Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"I told you so!"

Something light hearted that I thought of as I was drying my left knee after my shower this morning, and thought I'd share with you.

Some years ago I bought a bargain at a second hand shop down the road from my office. It was a little electric whipper snapper weed eater for $15! The sort that has a cord that whips around at speed cutting the long grass. When I got it home it went well, though probably not as good as it did when it was new. The guard was a nuisance though and I thought made it difficult to use and detracted from its performance. I took it off. My wife complained and warned me of dire consequences of removing guards from such tools. "They are there for a reason!" she insisted. "What could I hurt?" I reasoned, "The worst case scenario would be some damage to my shoes!"

Well on Monday I had the aforementioned bargain out the back and had been using it. At one stage I picked it up from where I had left it lying to move it and other tools out of the way of my digging. I had shorts on. As I moved it, grasping it and the handles of several tools in my hand, my fingers hit the trigger and the whipper snapper burst into life with the string slashing round and round on my leg just below my knee. It drew a little blood, but apart from a number of red welts across my skin, did no real damage. But boy did it sting! It was the kind of pain that just kept going long after the event. I was doubled over in the grass saying some very unchristian words. I then went sheepishly down to my wife and we fished out some cream to put on the wounds. Being basically an understanding lady, she resisted the temptation to say "I told you so!" but she did nod her head sideways.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lessons from bouts of depression.

I have had friends commit suicide. In my job with emergency services I hear about suicides quite often. They are always tragic. Always too, people will say, "Why did they do it? Why didn't they talk to someone?" Well I am not planning on committing suicide, but I do know that sometimes it can be very hard talking to someone.

J B Phillips, a well known Christian writer and scholar who informed and inspired many people had a problem with depression. I remember in one of his books he wrote that "he descended into a black hole of depression" from time to time. Well I am not a J B Phillips, but this happens to me, perhaps not to the same extent. There are all sorts of reasons for it I think. I think I have a deep sense of purpose and "calling" therefore have high expectations of myself and others. M Scott Peck and other counsellors say that often depression is anger turned inward. I think often I am angry at the disappointments of life and ministry and turn that anger inward. I also avoid confrontation, therefore do not readily and constructively express my disappointments. Any way for whatever reason I "descend into a black hole of depression". Oddly enough I think its that deep sense of purpose that keeps me going and pulls me through, though there is a sense in which I live with some sense of sadness all the time. The last couple of weeks have been like that. But talking about it is hard and I have learned lessons from the experience.

People say of suicide victims, "Why didn't he talk?" but here is my experience of trying to talk.

First people are too busy to talk. People are busy with their own work life and family life and when you want someone to listen, they are just not always available. There are a whole lot of legitimate calls on their time. How often, I wonder, have I been too busy to listen to others?

Second, often when you begin to talk, people are wrapped up in their own life and just want to talk about that. I had a friend call in at the office. I began to share with them some of what I was going through, and all they talked about was an upcoming holiday. (Oh I wish I could have a holiday!) You soon realise its a waste of time sharing. I know I have done that to others too.

Thirdly, often people who are with you are not present. Something else is going on in their lives and while they are happy to be with you, they are in a sense, not really with you. You can begin talking, but sense it has drifted past their head somewhere and you soon shut up. They are in their own world.

Fourthly, people rush to tell you a solution to your problem, even before they have truly heard you. This is often said to be a male way of dealing with things, but I have found it often in women. I think it happens when women have been mothering, they can treat you like a child and tell you what to do. 

Fifthly, lack of empathy.  People do not listen long enough to see the issues from the speakers point of view. I often feel this way. Because my issues stem from my job and "calling" people often do not have the same passion I have and don't "see" the thing from my perspective. It is important that we stop and listen long enough to see it from the speaker's perspective. One of the things that happens when people respond and show that they have not heard it from your point of view, is that when you leave, you feel even more lonely than before you started to talk.

I have erred in my ministry and work in all of the five ways I have experienced and listed off above. 

I have learned to cope with my depressions largely alone. I go dig the garden or walk in the bush. I have also learned to dig deep and just keep going, till I surface again. I have been hurt by people I have trusted and opened up to, so tend these days to be very cautious. As I dug the garden today, I was reflecting on my current struggles, and was reminded of the above lessons.

