Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Thursday, July 30, 2009


As a bit of a square peg in a round hole I often feel alone. Today I had a couple of warm fuzzy encounters which made me feel less alone. 

  • I am wanting to try to start street footy for "excluded" people in Dunedin so I have been visiting a Thursday morning soccer group that a local Trust runs. There some of my drop-in centre guys play soccer and I have joined them on occasion. I turned up 5 minutes late today and was surprised by the warmth of the greetings by some of the guys. They were openly, genuinely pleased to see me. One guy I had never met before said, "Oh you're David Brown, I know all about you!" These excluded guys liked me being there.
  • I went out to tea with a couple of people on a Trust Board that I am on, then we continued to talk in my office afterward. They are very different than I am in their life circumstances, but in our hearts we "connect". We had serious business to talk about but spent some relaxed time while eating and indeed while talking business. It was just sooo nice to spend time with such genuinely beautiful, caring and giving people. While it was "work" it was also refreshment, and renewal. I recall at an ecumenical youth convention with 1500 young people in 1966 singing with great gusto, "We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand....We will work with each other, we will work side by side." etc etc. It was powerful stuff then, but tonight I experienced the depth and truth of those words. We were different people from very different denominations, but at heart going in the same direction together. There were three of us, we did nothing "religious" but in some ways there was the feeling that there were four in the room.

I am not alone, and I need to remember that. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life is unfair....

In a funeral service I recently took for a 51 year old man who died of cancer I quoted a woman writer who said, "Life is unfair, but its still good." I had come to the conclusion that's the way life is. There is no rhyme nor reason to early deaths, they often just happen, its the luck of the draw. Who ever the "big man in the sky is" he is not up there deciding who is going to live or die, or who is going to get a fair deal in life. It just happens.

I was talking to my Australian friend's widow via Skype yesterday. In the conversation I had cause to use this quotation. "Life is unfair, but still good." She, with great grace and insight, was saying that really she was fortunate, and said, "For lots of people life just is unfair, how can you say it is good?" She went on to point out some people for whom life is unfair and not good. The Afghanistan mother whose child's body has been mutilated by some American bomb. The mother in some African country who is starving and had husband killed and children wounded in a machete attack by some "rebel". etc. etc.

I need to remember that. For me, in spite of hiccups along the way, and confusions and questions, I can still say that "Life, though sometimes unfair, is still good." But perhaps the majority of people in the world, certainly an awful lot of people, life just is "unfair" and an incredible struggle to survive with dignity.

What am I doing to alleviate that? Am I serious for instance about "Fair Trade" for a start? Damn! it's hard being aware of this world! I watched a film the other night called "Martian Child". In the story this boy preferred to stay in a box, shielded from others, the sun and the goings on about him. When I begin to think of the needs of the world, even just of the community I live in, find me a box to crawl into please! But I can't do that and say that I am "JC's helper". Damn!.... "He" can be a pain sometimes.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A relevant quotation

I have to run a session for fellow chaplains next Friday, so this morning I grabbed a book out of my bookshelf that I thought might be helpful. I just arrived back in my office after visiting fire stations, I opened the book and this quote jumped out at me. I underlined at some stage in the past.

"When man is no longer able to look beyond his own death and relate himself to what extends beyond the time and space of his life, he loses his desire to create and the excitement of being human." ("The Wounded Healer" Henri J. M. Nouwen )

It struck me that this thought was so true about what I see to be "life after death". If I see no cause bigger than my life span to live for, to give myself to, then I miss out on an essential part of being human. Our motivation is that there are values, causes and truths to give ourselves to that are greater than us. This motivation will draw the best out of us, make us more fully human and more fully "alive". That is a quality of life that the writer of the fourth Gospel calls, "Eternal Life", the life that has a "God-like" qualities about it.

Life after death.

I have had a few weeks where every week I have had to think about the death of someone. I have led a couple of funerals. I have helped out at defusings or been available in a critical incident response capacity in three incidents. Such things are I guess part of my job, but sometimes you are forced to ask the question what about what is called "Life after death"? A friend suspected I did not believe in it so I have to clarify it. 

