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. 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? Too many churches 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 sing, 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. The horizonal beauty is over here - while the daffodil 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 present and future 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 far 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. Goodness me - 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 that it says atop the ruins: something like 'the dwelling place of God is with men'. Never have I been hit so hard by the truth that 'the church is not a building'.

Greatest privilege (in ministry)    I preach so infrequently these days. It is kinda ironic. But preaching more than 20 times in 6 weeks, 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)     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


Monday, September 26, 2016

chats with chaat

We wanted to do something different.

We billed it as 'a multi-sensory evening of interaction'. We called it Chat with Chaat, as we braided together the eating of street food from Delhi (chaat) and the interaction around cross-cultural conversations (chat) ... with some games (one of which is described here).

We've hosted five of these evenings around New Zealand in recent weeks, in which about 160 people have participated. Gee - it was a lot of work, particularly for Barby as she made, or sourced, all the chaat. But we had a lot of help from family and friends ... and I think we'd do it all again.

Here is the combination of the chaat (in pictures) and the chat (in words):

making the queen of chaats, the pani puri
I am enjoying a coffee with three of my Pakistani friends. The time comes to go up and pay. I go to do so - but my Pakistani friend insists. I resist. He insists. I resist. What should I do?

WHY? [On this occasion I let him pay]. The idea here was to surface the difference between resourcing and partnership (which I did more fully in a post here). 'Resourcing' assumes some have something to give - usually the people/organisations from the wealthier 'west' - and the 'rest' have something to receive. This creates dependency and obligation, both of which are unwise. Far better to build partnerships founded on friendships in which the giving and receiving flow both ways.

kara pori, even wrapped in authentic Indian newspaper
You sit down in a public place with others for a meal. In the majority world, invariably, on behalf of the group, someone will give thanks for the food in an audible way. In the minority ('western') world, increasingly, no one in the group will give thanks for the food in an audible way. What is going on?


You enter the home of an Indian Christian and usually, from what is on the walls, it is obvious that they are believers. You enter the home of a Christian in NZ and usually, from what is on the walls, it is far from obvious that they are believers. What is going on?

WHY? The idea here was to surface the way religion is such a private affair in New Zealand, whereas in so many countries in the majority world, it is very public. My students are always stunned when I tell them that 41% of New Zealanders describe themselves as having 'no religion'. The world's problems are never going to be solved by people like that ... because religion is part of life for most peoples. Also, converts in the majority world are more likely to see conversion as drawing a 'line-in-the-sand' as life becomes different now - whereas in the 'west' we like to keep the lines out of the sand. Studies show that it is hard to pick any differences between the lives of believers and unbelievers. We like it like that. It makes us feel relevant and we think it is the key to mission. We are wrong and we desperately need the help of the church in the majority world to show us the way forward.

Should Christians practice yoga? Some say 'yes' - but why? Some say 'no' - but why?

WHY? The point here is similar to the previous one, but I tried to steer it in another direction. Talk of a global village has a consequence. The global church is a village church. We need to live our lives with a far greater awareness of our sisters and brothers around the majority world, looking for ways to express solidarity with them. So, yes, many urbanised Indians from Christian families do not think that yoga is an issue - but those who have come out of Hinduism usually do. Again and again, when I've asked, they are strong and clear: there is no place for yoga in the life of the believer and they give their reasons. We should be guided by them and stand with them far more than we do.

It is easy to pick a New Zealander overseas. They are often the ones super-casual in their clothing ... and the ones super-sarcastic in their humour. That might have upsides at home - but what about downsides overseas?

