Sunday, December 18, 2016

white mughals

Sixty-two. It was an impressive effort.

Once I finished William Dalrymple's White Mughals I turned to the Glossary and gave Barby the test. A bit of Hindustani here. A bit of Urdu and Persian over there. A lot of Koranic-Mosque terminology everywhere. But out of almost 140 words, she got 62 correct. Very impressive, don't you think? As a point of comparison, my score was 26. What do you expect? My Hindi opens mouths with laughter, while Barby's Hindi opens hearts with admiration. I love watching it happen. One of the highlights of living back in India...

It has been a long, hard year and with a bit of the doctor in our ears, we set off for a break and a five day exploration of a new city. Hyderabad. Overnight train each way, in a two-person 'coupe' all on our own. No work allowed. Not even contact with friends in the city (that always feels terrible). And what has White Mughals to do with all this? The story takes place in Hyderabad, largely between about 1795-1805. So... reading through the book at the very same time as walking through the places. My idea of fun!

The highlight was visiting this building, the home of the British Resident, or High Commissioner - and built by the main character in the book. It is massive - 'not unlike its exact contemporary, the White House' (xxxii). In ruins and unused now, but with some half-hearted, and probably poorly funded, efforts at restoration taking place.

On the front steps with my book.
There is a model of the original building out the back. Such a model features in the story...

It is such a sad story, a love story between the British 'Resident' (James Achilles Kirkpatrick) and a (very) young Muslim Indian princess (Khair un-Nissa). I am not going to spoil the plot for you, but reflect more peripherally on the story in a number of ways.

Just as Downtown Abbey engages with the erosion of the upstairs:downstairs class distinction in early twentieth century England, White Mughals traces the replacement of a 'fusion and hybrid' (500) era, characterized by mingling and mixing, with a separatist era in which the British Empire turns a bit rogue and ruthless. 'The easy labels of religion and ethnicity and nationalism, slapped on by a generation of historians, turned out to be ... surprisingly unstable' (xl). A Governor General (Waterloo's Duke of Wellington elder brother) and, to a lesser extent, 'Evangelical Christianity' attract much of the blame for this change.
For nearly three hundred years Europeans coming out to the subcontinent had been assimilating themselves to India in a kaleidoscope of different ways ... (but now it) was a place to be changed and conquered, not a place to be changed or conquered by (54).
James was among the last of the English officials in India who found it possible to truly cross cultures ... (making the leap) from Britain to India, from Georgian to Mughal, from Christianity to Islam. India was no longer a place to embrace and to be transformed by; instead it was a place to conquer and transform (454). 
One wonders about the transitions happening in our early twenty-first century. Has much changed?

There is a lot of chatter about colonisation coming out of my home in New Zealand. It seems to be the great evil. Evils have been perpetrated, that is for sure - but I don't find the narrative totally convincing. Lots of things are going on, at different layers, with colonisation - some even quite good. For example, for these 'White Mughals' like James Kirkpatrick, this is a story of  'the Indian conquest of the European colonisation ... the coloniser colonised' (10, 28). This insight brought a smile to me face. It took me back to boarding school days in the Himalayas. American kids would come out for a single year of high school. Routinely, they'd hate the first semester, but after a vacation trip around India and then a second semester, invariably the last thing they wanted to do was to go home to the States. Representatives of the great colonisers of the late twentieth century had themselves been colonised - and changed forever. Not such a bad thing. A difficulty I find with discussions around colonisation is the selectivity which is shown. Why are we not as critical of the colonisation of the world today by certain professional sports, certain brands of music, or a certain image of beauty - each, in their own way, disrupting the local and indigenous? One person's colonisation seems to be another person's globalisation.

A view inside ... I think I saw the sign forbidding photos after I took this one!
I won't critique Dalrymple for much, but I will on this point - as I do with much of the media and the academy. "C'mon people. Show some professionalism." A basic principle of research is that you paint your opponent in their best light and engage with what you see. With Dalrymple (and the media and the academy), Christianity is usually painted in its poorest light, while Hinduism and Islam are painted in their purest light. Glimpses of truth may exist with both representations, but it is hardly a fair and accurate truth. Maybe it is an early downpayment on post-truth and fake news! 'Islam overcame the English more by its sophistication and power of attraction, than by the sword' (19). Really?! The added complication for this perspective today is that you can be both truly Indian and truly Christian - even a truly admirable Evangelical Christian. Shock. Horror. But I know heaps of them...
[NB: I am in the midst of preparing some talks from 1 Peter - living for Christ amidst harassment and persecution - and I think this is one of the real, but admittedly milder, ways in which persecution happens in countries like New Zealand].

James Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa
Yep, they are memorable. Beautifully developed. I'd love to see a quality movie director have a go at this story. There is so much to like about James Kirkpatrick, for example. The way he operated cross-culturally, building trust and friendship with the Nizam of Hyderabad (who referred to him as his 'Beloved Son'). Case study stuff. The way he took a stand against the Governor General's demands to 'bully and bribe and browbeat', almost living to see the day when he was fully vindicated. What about with his young wife? He chose to be circumcised and to convert to Islam in order to marry her and oh, how his love prevailed.
It was James's fate for his love to be tested not once, but four times. Four entirely separate inquiries had been carried out into his affair with Khair. At each stage he could have easily washed his hands of his teenage lover. Each time he chose to remain true to her (400).
Also, on characters ... I enjoyed the portrayal of the power which older women can have behind the scenes in a Muslim world (see 248-259). But also Khair. So strong, 'a dominant force among the women ... in her widowhood, she clearly still retained her magnetism and her effortless ability to get her way with all those who were drawn into her orbit' (425) - at barely twenty years of age. Incredible. But then she went on to live 'the saddest of lives' (464) ...

A 'Chinnery' (the name of a painter) of the two children on the eve of their departure to England,
never to see their parents again. 'One of the masterpieces of British painting in India' (390).
[NB: later in life, the daughter was drawn into the orbit of the Clapham Sect folks].
The dilemma of the 'white mughal' is a bit like that of the missionary kid. These words sound so familiar:
England was no longer the place that James really considered to be his home. He had been born in India ... he felt most himself in India, and returning to England was the last thing he wanted ... (but) his spirit might feel comfortably at home in India; but his wretched body, less malleable, seemed to need England (352, 379).
Dalrymple is such a good writer. How does he do it? The way he wades into the details of history and comes out with a compelling story. In literary terms it is like developing a palace out of an archaeological dig. When James dies (in Calcutta - and buried in the Park Street Cemetery), Dalrymple writes:
But it cannot have been a very emotional affair. For James had died among strangers, away from everyone he loved, and far from everyone who loved him. His beloved wife, his two little children, his brothers, his friends, and his father: as he was laid in the muddy monsoon ground, not one of them even knew that he was dead. In place of tears, there was a cold military salute. The coffin was lowered, and the mud of the grave was filled in. (398)
Dalrymple closes with a word of hope, a hope that I share - but for different reasons, I suspect.
As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past, and they will do so again (501).
In their fullest expression 'East and West' (although this did cease long ago to be a helpful way to categorise the world) 'meet and mingle', experiencing both a unity and a diversity, in the gospel of Jesus. That is where people become the truest form of who they really are. That is where bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear is most fully expelled by the peace and dignity, the humility and harmony in what the cross of Christ achieves. I believe it with all that I am. And in this wretched world, giving us a ride through 2016 that I so often just wanted to get off, this hope is still something to celebrate this Christmas.

nice chatting


PS1: I've reviewed two other Dalrymple books here: The Last Mughal and Return of a King.