I was digging to find the end of a pipe recently, and found that it travelled quite some distance. An initial hole became a trench, as the pipe was much longer than I thought. That's what happens when you explore this question. As I dug into it it kept getting bigger. What is "Life"? Who am I as an individual? Can I say I am an "individual" or am I a whole host of people, communities and having an expansive history within me? So the questioning goes on, and it would take a book to explore all issues. 

Let me say too, that I do not see that the whole point of Christianity is to get to heaven when I die and to avoid "hell". Christianity is about switching onto a quality and current of life NOW. What ever is after death, for me, is a sort of "by-product", part of that ongoing current.

History and our lifespan.

I love the picture of "history" that NZ author Michael King has in his autobiography. He passed it on from someone else. It goes something like this; History is like an ongoing conversation that is going on in a lounge or bar. It has been going on for some time. At some stage each of us joins the conversation. We listen. We ask questions. We join in and make contributions. We share in the dialogue and add our insights and stories. Then at some stage, it is true for each of us, we have to excuse ourselves and leave the room. We are gone, but the conversation continues and builds on what we have contributed and continues to evolve. The question we ask is, "Was my contribution helpful? Was it constructive? Did it add something to the conversation, did it enhance it or drag it down?" The continuing value of whatever we have shared is a part of what I see as "Life after death".

I am other people's "life after death", as others will be mine.

When I seek in my life to live a life following the values and purposes of "the sacred" (God) I am expressing in my life the same life that millions before me have expressed. As I seek to search for justice, I am participating and sharing in the same life that Amos, Isaiah, Micah, William Wilberforce, Dr Martin Luther King, Gandhi and others participated in. Part of their life force is in me. When I die there will be millions of others who will share the same life force and share the same current of life that I shared, in a very real sense, I will be part of them. When I seek to express unconditional love and generosity, I am part of the "life after death" of Jesus, the apostle of "Grace" Paul, Francis of Assisi, Father Damien, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa etc. All these shared in the same current of life, have influenced me and are part of me. That life will continue in others long after I am gone and I will share their life, and in a real sense be part of their expressions of love. You see we ARE, in some ways, not individuals, we are a part of a current of life that is much bigger than our life span.

Ripples that don't stop

A part of this is the recognition that there are some things that we live for and do that are "eternal". There are things like Justice, Love, liberty, seek the wholeness of others etc that are of an eternal nature. The New Testament story of the cross and resurrection send this message. Love was not destroyed by death. The continuing energy of Christ in the early Church, the story and impact of the martyrs, the history of such things as the slave trade, aparthied, civil rights, all seem to suggest that ultimately good outlasts evil. Love outlast hate or indifference. To me the real power of life is "Love"... as Martin Luther King said, "It is the only power that can change enemies into friends". If I live for these eternal values then my life is never wasted and never stopped or lost.

When I was at school we learned that energy is never lost, it just changes or transforms into something else. The experiment was always with a bike pump. You pumped it, putting lots of energy into it in the form of movement. That energy changed into heat, which you could feel as you held the end of the pump. Love and justice are like that. Every loving act is never lost, it continues to make the world a better place in unseen ways. Like ripples when a stone is thrown into a pond, the ripples of my love shared continue to impact the world, long after I have gone. Sometimes we can express love inappropriately, we will make mistakes in how best to express it, but no concern for the well being of another is evil, it is part of that eternal stream of life. To me it is better to make a mistake loving than to live apathetically, refuse to get involved or stay aloof. Studdart Kennedy wrote, "I believe that evil dies, good lives on, loves on and conquers all." When I love, I live on long after my lifespan is finished. That is part of life after death for me.

Now if these were all that "life after death" was, I would rest easy and be content. Life has meaning. I am called to make my part of that ongoing conversation as loving, as constructive and as life enhancing as I can, and the impact of my contribution will continue, I will "live" long after I die. For me to live with the faith I have, the purposes I adhere to I do not need some "eternal reward in heaven" to motivate me. If this was all the Christian faith had to offer, I would still be a christian. 

But.... I believe there is more... as I say a by product.

