Saturday, February 28, 2015

holding on

Barby and I have enjoyed five weeks with Micah and Amaliya, our little grandchildren, filling our Bangalorean lives with joy. The fact that our Lovely Lys and her hubbie, Tim, came with the package deal only makes the visit that much sweeter. Tonight I say good-bye to all of them as I head to London for Langham meetings. I feel sad.

I've loved a lot this month - and learned a bit too.

When a weary, or a scared, Micah flings his little arms upwards with pentecostal fervour accompanied by the plea, "I want to hold you", I think he means, "I want you to hold me". Either way, the key to rest for the weary and shelter for the fearful in this situation is the 'holding' - be it the tightness of his little arms holding on to me - or, my big arms holding on to him.

And yes, as you might imagine, it does make me think of how I relate to God.

Weariness and fear are two of the great challenges for me in living life. They never seem to be too far away. They are always prowling around in the neighborhood of my heart. Many a contemporary worship song urges me to sing something akin to "I want to hold you, God - and I never want to let You go". And I am happy to oblige, with fervency and with meaning.

But is the strength of my 'hold' really worth singing about? Micah's hold on me is not the key to his sense of security. It is my hold on him that makes the difference. I love to hold him. And so it is with God. Sing all you like about how much you want to hold Him (and I will continue to do so) - but, ultimately, the rest and the shelter is found in knowing that He holds onto me and will not let go. He loves me that much ... and that is worth singing about.

I love a little letter in the New Testament. It is written by Jude.
It uses the word 'keep' in a similar way to this idea of holding.

Jude opens up, writing to those who are 'loved ... called ... and kept for Jesus Christ' (1).
He urges his readers to 'keep yourselves in God's love' (21, a bit like Micah's holding of me).
Then: 'To him who is able to keep you from falling...' (24, a bit like my holding of Micah).

While he was in Bangalore, Micah and I enjoyed our walks...

He loved the animals - be it the tiger on the wall, or the crab on the beach (in Kochi)...

And taking little breaks for rest and refreshment together was important too...

nice chatting


By the way, Micah's little sister, Amaliya, is pretty cute too.
Here she is with her grandma in a little restaurant in the Jewish Quarter of Fort Kochi.

Monday, February 23, 2015


I am a little worried.

I believe in contextualisation. Oh yes, I do. Isn't the incarnation, the divine becoming human, the ultimate in contextualised activity? The Big-C is as necessary as it is unavoidable.

But still I am worried.

As I travel I am a little surprised at the appetite that there is for contextualisation. It has a huge profile. Not only is there plenty of talk about it, it is the subject where the pulse quickens and the adrenalin rushes. When it comes to missional effectiveness, this is where the hope seems to lie.

Here is a handful of anxieties which I feel...

1. When I train people to preach, I help them live in the content of what the text actually says for awhile. Draw near to it like a train approaching the Himalayas - 'stop, drop, stare' (O'Donnell). See all the detail. Be pedantic. Let the observations thrill you. Let the embryo of the sermon be born as you make space for the 'joy of discovery'. Then go deeper and wider. Live in the critical historical-literary-theological context ... and allow that 'restraining influence of context' (DA Carson) to bring accuracy to your study. As I look and listen to missional conversations, I do worry that the thrill and the joy lie more with the contextualisation of the gospel than with its content.

2. Whether it be grassroots training, or classroom training, I find people can overstate the uniqueness of their own context. In our grassroots work we have a session on  'making the connection'. Participants emerge from a game with the biggest contextual issues which they face in family, in church and in nation. While there are unique things on the lists, it interests me how many issues travel from country to country. In classroom work I am surprised how quickly some students are prepared to play the 'context card', shut down their learning apparatus, and affirm that a particular approach to teaching the Bible simply and clearly will not work, or is not relevant, in their context. As I look and listen, I do worry that people can become a bit precious (as we say back home in New Zealand) about their own cultural context.

3. Last week I watched some young kids perform a Michael Jackson song in an outdoor concert at a beach in Kochi. Last night, in Mysore, McDonalds was awash with young couples with heads in their smartphones, looking up every now and then for a selfie. I know there are those who are addressing it, but could I just slip my hand up and suggest quietly that the global contextual - and not just the local contextual - really does need a lot more attention? The uncritical acceptance of the globalised in popular culture hitched up to the staunch defense of the localised in the classroom could make for compelling conversation. As I look and listen, I do worry whether that conversation is happening often enough.

