Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Getting old but still doing it.

Forestry work next door to our place

There are 50 acres of trees next to us and they are now being harvested. Truckloads of timber are going each day. The more trees they cut down, the sunnier our place will be. I love watching the amazing machinery! 

Getting old...

It is spring, nearly summer in New Zealand now and I have been doing a lot of work in my big vegetable garden. It has involved a lot of digging and planting. I notice that what I used to do very quickly and with no physical bother, now takes a little longer and I end up sore. As well as the garden I have been helping my daughter and son-in-law with some renovation/ DIY work. We spent three days in a row recently hammering framing and putting up gib board. (I think they call it "rock wall" in the USA.) I enjoy it. With all this physical work I somehow hurt my back right between the shoulder blades. I had a sore vertebrae and a very sore arm. I went to the doctor and he checked me out. "You have stretched or torn a muscle." and he gave me pain killers. I knew that was right, but I was sure something more was wrong with a disk, that it was not only a muscle problem. Then I started to feel two of my fingers on my right hand go numb. We phoned him and left a message. He took awhile to get back to us. He was in the process of impatiently telling me that I need to be patient, "the muscles won't heal in a hurry - six weeks I told you!" I then said, "My concern is that I am losing feeling in two fingers in my right hand and partway up my arm." "Oh!" he said, "You better come in." Three days later I visited him and he found a vertebrae that was tender. He said that obviously a nerve was damaged. He referred me to another doctor who he said would get me a scan. I have ended up with an appointment date that is still nearly four weeks away! I told my wife that everything will have settled down by then, but I'll still have a numb hand for the rest of my life.  So I have half my left foot numb from a lower back prolapsed disk a year or so ago, and now half my right hand numb from what ever has happened in my upper back. I have a shaky right hand I think from thyroid issues and now yet another doctor has given me ointment for "sun spots" on my skin. All in all, I am starting to feel like an old man, though I still think of myself as younger. It is the passage of life. I have shop keepers asking, "Are you O.K. lifting that?" and I do notice stuff I used to lift easily, now takes more effort. "Gracefully surrendering the things of youth" or "rage, rage against the dying of the light!" 

Still doing it...

I have been arguing with myself about whether I ought to give up workplace chaplaincy. I visit the local ambulance people, the fire stations and a brewery. It is only a few hours spaced out over three days each week. Sometimes I'll visit and wonder if it was all worth it. I have also thought that the workforce in each place is getting younger, and maybe as an old man I am not the best fit. With the end of the year approaching I have been contemplating really retiring. But then there are those conversations where you think, "Well that was worthwhile!" Last week I went to one place. A woman said, "I'm going for a break, come with me.... come on, keep up Dave, I haven't got long!" We went to a more isolated place and she let off steam. She unloaded her frustrations and anger. I listened.. I tried to be affirming because I know that she is a conscientious worker.  After unloading she said, "Thanks Dave, I needed that." and hurried back to work. At another place a couple of weeks ago when I was in pain a man unloaded about a wider family issue. He told a sad story, that went on and on. I listened and made some comments, but I was in real pain standing with my back and arm screaming. I tried leaning against a bench. I was so sore that I was sweating. I made some suggestions, but it was such a complicated situation that it required much more than I could offer. Today I went back to his place of work. He again unloaded and we talked for quite a long time. I was in less pain, but as workplace chaplain you meet people where ever they are and that becomes your "counselling room". Today he had been working a lathe. As I went around to the different work stations, I had good conversations with so many people. I was to be there one hour, but I was there for two hours! (I was worried about getting a parking ticket) It always happens. Just when I think it might be time to give up chaplaincy, I have days or connections that feel really worthwhile and useful. One of my fire fighters had bedding he wanted to give to the night shelter so I called at the fire station to pick it up. Immediately I was welcomed warmly and invited to go for a ride in a truck. My visit turned out to be longer and I had good connections with folk. I think maybe I'll continue into next year. While I might enjoy the freedom from "work responsibilities" and time tables, there is something in the relationships that makes me feel useful and of worth, even though I'm getting old. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Giving and receiving

 "Where's your medals?"