PS2: The Discovery Channel has done a 60 minute documentary, narrated by William Dalrymple, which basically tells the story of White Mughals in visual-audio form.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

from eden to the new jerusalem

Diversity came far earlier than unity. Appreciating all the different authors, all the different genre and all the different situations - oh yes, any self-respecting student of the Bible has walked the diversity road. That is where we all start. That is the bread and butter of exegesis. We know it is critical.

But what about the unity of the Bible? Yes, the Bible as a single story by a single (divine) author? It didn't seem to feature as much in my training way back then. I've been playing a game of seemingly endless catch-up over the last decade or two. I've had to read and think and teach my way into this world ... and I've been so glad to find books (there are heaps of them out there) to help me.

T. Desmond Alexander's From Eden to the New Jerusalem is right up there. The one I've read most quickly. So stimulating, so fascinating. I've never opened a book with so many footnotes that is so easy and engaging to read.

For Alexander, the Bible is a 'meta-story' (which I have always understood to mean the story by which all other stories make sense) in that it 'addresses two of life's most fundamental questions: (1) Why was the earth created? (2) What is the reason for human existence?' (10). To find the answers in this literary anthology we know as the Bible it is best to begin at the end. Revelation 20-22. Alexander sees 'very strong links' between these chapters and the opening three chapters, Genesis 1-3. His book is about demonstrating those links but then he also shows how the story grows and threads and deepens its way from that Genesis to Revelation. The plotline doesn't change. Fascinating, eh?!

Here, take a look at the chapter titles (with an added explanatory quotation), as they identify the Revelation-truth which then (a) he finds embedded in the early Genesis story, before (b) tracking it through the entire biblical story:

1. From sacred garden to holy city: experiencing the presence of God
From the outset of creation, God intended that the earth would become a holy garden-city in which he would dwell alongside human beings. However, the disobedience of Adam and Eve jeopardized this divine project ... In the process of recovering the earth as his dwelling place, God progressively established the tabernacle, the Jerusalem temple and the church (74).
2. Thrown from the throne: re-establishing the sovereignty of God
By betraying God and obeying the serpent, the royal couple dethrone God. Adam and Eve, commissioned by God to play a central role in the building of his holy garden-city, not only forfeit their priestly status but also betray the trust placed in them to govern the earth. The ones through whom God's sovereignty was to be extended throughout the earth side with his enemy. By heeding the serpent they not only give it control over the earth, but they themselves becomes its subjects ... One day this present age will give way to another, when the earth will be rejuvenated and the sovereignty of God will finally become an undisputed reality in the New Jerusalem (78-79, 97).
3. Dealing with the devil: destroying the source of evil
By obeying the serpent, Adam and Eve take on his image and defile the earth. While Adam and Eve's actions have terrible consequences, all is not lost, for God introduces the idea that the serpent will be overcome through an offspring of the woman. From Genesis 4 onwards the reader's attention is directed to this offspring ... Whereas the Old Testament looks forward to the defeat of God's enemies and the establishment of his reign upon the earth, the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the one who overthrows Satan ... Stripped of his power, he will no longer, as 'rule of this world', be able to champion the cause of evil. Every vestige of Satan's influence will be destroyed (107, 111-112, 118).
[NB: Don't miss the three pages on 'Resisting the Devil' (118-120) - so helpful].
4. The slaughter of the Lamb: accomplishing the redemption of creation
Although the enemy, 'the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan', is presently 'ruler of this world', his days are numbered and he will ultimately be vanquished. Crucial to the demise of Satan is Jesus Christ, for he is the one who overcomes the devil. Remarkably, John's description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 contains no specific reference to the name of Jesus Christ ... However, each time he is mentioned, he is designated by the title 'the Lamb' (5x) ... reminiscent of the divine deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt ... However, whereas the first exodus was principally about rescuing the Israelites from slavery, John has in view a new exodus that brings about the deliverance of people 'from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages' (121-122, 124, 125).
5. Feasting from the tree of life: reinvigorating the lives of people from every nation
John's vision of the New Jerusalem anticipates human existence as we have never known it. The life to come will be truly abundant and fully satisfying [particularly as it relates to the role of three themes: holiness/wholeness, tree of life and the nations] ... When Jesus heals, it is about restring people to the holy status Adam and Eve enjoyed before sinning ... Citizens of the new earth will experience and enjoy both wholeness of body and longevity of life. They will have a quality of life unrestricted by disability or disease. To live in the New Jerusalem is to experience life in all its fullness and vitality. It is to live as one has never lived before. It is to be in the prime of life, for the whole of one's life ... John's vision of the New Jerusalem introduces an important international dimension, reflected in three references to the 'nations' (138-139, 153, 156, 163).
6. Strong foundations and solid walls: living securely among the people of God

Maybe you are still thinking what I am still thinking.
Can he really make a case for all that stuff going on in Genesis 1 & 2 & 3?!
Yes, he makes a pretty convincing case for it.
It is such an absorbing read.

Methinks the book has the makings of a sermon series in it for 2017 - or, at least, a series of serious small group studies? Go for it.

nice chatting


Sunday, December 11, 2016

great cities in history

While this horrid nativism has been sweeping around the world like a stinky tide, I have been finding solace in a book. John Julius Norwich's The Great Cities of History (and there is a 'coffee table' version, which would make a late, great Christmas gift!).

341 pages. 70 cities. That is less than five pages for each city. Short essays written by expert historians, often distilling a life's work into a few paragraphs. But, beautiful writers, too. Pick up and read, here and there. The book takes a vertiginous, roughly chronological, journey down through the centuries and across the time zones - 'from Mesopotamia to Megalopolis'.