4. Where are the danger signs, the text running across the screen saying, Warning: syncretism is dangerous to your mission? Every conversation which contextualisation inhabits should be inhabited by syncretism as well. Every assignment that covers contextualisation should expect an appendix on what over-contextualisation, or syncretism, looks like for this topic (and include one on under-contextualisation as well!). It is that important. Bend over too far and you fall in. That is the picture. That is the principle. It is difficult to be the light of the world when you are covered in mud. Every cultural context should produce its equivalent of Marsha Witten's All is Forgiven and make it required reading for every theological student. As I look and listen, I do worry that 'becoming all things to all people to save some' might be, unintentionally, a license for syncretism.

5. Now a word to teachers and academics. Please come down from the excitement of your scholarship in your fifth floor study and incarnate yourself among your students on the ground floor. The same ol' foundations need to be laid for every generation of students. Don't become bored, or weary, with the fundamentals of the faith. Teach them with an enthusiasm and passion that will be transformative under God's hand. 'If it goes without saying it needs to be said'. If it isn't established in the core, it will slip to the periphery - and the periphery will soon take up residence in the core. As I look and listen, I do worry that fifth floors are being built without ground floors being in place first.

5+. Some months ago I posted an open letter to those besotted with relevance. The issues in this post are similar. As I said at the start - with the gospel, contextualisation is both necessary and unavoidable. I guess my anxiety lies with where our hope lies: might it be more with a contextualised gospel, than it is with a contextualised gospel?

nice chatting


NB: As regular readers know, my approach with this blog is simply to chat away. Quite intentionally, I choose not to read around a topic, or linger with wider research. But when I was looking for some imagery, I came across this picture from Tim Keller. I am not a missiologist, but I like it. Be assured. My anxieties evaporate if my looking and listening is always about blue becoming yellow, with no change to the triangle!

Sunday, February 08, 2015

lyrics for living 4 (trace the rainbow)

I know CS Lewis is 'the man'. One day when I have nothing to do, I am going to go through Mere Christianity and list all the times he finds the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary and everyday. That is the simple secret of compelling illustration and nobody does it better.

But there is one celebrated Lewis quotation I don't really like. It may well be true - but, on its own and out of context (which is how it is usually used), I don't like it.
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (from The Problem of Pain).
Sitting there, all isolated, it does not capture enough of the truth. It is too harsh. Too abrasive. I know critiquing Lewis is worse than critiquing God for some people, but when people use this quotation on its own, damage can be done. When it comes to pain, there is more to God than 'shouts' and 'megaphones'.

CS Lewis needs a companion.
I nominate George Matheson.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel that the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

Naming God as Joy amidst the pain is bold enough. But then, just when He is reputed to abandon a person, becoming unseen and silent, it is the hymn-writer's experience that God-as-Joy is seeking him in pain - that is a long, long way from being abandoned.

What about cannot close? Not 'should not'. Not 'will not'. Not 'might not'. No, the experience of God's love has been so real and so full and for so long that when the season of pain comes, it is not possible to close the heart to God. No wonder the hymn opens with 'O Love that will not let me go'...

But it is the spatial imagery and the temporal imagery to which I return, again and again.

1. The spatial imagery is of rain - and yet such is the presence of light in that same space - that there is a rainbow as well. It becomes possible to trace the rainbow through the rain. The rain has not gone away. The pain remains. But through it - a rainbow can be seen and traced. Tracing is a slow, careful, and quiet activity. Attentive and tentative. And for this writer in the midst of pain, the rainbow, forever symbolising the promises of God, can be located and experienced ... maybe even without the shouting and the megaphones?!

2. The temporal imagery utilises the picture of hope that is woven into the rhythm of the 24 hour day. As dark as the tearful midnight may appear to be - it is never the ultimate, or the final, reality ... because the tearless morn is on the way. The (rainbow) promise is not vain. This is a truth to know, but also a truth to feel. Read Martin Luther King's Strength to Love - or, mingle with God's harassed people around the world ... or, live in this hymn and the significance of hope comes alive.

And of course hope can only ever mean something for people in the midst of pain, or persecution. Why long for something better when the good times roll? When things are comfy and cruisey, why wait for something better? Dawn means zilch if life is lived always in the daylight ... and when that happens, a central strand of biblical teaching gets quietly excised from our experience. Hope is drained of any significance. Life can be lived without it.

It is at the (temporal) dawn that the Sun - often hidden, yet still reflected in the (spatial) rainbow - becomes gloriously visible. The book of Revelation shows us that as bad as things can be right now, it is never the end of the story. That Sun (God) is in control. The Son (Jesus) wins. Believers way back then rested their lives on this hope - as do pained and persecuted believers all around the world today. So can I - and so can you. It is possible to let George's words become our words too.

