Friday, December 25, 2015

on sailing, leadership and preaching

Yachting in New Zealand has always turned my mind towards leadership and preaching.

Ever since I read that Peter Blake's secret of success with winning the America's Cup was 'spreading leadership throughout the organisation', and wished that we leaders could adopt this mantra more often. Ever since I listened to Peter Montgomery's radio and television commentaries, and wished that we preachers could exhibit that same manner and skill more often...

The other day, as I passed through Palmerston North airport, my eye rested on Bill Francis' Peter Montgomery, The Voice of Yachting ... and I thought 'why not?'. The book was finished before I reached Sydney. Not so much because it is particularly well-written (the author's John Graham biography is much better) - but because it took me back to leadership and preaching.

Leadership is still there. Woven into the narrative are reflections from Montgomery himself on the prominent 'yachties' with whom he worked: Chris Dickson (91-93), Peter Blake (131-133; see also 117, 152), Russell Coutts (164-167; see also 152), and Dean Barker (197-199). The raw material for a captivating study on diverse Kiwi leadership styles is all there, especially when you add in the chapter about Grant Dalton (168-182). If it hasn't been done yet, there is a doctoral thesis here  - or, at the very least, an engaging seminar on good and bad leadership. After reading this book, my opinion of Dickson and Blake stayed the same. My opinion of Coutts and Barker rose. My opinion of Dalton dropped.

Preaching is still there. So many features of 'PJ' as a man and as a commentator transfer across to preachers and preaching - both with his manner and his skills.

With his manner...
There is his passion. He had 'the ability to bring (the America's Cup) to life through his enthusiasm and sense of excitement' (78). If mere yachting could do this to someone, why not the gospel? There is his warmth. 'It was like talking to someone with a smile on their face' (210). There is his rapport. He was 'totally relatable' (211) to his audience, willing to pitch his words to 'the little lady with the blue rinse in Riverton' (26) - the very lady most preachers wish to overlook in the pursuit of some sort of shallow relevance. There is his wisdom. He had the ability to win the trust of the central players (often at odds with each other) and build friendships with them, maintaining confidentiality always. There is his composure. I remember well his awful gaffe at the end of an Olympic rowing final. He stuffed it up completely. So embarrassing. He was vilified mercilessly by the New Zealand Herald among others - cartoons, editorials etc. But he saw it through (with the television authorities helping out by editing the gaffe out of the official version!).

With his skill...
In Montgomery's commentaries, we see the power of words. As a kid, Russell Coutts listened to PJ's commentary: 'What it did was create a dream' (152). We see the value of imagination. He created pictures with his words. People did not just hear things, they saw things as they heard them. Referring to the waves of the Southern Ocean as 'liquid himalayas' is one that comes to mind. We also see the importance of preparation. The cult of spontaneity is not the answer. His great line - 'The America's Cup is now New Zealand's Cup' - was totally and carefully rehearsed. 'He brought to his work not only the artistry of a rich vocabulary, but was able to complement his outgoing natural flow by the studied aside' (211). Ahh, the 'studied aside'. We could do with more of that ingredient in preaching.

One more thing. There is the signature opening line which Montgomery used as he contacted yachties in every distant corner of the oceans of the world: "How are you? Where are you?" (67). What great questions for the preacher-evangelist, probing to find a resting place for the gospel in every restless human heart where that gospel can live and transform.

Here is a piece of commentary from Peter Montgomery. It is from one of the dark days in the history of yachting: when One Australia sank in a matter of seconds...

nice chatting


Monday, December 21, 2015

feel the magic

A little more from my "New Zealand is the most secular English-speaking country of all, even if I receive disbelieving looks from American, Canadian, British and Australian friends whenever I say so" file.

This week I was in Sydney and a friend of mine expressed how he has regular opportunities in local civic contexts to open council meetings in prayer. I almost fell off my chair from the shock of such a thought.

I returned to Palmerston North (in New Zealand) only to find this Christmas card on the dining room table.

It has origins in a local shopping mall. I investigated the website a little bit further - and found these words:
See the magic; love the magic; FEEL THE MAGIC...
Your Winter Wonderland is real and it's here.
Have fun with the penguins and play with the reindeer;
Come and see for yourself and all will be clear...
Step into your own Winter Wonderland this Christmas...;
your amazing augmented reality experience is here and it's FREE!!
Four different playtime scenarios have been created for you,
featuring penguins, reindeer, a snowman, and a yeti.
This is so wrong at so many levels.