Great Bibliography. Great Notes. But where is the Great Map?!  The omission almost put me in the fetal position. While on this theme of 'greatness', it is interesting to gather the features of great cities that tend to reappear. Greatness is linked to the capacity to host diverse peoples, particularly immigrants. Greatness is linked to the ability to provide safe harbour to artists and intellectuals. Greatness is linked to establishing peace. Greatness is linked to effective, enduring leadership. Greatness is not just European ('the fact of their being unknown to Europe in no way detracts from their greatness' (110), speaking of Benin and Timbuktu). Greatness doesn't last - it never does - and it is eclipsed by the greatness of God, for whom the nations (and their cities and leaders) are but 'a drop in the bucket' (Is 40.15).

Speaking of 'buckets', we'll come to bucket lists soon. But let's start where everyone will start, with 'how many of these 'great cities' have I visited?' And this is lingering-a-bit, not just in-transit at the airport. For me, the number was 16 (but 18 out of the 70 because two of my cities are mentioned twice):

Jerusalem, Constantinople/Istanbul (2x), Angkor, Cairo, Agra, London (2x), Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Budapest, Washington DC, New Delhi, Chicago, Los Angeles, Singapore, New York, and Sydney.

When my personal experiences are thickened with this elegant prose, my five favourite cities would have to be: Istanbul, London, New Delhi, Chicago and Budapest. Beautiful essays.

As is true for many New Zealanders, with our colonial history barely two hundred years old, I do feel the strength which eurogravity exerts on my wanderlust. I'd love to soak in the cities of Europe so amply distributed through this book: Athens, Rome, Paris, Florence, Lisbon, Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Dublin, Vienna, Barcelona, and Berlin. I've never lingered in any of them. But then I am grateful that other overlooked great cities like Lagos and Jakarta, Lusaka and Phnom Penh, Kolkata and Lahore got into my heart first. It is helping to keep this horrid nativism at bay and prepare me better to participate in the mission of God in the world.

OK, so here is the deal. Based on this book alone, what cities head my 'bucket list'? Before I 'kick-the-bucket and die', what cities would I love to visit? I will restrict myself to a set of six, rather than sixteen, and then add a few sentences from the corresponding essay for some flavour.

'If Paradise be on earth, it is, without doubt, Damascus; but if it be in Heaven, Damascus is its counterpart on earth' (94, quoting the traveller, Ibn Jubayr). 'The citizens of Damascus considered it to be the oldest city on earth, for Cain slew Abel on the slopes of Mount Kassion ... For over a thousand years the vast crowds associated with the hajj pilgrimage would annually assemble outside the walls of Damascus for the desert crossing to Mecca' (94-95). [NB: it is where my namesake went after his conversion and I've always wanted to go there, too].

'Clearly, it could be successful in the long term only if three very different peoples, with three very different religions and speaking three different languages, could somehow be welded together into a single state; and this was the almost superhuman achievement of two men: Roger I and his son Roger II ... (the king's) court in Palermo was easily the most brilliant of 12th-century Europe. In the Middle Ages the two most important languages for science were Greek and Arabic, both of which were virtually impossible to acquire in northern Europe ... for any intellectual determined to master both, there was only Palermo' (117, 118). [NB: the 'three' being Greek, Arab, and Norman].

'Of all the great cities, Samarkand is the farthest from any ocean. It grew up instead on the human river of the Silk Road ... From this elysium, for more than thirty years, Tamerlane marched across Asia in a series of campaigns that devastated every state and city in its path, sacking Damascus and Isfahan, Baghdad and Delhi, crushing the Golden Horde and the Ottoman Turks, and leaving behind some 17 million dead ... The populace of Samarkand was a mine of expertise of diverse races and faiths, slave and free ... It was not its extent but its cosmopolitan splendour that provoked wonder. Perhaps never had a city been so purely the creation of one man ... Tamerlane coerced art and science to his own glory. In Samarkand, it seems, he aspired to concentrate and embalm the accomplishments of the entire world - a monument to himself, and perhaps to God' (124, 125, 126).  [NB; Samarkand is in contemporary Uzbekistan].

'But Venice remained apart. Those 3 km of shallow water - a far more effective defence than deep - served as a gigantic moat, giving her total protection from her envious and unruly neighbours and enabling her to turn her back on Italy and look to the East ... There, in the silks and spices, the gold and the furs and the slaves of the Orient, lay her wealth ... No other major Italian city could claimed to have remained inviolate for close on a thousand years. And no other could boast such wealth' (150, 152).

'Timbuktu is a city on the southern edge of the Sahara constructed of one part history and two parts myth ... It was only after the colonial presence of the French had ended that the true history and wealth of Timbuktu were revealed in the form of the great private libraries that their scholar citizens had patiently copied, preserved and transcribed ... The commercial lifeblood of towns such as Timbuktu had been sucked away centuries before (when) the inland trans-Sahara caravan routes were being replaced by seaborne traffic ... What has kept Timbuktu in existence for the last 400 years was neither gold dust nor slaves, but pride in a thousand years of Muslim scholarship and a carefully guarded inheritance of thousands of manuscripts' (161, 162, 164).

St Petersburg
'Peter the Great conceived his new capital as an elegant European paradise forged from the swamps and frozen wastes of northern Russia. It was to be the new Amsterdam or the new Venice, and was to act for Russia as a window on the West ... What always amazes about St Petersburg is the miracle of what has survived after war, siege and communism. The Hermitage remains one of the greatest museums in the world ... The churches of the city having been converted into swimming pools and gymnasia and, in the case of Kazan Cathedral, a museum to promote atheism, now resound again to the strong male voices singing the Orthodox liturgy ... St Petersburg has always fascinated its visitors - a city where the long dark winters and the sufferings of its recent past are relieved by the anticipation of the White Nights in the short summer, when darkness is entirely banished and beauty and optimism reigns' (242, 244, 245).

nice chatting - but where is the map? Or, did I already ask that question?


Thursday, December 01, 2016

the prevailing image

It is a principle of effective communication.

Check out the Economist magazine. It is right there - always there - between the title of the article and the body of the article. A simple, single, summarising sentence. One of the secrets for TED-talk effectiveness is that a given talk can be captured in the length of a tweet. 140 characters. The doctoral thesis needs this sentence - and so does the sermon.

Haddon Robinson calls it the 'big idea'. Alec Motyer asks, 'What is the one thing that all the other things are about?' Gary Millar and Phil Campbell speak of the 'freshly squeezed essence of the passage'. Every sermon needs it. The thesis. The proposition. To articulate it is a burden, but as the time of delivery approaches it becomes a saviour.

But it is not enough. I am increasingly persuaded that it is not enough.

The best biblical preaching is science - and art. It is prose - and poetry. It engages the mind, but also the imagination. What is said needs to be seen as well. Sadly, those most committed to biblical, or expository, preaching are often those with the least active imaginations. This should not be so. It is not good enough. 

This is why in recent years I have required students to include a prevailing image in their sermons. A picture over which they linger. Maybe it is there in the introduction - and then again in the conclusion. Maybe they sink into this image in the middle of the sermon somewhere. Maybe it is tied closely to the application. However it happens, people walk away from the sermon with their imaginations alive.