"Life after life here."

I believe that we share in the very life of God, the sacred one, that "layer of reality" in whom we "live and move and have our being" and who is "in everything and through everything". To the extent that we are open to the currents of love, we come closer and closer to living "in Him". In a real sense, the goal of life is to be in solidarity with other people, creation and the eternal. I believe that when we die, that union, that relationship is not finished, but continues and is now free to become an even closer union. Whilst I think we will maintain an identity, it will be less important to us, and we will be "with" the eternal, a part of the undergirding life of the universe. It is a dimension of reality we can catch glimpses and feelings of now, but will move on to "know" more fully. 

I would refer you to a little book by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross called "On Life after death." Some of her book sounds wacky, but there is a lot of pretty solid evidence there and some really good insights. Kubler-Ross spent much of her life watching and sharing with people who were dying. She says that we are "Patterns of spiritual energy" and that upon death, we move on from our temporary homes. The essence of that energy is "love" and she shows how love meets us on "the other side." This is consistent with heaps of passages and pictures in scripture, and has a ring of authenticity for me. We are each special, unique individuals and as we participate in love, that energy is not dissipated, but joins with its source, and continues.... perhaps in some way to impact "life." So I do believe in life after death.... not golden streets, nor some sort of "reward", but a continuing relationship with the eternal one whose life giving love we have participated in here. As Paul wrote; "Nothing in all creation ... (not even death) can separate us from the love of God..."

Kubler-Ross says; "Death is but a transition from this life to another existence where there is no more pain or anguish. All the bitterness and disagreements will vanish, and the only thing that lives forever is LOVE. So love each other NOW...."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I like it....

On the order of service for the funeral that I have to lead on Saturday is the following. It is called Learning to fly and is written by Joy Cowley.

The walls of birth and death
were too high for me to see over
and I didn't know that my heart had wings.
As I hammered on those walls,
demanding to know their meaning,
I was aware that there was something inside me
cramped up, waiting to be unfurled....

In that moment I saw
that the meaning of birth is forgetting
the meaning of death is remembering
the meaning of life is growth
and the meaning of the eternal sea
which holds everything in its embrace
is Love.

It is evocative and thought provoking, I like it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One year old!

Today my blog is one year old. It is still going and I still find it therapeutic to sound off from time to time. ... and no one has sacked me ... yet! I have another funeral this week so I have a post bubbling about "life after death". I cannot let the birthday go past without something though. Robert Muller was high up in the United Nations and I have a booklet of his quotations about life. Here is one that rings bells.

"So many unimportant things are being presented to us as important
that we are completely taken away from the essence of life
which is
to be in communion with God,
with nature,
with each other,
with the heavens
and with eternity.
Our divinity is being crushed by noise,
untruths and unnecessary ways of life.
We must revolt
and protect our importance and divinity."

I enjoy blogging... I hope occasionally there is something worth reading.

Photo: Me 21 years ago. Birthdays make a difference.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

On reflection ... a good weekend.

I had someone in one of my chaplaincies complain about life being boring. I do not appreciate it, but I can never complain about my life being boring. I thought about it this afternoon. I went up Mount Cargill. As I was walking down a man came jogging along with a big grin on his face saying, "Its a great wee adventure up here isn't it?"  I had to agree, but my thoughts went wider than my mountain. On Friday night I played table tennis at our drop-in with a guy, talked with others and washed countless dishes. One man said to me, "I have played you in table tennis, pool and now soccer." It sounded like it was important to him. I was making a difference in his life! Little old me!

On Saturday I had to go to the hardware store, buy stuff, pick up a man and get to the Habitat for Humanity site by 9 a.m. As I drove on the early morning ice covered roads, I grumbled. "I should be still tucked up in bed! This is stupid!" I said. I turned up, worked away and got the water running for the site kitchen and toilet. I helped lead the build for 20 volunteers. I grumbled at times... but on reflection what a privilege to meet the family and their friends? It was a buzz too when I finally finished connecting up the water to the temporary toilet and kitchen. It is always neat to hear the toilet flush, the drains take the waste away and the hot water zip working as it is meant to. I was then able to do some carpentry.