Photos: Today I spent three and a half hours digging in the garden and planting four rows of potatoes. After lunch I went to my daughter's house and with them pulled out an old kitchen sink unit and then fitted in and plumbed a new one and a dishwasher. It took about six and a half hours all told. It has been a good day, just physical work with the instant reward of work well done.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Neat gesture....

This morning I felt like a square peg in a round hole again. I talked about the scripture passage, but knew that most of my listeners would not understand.. they have been "Christians" for years, but I was talking about "following Jesus". At lunch my wife and I were talking about two friends we have through Habitat for Humanity. Both volunteer in the community, (Hospice, Habitat etc.) both are really loving people but both have given up attending church. As far as the "movement" and "spirit" of Jesus, both have latched on to it, but they do fit in church. In my view many of my church people on the other hand, have no idea of the "movement" or "spirit" even though (or maybe "because") they have attended church for years. Never mind, enough negativity.  I know I am a bit eccentric, but it is a very lonely journey at the moment with few people who understand where I bounce from.

At the Habitat site yesterday something really neat happened. Christine, is Maori, a mother of ten children, in a long term relationship with her partner. We are building the house with her and her family. She has been a smoker and has been talking about giving it up. On Saturday morning she announced that she was now a non-smoker. She had not had a smoke for 3 days. 

Don is a christian retired carpenter now in his eighties but very fit. He was working on site and heard of this change in Christine's life. He is relatively quiet, but loves a bit of joking from time to time. At 12 midday each Saturday he knocks off and goes home to have lunch with his wife. When he returned yesterday the rest of us were still sitting around finishing our lunchtime cup of tea. He came into the group with a beautifully prepared bunch of flowers and presented them to Christine, saying "This is just to congratulate the new non-smoker in our midst." It was sooo neat. I was thinking too that probably Don would not have had much to do with the Christine's of this world. He is a different generation, white and middle class. But because of Habitat they get to know each other, appreciate each other and enjoy their time together. It is really so good for them, for the community and for the climate of our society. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Superficial, pragmatic thinking leads us astray.

As I think about Habitat for Humanity and Church I find myself frustrated time and again by superficial pragmatic thinking. Now don't get me wrong, I am a practical activist type person, but my beef is that our practice must be motivated by basic values and principles and express these. What I find in many situations is that our practice drifts off the basic values we say we espouse by on the spot, superficial reactions to circumstances.

I am out of sorts with Habitat for Humanity. When I began there was a much more generous approach toward home owners, a much more relational attitude and a "warmth" about the "spirit" of the movement. Now I feel I cannot promote it as whole heartedly. Over the years, locally, nationally and internationally it has changed to "house projects" orientated and I am not sure the poor are treated with as much dignity. There are endless forms, and contracts and rules and manuals, all evolved out of responses to situations, but in the process I believe, they have lost touch with the loving principles which are meant to be at the heart of the operation. The late Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat, was reported to have said of the current trend, "It is now run by bean counters with no faith." That's my summing up. Somehow the "spirit" has got lost, and we have "projects" and "human resources", not people, home owners and workmates.

I know the same happens in church circles. If you run a church planning day the questions asked are, "What do people like?" or often, "What do I enjoy? Now is my chance to tell them what I want!" Very few ask the prior question, "What can we do in this community to express the heart, mind and movement of Jesus?" (I used to be very hot on Church planning days... now I consider them a waste of time) The church has over the centuries, by such superficial leadership drifted off from the directions and spirit of its founder. I see this in Church official boards. They will respond to things pragmatically and often with very "secular" thinking. They will not ask the deeper theological questions. They will rip into projects that give the illusion of "progress" but really are a superficial response to circumstances, and the deeper questions or principles are not applied. We have churches which try to please people, but are not asking or listening to what Jesus would want his people to be doing in the world today. Even if the right questions are being asked, few willing to jump out of traditional ruts and do church in a different way... its just not pragmatic, it's too costly.