WHY? The point here is simply to demonstrate how these characteristics can so easily convey a lack of respect for others - and even for God, in certain circumstances (like public worship). I've often been embarrassed by the sloppiness of visiting Kiwis and I've often been embarrassed by myself with the times I slip into sarcasm ... and it just does not work.
moong dal
So often when I hear an Indian Christian pray, their default setting is to refer to Jesus as 'Master' - and then, if I ask them a question and it has a positive response (for example, 'how are your children doing at school?'), their default setting is to preface their response with 'By God's grace...' (for example, 'by God's grace, the children are doing well'). It is uncanny how often this happens. What would the default settings be for Kiwi Christians? What does this suggest about the spiritualities at work?

WHY? [Never had time to use this one - but it is a goodie!] The point here is to surface the priority of Jesus as Lord and the reality of God as good ... especially for people who have far more reason to think otherwise than I do in New Zealand. Suffering for Jesus' sake is so real and so common - and yet so also is the Lordship of Christ and the Goodness of God. It challenges me so much.

the mango lassi (please - that is 'luh-see') was always popular, as Alice will testify
nice chatting


Monday, September 19, 2016

the precarious changeover

Relay races often make for high drama. Have a watch of this one from 2015. Listen carefully to the commentary alongside as well.

Did you catch it? That calamitous changeover. It can be precarious.

The relay is such a striking picture of leadership. And it has some biblical precedent too. There is an individual-relay which climaxes in 2 Timothy 2.2, while there is also a church-relay developing through 1 Thessalonians 1 (if you look carefully enough).

But here is the question on my mind. In the receiving of the baton from others - and then in the passing it on to others - how can the precarious changeover be avoided? Lots of answers are possible. Here are two. With the 'receiving', a leader needs to show humility, while with the 'passing on' the leader needs to show trust.

This one is tricky. Humility tends to grow in tough places and then it tends to shrivel whenever we take a look at it. We need to proceed with caution. As I observe those I admire (and my own mistakes), humility seems to be nurtured in the following ways:

Receiving (unfair) criticism with grace. Criticism that is deserved is not the issue. No. It is this capacity to refrain from becoming defensive when there is every reason to do so. That is what is impressive. It is this capacity to restrain inflammatory words knowing that, like toothpaste, they won't ever be able to be put back into the tube. So humble leaders brush their teeth for a bit, spit down the sink, wash it all way and get on with life.

Watching credit go elsewhere with silence. Everything about humble leaders is held lightly. Their reputation. Their resources. Their intellectual property. Their CV. It is so appealing. They believe the counsel I have often given to others, but find hard to follow myself: 'the ones who matter have a way of knowing - starting with God himself'. This does not get easier as you get older. I've loved being generous with notes and ideas and resources over the years - but every now and then (like last week!), I let out a "yelp!". It is too hard.

Serving (in obscurity) with calm. One of the best leaders I've known once stated to me, "I've spent all my energy building a great team and then it dawned on me that I did not feel a belonging to it." There is something vicarious about leadership, as John the 'I must decrease, he must increase' Baptist so eloquently expressed. Humble leaders respond with calm. They can live in the footnotes and don't need the headlines. This year saw the retirement of Tim Duncan, arguably basketball's greatest power forward. For 20 years he was at the heart of a successful team (San Antonio Spurs) which was the envy of the league for being a team. You know what one reporter said about Duncan when he retired? 'He hid in plain sight better than anybody I know'.

Apologising with haste. Watch them carefully. Humble leaders know how to say 'sorry'. They take the blame - and they do it quickly, without condition or reservation.

Honouring the past with authenticity. When the baton is picked up from the one who has gone before, it is a time for respect and gratitude. It is a time to look for continuities, even when our minds might be racing ahead to the discontinuities that we think will emerge. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before ... and there will always be things to affirm about those shoulders.

Being downwardly-mobile with contentment. One leader comes to mind. He left one country (where he built up quite the track-record of credible, respected leadership), immigrated to another country before he was 40 years of age ... only to find that that 'track-record' amounted to absolutely nothing in the new country. Nobody cared. Nobody was interested. Eyes glazed over. He had to start again - and to do so without resentment takes some serious humility. I admired him a lot.