It is about knowing a mystery, not feeling a magic.
Christmas is about the Creator becoming a creature, about God becoming a baby. But it doesn't stop there. God was only born so that he could die, dying our death so that we could live his life. This is something to know on the way to being something to feel.

It is about summer, not winter.
Christmas is a summer season in New Zealand. To hold onto winter imagery serves only to make the true celebrations seem more distant, more irrelevant, and more remote.

It is about the really real, not the fakey real.
Christmas is an historical reality. They are events which can be trusted and on which life can be rested. To describe it in the manner of this card leaves the season at the gates of Disneyland.

It is about the truly free, not the 'amazing augmented reality experience' that is free.
Christmas continues a story of liberation - and not just for Mary and Zechariah (although their liberation is so beautifully expressed in Luke 1). Stay with the story to the end and having some 'augmented reality experience' is so far from what happens to you.

It is about worship, not play.
Christmas, from every angle and through every perspective, is about worship. The angels spark it, the shepherds start it ... and people across every time and timezone have been worshipping ever since.

It is about shepherds, angels, parents and a baby, not yetis, penguins, reindeer and a snowman.
Christmas is about people, people, and more people. Why must all these animals intrude into the story and eclipse what God is doing for humans by becoming a human?

It is about a Star Maker, not just a star.
As this little childrens' book expresses it, 'Jesus the Star Maker became a little baby. And the Star Maker lay underneath the star that he had made'. Ah yes, there is the mystery...

nice chatting


PS: my records show that this is my 500th post - just as my 10th year as a blogger draws to a close. To mark the occasion, I've changed the list of 'Popular Posts' (down the right hand side of this page) from being the latest monthly list to being the 'all time' list. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

christmas giving

We've had our fill of separations - or, so we thought. All those agonising good-byes to parents during our boarding school years. UGH. Goodness me - Barby has not lived within two long-haul flights of her parents since she was in her mid-teens (and that was when she was at boarding school!). But as we enter our mid50s, it is yet more separation that God requires of us - and that is why the season of giving is so special this year.

This Christmas we have the joy of having a few days with our children and grandchildren back in New Zealand. A gift. With our daughter and her husband having won a 'mystery weekend' away together, we even had the fun of looking after these two munchkins for a couple of days:

But not only have we received this Christmas, we have the joy of giving as well. I couldn't get home fast enough in order to open the boxes containing our Christmas presents to our children this year (oops, so much for surprises!):

The South Asia Bible Commentary contains a commentary on every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, with each commentary written by a South Asian scholar. In addition to this explanation of the text of Scripture, there are 100 articles relating to the context of South Asia. It is beautifully presented and expertly edited. I know of nothing more strategic in the mission of God in the world today than the production of these one volume commentaries. The Africa Bible Commentary emerged eight years ago (it is now translated into six languages of Africa) and the Arabic, Latin American and Slavic commentaries are all within 2-3 years of publication.

Barby and I were at the launch of the SABC in New Delhi in October, with the Vice-President of India being the honoured guest. Given that both their sets of grandparents gave more than 65 years (between them) to strengthening the church in South Asia, we hope it can be a gift that our children will cherish for forever. In so may ways, this is where their Christian heritage lies.

I was a bit surprised to see the name of 'DA Carson' on the cover of a study Bible (as General Editor). When I sat in his classroom all those years ago, we were left in no doubt that such Bibles were rather dubious publications. Having the notes of contemporary authors sharing the same page as the word of God might encourage people to equate, subconsciously, those 'notes' with that 'word', in terms of authority. While the argument still has merit, Carson has stepped back from it a bit.

So what is it that sets apart the 2880 page Zondervan NIV Study Bible [NB: this link includes a helpful little video of Carson explaining the features of this Bible] from all the others and so worthy of investment and use? In the Editor's Preface, Carson gives his reasons and it is the fifth and final one that caught my eye:
This study Bible emphasizes biblical theology ... (and so) we have tried to highlight the way various themes develop within the Bible across time. In this way we hope to encourage readers of the Bible to spot these themes for themselves as they read their Bibles, becoming adept at tracing them throughout the Scriptures.
So while the Bible is diverse, with dozens of authors spread over hundreds of years, it is still one single rescue story of God at work in the world. There is a unity as well, with trajectories to follow that all reach their destination in Jesus.