I am Workplace Support Chaplain to Firefighters in Dunedin, New Zealand. I have been their chaplain since early in 1994. I am an "external contractor" contracted to serve them and am not a part of the fire service, with no rank or uniform. I am, however, accepted by them and a well known fixture around fire stations. "You're part of the furniture here." the health and safety man said one day. Last year they presented me with a United Fire Brigade Association "Honorary Chaplain's" medal. (I also have a "Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit" medal presented in the New Years Honours list in 2003.) 

On Saturday evening, there was a celebration at the fire station. It was an "Honours Night". Several fire fighters were to receive their service medals with one receiving a 50 year medal, while another a 25 year medal. I was invited to attend. I got dressed in tidy clothing, but wondered if I would be expected to wear my medals. I dithered for awhile. "People might think I am 'up myself' if I wore my medals?" I said to my wife. "I am not a uniformed member of the fire service." In the end I put my medals in my pocket and turned up at the fire station. Fire fighters who were to receive medals or "bars" were dressed in their "undress" uniform, (really their formal uniform, their dress uniform is what they wear to fight fires) and they all wore their medals. I greeted and talked with the on duty crews, some retired fire fighters and others. The chief spotted me and came over to welcome me and shake my hand. We get on well so he greeted me warmly. Then he said, "Where's your medals?" I said that I wasn't sure about wearing them, that people might think I was showing off. I told him I had them in my pocket. "They are no use there! Put them on." So I did as I was told and with the help of a fire fighter, pinned them to my chest.

A "thank you" gift. 

I am retired chairman of the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust. I still try to support the Night Shelter in any way I can. I was part of the original group of people who initiated its eventual establishment. My daughter now is treasurer for the Trust and does an immense amount of work. Recently I was asked to join a panel for two days interviewing people for two staff positions at the shelter. I was only too happy to contribute my time. The other day my wife arrived home from visiting my daughter and handed me an envelope. In it was a "thank you" card  from the Trust, with a note expressing appreciation for helping and a $50 petrol voucher.  The note in the card expressed appreciation for the work on the panel, and went on to say "That, as well as your ongoing support, is invaluable and hugely appreciated."  "I don't need that!" I exclaimed, "I am only too happy to give my time!" "Accept it graciously," my wife counselled, "they want to express their appreciation for your support. Allow them to do it." 

"Allow them to..."

These two things happening on the same weekend got me thinking. In some ways my reluctance to wear my medals could be a slap in the face for the fire chief and those who wanted to award me the medals.  On Saturday night I heard something of the story of how I got my Honorary Chaplain's medal. Fire fighters began talking with their leadership and writing letters up the chain of command, so that eventually I was awarded the medal. By not wearing it proudly, it could be seen that I did not value the effort that went into my receiving it. By not wearing it I was discounting their generosity, and in a sense devaluing their regard for me. By wearing it I am expressing my appreciation for their award, and recognising the value of the gesture.  By wearing their medal, I am affirming that I am proud to be a part of their work and am happy to identify with the "fire service family". 

My wife also was right about the Night Shelter gift. The voucher and card was an affirmation, and a way of showing that my involvement is valued, that I am welcomed still as part of the Night Shelter Team.  By refusing it, I am in some ways, refusing the sense of inclusion they are offering. 

Giving gifts is a way of affirming others. But receiving gifts in the right spirit is also an affirmation and acceptance. I need to learn to give and receive with more grace. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

"I see the light!"


When we moved to this house in 1987 there were little trees planted in the paddock next to us.  I recall we thought that the land belonged to the City Council and it was full of dock plants, so we tethered our milking goats there away from the trees. We had a knock on the door a few days later. It was the owner and his comment was, "I love trees and hate goats. Move them." So we duly apologised and obeyed. He was a woodworker/joiner and had planted 50 acres of trees of various sorts. We got on fine with him. He trimmed the trees and kept possum numbers down. But the trees grew and began to shade us considerably. We were aware that they would be harvested at some stage. He, however, sold the property to a man who did not have the same care for the trees. They kept growing well past their harvesting date and they became a real problem. The little cones the trees produced blocked our gutters, their pollen settled on our cars and in our lungs, and we lived in cold wet darkness.  We asked when they were coming down. We were not listened to. We wrote letters. Our neighbours who were also shaded, pestered the man.  We went to the city council authorities and the regional council authorities. Each claimed it was not their problem.  He had said he was working on it, but nothing seemed to happen winter after winter. In the end we went to a community law office and asked what we could do. We were given a procedure to follow and wrote a letter threatening legal action. (We really could not afford legal action though?) Well that seemed to get him into gear and we saw a succession of contractors visiting discussing amongst themselves how they were going to harvest them. 