Monitoring personal pronouns with care. Ah yes, that despicable 'me-myself-I'. But, following Keller, it is not so much about thinking less of myself - but thinking of myself less. That is the key with humble leaders. It is learning to speak with the accent of 'we' and 'us'. It is delighting in deflecting attention to the 'them' and 'they', the ones to whom we are about to give the baton.

As we look towards those ready to receive the baton from us in a secure manner, it starts with:

Selecting character. It is too easy to be seduced by gifts and skills, charm and charisma. They have their place, but they are over-rated. Character is the necessity when it comes to passing on the baton. And once such people have been selected, it is a case of trusting them before they've earned it - and allowing their character to enable them to rise to the challenge. So, give them responsibility, not tasks. This builds trust.

Once character is in place, wise leaders know that trust works like a bank account. There are deposits and there are withdrawals ... and trust-building leaders whom I've admired know that it starts with building those deposits in a variety of ways:

Keeping promises. They keep their word. If they say they'll call, they call. If they say they'll write, they write. They follow-through on things, rather than leaving them to peeter out.

Listening well. They listen to understand, rather than to reply. They are attentive to the 'other', even get lost - and lose their agenda - in the 'other'. There is empathy.

Communicating early - and fully. They know information is power and that holding onto it - even before there is an opportunity to abuse it - is something they do not do. They share information because this is one way to share power and build trust.

Facilitating vision. This goes with listening, but centers on the practice, even the exercises, where vision bubbles up from the people being led - and is not always drip-fed down from those who lead.

Saying thank-you. As I was trained to do, the first principle of leadership is to say 'thank-you' - frequently, authentically and creatively.

Celebrating 'we'. Like Paul with Timothy, the 'son in the faith' becomes the full partner in ministry. The one giving the baton and the one receiving the baton are on the same team. 'Always say we', Kouzes and Posner wrote all those years ago. All cultures seem to struggle with this one, as the older generation finds it difficult to draw in the next one - and give them the baton.

nice chatting


Thursday, September 15, 2016

stott on preaching

A candid conversation with John Stott has emerged on youtube, in which he contributes his advice on preaching. It opens with him being asked about the state of preaching in the world today - 'miserable ... abysmal' - but if you can get past that start (!?), it continues all the way to 'sometimes I prepare sermons in my dreams'. Wonderful stuff.

A big thanks to Vic Hawkins for finding the interview and then for extracting these 8 minutes in the conversation that dealt with preaching.

nice chatting


Monday, September 12, 2016


It has been hectic - but the provision of a car for our entire time at home (thank-you, Kelvyn!) has meant that we have been able to linger with the beauty of the New Zealand we love.

Parihaka - a remarkable story in NZ history

... a few from the West Coast:

... oh, Christchurch! At least the Latin inscription on the Catholic Cathedral is still true, amidst the earthquakes - 'behold the dwelling place of God is with man':

... and four from Kaikoura:

... 'you can't beat Wellington on a nice day':

nice viewing


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

he built a zoo

One of the things to love about the Olympics is that it lifts the awareness of the peoples of the world.

But a bit like the rainy season, or springtime, the season of the Olympics passes and we all return to the national corners from whence we came. What then? How do we keep alive an awareness of the peoples of the world once the sights and sounds of a closing ceremony begin to fade?

A single text should be sufficient. Embedded in it can be found such grand truths.  'From one man God created all the peoples of the world' (Acts 17.26). Common origin. Same imago dei. Equal dignity. One family. Racism repugnant. Injustice unacceptable. Poverty avoidable. Argument over. Case closed. Game. Set. Match.

But that text doesn't seem to be sufficient. People seem to need help to reach this destination...