And not only is South Asia a part of the Christian heritage of our children, so also is DA Carson - given his influence on me as a student and he and Joy's ongoing prayerful interest in us as a family. I'll never ever forget gate-crashing a conference at which he was speaking in New Zealand some years ago - and taking my daughter with me. We joined the groupies in the foyer afterwards. When we had our opportunity to catch up with him (after a number of years), he addressed my daughter by name. WOW. The measure of the man. I ain't gonna forget that in this lifetime.

From 'ugh' to 'wow', via a couple of books. Such is the trajectory of life - and through it all, God proves his love and faithfulness.

nice chatting


Sunday, December 06, 2015

kane & ko

My Dad loved sports and I have followed suit. While I am not much of a patriot, I do keep in touch with the fortunes of a wide range of Kiwis on the global stage, cheering them on from South India.

I cannot remember a time when I have had so much fun as a fan on the virtual sideline. The focus? Kane Williamson and Lydia Ko. [NB: More than three years ago, long before they were household names, I did turn my hand to prophecy on this topic... :)]

As 2015 comes to a close, Lydia Ko, at just 18 years of age, is undisputed as the #1 woman golfer on the planet. And remember, this is a highly contested global sport. We are not talking about netball, or rugby league, here. Countries as numerous as China, and as wealthy as the USA, love this sport.

As 2015 comes to a close, Kane Williamson, at just 25 years of age, is probably one century away from becoming the #1 Test cricket batsman in the world. I watched him score a couple of centuries against the Australian bowlers and, as my son expressed it, 'it was like his bat didn't have an edge'.

I've been asking myself, 'why do I enjoy following the fortunes of these two so much?'

One? It is their youthfulness. I delight in seeing the next generation being given the opportunity to come through and to excel. Always have. Always will. Dotlich & Cairo's 'ten unnatural acts' (in their book, Unnatural Leadership) have always been counterintuitively persuasive for me. #6? 'Trust Others Before They Earn It'. Plus, the way the Apostle Paul brought Timothy, his 'son in the faith', into his team has always impressed me. Count me in. I wanna be like my namesake. Give the younger ones a chance to succeed. Stop this control-freaking nonsense about having them 'wait for their turn'.

Two? It is their humility. Ko's brand comes wrapped-up in that smiling, winsome, unaffected manner which she has. She follows in a long line of Kiwi sportswomen who have been like this, winning hearts like mine, as they do so. Bernice Mene? Sarah Ulmer? Evers-Swindell twins? So many have these same qualities. Rather annoyingly at times, Kane's brand sticks with that Kiwi-male persona: often unsmiling and usually under-stated, wrapped up in an inarticulate mumble. But (other) people love it.

[My friend, Rhett, picked up the retiring All Black captain, Richie McCaw, doing this the other day: 'I always wanted to perform at a consistent level. When I look back on my time, not every year was as good as I'd have liked, but I'm glad to have managed to do that reasonably well.' Spare me. This is when I know I am not really a Kiwi lad. And Richie made only one mistake in his lengthy 'perform at a consistent level' career. Announcing his retirement within hours of Jonah Lomu's death. He did not manage to do that 'reasonably well'.]

Three? It is their mental strength. It is the ol' 'top two inches' cliche. Ko is on TV here in India more than she is in NZ. I watch a few minutes here and there, when I can. It is always her unflappability that is compelling to me. She keeps on keeping on. Nothing fazes her. Kane is the same. Under pressure, they show this composure. It is not a quality we see that often among our Test cricketers. Again and again, generally speaking, this is the thing that separates Kiwi sportspeople from Aussie ones. The Aussies tend to be stronger mentally. It is like a sibling rivalry - and we show so many of the characteristics of the younger, talented one who is easy to bully and so often we succumb to the pressure.

Four? It is their skill. On this one, let me reach for the words of journalists living beyond New Zealand. It is more objective. Plus, as an expatriate Kiwi myself, I am a little disillusioned with NZ sports' journalism. Too often it oscillates between a fawning sychophancy (lacking critique) and an ugly insecurity (longing to be noticed, like that younger sibling - turning us into 'the sheep that roared').