Light! Warmth!

Then eventually last Friday an excavator and men with chainsaws began the process. The section next to us is to become the "skid" where they will load trucks. On Friday the trees next to us came down. We discovered what we were missing out on! The sunshine made our house warm! On Saturday we sat out on the deck for afternoon tea, basking in the sun. The hillside of trees will come down eventually, clearing the horizon and enabling us to have more warmth in winter when the sun is lower. 

Just now we are delighted! There will be inconvenience for awhile as trucks come and go, chainsaws buzz and excavators do their thing. The outcome will give us a much more pleasant existence, increase the value of our home and we'll be able to grow more vegetables.  We'll have to move from our acre as we age, but at least we'll have a few years of comfort. 

Another good side is that the guys doing the job have been pleasant to chat with. They have got rid of one of our trees in our front yard and are promising to deal to another that I have been working on.

Our house in darkness at midday in July 2016. It is a sunny day.

                                        The same day from the sunny golf course opposite.

The excavator and two men with chainsaws clear the trees next to us.

                                    The expansive view we now have from our lounge window.

Sun shining in the evening!

                                   It was almost dusk in this photo. You can see the house now, it is no longer hidden under vegetation. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

They want me to help!

I turned 72 yesterday. Where did that time go. The other day I was visiting a fire station and chatting with the officer, a man I have known for nearly 27 years. We were talking about the age of some of the fire fighters and joking that when I began as chaplain, he was one of the youngest serving fire fighters.  Then he said, "If you don't mind me asking, how old are you, Dave?" "I'll be 72 this weekend. Getting old. I wonder where the time went?" He grinned, "Hell" he said, "You are a very young 72 year old!" Sometimes I feel every bit a 72 year old, at other times I feel like a young man. At times I talk about somebody I met as an "Elderly man" then suddenly realise that he was probably actually younger than me! I have got old without knowing it. I think mixing with younger people keeps you younger in mind.

So I turned 72, yesterday. On Saturday we packed up and went to Karitane, a sea side village about a half hour drive north from our place. We had the loan of a little cottage there for a couple of nights just as a bit of a relax. As we were packing I went to the mail box to check for letters. There were no birthday cards nor presents for me. I said to my wife, "My kids have forgotten my birthday." It clashes with "Father's Day" here in New Zealand and all my boys are fathers, so I figured that they were distracted. We had skyped twice with my son in Edinburgh, we are worried about him and his family with the runaway Covid 19 situation there. I felt a bit dejected. But I was wrong.

On Sunday, my birthday, my daughter and her husband came out to join us at our cottage for a birthday lunch. Just as dessert began she came into the room with a bag with two reasonably small heavy boxes in it. "This is from the boys and me." she said. I unwrapped this "Stanley Impact driver". Then she told me the story of the boys discussing it and even talking her through the purchase on the phone in the hardware store. My phone rang, and it was my oldest son, checking that I liked my present. He chatted about it and why he recommended it. Then he said, "You can bring it when you work on my house." He went on to say that my youngest son wants me to take it with me when I work on the fences at his house this summer. "I'm not working with him, he abuses me worse than you do!" I joked. He laughed and said, "I told him you enjoy it!" A little while later my youngest son rang, and wished me happy birthday, and asked if I liked my present. He told me that he was going to build fences and hoped I would come and help him. "You can bring your impact driver!" he said. When I hung up, my daughter's husband said that they had started to do renovations on their last room in their house. "Your help would be welcome!" he said, "It is a long job for just us two." We had helped them rebuild the back part of their elderly house. We had helped them insulate and reline every other room in the house, now they were asking for our help to complete the job. 