It has happened in the Inter-church Trade and Industry Mission movement at various times. There has been a tendency to respond in pragmatic ways to the world about us, and in the process lose touch with the "Spiritual" - "love" base. It has happened with groups like the YMCA. A number of years ago I attended what was then the YMCA gym. Various weight lifters would bring boom boxes with music to help motivate them in their training. A pastor I knew, a very good weight lifter, brought his music along. They were christian worship songs. He was asked not to bring them because they might cause offence to others. (He did not have it as loud as others had theirs) This is in what was officially still called the Young Men's Christian Association.

It happens in Governments. Our current government is rewriting education policy. Lets spend our money on "reading, writing and maths". Other subjects are being neglected. But in my experience as an individual and as a parent, "reading writing and maths" were boring and irrelevant as stand alone subjects. It was when I was exploring interesting stuff like science and the issues of real world that I lived in that reading, writing and maths came alive. And there are deeper skills in life to master which need to be a part of learning. Another example is that Governments look at economic efficiency. They think "economics" and make pragmatic decisions on that basis, without really asking "What is this doing long term for the wholeness and well being of people?" It may look efficient, but is it wholesome? The struggles mental health patients have is a result of this superficial thinking.

One of the reasons we don't do it is time. We don't want to take the time to think deeply about things. We rush from one issue to the next with our eyes on the clock.

Steve Covey in his books (7 Habits and Principle Centred Leadership) makes the case for firmly establishing the values we base our life on. (Or the values we base our organisation on) Then making sure in our spending of time, resources and energy that we are in fact expressing those values in a consistent way. At the moment I am feeling that "the Church" and Habitat for Humanity are not doing that consistently.

Life is tough in October

I think as long as I can remember by October each year I am finding keeping going really hard. Often that is when I get a dose of flu or sore throats or something. This year it has been really difficult.
Church Scene
I struggle to fit into the church scene any more and find getting up in front of everybody on a Sunday increasingly hard. I have all sorts of people expressing their divergent opinions on how church should go, and I don't ever get to do what I really would want to do. It feels like I just entertain some of the people each Sunday, but as far as progress is concerned, I see little of it. It simply is that my understanding of following Jesus is a long way from the traditional Christianity model. Early this week I have been really depressed, like REALLY depressed about the whole scene. The solution it seemed to me was to find some way out of it. But what that way could be, I struggle to see. I looked under the jobs in the Wednesday paper today and found only one I would have the remotest chance with..... a social worker in the Pitcairn Islands. (Where there has been all sorts of trouble for incestuous and under age sex!!! ... yeah right!)

Having said that, I was sitting in our Space2B area at church and people kept coming in and sitting talking. A lot of sensible discussion. A lot of warmth and personal connection. I got to listening deeply to one of my fire fighters who called in to tell me his predicament. Another lady called who had contact through our Christmas dinners. She wanted to ask about our church, she was impressed with its reputation for being involved in and in touch with the community. I was encouraged, it was beginning to work as I envisaged and I talked with a colleague about future possibilities.... but it just looks and feels like a hell of a lot of work... and I don't know if I can hack it any more. The road looks too long.

Habitat for Humanity

I have been involved with Habitat for Humanity since it began in Dunedin in 1995. I have been a Director and/or on the promotions committee. I have been a natural contact point for people in the town. But it has not felt like fun for a while. Tonight was the Annual General Meeting and I let it be known that I am not standing for directorship or any committees any more. I think people wondered why but I kept my silence. There are two reasons.
(1) There are changes afoot trying to bring every affiliate into line. I am not happy with that because I feel each affiliate must respond to its community and each has its own set of resources. When I started Habitat we were meant to be autonomous and the pricing system was much more generous. I have battled changes or questioned changes and have been made to feel like an old fool who can't update. I can't be bothered with the battle any more. They can do their thing.

(2) I have got out because people kept "dumping on me". It seemed like if anyone in the organisation could not do a job they would ring me up. On the promotions committee we got doing stuff that was a way wider than the "promotions" portfolio. They kept shoving stuff our way. I have been on the building committee this year. I am an ex-plumber (very ex!) and a church minister. But I have ended up being foreman on the job, getting materials and stuff... I am NOT a carpenter. It stresses me out doing it even though I think I do a reasonable job. I seem to feel responsible for things when others don't. So I decided to draw a line in the sand and opt out. I'll still bang in nails, at least for this house.

