black outside. But by the time the flight path takes us over Syria and then Iraq, a line of dull orange appears on the horizon. My mind drifts to the peoples below us. My heart softens again for these troubled nations. The lyrics resonate with the moment.
For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon Thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising...
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
"Oh Lord, may it be so. For those who despair down below, make it true." God has my attention. The heart is soft, the eyes misty.
Why do the nations so furiously rage together: why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsels together against the Lord and His anointed...
We are flying east and so the arrival of the dawn is accelerated.

I kid you not. At the very moment that the sun took a full global shape above the horizon, adding such brightness to the sky, Handel's Messiah broke into the Hallelujah Chorus:
Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, Lord of Lords.
'Oh, Lord - bring it on'. It overwhelmed me. My mind travels to Syria, to Iraq, to Egypt - and to all the peoples of the Middle East. The Arab Spring is decidedly wintry for so many. 'May the Messiah who fills my imagination and worship way up here, once again move through these lands, these peoples way down there - and bring the peace and reconciliation that only He can bring.'

The sun is bright now. And Handel moves onto such reassuring truths - most notably the certain hope. It is designed to breathe such stillness, and yet such endurance, into our lives. And it does - at 36,000 feet. May it do so for those at ground level as well...
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead ...  
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.
nice chatting


A little postscript.
I think my heart was tender towards this encounter with God for a couple of reasons.
(a) The two biggest influences in my life - my father and John Stott - died just 13 days apart from each other in 2011. That is remarkable enough. But with both of them, their last breaths were taken in the company of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.
(b) I am in Dubai on my way home from the annual Langham meetings where I have been entrusted - only a matter of hours ago - with the leadership of the Langham Preaching programme globally. Such a privilege, but I am feeling the weight too - and so I am grateful for this encounter with God.

With the directors of Langham Literature (Pieter Kwant) 
and Langham Scholars (Riad Kassis) programmes