[My favourite example of this is this story about Winston Reid. Compare the headline with the actual story. Goodness me. The screaming headline celebrates a goal which Reid scored on the training ground...].

Back to their skills...  On Kane, have a look at this piece by Mark Nicholas (yes, I know, the master of sychophancy - but at least it is directed towards a New Zealander here, for a change!) on the Cricinfo site, or this commendation by the former Australian captain, Allan Border. On Ko, there is this piece from ESPN and then this one from the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

And I guess Kane & Ko is a better title for this post than KoKane - don't you think?!

nice chatting


Friday, December 04, 2015

back to the future

We become flash and fancy with our evangelism today, don't we? The programmes. The technology. The strategies. While participating in the annual conference of the Association of Evangelists in the UK last weekend, I was reminded again of three ancient, yet proven, components to evangelism.

Are we losing sight of them? Have we really become so sophisticated that we no longer need them?

The conference unfolded within a simple template. Somewhere between 100-150 prayer partners gather for a weekend with the 8-10 evangelists in the Association. While there are Bible teaching sessions (which I had the privilege to bring), the main focus is on hearing updates from each of the evangelists and then, immediately, breaking into small groups to pray for them.

The three components of the weekend which remain with me are:

The call of the evangelist
I won't use the word 'gift', as many of you will leave me at this point. Primarily, this is not about people getting knotted over discerning whether they are gifted or not. This weekend was about listening to people who have obeyed a call and are experiencing both God's energising (another word for 'gifting') to obey that call and God's faithfulness in living out that call.

Evangelists are much less common than evangelism. These people are not so much Billy Grahams, devoted to gathering people together for thunderous crusades. These people are not so much street preachers, climbing onto their soap boxes to harass the passerby. Let's delete the stereotypes. While I suspect they are not adverse to the crusade, or the street corner, these evangelists were normal, consecrated people of grace and truth - and courage - who pressed themselves into daily life, with all its opportunities, for the purpose of the gospel. Story after story emerged of simple, everyday initiatives in which every opportunity is taken to speak a little word for Jesus.

The vocation of the leaflet
I won't use the word 'tract', as many of you will leave me at this point. But pictured here is a table laden with evangelistically-themed leaflets, mostly written by Roger Carswell (the person primarily responsible for pulling this Association together). Look at them all! These leaflets take the opportunities which society provides (for eg., World Cup rugby), to produce brief, colourful and engaging presentations.

Roger himself has a warm and winsome way about him and these leaflets reflect this quality. That is why they have possibilities, slipping them into peoples' hands here and there. [NB: They are readily available at (enter 'carswell tract' in the search area)].

It is not enough simply to have community-building ministries in a church - and that's it. Back home in New Zealand, in the Baptist context with which I am most familiar, churches tend to be exceptional in birthing and nurturing such ministries. But those ministries need to be herded more towards a sharing of the gospel (even at the risk of a few people not returning the following week!). To distribute a winsome little leaflet now and then, or to have someone give a word of testimony, are simple ways to add a gospel flavour to these ministries.

The commitment of the pray-er
I won't use the word 'intercession', as many of you will leave me at this point. That word can be a bit intimidating... These were everyday people who believe that God answers prayer - and so they pray. Simple as that. They jot down the information and then they take it to the Lord in prayer. Yes, the average age was up there quite a bit ... but I enjoyed it so much. It took me back to my days as a pastor and our 'Living Long and Loving It' group with whom I liked to linger. It took me back to my days in a missionary family where we learned, from a young age, to cherish pray-ers like this, as they demonstrated that they loved us enough to pray for us.

I was able to tell the story of one elderly woman who approached me at the door after a church service where I had preached. It is about ten years ago now. As she walked towards me, rather nervous and shy, she was fumbling in her purse for something. Finally she found it, thrust it into my face, with a rather curt, 'Is this you?' Initially, I was taken aback - but then I melted ever so quickly. It was the prayer card of our family from the late 1960s, with me all of seven years of age. 'Yes, that is me'. To which she responded, 'I prayed for you every day while you were there in India'.

The evangelist. The leaflet. The pray-er.

Have they really been tried and found wanting - or, is it that they are are still wanted and not really been tried? Are you sure, absolutely sure, that your current flash and fancy alternatives are that much better? Could you not squeeze the tried and true in there somewhere as well?

nice chatting