Tuesday, April 28, 2015

exodus: gods and kings

On my recent flight from San Francisco to Singapore I decided to create a conversation in my mind, by watching a movie and reading a book.

The movie was Exodus: Gods and Kings. With Batman (Christian Bale) as Moses, it tells the story of the Hebrew slaves gaining freedom from the Pharoah of Egypt. Even on a tiny screen with average sound, it was visually stunning. Generally speaking, I don't get too uptight with directors taking a little license to tell their version of epic biblical stories - as I enjoy watching how they interpret the story's features.

The other partner in the conversation was the book by Andrew Sach & Richard Alldritt: Dig Even Deeper: Unearthing Old Testament Treasure (IVP, 2010) - or DED, for short. It is a follow-up to an earlier book (Dig Deeper) in which is collected the 'toolkit' needed to interpret the Bible accurately. 16 tools. The two books make the subject of biblical interpretation as simple as it can possibly be made. What makes DED ideal as a conversation partner is that its subject matter is the book of Exodus. 'In DED the toolkit goes 'live' ... this is a book about what Exodus means for us today' (14). DED is developed around a 'fourteen-word summary' (17) of the story: beatings, bush, plagues, passover, water, whingeing, father-in-law, fear, case law, covenant, tabernacle, calf, cleft, tabernacle...

'So ... how did the conversation go between the movie and the book during the flight?'

For me, it was directed by the same three options which I face when I work with my automatic payments in an electronic banking service. Adding. Deleting. Altering.

The opening tension created by 'pharoah-preferring-general-over-son' was taken straight out of the script of Ridley Scott's earlier Gladiator film and so it felt a bit stale.

But I loved the way he created a character out of Joshua's father - Nun (as in 'Joshua, son of Nun') - played by Ben Kingsley. I don't think it is just his Gandhi-aura, but every time Nun/Kingsley was on the screen I leaned forward - particularly the scene when Nun tells Moses of his Hebrew origins.

In a story loaded with testosterone, I welcomed the development of characters like Miriam and Zipporah. Hollywood can't help itself when it comes to family troubles and romance. Two of the more compelling scenes are where Pharoah demands the truth about the family ties and then the subsequent one in the wilderness when Moses is exiled. More on the romance below.

A bit like with 2014's other biblical epic - Noah - it is interesting to watch Hollywood wrestle with how to portray the miraculous elements, like the plagues (or, 'catastrophes') and crossing the Red Sea. They seem to be caught between not giving God too much credit and explaining it simply as natural phenomena.

Whereas a faithful portrayal of the biblical story would have God be an easy winner of the Best Actor award, in this movie he does not even surface as a candidate for Best Supporting Actor. He is the subject of so much of the action in Exodus - but you'd never know it from the movie.

But more concerning than this is the fact that the bits of God being displayed on the screen bear so little resemblance to the God living in the pages of Exodus. So much is missing. Exodus 34.6-7 contains 'perhaps the fullest explanation of God's name in the whole of the Old Testament' (DED, 172).
Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin...
And yet does this God make an appearance in the movie at all? I don't think so. Similar truths can be found in earlier passages, like Exodus 5.22-6.8 and Exodus 19.1-6. 'You've seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself'. This God is not in the movie. I find myself jealous for God and his name, as I watch. I feel grieved about the multitude who see the movie, but miss seeing God as he truly is.

Linked to this is the way the movie makes an effort to portray what happened and how it happened, but make so little effort to engage the question of why it happened. This can be typical of Hollywood where special effects often trump an absorbing storyline. One of the 'tools' in DED is the 'Author's Purpose tool: The biggest question we can ever ask of a passage in the Bible is simple, 'Why did the author write this?' (DED, 199). Nah. Here the Director/reader does what he likes with the storyline, with the author's purpose inconsequential.

The movie would have been so much deeper if he had played with the 'hardening of the heart' theme amidst the plagues. 'The Bible is clear: we are responsible for our actions and God is in control of them' (DED, 51). I missed the the poetry and music of Exodus 15. I missed the Jethro story in Exodus 18 and the way 'he acts like a giant hinge, holding the two halves of Exodus together. People rescued by God need to live God's way' (DED, 96). And I wish that the movie had extended beyond barely touching Exodus 20 and moved on to the wonder of the tabernacle and God's desire to come and live with His people. Even though the God-boy walks alongside the ark of the covenant at the end, we have no sense of 'the breathtaking truth that Yahweh intends to dwell with his people' (DED, 143).

