Tuesday, March 26, 2013

four years with langham

This week marks the end of my fourth year working with Langham Preaching. My focus has been on the countries of Asia and the Pacific. Our purpose is not just to train preachers, but to train trainers of preachers - so that a movement can spread, like a 'benevolent virus' (as Chris Wright describes it).

The role to which I was appointed was developed because the work in Asia was not moving ahead like the other regions of the majority world. Four years ago there were just two countries in Asia where the work was established. Today there are nine such countries, with the possibility of a tenth to be explored later today when I fly from Hong Kong to Manila.

As visual evidence of this progress under God's gracious hand, here are photos of groups of people from five of those countries who have moved to the 'training of trainers' stage. I will leave the countries unnamed for security reasons...

nice chatting


caught and taught

They say preaching needs to be both caught and taught. Both are needed and both have been integral to my story in preaching. I have wondered if the British preaching tradition leans me towards being 'caught', while the American tradition has been built more around 'taught'.

The first preacher to engage me, in my early teens, was Charles Warren. I remember him at Union Church in Mussoorie and when the Warrens moved to New Delhi (at roughly the same time as we did), I remember him at Delhi Bible Fellowship. From the same Wheaton College vintage as Ruth and Billy Graham and Jim and Elizabeth Elliot. It is one thing to love preaching; it is quite another to love the people to whom you preach. This preacher demonstrated this truth to me. The quintessential shepherd. No one would say he was spectacular, but the unspectacular preaching of an authentic shepherd pays dividends within God's economy. Yes, I caught something from Charles Warren - and then I married his daughter (Barby).

The second preacher to engage me, in my late teens, was Bill McGregor. I had returned to NZ for my final year at high school - and then university - and in those crucial years I sat under Bill's ministry at Mt Albert Baptist Church. Bill is a Scot. The Scots seem to have a head start on the rest of us. Not just the accent - but there tends to be a power and a presence and a warmth in their preaching. The 'Big Mac' (as I affectionately refer to him) is no exception. It was while seated by one of the purple pillars at Mt Albert - ironically, on a night when the Big Mac was not preaching - that God arrested me and called me to be a pastor. Yes, I caught something from Bill McGregor - and then my brother (Mark) married his daughter (Anne).

Barely twenty years of age and a third preacher captivated me. I was off to the States to discover whether the many letters to and from Barby were going somewhere. At the airport I was nervous (not helped by the Erebus disaster happening the night before!). Barby and I went together to the Urbana Mission Convention - with 17,000 other students. For 50 minutes each morning I found myself spellbound by the Spirit as I listened to a talking head way down there where the basketball rim usually was in that cavernous arena. John Stott was expounding Romans 1-5. The clarity. The simplicity. The memorability. Yes, I caught something from John Stott - and he had no daughters!

It is caught. Warren. McGregor. Stott. All before my 21st birthday. There is an aspirational ingredient in preaching. You see it in someone and you are compelled to cut and paste it into in your own life.

[A little hiatus follows. Three years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) building convictions were followed by five years at Georgetown Baptist Church testing convictions. None of the convictions needed to be discarded, although finding ways to contextualise them without compromising them was the great challenge. Then in March 1989 things shifted. Not only did JO Sanders visit me in my study, unannounced, with a message from God that it was 'time to paint on a broader canvas' - but I attended a seminar by OMF's Denis Lane based on his book, Preach the Word. It was a seminar on learning how to preach].

Preaching is taught and I benefited from the teachers at TEDS. The Carsons and the Larsens were Gamaliels for me. However teaching the subject myself is what proved crucial in my own development.

By the 1 January 1990 I found myself on the staff at the Bible College of New Zealand (now, Laidlaw College). Within a few months I was facilitating a simple 12 week TEE course, affectionately known as POP (Principles of Preaching). Within a couple of years I found myself inheriting Ian Kemp's preaching class. POP evolved into a two year journey through two separate 36-hour courses. They were remarkable times. In one year 92 students were enrolled in the two courses - both of which were electives in the curriculum. Laidlaw's current NT specialist, Dr Mark Keown, was in my very first faltering class and he wrote me a letter of encouragement at the end of the year which still proves precious to me.