The best example I know of this happening is in the Bible itself. In the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134, what I like to call Hillsongs: the original soundtrack), we find prevailing images. Again and again, in these brief little psalms, the songwriter engages the imagination with pictures...

Here is my Top Ten, the prevailing images in these psalms which engage my imagination the most:

Psalm 129: 'those who plough have ploughed my back and made their furrows long' (3).

Psalm 124: 'the flood engulfed us ... the torrent ... the raging waters swept us away' (4).

Psalm 131: 'Like a baby content in its mother's arms, my soul is a baby content' (2, The Message).

Psalm 125: 'As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people' (2).

Psalm 126: 'And now, God, do it again - bring rain to our drought-stricken lives' (4, The Message).

Psalm 133: 'It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard' (2).

Psalm 129: 'May they be like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow' (6).

Psalm 120: 'He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree' (4).

Psalm 130: ''I wait for you more eagerly than a soldier on guard duty waits for the dawn' (6, CEV).

Psalm 124: 'We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler's snare' (7).

Here is a Top Ten without even mentioning 'your wife is like a fruitful vine within your house; your children like olive shoots round your table' (128.3). Oops, we now have a First Eleven.

If these psalms, with just a handful of verses in them, can find space for a prevailing image, so can our sermons. Notice, too, how utterly ordinary and everyday these images are. The advantage of being ordinary and everyday is that they have a better chance of engaging the imaginations of a wider range of people. Everybody relates to the ordinary and everyday ... that is what those words mean!

Arguably, the most frequently asked question in the training of preachers is 'where do I find illustrations?' Well, start by investing in your own imagination by seeing the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary and everyday.

nice chatting


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

lyrics for living 11 (change be blest)

In these troubled times, my mind and heart have travelled, yet again, to a hymn.

It comes from my bulging 'hymns I've sung only when I have chosen them' file. The most recent selection of this hymn was almost 30 years ago - and even then I probably chose it only 2-3 times.

'This post really is going places, Paul. That is a great start.'

Well, it keeps going downhill from here. The customary tune, Chilton Foliat, is hardly a keeper. And unlike every other hymn in this 'lyrics for living' series, I could not find a single recording of this one on You Tube. I guess that says something.

It gets worse. Look at this little graph that I discovered (yes, sorry, it is very little). The horizontal axis is a time line (1750-2000). The vertical axis is the percentage of hymnals in which the hymn can be found. Allow me to interpret the graph for you. This hymn was born into the hymnal world in about 1900, but its life has always been endangered, peaking at a presence in a whopping 20% of hymnals, before suddenly becoming extinct in about 1975. Where is David Attenborough when you need him for a little hushed commentary to set the mood...?

Sit tight. This marketing exercise has further downhill to go. Some may see a likeness between Henry Twills, the hymnwriter, and the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan (I certainly do) - but I suspect there won't be too many who join me...
Henry Twells
So here I am with an extinct hymn that I've only sung 2-3 times more than 30 years ago, written by a singularly good-looking guy ... and about to commend it to you. And yet... And yet... A bit like a recent lyrics for living post, this is a hymn for this troubled year of 2016 - with phrases I may have rarely sung, but which I have never been able to shake.

Awake, O Lord, as in the time of old.
Come down, O Spirit, in thy power and might.
For lack of Thee our hearts are strangely cold,
Our minds but blindly grope toward the light.

What?! A little theological incorrectness to get started? The Lord is the last one who needs to be woken. The Spirit hardly needs to 'come down', as he is already fully here. But to write it as he has intensifies the pleading in this prayer. I love it. Then to speak of cold hearts and blind minds... Is this not the very combination that annoys me in Christians here and there? And might this combo not be a bit obvious when I take a selfie of my own soul?

Doubts are abroad: make Thou these doubts to cease.
Fears are within: set Thou these fears at rest.
Strife is among us: melt that strife to peace.
Change marches onward: may all change be blest.

What a Fab Four these are?! Doubts. Fears. Strife. Change. It doesn't matter where I seem to look, I see them. Politics plays with them. The media lubricates them. They are there in the sweeping global trends that overwhelm us ... they trouble far too many of those dear to me - and they invade my own private world. Be it deep, deep inside - or wide, wide outside ... what on earth could be better than experiencing doubts to cease, fears to rest, strife to melt - and change be blest?

It is not knowledge that we chiefly need,
Though knowledge sanctified by Thee is dear:
It is the will and power to love indeed;
It is the constant thought that God is near.

Most versions of the hymn omit this verse. No! No! Don't do that. When he goes looking for an answer, he does not fall into the head versus heart trap. The cognitive and the affective both need to be switched on. Knowledge may not be the chief need, but when touched by God, it is still precious. It is still to be sought ... alongside the chief need: an outpouring of love and compassion ('love indeed', and love in deed), refreshed as we are, as Advent approaches, by the conviction that God draws near in Christ.

Make us to be what we profess to be;
Let prayer be prayer, and praise be heartfelt praise;
From unreality set us free,
And let our words be echoed by our ways.

I can hear the accompanying instruments go quieter, gentler. Most hymns have a verse like this one. The prayer goes intimate. The prayer pulls back the curtains to discover life backstage, far from the public persona. The concern? Hypocrisy. Give this a tweak, says Twells. The world hates our hypocrisy. Jesus hates our hypocrisy. Not only must we love what Jesus loves, we must hate what Jesus hates. In this post-truth world, with lying as the new normal, we find a fresh truthfulness, a fresh authenticity, a fresh liberating reality ... and transforming echoes resound throughout a troubled world.

Turn us, good Lord, and so shall we be turned:
Let every passion grieving Thee be stilled:
Then shall our race be won, our rewards earned,
Our Master looked on, and our joy fulfilled.

It is more than a tweak that we chiefly need, it is a turn. A return for most of us. In a handful of phrases, the hymnwriter calls us back to the Lord and, at the same time, draws us forward to the Master. Repentance, mixed with hope. The hymn concludes as we need to commence. May it be so.

nice chatting


PS: I discovered this hymn, as a young pastor, in the (NZ) Baptist Hymn Book (#222), published in 1962.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

the four chairs

It is not quite 'In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord', but still, in the year that Rush Hour was released, I played with chairs. I was with some Baptist youth pastors on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. After the training day was over, we headed for the movies. 1998. I've been playing with chairs ever since.

The idea was to equip them to see how the Bible story, spread over multiple centuries and written by dozens of human authors, is actually one single divine story of restoration and rescue. It all started, as it has often done, with a quotation from John Stott:

The Bible divides history into epochs, which are marked not by the rise and fall of empires, dynasties or civilizations, but by four major events - the Creation, the Fall, the Redemption and the End.
(JRWS, Issues Facing Christians, 34)

The imagination ticked away ... simpler words were chosen (as Stott does himself): Good, Bad, New, Perfect ... and the ideas have been evolving ever since (with help from friends like Geoff New). This week a class of 32 MTh students, here at SAIACS (Bangalore), engaged with the chairs...