As I reflected on my birthday I felt warm, loved and wanted. Each one of my children are better than I am at DIY stuff, but I had helped them get into it. I simply love that they still wanted me to work on their projects with them as a 72 year old! My youngest son is now a qualified carpenter. My oldest boy sets up displays and exhibitions in the National Museum. My daughter and her husband are very accomplished at renovating. They have a flair for design and colour and are fussy about the finished job.  My son in Edinburgh does marvellously around his house. He goes on line and finds out the correct way to do things and does well, better than I would. Yet I LOVE that they all want to work with me. My boys give me a hard time, teasing me while I work. "Come on Brown," my youngest says, "Time is money!" I get out my folding rule to measure something, and my oldest boy will say, "Put that old bit of crap away, and measure it properly with a tape!" "Have you got that measurement right?" "Don't muck around thinking about it, do it!" My Edinburgh boy will say, "Nah, let me show you how it's done old man!" and so it goes on. But I think they feel more confident with me there. I think they like showing off their skills to me, and enjoy the time with their old Dad. The birthday present, I loved. I used one my son had in Edinburgh and have coveted one ever since. But the fact that they still like working with me warmed my heart and made this old guy feel good. 

I had been given an old table saw without a motor. We checked out how much a motor would cost and found out that they were selling new table saws for less than it would cost to get a suitable motor. I had been given a donation for doing a funeral recently, so we decided that for my birthday we would purchase this new table saw. I am reasonably well equipped now for building stuff. I've had a very profitable birthday.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Local Church: to be or not to be?

 At our local Church tomorrow there are to be meetings that could decide if the Church continues or not. I deeply believe it ought to continue, but we have a revue group from Presbyterian hierarchy who are to research the current position of the Church and its activities and make a recommendation.  I am aware that there are others, tired with the long hall that work in a small church can be, who would gladly declare it as not a viable Church. We were given a few questions and were asked to give our thoughts bouncing off these. I share a bit of an abridged version of what I sent in to the revue committee as our response...

1) What role, if any, does Emmanuel have in the Sawyers Bay and Port Chalmers community in 2020 onward?

·       A faith “presence”. Even the building where active worship is maintained reminds the people of the neighbourhood of deeper aspects of life. (This would be lost or even tend to reinforce a negative message about the gospel if we shut down- “Jesus is outdated” When I have shown people around an empty Iona Church that seems to be the message people get. “I suppose religion has had its day.” was one typical comment.) I see empty churches as sad memorials and reminders of the inability of the Church to rethink/reword the faith in changing circumstance, to adapt and keep on adapting. I think it was Einstein who said something like, “Evolution shows that it is not necessarily the strongest species who survive, but those who have the ability to adapt.” The Church is a way behind. (It is not just fiddling with music or three-ring-circus-type services - people in churches do not often experience our faith as a “spirituality” – it is more an “add on” in life.)

·       The building is an ideal location. We can use it to have gatherings where people can relate constructively and in a caring way. E.g. we have “Afternoon teas on Tuesday” We have had "Rumpus room” “Christmas Neighbourhood barbeque” and possible Parenting seminars or other things could be held there … I believe the caring relationship is important… not a place to “Bible Bash.” Building “community” and offering hospitality is an important service the church can offer. There are lonely or desperate people or people who at different times are “Lonely, friendless or desperate” in our community and I would love for our church to be seen as a place of supportive friendship where people can be genuinely “met”.

·       We are providing a worship place for the community. Our experience of Emmanuel has only been in the last 6-7 years and in that time the group attending has been added to by 8 people and there is another who has come once who is very interested in continuing. Without too much active outreach these people from the community have come.  If we as an active Church were not here it is possible many of these would not have involved themselves in a worshipping community. (In terms of percentage of the congregation, if most Presbyterian Churches in NZ had a similar “growth” we would be reasonably pleased?) In that time though 6 others have died, left the area or stopped attending because of age. – though there are others who have visited and not returned.

·       I would like to see us be seen as a loving community, willing to help meet needs. Members do meet needs in the neighbourhood in an individual way. People have shared garden produce with local families, transport, hospitality, firewood, (Russell & Cathy with Richard and others want to do this more intentionally) etc. It would be good if we could look for opportunities to serve needs in our community. (A quick idea – since the community could not “celebrate” ANZAC day this year, what about a “Remembrance Day” service we invite the community to? …Just thinking out loud.) The Church in today’s world needs to earn its credibility.