Then at Carey Baptist College, the journey in teaching preaching continued. I inherited a University of Auckland homiletics course before developing twin courses in the college's new BAppTheol curriculum. As I taught I began to think my own thoughts and develop my own convictions. Like Philips Brooks' 'truth through personality' no longer being sufficient in the twentieth century. Brooks suggests there to be just two horizons in preaching - text and preacher - when we really need to reckon with 'listener' and 'world' as well. The preacher has four horizons to explore, not two. Or, like the view that biblical exposition is all we need. It is most certainly the staple diet - but is it all we need? No, there is a place to develop a tool-kit for biblical preachers which enables them to be flexible as they preach in different contexts with different listeners and working with different genres.

These college-based teaching experiences - together with dozens of church-based weekend seminars over the years - proved to be the delight in my working life. I had discovered my sweet spot under God's good hand. When I trained preachers I felt God's pleasure.

Later this week it will be four years since I joined Langham Preaching. I have had the privilege of being involved in more than forty training events in twelve countries, mostly at the grassroots among people with limited education and resources. It is a whole new world for me. Crossing cultures. Changing languages. Shaping a training programme that is not just understood by these people, it must be able to be passed on by them to others. And in it all the convictions remain constant, even as the skills continue to develop.

It is taught. BCNZ. Carey. Langham. But the point is that it is as I teach it myself that I am learning how to preach.

nice chatting


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ratana: the prophet

It seems to be the season for a binge on NZ history, particularly Maori history. After the exhilaration of Fairness & Freedom and then Keith Newman's eye-opening Bible & Treaty - I thought I'd read Newman's earlier book, Ratana: the prophet

This is the story of a Maori leader who experienced an extraordinary encounter with God which led, initially, to a spiritual ministry of healing and prophecy, inspired by the Gospels, all around the country. The case which is made for this to be an authentic ministry is compelling. Ratana himself claimed to be the fulfillment of an 1881 prophecy in which 'there is a child coming who will bear in his right hand the Holy Bible and in his left hand the Treaty of Waitangi. If the spiritual side is attended to, all will be well on the physical side' (249). This 'physical' side captures then the second half of his life as he gives himself to seeking justice for Maori: 'First unite under Ihoa (Jehovah/God), then turn your attention to the Treaty of Waitangi' (146).

In 1940, '100 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the followers of TW Ratana had grown to become New Zealand's largest and most influential Maori religious community' (210). For much of a generation, through the 1950s-1970s, the four Maori seats in Parliament were held by members of the Ratana Church and in the 2006 Census, adherents to the Ratana church were roughly comparable to the Baptist church (50,000+). Here is how the story began:
While he was fishing with his family in 1918 two large whales had surfed to the shore in an extraordinary spectacle. The first whale lay quietly on the sand resigned to its fate, representing the Ture Wairua - the spiritual works which embraced the Bible, the challenge to tohungaism (superstition) and an extraordinary healing ministry. The second whale, symbolising the Ture Tangata or physical works, had thrashed about violently before escaping back to the ocean. This represented Ratana's redoubled effort to deal with Maori land grievances through the Treaty of Waitangi. Having been rejected by politicians and royalty, he would now work towards becoming the government and creating change from within. (136)

Saturday, March 09, 2013

defined by disaster

The history of Aotearoa-New Zealand can be retold in a minor key. Every couple of decades a disaster seems to strike which pours a deep sadness into a generation of Kiwis and adds to our self-understanding as a nation. The Pike River mine disaster prompted me to post on this theme a couple of years ago. Then just two months later - rather than the customary two decades - there was the major Christchurch earthquake. The sadness did not just pour into a generation, it flooded.