The four chairs in a tribal area in Northern Thailand
Here is how it works:

Constructing the chairs: telling the story
Each chair is brought out, one at a time - and described.

The GOOD chair, with themes like creation, design, order, relationships constituted (God:humanity, humanity:humanity, God:creation, humanity:creation), community and image of God...

The BAD chair, with themes like sin (intense in Genesis 3-11; persistent ever since), guilt and shame, evil, judgement, suffering, death, each relationship broken and the image of God stained...

The NEW chair, with themes like 'redemption predicted (Gen 3.15), redemption initiated (Gen 12-Malachi - covenants & law & prophet-priest-king & wisdom), redemption completed (the Gospels), redemption celebrated (the rest)'; the kingdom of God, the cross of Christ, the resurrection, the age of the Spirit and the church...

The PERFECT chair, with themes like hope, destiny, eternity, second coming, final judgement, 'God is in control & Jesus wins' (Revelation), absence of tears & pain & death & 'groaning' & sin & brokenness, heaven...

Playing with the chairs: understanding the story
Here the fun begins, with lots of potential for interaction and discussion (and slipping quietly in the back door is a deeper understanding of the story).

How many chairs are needed to complete the gospel? Why?
How many chairs were in the gospel you accepted as a new believer? Come up and share your story.
What bad & false teaching slips in when a chair is removed, one at a time - leaving only three chairs?
What are the implications for God's people when teachers get stuck in just the one chair?
What truth can be depicted by stacking the middle chairs - and which way do you stack them?
etc etc etc
The bad chair, occupied by my friend and colleague, Dr Rennie - in a remote part of the Mainland.
Sitting in the chairs: indwelling the story
These chairs tell God's story of the world. They are his worldview and by sitting in them, one at a time, we can begin to live in that worldview as well. To use that great word from Michael Polanyi, we indwell the story. As we sit in the chairs, as we indwell the story, it becomes our way of looking at the world - or, better still, the lens through which we look at the world. Take a topic, any topic - hold it (with an actual object, symbolizing it) as you sit in each chair ... asking questions like these ... and allow a biblical worldview on the topic to take shape.

Sit in the GOOD chair and ask about God's original design and purpose, about the good thing that has been stained, about the image of God, and about how the topic engages with the four relationships.

Sit in the BAD chair and ask about where sin and evil have reached, about how the original design has been subverted/sabotaged, about the groaning and brokenness and suffering (and live in it and feel it a bit, too) ... and shed some tears over the sadness.

Sit in the NEW chair and ask about what the difference Christ can make (together with the cross & resurrection & kingdom & Spirit & church), about what healing and freedom and salvation is already possible, and about where the big words can become involved (redemption & reconciliation & justification & sanctification & forgiveness & compassion ... and truth).

Sit in the PERFECT chair and ask about what will happen at the end with this topic, about what healing and freedom and salvation (in all their fullness) look like, about how glory & hope & destiny & wholeness & justice transform this topic, about what 'God is in control & Jesus wins' means for this topic, and about what no more tears & no more pain & no more death & no more groaning & no more brokenness feels like.

My daughter, Alyssa, playing with sunflowers instead of chairs.
Moving the chairs (around the Table): responding to the story
This is Geoff New's main contribution - and it is beautiful. He notices how each of the four chairs can be 'overheard' in the words of Jesus at that Last Supper.

The GOOD: the divine desire for fellowship
And he said to them, 'I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.' (Lk 22.15)

The BAD: the human propensity for breaking fellowship
And while they were eating, he said, 'Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.' (Mt 26.21)

The NEW: the divine reconciliation with humanity
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.' (Mt 26.26-28)

The PERFECT: the divine restoration in the new heavens and earth
I tell you, I will not drink from the fruit of this vine from now on until the day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom. (Mt 26.29)

Kinda makes you want to be Getting up out of the chairs (and be) worshipping because of the story!

nice chatting


Tuesday, November 08, 2016

a lament for america

It always used to be one of the wonders of the (democratic) world.

Not any more.

As Election Day dawns here in India, my mind goes back thirty-five years to when I was a student in Chicago (yes - go, those Cubbies!). In those days I marveled at the way politics worked in the USA. Two things stood out for me. One was the respect for the office of the president. Once the president was elected, people tended to shut-up and be supportive because they honoured the office. The other was the spirit of bipartisanship in the Congress and the Senate. People 'crossed the aisle' regularly to make deals and create good policies on the way to effective government.

Not any more.

Respect for the office seemed to end in 2008, with the election of Barack Obama. You'll have to work hard to convince me that the colour of his skin had nothing to do with it. In addition to this, bipartisanship has given way to polarisation. The government has even shut-down on occasion because of the determination to be obstructive with the Obama administration. The outcome? No longer do we have one of the wonders of the (democratic) world.

The media has played its part. On the hint of a left-wing bias in the mainstream media, Fox TV (which I had a moan about six years ago) decided to occupy a trenchant position on the 'right' - which only served to push the mainstream out of the main stream, and even further to the left. And so now the media both leads and reflects the polarisation in politics and in people. If it wasn't so sad, it would be laughable - as we watch show after show dominated by so-called commentators who are but thinly disguised self-promoting, glossed and flossed, champions of the right, or the left.

It is sad. Earlier in the year I felt so angry with this Trump phenomenon. But now it is more a sadness that I feel. I've listened carefully and understand better now the anxieties hovering around Hillary. She seems incapable of functioning in a way that builds trust - and when you don't have trust, you don't have much. The hatred of Hillary must be immense, even irrational, for people to even consider a character like Trump. It is immense.

And so the questions multiply... How can a nation with so many good people produce such bad candidates? How can millions of self-proclaimed evangelicals, so wary of Romney's mere mormonism four years ago, now be found running into the embrace of a man like Trump? Is there not truth, lots of it, in Jimmy Carter's claim that America has become an oligarchy? How has lying become acceptable as the new normal - so much so that every debate has been accompanied by a 'fact-check' service? It takes me back to the opening salvo of the Psalms of Ascent: 'Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues' (120.2). This is one of the salvations needed because something is badly broken.

So, on the morning of Election Day, it is a time to lament. As I lament, I pray...