As Barby and I travel around New Zealand, we are using two approaches. One is to pick a scene from the biblical story. For example, Mary and the baby Jesus is a good one to use. Then search Google for paintings on this scene from different cultures. Watch how the peoples of the world make it their own. It is beautiful. It helps make us less preoccupied with our selves and our cultures and more open to other perspectives. Here are two of the paintings we are using (NB: I can't tell you where they are from, because we are running a little competition. But here's a hint: they are from two countries whose names start with the same letter!).

The other approach is to use food. Learning about the food people eat in a MasterChef-world is a great way to progress an awareness of other peoples. Barby and I are sticking with the familiar - street food, or chaat, made famous in (Old) Delhi where we were based as teenagers. All going well, people will taste samosa, dahi puri, jalebi, kara pori, aloo tikki, mango lassi - and then that queen of Delhi chaat, the pani puri. (However, all did not go well the other night when our communication with the local Indian restaurant was confused and we arrived a night earlier than they expected!).

But I glimpsed a third approach with my grandson, Micah. 'C'mon, Grandpa, let's make a zoo'. Off we went to his bedroom where I watched him go to work. He has loved animals for years (well, let's make that three years!). He has a huge box of them. I sit there and watch him make his zoo. First he places storybooks on different parts of the carpet. They become 'enclosures', as he expresses it. Then he opens up his book of continental maps on which are placed sketches of the animals who live in that continent. Off he goes ... filling his 'Africa enclosure', his 'South America enclosure' etc - all over the carpet of his bedroom floor.

Slowly, his box of animals is being dispersed into the various enclosures of the world. There is even a NZ enclosure, with a kiwi and a couple of cows! The time comes when only a lone wolf is left. 'Where shall I put the wolf?' As I am getting the hang of this building of zoos, I feel an inner surge of confidence to volunteer my thoughts on where the lone wolf might go to be less lonely. 'The North America enclosure?' ... only to receive the response, 'Silly Grandpa, not North America, the Arctic enclosure.' If Grandpa had a tail, it would be between his legs...

Yes, I know - the animals of the world are hardly the peoples of the world, but Micah is well on his way towards appreciating how the created world is full of diversity - a diversity to be celebrated, protected and engaged.

nice chatting


PS: And yes, We Bought a Zoo is one of my favourite movies.

Friday, August 12, 2016

cross-cultural conversations

It is eight years since Barby and I shifted our focus from New Zealand to the peoples of the majority world. Back then, in NZ, voices reminded us of the need to be resourcing mission with inspiring stories of relevance. Now, returning to NZ for two months (August-September), I find that our experiences have drawn each of those words into a deeper, fuller conversation.

Resourcing – but what about partnership?
The resourcing mentality can create a sense that there are those with something to give and then there are the rest of us, who have something to receive. The flow tends to be one way. Even with the best servant-hearted intentions, this often perpetuates a dependency. And yet when we consider the images of the church in the New Testament - body, temple, building – it is interdependency that is so striking. Everyone has something to give. Everyone has something to receive. Everyone is indispensable – in the global church, as well as the local one (1 Corinthians 12). Expressing these truths is best done through partnerships, built on the foundation of friendship, where we think clearly and humbly about how the church in the majority world can resource us.

Mission – but what about maturity?
In global terms, the mission challenge in NZ is difficult. One of the most difficult anywhere. I have a special admiration for pastors who spend their entire careers battling this challenge with an evangelistic heart. I was with one of them earlier this week. And yet, further afield in the majority world, people are responding to Christ in huge numbers. There is plenty of numerical growth, but it tends to be growth without depth. The desperate need is for ministries which grow people deep into Christ. Discipleship. Biblical preaching. Theological education. Mentoring. It is this other mandate for the church in the New Testament – the maturity challenge, if you like – which surfaces so often. I find a certain irony about New Zealanders going on mission trips, offering an expertise they don't often have to countries which usually do have that expertise. I wonder what a 'maturity trip' might look like?