A session this week with those in the Arrow Leadership course gave me the opportunity to revisit this topic, particularly the implications of this story for the people of God wanting to embed themselves in this country and live distinctive lives with distinction. I was glad to have my ideas topped-up by theirs and offer here ten implications, even opportunities, for the people of God.

the invitation to lament
The psalms make it clear that the lament is an integral part of the way we are to engage with God in worship. Not only does the sheer volume of lament psalms suggest this, but so also does the honesty and poignancy that we discover in them. They give us words with which to cry out to God and disasters provide the opportunity so to cry.

the presence of God
As surely as Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22 (lament), so also must the affirmation of the presence of God follow the invitation to lament. 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me' (Psalm 23.4). Many, many people will testify to the reality of this presence at the very height of the disaster's impact.

the possibility of wisdom
I take the wisdom offered in Ecclesiastes seriously: 'It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting' (7.2). There is more wisdom to be found at a funeral than at a party. Attending funerals forces me to audit my life and answer the big questions. There is a funeral spirituality that is good for the soul. To confront death contributes to wise living.

the closeness of smallness
New Zealand is such a small country. These disasters grab the national psyche partly because it is the norm for everyone to be impacted in some personal way. While the other implications may be true in other countries, there is something more unique going on with this one in NZ... Everybody knows somebody who suffered, or who died. So the disaster does not remain on the screens, or in the headlines, over there. It comes in. It comes right into peoples' living rooms and sits with them.

the experience of story
Disaster unleashes the story in peoples' lives. It lubricates the lips to get moving. Simply ask a room full of (suitably-aged) people, 'Where were you when you heard about Tangiwai?' Even the shy ones get talking. The reminiscing is good for everyone. It surfaces memories. It moistens eyes. All sorts of intriguing personal angles emerge.

the fellowship of suffering
This one is linked to the previous one! Meeting together at the point of sadness seems to build a deeper fellowship than meeting at the point of gladness. Weakness is a stronger glue than strength. 'There is a grief deeper than pain, just as there is a joy deeper than happiness'. When disaster strikes, people who rarely talk with each other, wondering aloud what on earth they might have in common, suddenly discover that it is the essentials of life and death which they share - and that is a lot and it is enough.

the division of history
The telling of global history from a Christian perspective was, for centuries, a BC:AD affair. More recently it has been revised to become BCE:CE, so as to show less bias towards the Christian story. But all this global history is eclipsed when disaster strikes and the timeline of a personal history takes over. The 'before' and the 'after' has, as its point of reference, the precious life of the one who is lost. And history can never be the same again.

the shock of dissonance
'NZ is one place I'd love to visit'. In the eyes of the wider world, it is a beautiful country. Despite our problems, there is a deposit of pride for our nation. Just listen to Kiwis rabbit-on when they are homesick overseas! Sometimes we even refer to it as 'God's own country'. I don't know about that one. But in our story there is so much that is desirable - and so when disaster strikes, it feels so dissonant. It can be such a shock.

the subversion of control
So much about science and technology is geared towards an increasing understanding - and therefore, control - of our natural world. The performance of weather forecasters has improved markedly over the years. The knowledge around earthquakes, volcanoes, and cyclones is growing all the time - but if we knew then what we know now, could the sadness of Tarawera, Napier, Tangiwai, Waihine, or Christchurch have been averted? Possibly - but more probably not. However one thing is for sure: these disasters remind us again and again of our powerlessness in a world where, with a knowledge that is growing all the time, we fancy ourselves.

the opportunity for sanctuary
Disaster creates opportunities for God's people. The opportunity to serve with compassion. The opportunity to be quiet and calm and strong - for others who feel noisy and turbulent and weak. The opportunity to create times and spaces for reflection. The opportunity to be the 'city of refuge', to be the safe place, the safe people - the sanctuary among whom rest can be found and lament can be expressed. The opportunity to 'trace the rainbow through the rain'. The opportunity to host the reassuring presence of God and offer it to others.

nice chatting