If Trump wins, my prayers will focus on the global church. I don't think American Christians realise just how much so many people around the world still identify Christianity with the USA. It is an instinct. It is a default setting. It is the Christian country in the world. And 'the USA' which they see most often tends to be shaped by Hollywood and the President. This image of Christianity ain't great - and it is about to get a whole lot worse ... and true believers around the world are going to feel some added heat. These believers are our brothers and sisters. This is the tie that should bind far closer than any nationalistic one. This 'added heat' must be of greater concern than 'Make America Great Again'. Such a slogan is an utter irrelevance in the mission of God around the world and genuine evangelicals have no business signing-up to it.

Yep, if Trump wins, I'll be renewing my persevering prayers for the global church.

If Clinton wins, my prayers will focus on the local church. Many Christians are open to voting for the despicable Trump on the basis of one single issue. They don't want Hillary anywhere near the appointment of Chief Justices to the Supreme Court. This is because the only ethics that matters to them is personal ethics, with abortion heading the list. How come social ethics - with racism heading the list - is less of a concern? I don't understand that and I don't think Amos or Micah would either. Furthermore, why this pre-occupation on having influence in the judiciary, with so much hope placed in securing its power? Haven't people been reading Revelation lately? Haven't people learned from the Christendom error? Haven't people been watching the progress of the church in countries with far worse judiciaries? This is not the power that matters. Hope for transformation lies far more with the power of a multitude of local churches in America shaking free from their blind idolatries and then moulding counter-cultural contrast communities, as salt and light, right where they work and worship.

Yep, if Clinton wins, I'll be renewing my persevering prayers for local churches.

nice chatting


Sunday, November 06, 2016

blessed be egypt my people

It jolted me. It shouldn't have, but it did.

Waking up in Egypt on the first day of our first training seminar in the region and my Bible reading greets me with these words, the very first words I read: Woe to those who go down to Egypt (Isaiah 31.1a). Already a bit burdened with apprehension, I was looking for an encouraging word from the Lord. Not here! In that eerie pre-dawn space, when I can struggle to contain both racing mind and rushing emotion, I was jolted. Yes, I was.

It didn't get any better. I moved on to my notes for the first session on learning how to observe the text carefully, only to discover that my practice passage included the phrase, You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt (Exodus 19.4). Oh dear, how did I miss that in my preparation?

Gee - the Old Testament is pretty tough on Egypt, isn't it?! The context in which I sat was forcing me to hear the text in a fresh way. A good lesson to learn. Slowly, I pulled myself together. I did go and read the beautiful Isaiah 19.25 passage again - 'blessed be Egypt my people. Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance'. I did start to engage the 'scripture interprets scripture' principle. I did begin to think along 'history of salvation' trajectories and free Isaiah to be interpreted in light of Acts - and beyond. I did restart, belatedly, the biblical-theology engine in my mind and heart...

But it didn't stop me seeking out time over lunch with one of the most respected pastors in the country and asking him, 'When Egyptians come to faith in your church, how do you help them process all the negative stuff about Egypt in the Old Testament?' His response - in a nutshell? All those judgements - and that blessing from Isaiah - find their fulfillment, even closure, in the Christ-event of the Gospels.

It helped me to hear him say that, but what helped even more was to travel around Egypt a bit...

We climbed Mt Sinai, stepping up (literally) into the reality of the 2000 years before the Christ-event. Abraham. Moses. Burning Bush. Ten Commandments. Golden Calf. The words of Chris Wright rang again in my ears - from The Mission of God:

the ingathering of the nations was the very thing Israel existed for in the purpose of God (194).
Genesis 12.3 is the first Great Commission: God so loved the world that He chose Israel (329).

Isaiah 19.25, one of the most breath-taking pronouncements of any prophet [is] Exodus reloaded with the characters reversed (491) ... The identity of Israel will be merged with that of Egypt and Assyria, such that the Abrahamic promise is not only fulfilled in them but through them (236).

In the Old Testament, the mission of God is that the distinction would ultimately be dissolved as the nations flowed into unity and identity with Israel (500) - but we only find out how in the New Testament.

And what did we see atop Sinai? The sunrise was amazing. Walking where Moses walked was so cool. I even saw some clefts in the rock ... but none of this matched these two sights of 'the nations flowing in unity and identity':

Spanish-speaking Latin Americans praising and pleading with the Light, as they wait for the light (and once it did dawn, a bunch of  Malayali-speaking people from Kerala, in India, couldn't suppress their 'hallelujahs' any longer).

Once the light came, we were reminded again of how far the Light has reached since those wanderings in Sinai,
with Chinese peoples just around the corner from Arab peoples.

We visited Coptic Cairo, stepping down (literally, because one civilization builds on the rubble of the previous one and so the ancient past drops lower and lower below the surface) into the reality of the 2000 years since the Christ-event. This was the undisputed highlight for me, moving among (possibly) the longest unbroken Christian testimony in the world. The words of Philip Jenkins rang again in my ears (together with Andrew Walls and Tom Oden) - from The Lost History of Christianity (LHC) and The Next Christendom (NC):

Christianity has never been synonymous with either Europe or the West (NC, 18).

[on comparing the Coptic church, which survived, with the church in North Africa, which died] 
Survival was about how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed (LH, 35) ... Despite all its fine theologians and its identity as a centre of early Christianity, the church in North Africa failed in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of its coastal cities and not sinking roots deep into the world of its native peoples (LH, 229) - exactly what the Coptic church was prepared to do.

Protestants are in such a hurry to jump from Augustine to Luther. But it is actually our Asian and African brothers and sisters who can fill that gap best (Walls).

Athanasius, Augustine and Cyprian are African, not Europeans in disguise (Oden, 62). It is wrong to consider Alexandria as a non-African extension of the European intellect (Oden, 58).

This is the most surprising step of our investigation: how Africa influenced Ireland 
and how the Irish monks then shaped the formation of medieval Europe (Oden, 73).

Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of Cairo, with 6-7 little churches (and a synagogue) crammed within the old Roman fortress known as Babylon (built about 30BCE). Tradition states that Mark brought the gospel to this area in the early decades of the 1st century and some of the churches we entered could be as early as the 3rd and 4th century...

This image will never let me go.
In the company of saints and apostles, I imagine this man pleading with God
for the progress of the gospel and for peace in the Middle East.

Exquisite work with wood and brick.
The wooden screen at the front - iconostasis - is a distinctive of Coptic churches.
The baptistry

Church History courses tend to avoid most of the Christian world and the world of most Christians (Walls).

nice chatting


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

a mess, a meal, and a map

After 'making a mess in the kitchen, it is time to put a meal on the table' - a meal that is nutritious, attractive and ordered. That is how my Pakistani friends describe the journey from text to sermon. I love it. Engaging the biblical passage, using skills of observation and exegesis, does make a mess ... and then the goal is to turn that mess into a meal.

For some years I have been developing the metaphor of a map to help people make this transition. Keep tweaking it... The full notes always felt so heavy in those early years, leaving learners a bit overwhelmed. So I've been pushing the notes later and later into the session. Last week in Egypt, I never got to the notes at all...and it seemed to go well.

