Saturday, September 17, 2011

What We Now Know About the AB’s 2 Games In

Two games, two easy wins. Three good halves of football, the second against Tonga not so good. What do we know?

We know first that the World Cup will first be decided by the All Blacks intensity, in the front five, but more importantly across the field at the breakdown—intensity. We have the backs (man do we have the backs out wide!), we need good go-forward ball all through the game, every game, for 80 minutes. If we do that, we will have a regular supply of quality ball.

Secondly, we know that to win the Cup, they can't lose Carter! Slade is struggling big time, looks out of his depth. Mind you, if we lose Carter, I suspect they will rush Cruden in, and he will start, or Weepu. I hope they have a message out to him to keep real fit, kick heaps, and spend 80 minutes a week running into people to keep sharp!

Thirdly, we have backs to slay anyone. Kahui has sown up one wing. Some are surprised, I am not. The only thing holding Kahui back has been injuries, he is a great athlete. Sonny Bill has to be on the bench, and will bring edge. The Smith-Nonu combination is awesome. Add to last night Dagg, sorry Mils, it is Dagg's time, Jane on the wing, Carter, lethal! Then there is Toeava and Muliaina to back up, excellent cover. On the outer is Guilford who, with Slade, is not measuring up at this level. They should have picked Cruden and Gear, but hindsight is a glorious thing. I am sure if they had picked the team after the final Tri-Nations game, they would have gone with Gear, maybe Cruden?

Fourthly, they need to pick the best half-back to get the ball crisply and sweetly to the backs a la Graeme Bachop. To me, Ellis is definitely the one who should start. With backs like that outside him, who needs a half who is going to muck around, having a look around, assessing options, being combative, taking a couple of steps as he passes etc. The only plus with Cowan is that he is tough and stronger defensively. But, he is not on his game at the moment, and Ellis was superb last night, as he has been in the Super 15 when not injured. Weepu then comes off the bench.

Fifthly, the forwards pick themselves. I would start with last night's forward pack, and add McCaw obviously, and Read when he is fit. Otherwise, that is the pack. They need to be super-intense in every game, and that will be the challenge for the older guys. I think Williams is not quite there, and Whitelock should start—it is his time, and we can't have too many old dudes in the front five.

Finally, there is the bench. I think they will have to stick with Slade, as Weepu adds so much at half when he comes on, and he can cover full-back and wing if needed. This means you can have Sonny-Bill. Otherwise we could be badly exposed if we lose two from the midfield and back three, Weepu and Cowan on the bench can hardly cover any of those positions. Also, Sonny-Bill is still not proven at wing. That was a great performance last night. Sure, the Japanese were weak, especially in the physical part of the game, but it was the intensity, the attitude, the excitement, the passion, the relentless pressure—that is what can win the cup.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

RWC The First Week, What We Have Learnt.

So, we are nearly a week into the RWC, what have we learnt?

The first thing is not a new thing, but a reinforcement of what we already knew—Auckland's traffic system is a joke. Personally, I don't know why people are upset about the train and bus fiasco last week, we all knew it would happen— this is Auckland after all. What is really surprising is how dumb Aucklanders are; as if things would be different to what they always have been. I mean, why would the Auckland public transport system suddenly be ok on the busiest night of the year? If it ain't fixed, it is broke!

The second thing confirmed, is that the Auckland Council couldn't organise a prayer meeting in a church. Why would a council cobbled together from the previous set of councils, which has historically been rife with disunity, and trying to work with central government and the ARC etc, get things right? Why would they think that something like 200,000 people would come into town for the night? Why would they have the sort of vision that any average person would have? Why wouldn't they throw their effort into a venue for 12,000 down on Queen's Wharf when there would be 188,000+ more people on the waterfront?

The third thing we could rely on is that Wayne Barnes would make a questionable decision at a crucial time in a match. Last time it was a forward pass which went a long way to helping the French beat the AB's at the 2007 World Cup—not that the match was decided by this of course. This time, it was a dubious shot at goal by the Welsh which looked like it might have gone over but was ruled out. Why would he not make a controversial decision?