·       I believe we could in non-threatening ways share spiritual/gospel values with people. E.g. Movies with meaning. Parenting seminars etc.

My theme would be to see Emmanuel as a place of hospitality where people are met with friendship, acceptance and love. This can be in worship but through other opportunities to meet and share with people.


2) What are the major challenges facing Emmanuel?

·       We are mostly elderly folk.

·       Currently our Session Clerk is retired and nobody wants to take her place.  Personally, I think we make things much more complicated than we need to. Our active membership would be a group of just 20-30 people, but we continue to operate as if we were a much bigger Church with all the processes.

·       I know just a little bit about the Fuel Church in Fairfield. The Fairfield Church essentially closed but East Taieri Church has taken it under its wing. There are greater resources, innovation and some of the burdens of running the Church have been taken over. Could not something similar be arranged with say – Opoho or Leith Valley?

·       We have a burden in that we have to be custodians of the historic Iona Church building. This involves expense and people’s energy and contribution.

·       Consistency in the nature and quality of our worship. E.g. we cannot do a series because we have different leaders each week. E.g.It also prevents the weekly consistent “conversation” as the lectionary readings follow each other – Gospel themes cannot be easily developed.

·       finances

3) What could be done to encourage attendance and participation?

·       As above consistency in worship quality.

·       Relating with the community. “Christendom” has gone. The Church can no longer just hold worship and hope people will attend. The Church in NZ needs to earn its credibility in finding ways to serve and relate with people in the community in which it is placed. We simply need to find avenues of service, offering hospitality and relating. (Listening)

·       Encourage participation? - Our experience (and others have mentioned it too) has been that the established leadership welcomes people getting involved but it seems to be that new people should “continue with business as usual.” Don’t challenge existing ways of doing things, don’t rock the boat. “Come and do stuff for us, but do it our way” is the message we have felt.  – Business as usual hasn’t worked for many years, we need to keep trying different things… there needs to be the freedom to try and fail and encouragement to keep trying.

·       Other examples of things that tended to discourage our participation…. (There I include a couple of examples where we had explored change ideas but the process of looking into them seemed stacked against change happening)

·       There seems to be a reluctance to discuss at depth the directions of the church.

·       More effective signage out the front at footpath level.


4) If resources were not an issue, what would you consider to be the important things the church should be doing or involved with?

Because I believe 3 things;

(i) Small Churches have strengths to offer people and communities that are part of being a more intimate group;

(ii) and that small Churches ought to be able to operate differently and have a different approach to functioning and worship and the things they offer;

(iii) and that our Church building is in an ideal position to provide hospitality in our community.


If resources were not an issue, I would do a renovation of our buildings to make them more welcoming and suitable for “hospitality”.


In the Chapel I would carpet the floor, have flexible comfortable seating to give more options for worship and other gatherings and do away with the current “fenced pulpit”.


In the hall (perhaps that is the only place we would be permitted to touch) I would make a neat storage area down the harbour end of the hall for tables etc. (Stained plywood cupboard space) Carpet the hall (maybe.) with carpet from Iona hall.  Tidy the cupboards, paint walls, ceilings etc. and have a heat pump. Maybe some more comfortable seating. It is tidier than it has been, but there are broken cupboard doors, spouting stored on the floor and old chairs. – We would not have these things in our home lounges.

(I realise that it would be nice to renovate the kitchen and toilets etc. but I think to have the public areas looking welcoming is a first priority)


If resources were really not an issue, I would hire a minister. She/he would have to have passion, be outward looking and innovative in their thinking and passion, be able to be involved with people in the community in an open, friendly way, and lead positive warm friendly open services.


5) Any comments you would like to make for consideration.