Inspiration – but what about aspiration?
There are so many resources aimed at inspiring people in NZ. Events. Music. Podcasts. Conferences. Speakers. Sometimes I wonder if there is a danger of being over-inspired? The parrot on Inspector Clouseau’s shoulder in the Pink Panther movies comes to mind - constantly being pumped up because it keeps deflating. Where are those lives that whisper to us the words of Paul, ‘follow me, as I follow Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11)? The life they live quietly draws us close and changes us. Such people did wander through my life in NZ (oh yes, they did!) – but now I find my life is awash with them. The genius of such ‘followship’ is that it plays on our aspirations. We want to be like that person who carries that whiff of Jesus. 

Stories – but what about teaching?
The primacy of story here in NZ is evident for all to see. In the majority world, with its oral cultures, story is always going to be central. But here is the problem. Again and again, church leaders over there are saying something else to us. “We’ve tried stories. Come train us how to teach the Bible. That is what we need.” In one country that comes to mind, they see such biblical teaching to be the way to secure their people against the threat of religious fundamentalism. In another country, such biblical teaching is seen to be the antidote to the prosperity gospel. In still another country, such biblical teaching is the helping hand by which the marginalised are drawn close and valued. In still another region, such biblical teaching is seen to be the antidote to a pervasive nominalism. It is the cry for simple, clear, accessible and transformative biblical teaching that is heard most often.

Relevance – but what about resistance?
In NZ nothing kills an idea quite like describing it to be irrelevant. But there is a problem here. The pursuit of relevance - fitting in with the surrounding culture, flowing with its trends in order to gain an audience - is barely visible in the Bible.  In one testament the people of God are ‘a light to the nations’, while in the other they are the ‘light of the world’. Light?! That sounds more like a life that contrasts, than it does a life that fits-in. The instinct here is more about going upstream, resisting the flow, than it is about floating downstream, going with the flow. How have we missed this? Is it partly because the love and justice of God has eclipsed the holiness of God in NZ? We sing a 'holy' here and there, but maybe if we taught it and lived it more, there would be a greater concern for resistance over relevance.
‘Resourcing mission with inspiring stories of relevance’ won’t be going anywhere. But is it enough? No, it isn't. What about building partnerships which target maturity through an aspirational teaching which energises resistance? If we are willing to be patient, we might be surprised about the fruit this brings.

nice chatting


[NB: this post is adapted from an article written for NZ Baptist News.]

Thursday, July 28, 2016

the faith of christopher hitchens

Being relevant is over-rated.

Settle down. I'm not saying it is unimportant, just that it is over-rated. To pursue it with such fervour and make it so important for so long, as has been the case in my home country of New Zealand, has been a mistake. For all sorts of reasons. As I have written elsewhere, it diminishes the centrality of the holiness of God. It lop-sides the Christian life, leaning it towards being gracey-salty, while looking for ways to avoid being lighty-truthy. It misreads the New Testament where the impulse for the local church is more about resistance, than it is relevance.

Goodness me - how on earth do you read the stories of influential public figures like Joseph and Esther and Daniel, or read letters like 1 Peter and Revelation, and emerge with the pursuit of relevance being so important? I can't see it. Where and when do we feel the cross to be an offence and the gospel to be foolishness, as Paul said it would be? Where and when are we 'hated for Christ's sake', as Jesus said we would be? My hunch is that those besotted with relevance just wanna be loved a bit too much...

There is a way out of this misguided maze. Every time the word 'relevance' is about to emerge from my mouth - I suppress it, stuff it back down the oesophagus - and consider using the word 'intrigue' instead. Rather than trying to fit in - why not aim to stand out? Not because we are stupid or silly, but because we are surprising, distinctive, contrasting, attractive and intriguing. Afterall, aren't we more likely to win some, if we are winsome?

Now I have found a case study for this little thesis. A riveting read. The other day it sustained me through a three hour flight of unrelenting turbulence (only partially sustained, it must be said): Larry Taunton's The Faith of Christopher Hitchens (Thomas Nelson, 2016). As always, the eyes drift towards the subtitle for a more accurate description: 'the restless soul of the world's most notorious atheist'.