The fourth thing we should have relied on is that the All Blacks would not settle on their number one team and rather play all sorts teams in the lead up to the French match. After all, combinations are over-rated, what matters is that everyone gets a run so that everyone is ready to come on. Who cares if they hardly know the guys they are playing with. In the crunch games, combinations aren't really important—what matters is depth. I would have thought we would have realised that only fifteen can play at any one time, and the key thing is that they are a hardened proven combination. Robbie Deans must be mad playing the same team week in and week out.

As for the rugby we learnt one new thing—that the Samoans are the real deal, and there must be some seriously worried teams in their pool. Watch out Wales and South Africa. I reckon this Samoan team can go all the way! Whether they will remains to be seen.

Aside from that, the top five teams NZ, Australia, South Africa, France and England were all pretty unimpressive aside from patches and so we are no closer to knowing the outcome. The only other team that looks dangerous are the Samoans and perhaps the Welsh, but only one of those teams is likely to get through now that Wales lost to South Africa. What is pretty certain is that the Irish and Scottish haven't a hope—incredibly average.

Surely, the most astonishing thing this week is the McCully serious party performance of taking over the Cup from the Auckland Council and not telling Len Brown! While it might have been the best thing to do, what a stupid way of doing it!  This will come back to seriously haunt him—National will have to sacrifice him after the RWC to keep the peace with Auckland, whose leaders will not forget this moment. From a political point of view, it was a shocker. Not that it will affect the election, at least, not unless things go awry again. It certainly gives Labour a sliver of hope—a sliver mind you!

The other and very best thing we have learnt is that having a RWC in NZ is cool—don't you love it?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Glimpse of Heaven – Sort of...

Last night Emma and myself went into the viaduct to enjoy the launch of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Things went our way. We got to the Constellation Park and Ride and squeezed last onto a bus saving us anything up to an hour. We then squeezed last into the line up to get into Queen's Wharf just before they sorted out the queuing – the name is not Keown (Queuin) for nothing. We got front row seats at the stage and settled for the afternoon – evening. What a blast. We saw the waka come in on the big screen, the hakas. Then Dave Dobbyn performed, he was brilliant. The Finn's followed, and they were even better. Then the opening ceremony was breathtaking, and the fireworks unbelievable. Then we watched the start of the game, the hakas and the singing of the National Anthem. We then headed for the bus because we thought we would never make it home. It was a great decision, we watched the game at home. We got home around 10, absolutely tired out, but buzzing. What a celebration of humanity in oneness, weapons laid down, gathered for games.

I loved the celebration of Maori culture. Something is changing in NZ in this regard. We are really embracing Maori culture as our culture. There is a long way to go, but we are beginning to truly be one. Everytime a Maori came on the screen and the tongue came out etc, the crowd roared. I sense a new generation who are moving out of pakeha patriarchy to a truly bi-cultural mode of thinking. There is a long way to go, but the signs are promising as NZ finds its identity.

I thought it was fantastic that the Waka was welcomed to a song written by Dobbyn dedicated to God after his coming to faith, 'Welcome Home.' How appropriate, not that the crowd knew it. The singing of the national anthem was stunning – 'God of Nations...' Yeah baby. Again, not that people really know what they are singing. I love the Anthem, it is a prayer.

International sports events like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, and world cups in my view, give us a glimpse of the dream of the Kingdom of God. The dream of the Kingdom is of all humanity, from every nation and tongue, united as one. That was the feeling at Queens Wharf as Oscar Kightly got the people of all the nations represented to call out and as the whole array of flags were waved joyously. There was no tension, just unbridled celebration and joy.

The song 'World In Union' by Charlie Skarbek captures this:

There's a dream,I feel, So rare, so real. All the world in union. The world as one.

Gathering together. One mind, one heart. Every creed, every colour. Once joined, never apart.

Searching for the best in me I will find what I can be. If I win, lose or draw, It's a victory for all

It's the world in union, the world as one. As we climb to reach our destiny. A new age has begun.

We face high mountains. Must cross rough seas. We must take our place in history. And live with dignity

Just to be the best I can. Sets the goal for everyman. If I win lose or draw. It's a victory for all.

It speaks of a dream, the world as one, gathered together, one in heart and mind, all races, in bonds that are never broken, a new age begun – sounds very like the vision of God for the Kingdom.