I am still trying to figure out what I think about using a little boy to represent God - or, is he actually God himself because he does utter the phrase, 'I am'? I do not warm to the boy at all. He seems like a bit of a brat to me. He is cold and calculating, a bit petulant and disengaged. My hunch is that the director want us to see these qualities and to be a little confused and uncertain and then to allow all these qualities to drift across to God, altering the witness of the biblical story.

In the opening scenes, a high priestess sets the framework for the story: 'a leader will be saved and his saviour will some day lead'. From this point forward the story lives within the orbit of the Moses:Pharoah relationship. It is framed in the language of revolution and of slaves demanding their rights for freedom, with Moses as their leader. God needs a general with a special sword, rather than a shepherd with a special staff.

The profile which the nuclear family receives, rather than the more likely tribal/national identity, betrays a further Western/Hollywood tampering. I doubt whether Zipporah would ever ask, 'What kind of God tells a man to leave his family?' The most cringing moment in the movie comes when Zipporah challenges Moses about the way he is raising their son.
Z: 'Is it good for a boy to grow up believing in nothing?' 
M: 'Is it bad to grow up believing in yourself?'. 
I winced. Just because Hollywood preaches the gospel of self-belief, doesn't mean Exodus needs to do so as well. That was a terrible moment.

Linked to this is the development of the romantic storyline. I struggle to imagine the question, 'Would you trade your faith in order to keep me?', being a real issue. On two occasions the movie lingers with the promises, or covenant, made between Moses and Zipporah. It comes out like a short catechism of four questions with corresponding answers:
What makes you happy?  
You do.
What is the most important thing in your life?
You are.
Where would you rather be?
When will you leave me?

Interestingly, in this little covenant between Moses and Zipporah, we can almost overhear little echoes of of the covenant between Yahweh and his people which is so strikingly absent from the movie. 'Behind-the-scenes faithfulness is God's style' (DED, 29).

I know we can't expect a Hollywood film director to be accurate with this, but Christians watching the movie must not lose sight of how this story fits into a far wider and bigger story. 'As we read the big story from beginning to end, we discover, like Russian dolls, miniature versions of the story hidden inside.' (DED, 147). Exodus is one of those stories 'hidden inside', as so many of the details in its story point forward to the Jesus story and find fulfillment in the gospel.

Oh yes - and if I was still teaching movie courses, or even Gospel & Culture ones, I'd be making an assignment out of watching this movie alongside the Charlton Heston Ten Commandments one from 50+ years ago. Compare and contrast these two and allow this conversation to follow the trajectory of cultural change, particularly in matters of faith and religion, and you'll need an around-the-world flight to grasp all the implications

nice chatting


marty roy lovatt

[I avoid using this blog to post sermons, messages and the like. Blogs feel like a different genre and I prefer to chat away. But on this occasion I'd like to pay tribute to my special friend, Marty Roy, who died earlier this month after a battle with cancer. The family asked me to share about Reflections on Friendship at the Memorial Service.]

Here is a slightly edited version of my comments...

My first memory of Martin Lovatt’s name was from my grandmother. The Lovatt family had moved from Whangarei to Auckland and had rented our family home while we were in India. On one home leave, Martin had just vacated a bedroom which I then occupied. As she wandered down the hallway and looked in my room (more property manager, than grandmother at this moment), she said… “I wish you’d keep your bedroom as tidy as Martin Lovatt kept it.”

It was when I returned from India for the final time, that Martin and I became friends. 
Gradually our lives became entwined…

We enjoyed our sport together:
He endured my cricket and I endured his tennis…
He even hid me on the tennis court somewhere on our way to winning the men’s doubles title at the Mt Albert Baptist Tennis Club.
But it was on the basketball court where we had our most fun together.
Martin was so fluid, so naturally athletic and, let’s face it, so cool.
And he was far better than I at retaining his sanctification
in our periodic efforts to dispose of Northcote Baptist Church.

We enjoyed our food together:
We’d wander down Wellesley St during our university days
to spend our student allowance on steak sandwiches.

Given the demise of my culinary skills, it should be placed on record
that it was I who actually taught Martin how to make an Indian curry
… on his way to becoming the great chef that he was.

When Barby came out to NZ that first time,
we became engaged and then headed off to Cape Reinga
on a road trip with Martin and his Mum.
I remember arriving at the Edwards’ bach in the Bay of Islands
with so many tamarillos that, in preparing them
for their subsequent encounter with the ice cream and then our bellies,
Martin and I had to use a bucket rather than a bowl.

We enjoyed our music and movies together
with George Benson, Billy Joel … and Chevy Chase leading the way.

Sadly, some things have been left undone:
I was never able to show my India to Martin.
He was never able to show me his Tata Beach in Golden Bay.