·       Theology Prof. Paul Trebilco Speaking to St John Chaplains a few years ago, said that “ in New Testament times all the Churches, with the exception of perhaps Rome, had memberships of less than 20 people! They were home churches and had to fit into relatively small houses.” These days we would write them off as “not viable” and yet these Churches turned the world upside down. Small Churches have advantages big Churches do not have. Even elderly people have things younger people cannot offer. Isn’t it true that many of us when we get on in years have just about  worked out what is truly important in life? ( but nobody wants to know) We often have perspective and wisdom to offer. (I have seen grandmothers informally help dysfunctional families and stressed mums just by chatting over coffee. I have seen old guys entertain, befriend and support unemployed “street people” -some with mental health issues- just by chatting of their experiences and listening) I do not think we should sell ourselves short because we are small and most of us are “seniors”. We have valuable stuff to offer.

·       BUT small churches with elderly memberships should not be run in the same way as a bigger established church would run.  Systems and priorities may be different. Different ways of working and worshipping should/could be explored. E.g. Cathedral type worship may not fit, but more relaxed conversational type could be more appropriate?

·      We are 10k away from the nearest Presbyterian Church. It is the “establishment” denomination for Otago – if we were not to continue it is a considerable failure for the denomination and people would have to be keen to make a regular trip to a church in town. Our community needs an active Church, open and flexible to demonstrate the love of God for people. (incarnating God’s love as the Body of Christ)

·      We need to be a Jesus-centred Church … not “Churchianity”, Denominational focused, or “Religious” culture. “What would Jesus do?” is a simple but relevant question.

While I am retired and cannot now do all that I would like to do, I still feel passionate about the way of Jesus and still see it as relevant for NZ people today. I have long had a “love/hate” relationship with the Church, and feel that it is a distortion of all it should be. I have, however,  stayed in ministry (though many of my colleagues have left it behind)  because the Church is the only place the story of Jesus is kept alive.

All the best for your work in Christ.

Dave & Jean Brown

After thought...

On my way home from visiting fire stations I stewed on tomorrow's conversations. Again as I sat in front of the fire with mindless TV going, I stewed some more.... I ought to have said that as followers of Jesus the main question we ought to be asking is....

"We are a group of Christians in this congregation together. As followers of Jesus who calls us to be loving servants, salt and light in our community, with the resources we have (the buildings, our selves etc.) how can we best serve the people of our community?"

Maybe I'll slip that in tomorrow.  

Our Church building is situated about where the bottom of the "R" is in "Sawyers Bay" on the map. Congregation members come from a wider area of the West Harbour on either side of the map, but most are centred on Sawyers Bay. The Church building is right next to the School and Kindergarten. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

For USA readers - fact check.

He lies again....

The President of the United States at least three times recently has said that "New Zealand is in the grip of a terrific surge in Covid19 cases." He said it is "terrible!" and the "we (i.e. the United States) would not want that." Fact check from New Zealand. Our prime minister tactfully said, "That's patently wrong." Here are the facts.... 

(a) Anybody that comes into the country has to quarantine in facilities for two weeks. There have been some cases in these facilities. Confined.

(b) We went 102 days without any community transmission. They continued to do a lot of testing but no community transmission came to light.

(c) Then there was found to be one family of four who tested positive for the virus in Auckland. This one family had contacts with workplaces, schools, relatives and friends. There has been an increase in testing in Auckland and tracing done. The Auckland region has gone into level 3 Lockdown, the rest of the country is in Level 2 (We have to keep social distancing and more emphasis on hand washing, and the elderly remaining home as much as possible. Rest homes are in Lockdown. )

(d) From that one family there is now a cluster of about 80 people in the city of Auckland. There have been no new deaths. There has been limits on travel in and out of Auckland. Auckland region has about 1.6 million people. The "surge" (If "surge" can be used of such few cases - 11 new cases found today... 5 yesterday) is totally limited to Auckland and northern North Island. It is believed through tracing and genome tests that the cluster is now "circled". The rest of the country is free of Covid19.

(e) New Zealand has a Covid Death rate of 4.5 deaths per million population. The United states has 528.2 deaths per million. The United States has 16,563 cases per million people. We have 269 cases per million people. I would suspect most Americans would prefer New Zealand figures rather than the figures they have currently.... yet Mr Trump says, "We wouldn't want that." Our increase was disappointing but I know where I would rather live. All deaths are sad. All cases are sad. ....