Of course there are vital missing components in this dream, the God-dynamic and sin-problem dealt with. History tells us that while such events give us glimpses of the dream of God, they fall short. The fulfilment of the dream requires the transformation of the human heart through the work of Christ actualised by faith, and the key is God. The sad fact for us in NZ is that the dominant culture is now abandoning the God-dynamic and moving away from feeling any need for Jesus. The dream is corrupted by an idolatry of self, excessive competitiveness, the dogma of the dollar and more. There is the problem of alcohol and the consequent issues that flow. When we left to head home and walked up Queen Street to head to the bus, it was rather intimidating, walking among bands of drunken youth – it felt like it would not take much to turn the situation into a riot. I hope it doesn't turn to this if things go awry for the AB's or something else triggers it. The dream of the Kingdom is far from a reality despite the songs and celebration.

That said, I gave a wry smile at the singing of Welcome Home and the passionate singing of the Anthem – if only we could bring the dream to its fullest expression loving God and loving each other.

All that said, it is good to reflect on how such moments give a taster of the dream of God. The celebration to come when Jesus returns and all of humanity gathers to rejoice and party like they never have before, will sure be something. The challenge for us is to work for it now.

As for the rugby – the All Blacks will have to a heck of a lot better if they want to win. The tight five were unconvincing, as was Cowan. Carter and McCaw were quiet. Kaino was great, as were Dagg and Kahui, while Nonu was his usual self. But the All Blacks look strangely lacking to me. Here's hoping that this is just getting the rust out.


Monday, September 5, 2011

‘Death’s Door’ the Documentary: A Response

So it seems that science is getting interested afresh in life-after-death. In last night's doco (4/09/2011), Rod Vaughan did a story on life after death with testimonies, interviews with several scientists studying the phenomenon in NZ and the USA, and with a sceptic (see 'Death's Door.' Rod Vaughan reports on 'A Matter of Life and Death' – Producer Chris Wilks).

He interviewed three people who had experienced similar things. Trevor James, a 71 year old Manawatu man, described 'the experience of his life' in which he 'died', left his body, floated over the bed observing himself, and of seeing his deceased relatives. As he floated, he remembers saying 'there's two of me.' He described hurtling down a tunnel toward a vivid and welcoming light. He says, 'It was so bright. It was brighter than the sun, brighter than an arc welder, yet it didn't hurt my eyes. And I was captivated by it. I wanted to go into the light and I felt so cheated that I hadn't been allowed to go into the light.' He went on, 'It was no hallucination. This thing actually happens to people. It's been happening to people from the year one and beyond. It is a preview to the read death. It is a picture of what is going to happen when we finally go through the light.' Trevor James gave his theological perspective about what happens after death: 'you go to a spirit world, to another dimension, which is somewhere upstairs, somewhere up there, I don't know whereabouts, somewhere up there.'

Another Kiwi, Maiata Clark (not sure of spelling) has had five such experiences, having been resuscitated from asthma attacks. She describes one 1998 experience: 'It may have lasted a moment. It may have lasted for ever. Time ceases to have meaning when you are in that space... an incredibly beautiful space... myriad of signs and sights... stunning colours.' She tearfully and hesitantly spoke of encountering a 'god-like' figure – something she rarely talked about because so many make such claims. This figure was dimly visible, robbed against 'blazing white light.' She described it as the 'most singularly beautiful experience' she has had. Although it happened 13 years ago she said, 'it might as well have happened today.' Rod Vaughan asked, 'do you really think the encounter was God?' She replied, 'I have no doubt that it was.'

Massey University psychologist Dr Natasha Tassell, one of the Kiwi researchers, shared something of her own experience as a teenager. She too went through a tunnel at high speed to a bright light with a silhouette of a being in the light. She felt scared and uncertain. She remembers saying to herself 'I am not ready' and communicating this to the being, and being instantly propelled back. Interestingly, perhaps because of her scientific scepticism, she doesn't now believe in life after death, she hasn't made up her mind, but is now 'open to the possibility that there could be' and the possibility that consciousness existing outside the body. She noted reports of people able to accurately recall things that have gone on when unconscious such as surgery details. She admitted it was a big call.