Sunday service was a bit flat. The snow about meant there were few at church. It's hard talking to empty seats. In the afternoon I headed up "my" mountain. How lucky am I? Barely 5 minutes from my driveway I have this wonderful bush with snow, scenery and birdsong! I met a number of people on the mountain and all were really enjoying the experience. As I passed there would be the normal greeting, followed by words like, "Isn't this fabulous!" or "This is so great!" I arrived at the top and leaned against the lee of a big rock while yet another snow storm came through. I just stood there mesmerised by the whirling snow thinking about life, relationships and ministry. I am wondering if it is time to move on from Dunedin, and I got to thinking about all the different lives I have touched or been involved with over the years I have been here. Again... on reflection, what a privilege! I was wrapped up with hat and gloves, but when I stepped out into the wind again, I felt the cold through my swandri and the layers of clothing. But it was simply great to be up there.

I am sooo fortunate. Life is NEVER boring for me. 

Photos: Top... working on the trusses at the Habitat site. (I am NOT asleep!)

Next 3. Scenes from my walk up the Organ Pipe track this afternoon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Frosty Flag Staff

Ice formations in the ditch alongside the Flag Staff track on Thursday afternoon. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Defining "Love"

Someone responded with an email with these few lines about "love".


  • Is a feeling that you feel when you are going to feel a feeling that you never felt before.
  • Is an itch near the heart that is hard to scratch.
  • Is a feeling of attraction between two people that grows and expresses itself in the unselfish desire of each for the total well being of the other.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Is it fair to the dead?

We have had the proceedings of prominent court trials plastered over the media virtually all year. The evidence recorded is often horrible to hear, and has reflected a whole lot of dysfunctional living. What are private mistakes that all of us make are plastered over the media, often out of context and often highlighted. What also troubles me is that it seems unfair on the dead. Witnesses claim that the various deceased people said and did certain things in private one on one encounters. But would the same encounter be told in the same way by the deceased person?

I have had an email encounter with a person I disagreed with. He read an email of mine and took out of it some things that I never meant at all. We were in the same conversation, but if we were in a court of law our honest reports about that conversation would be quite different! That would be true even if we were attempting to give an honest, unbiased objective perspective. We all tend to bend the truth to our ends, so if there were different motives in our testimony, I imagine there could be quite a distortion of the truth. I sometimes feel that some evidence given is unfair. There is no one there to corroborate it! There is no one there to give another perspective on the context of the encounter. Also the deceased has no way of clarifying what they meant to do or say through the actions or words! Yet these encounters are published widely! Characters are assassinated without any possibility of a different understanding being given. I often find myself thinking, "Who defends the dead?" They often seem to be on trial in the trial of another person, but they do not have a chance to defend their name. They are forever given the character that has been painted. I find myself wondering if it isn't time there was serious reformation of our justice system. Sometimes it seem to be unjust toward the innocent.

Or maybe the media are the ones being unfair or irresponsible in their reporting of the evidence?

Whatever it is, I feel sad often for the deceased. Somehow the offence against them is multiplied and added to by the very system that is meant to be seeking justice.

Monday, July 13, 2009

I made it!

I recall the last part of one tramp I did. I was dehydrated. I had blistered feet.  I had carried too much stuff and it seemed there was just one hill after the other. When we arrived back at the car I just sat on the ground in sheer relief. "I made it!" I blurted out, because there were times when I thought I may not make it. It felt like there were too many hills to climb.