... BUT Mr Trump you "mis spoke", "Your information is incorrect" or "You are lying!".

Sorry to post again but I love NZ and I think our Prime minister and the health officials have done and are doing a good job and I dislike their efforts being mis-represented.

... and Mr Trump we did not do well just to "get at you" - Our leaders and cooperating population did it for the good of our country and our people. 

It is far from over, I hope we can keep on being responsible until there is an adequate vaccine for this nasty bug.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Zooming with St John Chaplains.

Blogging again?

 In frustration I am writing about a St John Ambulance chaplains’ seminar event that happened on Tuesday. Because of medical conditions I was unable to attend the last chaplains’ conference so I was looking forward to the seminar even though it had to be a zoom gathering because of Covid restrictions. The well-known Professor Lineham was guest speaker and we were told he was going to comment on the “Wilberforce report”.  I spent time reading up on it so that I would be ready to learn and would have done some thinking about it.

I was disappointed in his presentation. It was a mass of statistical information and for myself, who has worked as a Church minister for over 40 years and had 27 years working as a chaplain in secular settings, it presented really very little that was new information that I was not aware of at a gut level. While the Professor had learned the history of St John and its governance etc. I felt he did not have a good understanding of St John as an operating organisation. St John is a complicated beast with the St John Order, community work (cadets, FED’s, shuttles, fellowship, events etc. and Area Committees) and then the operational Ambulance side.  It is, though, essentially a secular organisation that has Christian origins. Most of the people in the Dunedin St John are nice people, and I love and appreciate them dearly, but most would declare themselves to be atheists or as the Professor called them “nones”. (No religious affiliation) I began there as Workplace Support Chaplain (Inter-church Trade and Industry Mission) I think in 1999 and in 2011 transferred to being a St John Chaplain, a voluntary position. I have had a long association with them. I have married and led funerals for quite a number. I have also led funerals for some of their parents, siblings and friends along the way. I have had endless lunchtime conversations, one-on-one chats, lots of laughs and occasional rides in the Ambulances on jobs.  On some jobs I have even been useful. (I have been chaplain to the Dunedin fire service for nearly 27 years and to a brewery for 26 years while ministering in a local Associated Churches of Christ until “retirement” at the end of 2013.) I continue with my chaplaincies and help out now in our local Presbyterian Church.  With lots of community involvement, and years of chaplaincy work, I have learned a lot about representing Christ in a secular context and the secularisation of NZ culture. (We did learn from the stats that NZ is a more secular country than even Australia.) I was disappointed that the Professor did not really go on past endless stats to truly explore “what they mean for your work”. Even the brief discussion later did not explore that in any depth. Why, for instance is Christianity seen as a “religion” and not as a “spirituality” giving a sense of spiritual “connection”? What is wrong with how we present it so that it becomes for people “dogma”, and is not seen as a living “spirituality”? How do people get the negative pictures of the Church that he listed off from the Wilberforce report? How might we as chaplains contribute to that negative perception, or how might we as chaplains “be” so as to change those perceptions? I felt that largely the day was wasted. (I am going to have to do chaplaincy at the fire service today that ought to have been done yesterday and I am annoyed that I wasted the day.)  To add context, I would call myself a “progressive Christian” a part of the “emergent Church.” (I was once described as “an evangelical liberal”) I am very Jesus centred and “incarnational”, and community focused, believing the faith has to be lived out in servanthood in today’s secular world. The Church needs to earn its credibility.

The "Venerable Order of St John."

I have deep concerns for the Christian element in St John. I attended an investiture in Dunedin Anglican Cathedral, with all its pomp and ceremony. There I watched people who in discussions at lunch times on station had declared themselves to being atheists, being “invested” into the Order and making vows that were deeply Christian in nature? I saw people who were members of the Order standing making promises to keep the faith, attend worship etc. when in fact I knew that in conversation they would sometimes rubbish the faith and never darkened the doors of a church. Now I say again, these are good people who I enjoy, respect and appreciate and who deserve whatever recognition comes their way. But the whole “religious process” within St John makes liars of them and in my view, cheapens the faith. With a bit of thought, can’t we do better? Traditional Ambulance dedications annoy me too. Ambulance staff will attend out of loyalty, but the words of the prayers are religious mumbo jumbo. (Some of the theology in one version is really suspect. We pray that the benefactors -i.e. donors- would receive eternal life!!? In any version of the gospel I do not think you can buy your way into heaven?)  We are discouraged from venturing outside of the St John Chaplain’s prayer book. If I am going to stand up the front and represent Jesus, I want to use words that have meaning for and communicate with the people attending.