In their table groups I had people draw a map of their country. Then they were asked to plan a trip for Barby and I, taking us to the places they think we should experience in their homeland. The trip needed to visit different states/provinces (or governorates in Egypt - that is a mouthful, let me tell you!) and cities/towns along the way. The artists came out. The travel agents emerged. The group dynamic was fantastic. Showing the best features of their country (particularly when it is misrepresented in the media, which is often the case) is something people love to do.

This group from a single church in Cairo did a nice job (even though the camera setting was on 'sunset'!).

The work of a group that came across from 5ud@n was also a feature...

By the end the groups were offering us discounted travel, plenty of  'home-stays' and the best guides...

Then I teased them with the idea that what they had just been doing was a bit like preparing and preaching a sermon from a passage of the Bible. That passage is a bit like a country and in the sermon we enter it and travel through it - from state to state, city to city. We lived with this juxtaposition for a bit (in grassroots training, 'juxtaposition' is the favourite word that I can never use), drawing out their ideas about any osmosis that takes place.

This happened on Day Three of the seminar. Still no notes. The next thing to do was to return to the sermons that had been preached on the two earlier days: Nehemiah 8 and Psalm 126. Back we went to them, with new eyes, to see how they illustrated this model of using a map to move from mess to meal (oh dear, that is a lot of Ms, not to mention a few mixed metaphors ... oh no, still more Ms!). Or, if you like sporting metaphors, the preached sermon was the game - and now I was providing some commentary on what they heard.

Through the afternoon on that Day Three, they had an opportunity to have a go themselves, preparing sermon outlines on Colossians 1.28-29. Still no notes (although I urged them to read through them on their own and bring back their questions). Then, through the afternoon on Day Four, they had another opportunity to practise the process, this time with Luke 8.11-15. As the translator worked through their sheets with me, I was delighted. Rarely have I seen such an accurate grasp of the basic idea after just the second effort. Still no notes. This is the work they produced (for those of you who know Arabic, not too many, I suspect!):

Hopefully, they will keep practising over the coming months...

As a metaphor, the map becomes the scaffolding to be removed once the building has been constructed, the midwife who can leave once the baby has been born. We don't want to hear about the map in the sermon itself :).

nice chatting


Sunday, October 23, 2016

lyrics for living 10 (greater far)

The Health & Safety folks in New Zealand would have a stroke on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Fences are few and far between. Books have been written to make those Health & Safety faces nod up and down knowingly: Over the Edge: Gripping Accounts of All Known Fatal Mishaps in the Most Famous of the World's Seven Natural Wonders. That is a long title - but then it is quite a long drop, too.

At one stage I thought my friend, Victor, might add another chapter to these 'gripping accounts':

But, thankfully, Victor is still with us...

The grandeur of the Grand Canyon could never be captured in pictures. However, somewhat surprisingly, it was captured for me in words. We had walked along the edge for an hour or two, soaking it all in and watching (through my fingers) people perching themselves at impossible vantage points ... and then we came back to a museum stuck on the edge with panoramic views.

But once inside the museum I found myself looking down, not up and out, as I was captured by facts and statistics which helped me grasp how wide and long and deep this canyon actually is.

With words like these ones, I found my imagination drifting across to the love of Christ:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. (Ephesians 3. 17-19)

From the love of Christ my imagination moved on to a song from my childhood, made famous by George Beverly Shea at all those Billy Graham evangelistic meetings. On Sunday mornings in the 60s a big black disc would come out of its Sacred Songs cover and put on a thing that goes round and round. Even in the 80s, while at theological college in the USA, I'd enjoy tuning into recordings of those meetings and be moved by Billy's message and Bev Shea's songs.

With a little contextualisation to the Grand Canyon, this song goes something like this:

Could we with ink the Canyon fill,
  And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
  And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of Christ above
  Would drain the Canyon dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,

  Though stretched from sky to sky.

For years I used this verse in preaching classes as an example of how words - and not just images - had the power to fire the imagination. This is the reason why the book is usually better than the movie: it leaves more space for the imagination to go to work.

For the record - from another time and place, as I hear the groanings of a younger generation or two - here is 'Bev Shea' singing this hymn (this particular verse starts at about 1.18):

nice chatting


PS: While I've got your attention, there is another two signature songs from Bev Shea that I've always loved - ahh, the gentle, tender assurance and simplicity in the words: It is No Secret What God Can Do and I'd Rather Have Jesus. You can do it! It will do your soul good...

Thursday, October 13, 2016

training preachers: formal & non-formal

It is 'literally like food for me ... like someone put batteries in my heart.' This is how a young Bosnian woman, Mirjana, reflects on the impact on her of the biblical preaching to which she was listening.

How do you train preachers to have that kind of impact?
Food and batteries? Yes, please!

Increasingly, educators speak about formal and non-formal ways of teaching. I was in Taiwan a couple of weeks ago - and this issue emerged in the discussions. It got me thinking about it again. Examples of the 'formal' would be the seminary, or theological college - for me, a bit like the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) where I have taught MA & MTh & DMin modules in Homiletics (Preaching). Examples of the 'non-formal' would be the training offered by the Langham Preaching ministry in which I have been involved as well.

So, yes, I have been in the privileged position of being involved, at the same time, in the formal and non-formal training of preachers. I believe in both approaches. But the two approaches are so different from each other. Thinking specifically of the SAIACS and the Langham models of these recent years - and intentionally over-generalising in order to make my point and to invite helpful critique - here are some of the contrasts (with a little help from my Langham friends):

The formal builds on a class every morning for a month.
The non-formal builds on an intensive week every year for three years.

The formal covers lots of material, moving through it quickly.
The non-formal covers less material, returning to it repeatedly.

The formal works with graduate students in the English language, facilitating a fuller engagement for me.
The non-formal works with 'grassroots' practitioners in local languages, limiting that engagement for me.

The formal is motivated by compulsion, as students are required to take the module.
The non-formal is motivated by choice, as learners choose to participate in the training.

The formal sees the allocated learning time weighted towards theory, with plenty of written assessment.
The non-formal sees the allocated learning time weighted towards practice, with no written assessment.

The formal has an eye on accreditation agencies.
The non-formal has neither eye on accreditation agencies.

The formal sits among multiple, successive, intensive learning foci (modules) spread over two years.
The non-formal tends to be a single learning focus spread over numerous years.

The formal has a more static vision: train the preacher as one skill among many, with little follow-up.
The non-formal has a more dynamic vision: train the preacher to be trainers of others, with follow-up.

The formal has the teacher working with new students every year.
The non-formal has the trainer working with the same preachers every year.

The formal often finds students to have had little preaching experience, offering before-the-job training.
The non-formal often finds participants to be immersed in weekly preaching, looking for on-the-job training.