Well its been a bit like that for me in the past week. For a lot of reasons I started the week feeling sad. Tuesday was a "normal" day, except we had a Church Board meeting. This meant extra work and thinking. On Wednesday I was asked to sit in the Emergency Department with a woman who had had a stroke. It took up most of the afternoon, a day I was hoping to get a lot done. Thursday seemed normal, but there were a couple of extra duties, phone calls and conversations. On Friday morning I ended up running a defuse at a volunteer fire station, for fire fighters who had watched a colleague die, in spite of their best attempts to help. I was not that happy with how I performed as facilitator, though there were a number of factors making it difficult. On that day also I heard that a man had died in the hospice and that I would take his funeral on Monday. He was only 51 years old! Friday afternoon involved my normal chaplaincy visits, and in the evening our Friday night Drop-in centre. Saturday morning I worked hard on the Habitat house, (frames are up now) then spent much of the afternoon talking to the family about the funeral. Saturday late afternoon, night and Sunday morning were spent preparing the morning church service, the powerpoints, the newsletter for Sunday and presenting it all. At church I learned of a man who is disenchanted with what is happening at church. I am not surprised, given his theological stance, I would be disenchanted if he was running the church. Though I can understand it, I still find it hurts to have put someone offside with me. The news made me feel useless as a minister and drained my confidence. Sunday afternoon I went back out to the funeral family, helping prepare a powerpoint set up for the funeral. Sunday night and Monday morning (Mondays are my normal day off)  I prepared the funeral service. From 1p.m. - 4 p.m. I was tied up with physical preparations at the church, presenting the ceremony and then packing up after the funeral. The funeral went OK, though I was not on top of my game. It was held at an historic little church at Pukihiki, on the Otago Peninsula. 

It was then I collapsed in absolute relief. "I made it!" I blurted out as I sat in my office chair.... because there were times when I thought I would not. I did not attend the after funeral bash because I wanted to claim some "me" time. I enjoyed a late walk up Flagstaff, arriving on top just at sunset. There was a light dusting of snow all around, which in some places had turned to slippery ice. The lights in both Dunedin City and Mosgiel were just coming on, so the scenery was very impressive. It was just a short climb, but it was a nice way to unwind.


One of the stressors was the fact that I had only met the man whose funeral I was taking once. That was in the hospice when his mind was a little confused anyway. It is never easy just depending on what family say about a man. You could get it all wrong. I was lucky though that there were a number of speakers. The picture I got of the man was that he had a positive nature tackling any job he took on with a passion to do it well and that he had a sense of humour. As people told of various incidents, I began to see that a sense of humour is such a valuable asset in life. You can help brighten people's day with a smile and a laugh. You can weather any storms with a sense of humour. As I drove along the top of the Otago Peninsula, on my way back to town from the funeral, I sent a prayer up saying, "Lord give me a sense of humour too please!" 

Photos: Bottom to top... Snow on the path up; The summit looking across to Swampy Summit; The sunset; the path on the way down with an orange horizon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sacred encounters at the brewery.

This morning I visited the local brewery as their workplace chaplain. I first met a man who told me about sickness in his family and how his exercise was going. Another took me in and showed me the installation of a new chiller. Another talked to me about the beer he was filtering, and showed me how he checked that the yeast was not coming through the system. An engineer let me help him as he pulled the back off a boiler. Another led me to a little room where I found yet another guy, who talked to me about his work and life. ... and so it went on.

I enjoyed the feeling of acceptance. I appreciated that they let me into their lives. I enjoyed having my world expanded as they shared their stories and expertise. Today as I headed into work I grumped to my wife to "find me another job!". Chatting with brewery workers made me feel not so bad after all.

Yesterday I was asked if I could go to the emergency department and sit with a lady who had a stroke. Her husband worked at St John Ambulance in a country district. As I sat there I got to know her and enjoyed learning about another special person. I discovered one of our Drop-in centre women there and she greeted me with a cheeky grin. I bumped into a catholic priest I have known for years and we chatted briefly, with him giving encouraging words. Ambulance workers came and went and greeted, others I knew who passed by gave warm greetings and I watched my wife doing her voluntary Friends of the Emergency Department duties. All in all, while it mucked up my carefully planned timetable, there was a sense of privilege in being there with people.

I struggle to feel positive about so many elements of my job, but there are special sacred "people encounters" that few others have time to have.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"How do I know I am in love?"

Some time ago I had a man come to me to ask if he should marry a certain woman. I was asking him did he "love" her? I asked in various ways..... He asked me, "What do you mean?" .... I said to my son in his wedding ceremony "Will you love.... etc." what did I mean? 42 years ago I asked my wife,(then just my girl friend) to "Define love?"