In the little stilted discussion there was (stilted because of Zoom) I tried to communicate my passion about this, and I talked about funeral and dedication prayers. I told how I often introduce and word prayers as a “Prayer or affirmation” so that secular people can participate and not feel excluded. I do not see the point in using religious jargon that does not communicate clearly to the secular person. The secular folk we minister to have spiritual depth and longings they do not fully fathom. (like we Christians too) The Christian faith celebrates that we are brothers and sisters together in life, they sense that too. The Christian faith exults compassion, empathy and love, so do they. The experiences of sadness, loss and grief and wider accountability are Christian but also deep “spiritual” yearnings in ordinary people, as all these things are. I try to use ordinary language about these “spiritual” experiences so that the participants can identify with it and can be led, in spite of their “anti-religious” stance, to experience something of the “sacred in life” – God. That is better than jargon that washes off them that they just endure. (“Dave’s doing his religious thing – we’ll humour him.”) I speak from years of grappling with these issues. When I tried to raise these sorts of issues in our Zoom seminar discussion, people jumped in and in a scolding tone said, “You don’t have to apologise for your faith!” I am NOT apologising, I am just trying to communicate, to lead in a real and helpful way.  Why have people left the Churches and chase other spiritualities? – one of the reasons I believe, is because the language used did not lead them to spiritual depth.

Empathetic, meaningful communication?

I once attended a funeral with a group of St John paramedics. It was led by a friend of the deceased, was well done and “real’, but there was no religious content. In discussion after one of the paramedics raved. “What a great funeral. There was none of that religious crap!” Thinking that we are being comforting and helpful, the words we Christians say at funeral time, can offend, minimise and hurt. Words we might see as comforting can minimise the experience they are going through. As a young teenager I suffered the loss of my father suddenly.  Many well-meaning Christians came up to me at the funeral saying something like, “God loves him, he’s in heaven with Him now.” I nodded and smiled, but inside I wanted to scream, “If God loves us, Dad would be here now! He’s no bloody use to me in heaven!” A worker once told me of attending Church as he grew into his older teenage years, earnestly listening, praying and enthusiastically singing hymns, hoping it would gell with him and make sense. “But it was like a foreign language!” he said, “It didn’t happen and I wanted it to!”  In retirement half of my Sundays I sit in church listening to others lead and I am often disappointed, angered and frustrated too.

 All that to say that I was hoping that, yes we would get the (challenging) stats about religion in NZ and the information from the Wilberforce report, but then go on to explore in more depth what that means for what we do and how we do it. God knows, this is what the Christian workers need to explore in today’s world. What does in mean today to be “all things to all people”? (Paul in I Corinthians 9) What does the apostle Paul’s example in Athens (Acts 17) mean, when he began with their spirituality and talked about the God in whom they “lived and moved and had their being” and quoting their poets?  The example of Jesus himself is worth discussing. He talked of mustard seeds, yeast, farming, feasting and wages, and led people to think about the “realm of God”. As chaplains everything we do communicates about God, for better or worse… what does that mean as chaplains in St John?

I speak from hard experience and yet I believe I have made some progress. A new fire fighter attended a funeral I conducted. When I next visited his fire station he said, “Normally when I see a minister leading a funeral, I switch off and let him carry on with his waffle, but with you… I couldn’t, you talked sense.” Another officer, came and said, “I appreciate your funerals. You don’t have to leave your brain at the door like you do for most ministers.” I get feedback like that. I am journeying, still trying to grapple with such issues and was hoping to think these through with other St John Chaplains. I was hoping to find collegiality, insight and encouragement. I came away disappointed, feeling lonely and discouraged. I am a 72-year-old still growing, still energised and still strangely “called”, but last night I began to feel like maybe it is my time to retire. I’ll let you know.