It is the story of how a tough atheist - who made a career of destroying Christianity - may have come close to the kingdom of God. Like the dubious accountant, Hitchens acknowledges that he was 'keeping two books' in his life. His was 'a divided self' in which there was a public 'book' (the atheist undermining faith), while the private 'book' showed someone increasingly open to Christianity.

What fed this private journey? He was intrigued. 'Real believers surprised him' (82), with the author being one of them (as was John Lennox, the noted apologist from Oxford - and a young girl, but I won't ruin that chapter for you!). Gracey-salty Christians drew near with care and friendship. But what intrigued Hitchens was that they continued to be lighty-truthy as they did so. As the author observes:
They were eager to debate him and defend their beliefs, yes, but they were also inviting him out to dinner or a drink afterwards. That's what he really came to admire: the combination of deep and sincere convictions, which doctrine-waffling Liberal Christians had set aside, and a willingness to defend those convictions in polite debate wrapped up in (warm hospitality) (88).
Hitchens was not attracted to those who saw 'God as a buffet line where one chooses what he likes while skipping the dishes he doesn't: "I'll take some redemption, hold the repentance"' (92) - and yet this is exactly what those besotted with relevance tend to do, so concerned as they are to show God's best side to the public and market him well. At one point, Hitchens writes:
I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque writings of the inter-faith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing (as quoted on p88).
Later Taunton adds these observations:
Sincerity does not trump truth. Afterall one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction (152).
The friendship was genuine and reciprocated. On meeting Hitchens for the first time, the author expected 'to meet a radical atheist jihadist' (94) - but 'our rapport was immediate' (96).

There are some delightful passages in the book. The way the author sees the plot and denouement in the film 3.10 to Yuma to be a metaphor for Hitchens' faith journey (112-113). Then there is driving through the Shenandoah reading and discussing John's gospel together (118-135). Hitchens' final debate (before he died of cancer) was with the author in Billings, Montana (136-152), before they headed off to Yellowstone together. It is Taunton's view that towards the end of his life Hitchens was 'weighing the cost of conversion ... while he was railing against God from the nostrum, he was secretly negotiating with him ... (and he) seemed to be trying to negotiate down the cost of discipleship (164, 168).' But was there a deathbed conversion? Who knows - only God and Taunton is content to leave it with him.

Given the reality that this all sounds like Hitchens might have become a heretic within the atheistic community of faith, there are plenty of people lining up to discredit this book because there is a lot at stake for them. For example, here is the author taking some considerable heat earlier this year on the BBC's Newsnight programme:

I don't find this inquisition too convincing, but it is an important part of the story and needs to be engaged. But so also does the reality that this is essentially a story about an unlikely friendship. And so let's finish with this little piece (watch it right to the end!):

nice chatting


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

a yellow day in delhi

Make it yellow. That is my advice.

If you have just a day in this historic city with so many sights, then spend it on the Yellow Metro line. Check into the simple, central and adequate YMCA accommodation in Jai Singh Rd. Get a good sleep. Breakfast at 7am - and out the door at 7.30am after you've brushed your teeth.

Take the short walk to the Patel Chowk Metro station, buy your daylong Metro pass for INR150 (GBP1.5), and head south to the Qutb Minar station. 30 minutes. Delhi's finest is visible from the train station as you disembark. The view of my happy place rushes the adrenalin through me.