Are there any experts out there in cyberspace who can define it for me? How does one know when he or she is "in love"? Is it real or is it just an invention of the film makers? How does my friend know if this woman is THE one for him? I see my children and their partners. As a father I ask, have they made the right choice? They seem happy. Is there a "THE one" for us? I think there's a lot of confusion about this in our world.

Just a simple question. Surely someone knows!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The mountain buzz.

I climbed "my mountain" this afternoon. It was late (3:40) when I headed out from Bethunes Gully. The climb just keeps going up and I knew I could not dawdle if I was going to get back to the car before darkness set in. It was great having to have the discipline to keep going even when you are breathing hard and your legs just want to rest awhile. From the car to the top in one hour. From the top to the car in thirty nine minutes. I have done 55 minutes up and 23 minutes down, but that was on a dry track in running gear. I loved being in the bush again! When I finished I was driving away and felt a real buzz from having done it. I nearly decided it was too late and I was too tired. I was so pleased to have done it, it made my day off and lifted my spirits.

Photo: The snow at the top. You could see and hear chunks of ice falling down the big TV/communications tower so I did not go too close to it.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What a funny week of interesting experiences...

This week I have had a diverse lot of experiences....

  • Tuesday a normal Tuesday with about 12 hours of work.
  • Wednesday I began to have a difference of opinion with someone close to me. I managed a run, but still went down into a deep depression. So deep that I just felt like driving and drove to Waikouiti and back home to stew on things on my way home, again after about a 12 hour day.
  • Thursday I had a pleasant morning. I played soccer with a few guys from PACT. They have a weekly game of soccer. Along with a woman from PACT I am hoping to start a Street Footy Club in Dunedin for "excluded" people. I so enjoyed playing with these guys. One down syndrome man gives high fives full of glee when he kicks the ball in the right direction. Another guy I often encounter when he is drunk, was playing. It was so good to see him exercising enthusiastically.  I was a bit stiff afterward... I am pleased I can run so well at 60 but sprinting to get the ball stretches EVERYTHING!
  • In the evening I listened to the CEO of Habitat for Humanity NZ tell us what's happening. Habitat for Humanity has changed since we first started it in Dunedin. What autonomy we had is gone and the conditions of purchase have changed. I can no longer get as proud as I once was about it. It is still a good deal, but I liked it the way it was, it seemed closer to the "Spirit of Jesus". The guy did not present well and I was down, angry and confused about my future in the organisation by the end of his nearly two hour presentation. A 12 hour day.
  • Friday was an OK day. We had our mid winter chaplains' eat out. It was nice catching up on other workplace chaplains and enjoying food and conversation together. In the evening I played about two hours of table tennis at our drop-in centre with two "excluded" guys. It is great seeing their glee as they play their shots and do things they never thought they could. They grin all over when they make a tricky return or play a shot I cant get to. I was exhausted though. A 13 hour day.
  • On Saturday I had been asked to go to the local pistol club. There was a fatal shooting incident there last week and I was to go to offer support. It was a way out of my comfort zone. Not long after I arrived they warned me that they were "not very PC around here" and that if I was "a pacifist or anti-gun lobby person I would find it uncomfortable". I talked to some more directly involved with the incident. I talked to others about their sport... but many were very macho-red-necked-males, and I would find it hard spending a lot of time there. I was worried about going and when it was all over I was totally drained emotionally and could not get into my normal sermon polishing Saturday night duties. 
  • I had to type and print the Church newsletter this week, my normal helpers are away. I had to do all the power points for the service and I had to operate the technology while leading the service. It was still dark when I headed into the office today. So much work to do before church, and an unpolished sermon buzzing around in my head all night long. In spite of the computer not doing what it should, I did a reasonable job of the service. But tonight I am totally drained. During the week I read the book "Mama Tina", about Christina Noble's work with children in Vietnam and Mangolia. I found it an inspiring book and wondered, "If she can do all that, why can't I fulfil my dreams for the church?" I think its easier to start from scratch. As someone has said about church congregations, "It is easier to give birth than to resurrect". Anyway I will, I hope, sleep well tonight.