Here, have a go at singing along with this recording of the hymn. A motley-looking bunch of students randomly gather to fill a cathedral with the most exquisite sound (our verse starts at 1.18).

If interested, the earlier posts in this lyrics for living series can be found here:
touched by a loving handa thrill of hope; and dews of quietness.
Catch you next month.

nice chatting


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

ode to georgetown

It is thirty years ago this month (February 1985) since I started as a pastor - at Georgetown Baptist Church in Invercargill, on the south coast of the South Island in New Zealand.

Ten years ago this church closed its doors (although another church still uses the facilities). I was overwhelmed by an uncommon grief. I wrote a little article to work out that grief - Ode to Georgetown. As a mark of my gratitude for all that this church taught me and for the generous way in which they shaped me, I post it again here...

I have no electronic photos with me in India from this era of our lives
- but here is a photo of the Georgetown church which I found on the internet.

[written in 2005] 
The grief clung to me for weeks. It was not a family member who had died. Nor was it a friend. On this occasion it was a church. Georgetown (Invercargill) - the only church I ever pastored, back in the 1980s - was closing its doors. But not before opening my life in so many ways…

Like connecting the pastoral to the parental. Being a pastor is ‘like a mother … (and) as a father’ (I Thess 2). I learned that the love at work in both is the same brand. I was taught that if my people are convinced that I love them, virtually no weakness in me will seem too great; however, if there is even a hint of doubt about my love for them, then no strength in me will seem to be enough. I will never quite make it in their eyes. Georgetown showed me that this is true. Today it is too easy to fast forward to leadership too soon, rather than pressing play and slowly giving time for love to be proven.

Like breaking the grip of statistics. It is tough to have numbers look good when you are in a small church in a declining area. It is demoralising to go to pastors’ gatherings where the repeating default question is ‘how many do you get on a Sunday? ’ It is not that numbers aren’t important. The book of Acts demonstrates that they are. But they are not the full story, or even the bottom line. I never ever ask that question of a pastor now. Georgetown showed me that God can be doing a big work in a tiny turnout. To this day I delight in thumbing my nose at ‘but its not strategic’ and taking training to the nooks and crannies of this country. I find this surge of excitement as I realise what God can do among a handful of people. That is because I’d seen it happen at Georgetown.

Like pressing on with obedience through despair. No nostalgia could ever change the reality that Georgetown was hard work for me. God seemed so inactive. I remember those periods of despair when a stubborn obedience to the call of God was the only thing I had to offer. I kept preaching the Word as best I could. Georgetown showed me that God can still create something out of nothing in me by his Word. Like hope and restoration. Like life into those dry bones. Every first-time pastor should experience this. It sets them up for life. I remember five minutes in Habakkuk that were miraculous. God is always active. When he seems to be doing his least through me, he is doing his most in me.

Like starting with what you are and what you have. We had one person in the church between 13 and 25. The parents of this age group were scarce as well. That is a lot of absenteeism when it comes to energy and wisdom. Welcome to the challenge of pastoral leadership in the provinces! And this was happening in a denomination where my impression was that if you didn’t have a youth group, you weren’t a proper church. I battled with this guilt and shame for months. Georgetown showed me that the call of God starts with what is in front of you on a Sunday morning. And so the children and the elderly received a lot of attention and gradually the other gaps filled in.

Like confirming the value of systematic biblical preaching. Book after book. Series after series. Feeding the people I loved. It was decidedly unspectacular stuff, but I stuck at it. Georgetown showed me that the local church has its best opportunity to be effective in the missional drama on its stage when the backdrop to that stage is filled with systematic and sustained preaching through the Bible. Few people may make the links, but the links are there. We saw harmony and maturity and growth quietly overtake us as we sat together under God’s word each week.

Like believing multiplication to be more strategic than addition. Leadership development was the priority. Taking 75% of the church through Ian Malins’ Discipleship course was the spark. Suddenly we were awash with leaders. Adding all kinds of initiatives became possible. But God had other ideas. Georgetown showed me that releasing your best for the sake of the mission of the wider church is far more strategic. Multiplying resources for that cause is far smarter than adding resources to our own cause. A tithe of the membership went off into further training for mission and pastoral work. A tithe! Imagine if every local church contributed to the wider mission to this extent. This had always been Georgetown’s vocation and I do wonder now whether this contributed to its eventual closure. Georgetown may have died but the life it has breathed into God’s work elsewhere is remarkable. It was an honour to serve you for a season. Thank you for that privilege.

nice chatting