I always marvelled at the work of his hands:
initially, the sketches & paintings:
he did two for me that hung on the walls wherever we lived:
one of the family home just up the road
& the other of the old church in Russell;
and then the working with wood and the graphic design.

We both crossed the waters to be Best Man at each other’s weddings.
He traveled from Auckland to Chicago.
I traveled from Auckland to Nelson.

Just 11 days older than me, Martin’s middle name is Roy, mine is Royston.
But on many flights these days, there is not enough space
on my boarding pass for my full name – and so, across the top, I wait to see
if it will just say Windsor, Paul Roy … because I kinda like it when it does that.

We named our second son after Martin.
Martin said to our Martin not so long ago that he was ‘a symbol of our friendship’.       
While the name was given to honour Martin,
       there is also the prayer that God might use
       his own brand of genetics to graft the qualities
       of Martin the elder into Martin the younger
& Barby and I have loved watching the evidence of this happening.

At one level these are the kinds of comments expected from a friend at a memorial service.
But I have to say they are not the first things which came to mind – special though they are.
When I think of my friendship with Martin,
my immediate thoughts are of two profound truths in the Christian journey.
              One is that we carry the image of God in us.
              & the other is that Christ is formed progressively in us.

On an occasion like this it is wonderful to say of my friend:
            In him, I’ve glimpsed Jesus. He reminds me of the way God is.
            Because of Martin, I understand God & love Jesus that little bit more.

Martin was loyal
All the time I’ve known Martin – he has lived within a few kms of this spot.
while I’ve been a bit of here, there and everywhere
(& that is always a challenge for a friendship).
          The ‘here there and everywhere’ was never Martin’s concern.
          I was always met with that same combo:
                the expansive smile, the warm eyes and the committed hug
                that together worked to sweep away the time and the distance.
    A stable, loyal rock of a friend whose steadfast love did not cease.

Martin was gentle
Not outspoken.             Not aggressive.      
Not brash.                    Not needing to be the centre of attention.
Always the impulse to listen, rather than to speak.
I loved watching my kids warm to him at the different stages of their lives.
One wrote to me this week, simply saying:
‘Without a doubt, Uncle Marty was the kindest, gentlest man I have ever met.’
            & I found this gentleness to be soothing.
            When a little weary, a little burdened
– his gentle, humble heart did provide a little rest for the soul.

The loyalty of God, the gentleness of Jesus was reflected in Martin’s life.

Martin was good
In more recent years Martin and I were part of a men’s breakfast group
       And on the drive across town – I’d ask about his health & the family.
       Then over breakfast, similar questions would be asked.  
He was so good in the way he drew us in,
patiently giving us the opportunity to be part of this journey.
But then, every time, this brightness would come over him when the subject shifted to us.
        He wasn’t absorbed in what was happening to him.
        He wanted to be there for others. He remained so interested.
        He took our little challenges, by comparison, to heart
                   listening attentively and then praying fervently.
  Martin was such a thoroughly good man.

In some of the most difficult places in the world today,
the people of God enter into a little response together:
       from the front: ‘God is good’    with the people responding: ‘all the time’.
    then from the people: ‘all the time’  & from the front ‘God is good’

At times I’ve struggled to find God’s goodness in all this.
I remember reading a psalm with Martin in the car outside his home.
            As I got started – ‘ohh, I’ve picked the wrong psalm’
The words felt hollow. So few of the assurances seemed true for Martin.
I started skipping phrases and then verses.
I remember being so angry as I drove home.
I was ready to rip pages out of the Bible.
But… the appeal of the Psalms and of the God to whom they direct us
is that we can turn over a few pages
and find a psalm that expresses just how we are feeling.
Part of God’s goodness is that he is not unhinged by those feelings.
In fact, the Bible says that ‘in our distress, he is distressed’.
            He finds cancer to be sinister and evil.
And the goodness of God is seen most fully in his restorative plans
for us and for creation as we move into the future – a place Martin has reached.
            It is the certainty that these plans will come to pass
            that enables us to endure – plans that come to us as pictures in Revelation.
‘He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
            Never again will they hunger
            Never again will they thirst
The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat
For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd
            He will lead them to springs of living water
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

Loyal. Gentle. Good. How many of us could bear witness to the same three?
This is what Martin brought to friendships. I knew it truly. I knew it deeply.

And it is in the loyalty and goodness of God and the gentleness of Christ that Martin would want us to place our confidence as we try to move forward from this place with him alive in our memories and hearts.

Paul Roy Windsor

Monday, April 20, 2015

lyrics for living 5 (wing my words)

To be known as a good listener is a great aspiration to have.