Anyway that's me. Still feel like shit. But I am cranking up for Sunday.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What difference do I make?

Sometimes I need to think about and affirm that I do make a difference. When I first met the man in the photo above he would come to our drop-in centre and sit in the corner by the pool table with his hat pulled down over his eyes, not saying boo to a goose, just watching games of pool. One night I went over and asked if he wanted a game. We played in silence. The weeks went by and we always made time to have games. Slowly he told me his name. Then I learned where he worked. Then I learned a bit about where he lived. After heaps and heaps of pool games he cycled out to our Ocean Grove group. He started attending church. He came to the walking group. 

Now he comes to the drop-in centre early and helps prepare for the night. Now he comes to the church early and gets the coffee machine and urn going. He wanders around doing odd jobs before church. After church he looks after the doors and I get told off if I interfere. He enjoys the children and they enjoy him. He jokes with people and cares for people. He is a loved member of the church family and doing things in the community. We have been there with him through two redundancies, his dad's death and some illnesses. He still sometimes makes me mad with some of his comments, but he is miles different than he was when we first met. He simply is in a different place, and I helped that happen. Sometimes I make a difference. 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I survived a week of batching!

A week alone

You will be happy to know that I survived a week of my cooking! I think I put on weight though. I had a little hassle with the animals. One goat is attached to a pallet and she knows that if she takes a run she can get the pallet moving around the paddock. It is so funny to watch, so purposefully carried out. If she gets it sliding across the grass and keeps it moving she can go quite a distance. It does mean she cant climb through fences, which goats seem to have a real knack of doing. It all puts a strain on her collar and her rope. She broke her collar on Friday so on Saturday morning I had to lure her into her shed and put on a new one. A poor hen however, did not survive the week. She was old and I found her dead on Saturday morning. Why she chose to die on my watch I'll never know! I was doing everything right and not once did I threaten them with the pot! 

Plumbing woes.

I had some plumbing battles. I bought a new kitchen tap, lever action thingy with a fancy new system. Last Monday I installed it doing everything right, put a filter on the line and flushed the pipes. When my wife came home I was going to have a new tap for her. By mis week it had started to dribble. I pulled it off and fiddled and put it back on twice, but still didn't fix it. I ended up on Saturday morning before going to Habitat re-installing the old tap with a new washer. That was my first plumbing woe.

The second was just discomfort. I crawled under the church to put a gate valve so we could isolate the kitchen water supply.  As soon as I cut the old pipe a flood of memories came back. I recalled lying in dirty dust under many floors. You are cramped up hurting and cutting the pipe with short strokes of the hacksaw because you cant move much. When you first make a hole in the pipe you feel the water run down your hand, down your arm right up to your shoulder. It is uncomfortable, the dust turns to mud and you cannot do anything about it. You just have to grin and bear it. Then you complete the task as quickly as possible and make your way out, gathering more dirt on your person as you go. I was pleased my old skills had not left me and I could install the valve quickly and without leaks, but my ribs hurt all the next day. 

Drop-in centre woes

I don't know if it was the moon or what, but a few people at the drop-in seemed to want to bicker at each other all night. At one stage when a fight loomed, and two people were glaring at each other waiting for me to adjudicate, all I could think of to say was, "Sometime it feels like I am running a kindergarten up here!" They separated and went away sulking. 


Balancing that experience was the privilege of being allowed into peoples lives. In chaplaincy and at the drop-in some nice conversations gave me that sense of privilege. People seemed to appreciate sharing their journey, good and bad, with me. 


I talked with one elderly man. He has had a much younger woman who has been a "special friend" for him in his later life as a widower. He now thought that she was moving on to be a special friend to a much younger man, and he was hurting. In his hurt he said, "Companionship.... its pretty important in life you know." I agree.

Photo: Some members of the church walking group in the Botanical Gardens on Wednesday.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Two natural highs

I think it's good to stop and appreciate the natural highs we can have in life. They are cheap, and reflecting on them helps us taste them again. I will share two I enjoyed recently.