The formal can create a continuous learning context that helps learners remain engaged.
The non-formal can create a discontinuous learning context that leaves learners disengaged.

The formal can engage a wow: 'this specialist expertise is so amazing, I could never pass it on to others.'
The non-formal can engage a wow: 'this accessible learning is so amazing, I could pass it on to others.'

In this way the formal and the non-formal can both complement and compliment each other.

Bottom line?! Growing as a preacher - be it through formal or non-formal means - involves more than mere participation in a course or seminar. It requires the practicing of what is learned and is assisted further when that learning is reflected upon and then passed-on to others. However all this is kindling for the inner fire. The spark is provided by listening to good preaching ... preaching that does more than provide mere inspiration - it fans aspiration.

nice chatting


Sunday, October 09, 2016

monument valley

I am trying to do it more often.

On those occasions when Barby is able to travel with me, we are stealing a few days and going off together to enjoy the sights a bit. Earlier this week, after arriving in Phoenix, we headed up to Flagstaff ('up' is the operative word - 7230 feet up!). I had been there 38 years earlier when I took my $99 Greyhound Bus from Chicago to LA, after saying good-bye to Barby. This time she was with me. A welcome change.

After a day in nearby Sedona, we set off on the 3 hour drive up to Monument Valley, just inside the Utah border (where the first thing to be seen, almost, was a Mormon church). It is famous for providing movies and commercials with a memorable backdrop - but it is also a centerpiece of the Navajo nation.

My, oh my?! Reminiscent of the visit to Scotland last year (photos here and here), I couldn't soak up the scenery enough. A visual buffet of substantial proportions. I gorged myself on what filled the horizon - and have spent a fair bit of time proseltyzing Americans ever since - because so many have never been there!

Each rock-mountain is named. This one is 'the mittens'. I thought a little juxtaposition might help...

This is 'totem pole'. [Check out Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction].
This is something like 'snoopy-on-his-back'.

nice chatting


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

home again

For me, 53 days without flying in a plane is a break all of its own - but to be home again in New Zealand, with its beauty of scenery, friends and family has been a delight ... even though somewhat exhausting.

Best food     Cafe Anatolia in Levin (Turkish).

Greatest act of grace     Someone lending us a vehicle which I picked up from the airport on arrival and will deliver to the airport on departure (8 weeks later). Then when I notified the owner that I had to fill out my first ever car insurance claim form after a gentle nose-to-tail (which was my fault) to read his words, 'Don't worry about it, get on with your trip'.

Most comfortable accommodation (more grace)     Three nights at Flaxmill (Coromandel) gifted to us. On arrival, it felt different. It just did. Turns out they are Christians. I love it when that happens. On departure I glimpsed their 'guiding truths' on the wall - right there, articulated in the public world, as they should be more often. [Although I'd like to tweek 'There is a God that loves us. Actually involve Him in your life', changing it to 'There is a God who loves us. Actually involve yourself in His life.'].

Most strategic sleep     With driving a car for almost 7000 kms over 6 weeks, the five different times I had to stop by the roadside for a car-nap seems reasonably significant.

Most foolish advice     (and probably the best evangelistic opportunity) in an old pub in Otira Gorge. 'Don't take life too seriously. Nobody gets out alive anyway.'

Biggest disappointment (in society)     TV news shows. Really?! They are becoming more vacuuous by the year, even as their hosts become more chatty, casual and celebritous. Ahh, the danger of being enslaved to ratings, rather than reality. I had to turn away, as it was that bad.

Biggest disappointment (in church)     Worship. Really?! How come this is still an issue? So many churches seem to have their services led by younger musicians, rather than maturer worshippers, who are underprepared (maybe 'casual and chatty' works again here!) and who choose songs that their band wants to perform, rather than songs we worshippers want to sing.

Best eye for beauty in the detail (while being surrounded by grander beauty on the horizon)    Barby with the daffodils in Kaikoura. Its horizonal beauty is pictured over here - while the daffodils can be seen here:

Best ice cream     I Scream for Ice Cream in Feilding.

Most 'I love being a New Zealander' moment     Hard to go past watching (finally!) The Hunt for the Wilderpeople ... although starting a movie after 8pm, while sitting on a comfy couch is always a challenge for me.

Most truth-filled words seen on a toilet door since 'vacant' and 'occupied'     At our daughter's home, splashing across the Himalayas of our distant childhood, was a frequent reminder of why we do what we do and live where we live with our lives. 'Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.'

Best drinking water     The little fountain with natural spring water on the main road in Tirau.

Most effective shortening of the bucket list     Visiting Parihaka is right up there, even though we barely got past the AA road sign.

Most provocative mission question     'Are you counting conversions, or conversations?' One cannot help to conclude that the former would go a whole lot better if the latter was embraced more fully.

Most necessary mission question     Do NZ Christians really need such a big presence on free-to-air TV?  Is this good stewardship of limited resources? Sure, a few people may be drawn to Christ by it - but who is counting all the collateral damage in terms of spreading the perception of the church being a little too foreign, a little too slick and a bit too obsessed with Israel and creationism?

Best poetry     There it was - hand-written on the inside cover of my 85 year old mother's cookbook. Ahh, that familiar maternal font I've loved all my life, expressing convictions, so incarnate in a life that God has used to touch so many people.

Most frequent conversation topics overheard   The (apparently) invincible Auckland property market and the (apparently) invincible All Blacks. Really?! What does that say?  The gospel might just have greater opportunities to progress in this land if they both came unstuck a bit.

Most 'reunited and it feels so good' moment     Well, with food it was 'tasty' cheese, Vogel's bread, the box of avocados posted to me by my daughter for father's day, my mother's muesli - and chickens with far more flesh on them than that to which I am accustomed in India.

Most unfortunate name for a company     Tranzit. Every time I saw the name on a bus as it went by, I found myself wanting to reach for a mirror to ensure that a plague of pimples had not spread across my face.

Most profound theological moment     Standing in front of the crumbling Catholic Cathedral in Christchurch, so devastated by earthquakes, and knowing enough Latin to understand what it says atop the ruins: 'the dwelling place of God is with men'. Yes, it is true: the church is not a building.

Greatest privilege (in ministry)    I preach infrequently these days. It is kinda ironic. But preaching more than 20 times in 6 weeks (with not that many repeats, plus a few daylong seminars), while fighting two separate waves of heavy colds, not only exhausted me - it reminded me of the 'grace given me' to open the Word of God for the people of God and that His 'grace is sufficient' so to do.

Greatest joy (in family)     More grace. It has been a delight to see 'the gracious hand of our God' resting upon our children in different ways - nowhere more so than in the arrival of a new grandchild, to bring the total number to three.

Off again tomorrow...

nice chatting