It is certainly one of mine. But inevitably, in my work (as with many of you, I'm sure), I do a lot of talking. Looking back through my google calendar over recent weeks, I find things like this:

teaching a module on preaching in Bangalore (India)
contributing to leadership meetings in London (UK)
facilitating a meeting in Amman (Jordan)
promoting the ministry in which I am involved in Phoenix AZ (USA)
encouraging people in A and Z (China)
speaking at a memorial for my special friend in Auckland (New Zealand)
discussing work among first nations peoples in Niagara Falls (Canada)
(later this week) preaching at a seminary in Wilmore KY (USA)

I wonder what your list looks like? That is a lot of variations on the talking theme.
But diverse though these settings may be, they all have one thing in common.

For each of them, I pray the same prayer.
The words of a hymn.

Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
In living echoes of Thy tone ...

O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.

What is it that draws me back to this hymn, again and again?

I like the way it originates with God
We are a channel. We live with God and spend time listening to Him.
What we pass onto others is what God has passed onto us.

I like the way it prioritises words
So much of the church has lost confidence in word and words.
There is a bias against words which God simply does not share.

I love the image of flight
The words originate with Him and He is the one who needs to fly them as well.
I can do my talking, but then He must do His winging.
It means less manipulation and spinning - and more faithfulness.

I like the realism about the human heart
There are hidden depths, marked by secrecy, sadness, stubbornness and sin.
These things are not softened by human skill, but only by the Spirit.

Sadly, unlike other posts in this series, I could not find a you-tube version that I liked. Maybe there is a reader who can help me out here. One or two were OK, but then they excluded the verse I wanted. [This is the best I could do: https://vimeo.com/46203440].

NB: If you click on the 'worship' label - scroll down on the right side of this page - you will find quickly the other posts in this series.

nice chatting


Thursday, April 16, 2015

ten days in china

As this was my first ever visit to China, I thought I'd collect a few photos and reflections.

On Easter Sunday morning we attended one of the officially recognised churches. 1000 people, standing room only. Traditional, but not necessarily nominal or liberal. The Germans occupied the province for less than twenty years, but transformed the architecture (see below) and left behind a world-class brewery (not seen below - I don't believe in such promotion). After the service on the hill on high, we descended to the road below where a young man with a disability of some kind was chalking his version of the gospel on the footpath.

There was the thrill of driving over the longest bridge in the world. It never touches land. It takes 25min to cross - and it would cover the English Channel with some kilometers to spare. There was even a spaghetti junction in the middle of the ocean. Meanwhile, over on terra firma, a quick shot from the car captures the razor edges of the mountain ridges that took me back to sketches in the biographies I read as a child.

The cities were impressive. A majority of our time was based in Qingdao, China's 18th largest city - but still coming in at over 4 million (in a province, Shandong, with over 100 million people). It was the base for the sailing at the Beijing Olympics. It gave me an opportunity to share how New Zealand wins all its Olympic medals sitting down. The Chinese enjoyed that one...

For a country aiming at being the dominant nation in the 21st century, I was a little surprised at the paucity of English. I knew it was a challenge (and I confess to enjoying seeing indigenous languages to the fore) - but they won't dominate the world if they don't dominate English. Quite a contrast to India, with its British colonial ancestry. Then, rather ironically (and this is true throughout Asia), I am a little bemused by the dependence on Western models on billboards. The metanarrative for beauty and fashion (and wedding apparel) still tends to be written far from Asia. The new colonialism. Kinda sad.

The food was fun, as I appreciated the diversity of cuisine from the different regions of the country. Obesity was a rare sight and the link was made with the Chinese preference for savoury over sweetness. But I am still shaking my head on how these little sea slugs could fetch USD10/each - and that be considered a steal. They look more suitable for garden compost to me. And while the food was diverse, not everything that circulated around the table was edible.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my first visit to China would have me landing in a city just one hour from Weifang, where a big hero of mine (Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame) was confined during World War II ... and where he subsequently died of a brain tumour in his early 40s. There are various memorials, all of which I indulged. But there was a poignancy about the visit. As I stepped out of the car, a message came through that my best friend from way back, Martin Lovatt, had succumbed to cancer in his mid-50s back in New Zealand. Eric and Martin. Good men of deep and uncomplicated faith. Serving God with all that I am becomes a more straightforward choice because they are in my life. It is gonna be one of those days I remember for forever.

Partly because of the language barrier, I did find the person on the street and in the service industry to be a bit stern and unsmiling. I was not quite ready for this. I kept trying to make them smile - but to no avail. Oh well - it couldn't be said of the people with whom I hung out and who showed me around. Some of the warmest, most hospitable people I've encountered. Their kindness to me as I grappled with being so far from home when my friend died will remain with me.

 nice chatting