Problem solving

I have for a long time got a real kick out of problem solving. When I was at school I struggled to work out the niceties of English grammar. ( You're probably saying "That's obvious.") I could not remember the details and dates in Geography and History (The way they taught those subjects back then was criminal... it wasn't teaching, it was guaranteed to turn young minds off!) But I LOVED maths and science. I remember the first year we did geometry. I sat at the back of the class and when the problem was given to us... (How long is the longest side of the triangle? What is the angle of...? Etc) I would put my head down and really enjoy following the logic. "That angle is such and such. Such and such a theorem says... Oh ...I know how I can work that out!" I loved the "penny dropping" feeling and the way I could work out the answer. "Spud King" our Maths teacher would look at me and say, "Brown, why aren't you working?" "I'm finished sir!" "Bring it here, lad, you better be right!" ... and I always was. I loved geometry, trigonometry, and algebra. (I have forgotten it all now though) I loved the feeling of finding the answer. When I went on to plumbing night classes and on the job we had similar problems to solve. I was a way ahead of my fellow apprentices in the classes. I could arrive late and still have the problem finished before anyone else. And I loved on the job when we had some tricky situation and you had to find some way of doing the seemingly impossible. When I went to University there was a philosophy subject called "Symbolic Logic". I loved it. ... I simply got off on the joy of solving problems. Well that kick has not stopped. I have been foreman on the Habitat for Humanity site recently. I hated being given that responsibility. I am not a builder. I lose sleep over it the night before. I don't need the stress. ... but I have discovered I do enjoy one aspect of it. Let me give you an example. One young guy was nailing a surround around a window. A short bit of weather board split. He came to me, "What do we do? How can we fix it? We can't get at the nails?" I looked at it... I stewed... and thought... "Now if I get my... (tool) and then I try.... then we could... then maybe we'll be able to.... " So between the both of us we worked on it and within a short time it was as good as new! I loved that feeling!  It has happened every day I have been foreman... I'm not a builder... but I love solving problems and I can do it! Today I have been doing a wee plumbing job around home. It looked like I would have to pull half the kitchen apart to do it... but I looked at it, thought about it, and found a better way to tackle it. Cool bananas .. I love problem solving... its a great natural high! 

Seeing people grow.

Another natural high is seeing people grow. I will give you two examples. I have got involved with PACT and their Thursday morning soccer for the people in their care. I have got some from our drop-in centre involved. I go and strain every leg muscle I have playing soccer. Playing with them is simply a great buzz. But the real kick is seeing guys and girls getting to enjoy it, becoming fitter, animated and changing from static solemn expressions to grins a mile wide. They have changed from stand offish, hesitant people, to people going for it, giving me cheek and competing madly with me. One sends me texts when he has done other exercise. It is soo cool seeing the change, the new life and the growth. It's a real high. Another example happened on Saturday. These three girls, in their late teens or early twenties fronted up to the Habitat job. "Can we help?" they asked. "Yes, what can you do?" "Well nothing, but we just want to help." "Ok," I said, "I will show you a job I want done. You will look at it and think you can't do it, but by the end of the day you will be doing it well." So I showed them a room to line. I gave them some sheets of paper with some instructions on. I talked them through what had to be done. They were so good. They set about diligently doing it one step at a time. When they had questions they yelled. When they got stuck they came running, but with heaps of laughter, and yet a sensible approach, they had lined the room by the end of the day. They were just beaming from ear to ear! They were so proud! "Can we come back next week? Will you still have us?" "Yes sure! You did well, like I said you would... did you enjoy it?" "It was soooo much fun!" they oozed, "We loved it! What a great day!" At that point I was about as high as they were... what a great privilege to be part of that. I love being a part of seeing people grow!

Welcome to my world

As I said yesterday, I am batching and listening to loud music. One country song that was playing when I started this post was, "Welcome to my world... won't you come on in". I guess that's what's happening through this blog. I am letting whoever is willing to read my blog into my weird and wonderful world. "Welcome. Thanks for dropping in."

Photo: Part of our backyard as I was sitting outside for a cup of tea late this afternoon.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The week in revue...

Stupid flu bug!

During the week I struggled with a flu bug. I am nearly back to full health now, but it does make you appreciate your health. I took some time off at different times during the week, skipped a night meeting, and stopped work one day for a quiet walk in the sun.

Where did that come from? 