Of course not all are convinced. Vaughan interviewed Vicky Hyde of the NZ Skeptics who naturally rejected this likening it to reports in the 1980's of people being abducted by aliens or in the 1500-1600's of being visited by demons – 'exactly the same kind of experience.' She believes that there is a rational explanation for this due to peculiar neurological activities under stress at the point of death e.g. oxygen deprivation. It is thus similar to phantom limbs of amputees etc. She claims such experiences can be simulated in the lab with stimulation of the temporal lobes etc. She demands 'extraordinary proof' and remains an unbeliever. 

However, the researchers note that this can explain some of it, but not all of the experiences people have. For example, as noted above, some can describe events in detail when unconscious and such recall should be impossible. Dr Bradley Long in the US, author of Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near Death Experiences, has become convinced by the evidence that there is life after death. For example, some who are totally blind can recall experiences of 'seeing light', yet never having experienced it. Dr Tassell notes that some have this experience after sudden experiences of near-death, removing the idea of a 'prepared-for-experience.' Long has studied 1600 people in coming to his conclusion. He says, 'I finally reached the point where I just simply had to admit to myself and then the world that near death experiences are for real along with their message of an afterlife, a wonderful afterlife for all of us. Vaughan then asked, 'you are convinced that there is life after death?' Long responds, 'I am absolutely convinced, based on the evidence, that there is life after death.'

What can we make of it all? First, we should not get too excited and jump to the conclusion that this proves that there is life-after death. However, when you have 1600 people sharing the same experience, and scientists moving from scepticism to openness or belief, it is more than suggestive of something. The commonality of experience is also suggestive, including: leaving the body and observing oneself, meeting loved ones, a tunnel, a vivid bright light, a 'god-like' figure, and an encounter with them, and being sent back. We need to be sober about such things, but surely when there is such a wide number of them with such commonality, we can share them as one small part of sharing Christ and challenging people with the idea that there is more to life that what is seen. It is not surprising to me that God would not leave us such signs as part of his self-revelation to his world, as he calls people to him. It is consistent with God revealing himself to us, but with ambiguity. He is never totally open to the point of coercion and domination. He leaves us with the choice as to how to respond – are we with the sceptic, or are we going to believe in the light?

Secondly, the experience does have some resonances with the biblical visions of God, Christ, and angels experienced by people in the bible (theophany, christophany, angelophany) such as that of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1), Jesus at the Transfiguration (Mark 9), the angels at the resurrection (e.g. Mark 16), and John of the resurrected Jesus in Revelation 1. In each, God, Christ, and the angels are resplendent in glorious light. It thus aligns with the testimony of Scripture. This kind of research can be used as part of our gospel proclamation, but not at its centre. It is a piece of interesting data that can be used to provoke and challenge.

Thirdly, we should not assume, as does Trevor James, that such experiences guarantee us life after death in the light as if by some divine right. If this experience is a pointer to the real thing, then what happens as one meets the light is unclear. The Scriptures fill this in for us. Consistently they state that we will meet this glorious God of light and be called to give account of our lives and eternal life in the light is not guaranteed. Faith is the critical issue, and where faith is found, life in the light will be our eternal experience.

Fourthly, the doco was interesting in the way that Vicky Hyde the sceptic came across. She is profoundly modernist, rational to the core. As with all such people, Christian and otherwise, she sounds increasingly out of date, a throwback to the era I grew up in when proof was demanded. Such people are totally materialistic and naturalistic, unopen to the mystery of the universe – there is so much stuff unexplainable, yet they naively limit their minds, demanding evidence. One wonders what it would take to convince her. Dr Long has interviewed some 1600 people with the same story, that's quite a few I would think. At what point does it become 'evidence?' I am not saying it is conclusive, it is clearly ambiguous – something the Kiwi research Dr Tassell admitted. However, when does it become convincing? What will convince? I would say that it fits nicely with the Christian story.

Finally, our faith as Christians does not rest on such things anyway. It rests on the event of the resurrection and the relational encounter we have with God when we yield to his invitation to abide with him. However, the resurrection does make complete sense of this sort of testimony. Jesus has broken the barriers between the 'natural' and 'supernatural', and these are further signs of this. He has made a 'tunnel' by which we can be united with 'the Light.' He is 'the way, the truth, and the life.' The key is how do we respond? The answer is to explore his word, seek him and respond by accepting him and placing our trust in him. Then we can be completely confident that we will pass into that light as we die, and we will be with him forever. What do you think?