Maybe this is a good time to remember William Dalrymple's comments about Delhi (in The Last Mughal): "... of the great cities of the world, only Rome, Istanbul, and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains ... during a six hundred year period climaxing with the 18th century, Delhi had been the greatest city between Constantinople and Canton ... sometimes it seems as if no other great city of the world is less loved, or less cared for." (8, 24)

A 10min ride in an auto rickshaw and you are at the Qutb Minar - in the cool of the morning and long before the tourists. Dawn to dusk opening hours. Great. Built in the 12th century, the Qutb was the tallest structure in the world for many decades. Wander around the grounds for an hour and then it is back to the station and the Yellow ride north to the Jor Bagh station. The day is still young. Head north a few hundred metres and then turn right into Lodi Rd. The Lodi Gardens will appear on your left within minutes. Enjoy a walk, either clockwise or anticlockwise, through this park. Ignore the putrid water in the lake and it is rather nice, with its ancient rubbled tombs dotted here and there. A favoured location for photo shoots...

On the way back to Jorbagh station, pop across the road into Safdarjang's Tomb (you can't miss it) for a quick look. Then stay on that side of the road for a long walk south, up and over an iconic Delhi fly-over (Delhi's answer to every congested intersection, it seems), and into Dilli Haat. State-by-state, shop-by-shop, here are India's products and cuisine all in one place. Linger for lunch and a little shopping and then head for the INA Market station next door. Aim for somewhere between 1pm-2pm.

Head north on Yellow and the third station will be Udyog Bhavan. Get off here, emerge outside, and take the short walk to the next station, Central Secretariat. This will take you across Raj Path, the 2km dead-straight road leading from the President's residence (Rashtrapati Bhavan) down to India Gate. The Republic Day Parade on January 26 travels this route, with hundreds of thousands people in attendance. Now that is a sight for the imagination. At other times of the year the open spaces are a gathering point for locals as twilight nears, with picnics and cricket games aplenty.

Back in Yellow and now we travel further north, under the central city, and emerge in the heart of Old Delhi at the Chandni Chowk station. This is a different world. Every sense in overload, all the time. Soak it up. People everywhere. It takes a bit to find Chandni Chowk (the street). The easiest way is to ask for directions to Haldirams, a restaurant, and then sit there enjoying an afternoon snack of Delhi street food (chaat), while you plan your visit. This was the main business district for Delhi for an age (particularly through the 19th century). Off the main thoroughfare are all sorts of markets (spice, silver, textile etc) where it is fun to get lost and found. As a child I had bad dreams about getting lost, but not found here. As a parent I once got my family lost here - and while never admitting it, I did eventually get found out. At one end is the Red Fort (not enough time to go inside on this day), presiding over everything. It is from this vantage point that the Prime Minister speaks on Independence Day each year. Down towards the Red Fort is a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara, a Jain temple - and even the Central Baptist Church (established in 1814; quite possibly the oldest church in North India).

Add in the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques anywhere, and you have quite the gathering place for the religions of the world. Sadly, the Jama Masjid is one of the unfriendliest places in Delhi, with tourists conned into having to pay to go inside when it is meant to be free. People always seem gruff and rude at the entrances. Nevertheless it is worth going inside and climbing a minaret with its expansive views - for example, looking across to the Red Fort nearby.

Depending on how long you have loitered, darkness will be closing in. It is time to go Yellow again. If you are comfortable with cycle rickshaws (with a man doing the cycling hard work; I always pay them twice what they ask), then catch one from the Jama Masjid to the Chawri Bazaar station. It is quite the ride. Two stops back to Rajiv Chowk station (Connaught Place, the columned circular space at the centre of Delhi). Wander around the concentric circles, with plenty of restaurants from which to choose. Eventually, make your way to Jan Path - at '6 o'clock' from the circles - and meander down through the shops lining the road. When you reach the intersection with Tolstoy Marg (with the multi-story Cottage Industries Emporium on one side ahead of you and the little Tibetan shops on the other side), turn right and you are on the very road that takes you back to the YMCA.

A day for the ages, all on Yellow. Just do it.

nice chatting


If you do happen to have a second day, then make Humayun's Tomb a priority. Every time I come to Delhi, it has been improved in some way.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

lyrics for living 9 (grant us wisdom, grant us courage)

The world is a mess.