Last Monday as I sat in my bed trying to get some rest to get over the bug, I reread the set reading for today's service. The story of a rich man's encounter with Jesus.  "Good grief, I don't want to preach on that!" None of the other non-gospel readings rang bells either and no other topical thing came to mind. I decided that I would go ahead with the reading about the rich man. One reason I follow the set readings is that it forces me to tackle the difficult issues. But ... It is so difficult in our very materialistic, consumer orientated, rich, individualistic society that it feels impossible to communicate the concepts in that passage. I read up various writers and their perspectives... still nothing bounced out at me. I chose possible songs for the service, still unsure what I was going to do. Lots of scribbling of possible outlines... but nothing gelled or jumped up at me and said, "Say this!". .... then out of the blue as I was driving home along the Port Chalmers highway in my noisy old van, ding.... ding... ding.. the outline that I MUST speak bounced into my mind, and the content and flow of the service followed. Where did that come from? Friday morning I went in half an hour early to the office and the creative juices just flowed, as I frantically scribbled out the sermon in virtually the final "draft". Saturday night the power point slides evolved and the polishing points came as I walked around the house "preaching". And in all modesty, I must say I was on fire this morning! I had them on the edges of their seats. Where does it come from? The subconscious? God's spirit or a mixture of both? Or is "God" in the subconscious and emerging into the conscious mind. It is a great thrill to be a part of such a process. ... still don't know if I was "heard", but I said what I just HAD to say. Someone said, "That was a good message... a bit disturbing though!" 


My wife is away for a week. She left on Friday afternoon. There are some advantages being alone. I went to sleep listening to the radio! I slept diagonally across the bed. I turned the light on in the hall when I had to go. This morning I made my porridge. (She had left instructions) but as I put my toast in the toaster my eyes spotted fresh eggs from the hen run. On a whim... microwave egg on toast after porridge. I have had a big steak dinner tonight, heaps of onion, fried French bread (just to help clog my veins and clean the frying pan) all washed down with a nice cold beer. I have a Beatles CD playing loud on the stereo...."Love love me do!" "She loves you yeah yeah yeah..." etc etc... and I danced around the lounge with the cat looking at me in a strange way, partly terrified at this turn of events. Now, I need to say my wife is very amicable, she is not a nasty bossy woman, but just because you don't have to consider anyone else there is a certain freedom when you're batching. It has some advantages...  Don't tell her I said that.

But.... As I opened up at the drop-in centre on Friday night I suddenly felt vulnerable. We have a variety of people at the drop-in with various mental health problems. Most often it is a peaceful place but sometimes things can flare up. Sometimes a fight or barny can slowly develop and suddenly you need to deal with it. We have some good helpers, but none that I connect with like Jean. We have been running the drop-in for 13-14 years together. I can glance at her and she reads my mind. I know she is behind me when the going gets tough and she has the strength to deal with it. I know she is seeing things I can't see, and we can signal each other with just a nod. Without her there watching my back, I felt vulnerable. I was boss at Habitat for Humanity yesterday and again there was the same feeling. Often she will be there if I needed support or just someone to sound off to. She will be filling gaps in what I should have said in my instructions to people and seeing if they have heard etc etc. As I opened up for the church service today, I was aware that she was normally busy filling the gaps of things that needed to be seen to before church. .. its this unseen partnership I miss. I recall a film on the Alamo when I was very young. Davy Crockett (my hero) and his friend... was it George Bowie? ... fought to the bitter end. Back to back they shot the Mexicans until they were both killed. I think it was the first time I heard the phrase, "I've got your back." I guess that's the nature of marriage if its working as it should be. There is someone who "has your back". There with you in life's adventures and there to support, give feedback, hear trivia etc etc. Someone who will tell you for example if your fly is down. That's the disadvantage of being single... I miss that often unseen partnership. 

But I loved my steak, onions, French bread and beer...... but I'll have to clean the kitchen before next Sunday! The CD has stopped... now for some loud raunchy country and western music I think.

Monday, October 5, 2009

There are bastards in the world.

When my wife complains about someone I often just say as a joke and light hearted dig, "You just have to learn that there are bastards in the world!" Well I heard about some today who make me mad, sad and angry.