This virus of religious extremism is spreading, with Turkey and Bangladesh being among the newer arrivals to our headlines (& let's not forget those who never receive that focus!). Poverty. It is difficult to see how the global refugee crisis can be resolved. Inequality. The blind spot in the USA over guns is unfathomable. Polarization. Democracy seems to be decaying, less able to produce leaders that can be admired. Big money buys big power - everywhere. Over-consumption. The popularity of Trump in the USA, Brexit in the UK, and Pauline Hanson in Australia all seems so odd. What on earth is going on?

Right now, the mess seems to be accompanied by a peculiar brand of badness, madness and sadness.

In recent months I have found myself singing, repeatedly, a little refrain that I have not sung in public worship for decades:
Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage - for the facing of this hour. 
Wisdom. Courage. At an experiential level these qualities became so real to me when I started as the principal of a seminary. It surprised me, after just a few weeks, how much wisdom and courage was needed every day. In more recent years, when interceding for others, it has become commonplace to plead for wisdom and courage. It is like a default setting (along with grace and patience). So many intercessory situations come back to these two. And now, as I look out into our world, seeing and feeling its mess, this couplet is still with me.

So I journeyed back to the original hymn. Written in 1930, in the midst of the Depression and between the two World Wars, by Harry Emerson Fosdick (a theologically liberal leader whose profile, from a base in New York City, was not dissimilar in scope to today's evangelical New Yorker, Timothy Keller). Notwithstanding Kevin deYoung's stinging criticism of this as a 'hymn not worth singing' because it has a theologically dubious line in it - I think it is worth singing, with a little edit of the words. Let's take a look and listen:

God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy power;
crown the ancient church's story;
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of thls hour,
for the facing of thls hour.

This opening stanza takes me back to John Stott's Sermon on the Mount. The book is not with me, but in the section on salt/light, he says something like "when you see the world's mess, don't get stuck into the world, rather ask 'where is the church?' because it is meant to be the salt and light that stops the rot and shows the way". To me it seems that 'on thy people pour your power ... bring its bud to glorious flower' is exactly how we should be praying.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us,
scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us,
free our hearts to love and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Again - so poignant. Evil encircling us? Fear binding us? Christ scorned and assailed? These are the deep things which paralyse us. It is freedom that we need, a freedom to love and to praise. 

Heal thy children's warring madness,
bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom's goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom's goal.

If we want an exposition of the mess, this verse captures it - does it not?! There is a healing, a bending, and a shaming that needs to be done at so many levels and with so many people (starting with me!).

Set our feet on lofty places;
gird our lives that they may be
armoured with all Christlike graces,
pledged to set all captives free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
that we fail not them nor thee,
that we fail not them nor thee!

It is the change in mood that impacts me here. The opening upbeat prayer to the 'God of grace and the God of glory' is followed by two dreary verses that plumb the depths of the mess. Nibbling at lament. But here the eyes, and voices, are lifted again in hope-filled steeling prayer. I love it. They give me the words I want at this moment in the hymn: setting and girding, armouring and pledging. 

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the search for thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

Together with Kevin deYoung, my theological knickers could get in a twist over 'let the search for thy salvation' - but why reject an entire hymn when altering a couple of words will suffice? It seems a bit silly. For example, I could live with 'let the Joy of thy salvation be our glory evermore'. 

As with most of the hymns in this series on 'lyrics for living', the issue is more about finding a tune that works in a contemporary setting. 'C'mon musicians - can you do something with this one?' Here is the best version I could find (one which isn't drowned out by a blaring organ ... not my favourite instrument, it must be said ... sorry, Dad and Grandpa, who were both organists):

How I'd love to wake up tomorrow, go to church, be greeted with this hymn in the service - and just 'let it rip' from deep within me, singing my little heart out. But it hasn't happened once in the last 30 years and so it ain't gonna happen tomorrow. 

nice chatting