I had a close friend from Adelaide die just before Easter, Ian Corlett was his name. Pride of place at the funeral service was his restored 1912 Triumph Motorbike. It is a work of art, he had spent many many hours restoring it, not to mention a lot of dollars. It was really a family heirloom... it was the only one of its kind in Australia and his widow and family treasured it as a priceless memory of their loved husband and father.

Well I skyped with my friend's widow today and her first words were, "I am pissed off!" and as the tears flowed she told me the story of how some people ("bastards") had stolen the bike. Of course it is insured but that really is of no consequence. It was Ian's work of art! It was part of the family and really one of the few expressions of Ian still around.

Whoever they are must have known the trauma this family had gone through in the sudden loss of Ian, and added to the trauma by stealing his bike. My friend's widow is courageously saying, "In the scheme of things its only a motorbike, other people in Samoa are burying their children, but it still hurts!" If you hear of a restored 1912 Triumph for sale let me know please. I promise I will not kill the "bastards". I just want this family I love to have his bike back.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Drinking to escape emptiness

As I opened the paper this morning I was confronted once again with a big problem facing our society. The abuse of alcohol. It has been a common theme in the paper lately, but not just referring to problems in NZ. Russia, the UK, France and Italy have had articles written about their binge drinking issues and their "booze culture". There have been a number of articles in the paper about the local problems related to alcohol abuse.

  • The "Undy-500" riots locally, and the drunk mob mentality among the students.
  • A report about the high number of injuries treated in the emergency medical facilities that are related to alcohol misuse.
  • Reports showing the high percentage of police call outs that are related to drink issues.
  • Articles talking about binge drinking at all levels of society and its related health problems.
  • Articles about the domestic problems caused by misuse of drink.

These are just some of the topics I remember, I am sure there are others. As a chaplain, a drop-in centre leader and from my involvements in the community I am deeply aware of the harmful impacts of alcohol. Just ride an ambulance in Dunedin on a Saturday or Friday night and you will experience it. Politicians argue about the problem. How to fix it? I may as well add my voice. I contend that the misuse of alcohol (and the greed, and the vandalism and the violence, and the divorce rate) is a symptom of deeper problems. 

I need to confess that I am not tee-total. I enjoy a cool beer, a sherry, a wine (especially Stones Ginger Wine) or a Guinness, though I have never been drunk in my life. Maybe you could say what people say about the Pope and sex, "He doesn't play so why should he comment?" But this is my blog so I'll comment. 

I see heavy drinkers not as bad, but rather as sad. I believe that people drinking to excess are often "sick people self-medicating". (I may never have been drunk - perhaps my chosen medicine is something else... I'm not telling!) I have been unwell today so have done a lot of resting and reading. I re-read a book by Victor Frankl about his Logotherapy. (Man's search for Meaning)

He reports a feeling "of which so many patients complain today, namely the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglesssness of their lives. They lack awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called the 'existential vacuum'. The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century."  He gives some of the reasons why this phenomenon has happened and as I think about it, these reasons have only deepened in the time since he wrote his book.  It is my contention that we often misuse drink (and other things... money, relationships, food etc. etc.) because we are trying to escape from our inner-emptiness, our "existential vacuum".

Frankl says that we have a "will to meaning", we are not just pleasure seekers. He questions others' assertions that equilibrium or "homeostasis" be seen as a sign of mental health. "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him."(I apologise for his sexist language...he is writing well before our more PC awareness emerged) Humans deep down, need to find a meaning and/or meanings for and in their existence. We have a "will to meaning" that in our modern society we are not satisfying. In my view this leads to a sense of emptiness from which we try to escape through drink and other destructive past times. Somehow we need to be better equipped to discover meaning or meanings for our living as we journey through life. 

Frankl writes, "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence." 

So if I understand Frankl, it would seem that life calls me to always ask the question, "What does it mean for me, at this point in life, to be responsible?" I then choose my directions and there-in find meaning. My contention is that if we were skilled at detecting and giving ourselves to meanings in life, life would be more full and fulfilling and we would not have to drink (or whatever) to escape that inner-emptiness. Frankl gives an example of how his determination to write about his logotherapy kept him in going, with an inner freedom and direction in the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. 

Steve Covey (Seven Habits of Successful people) has a suggestion that I find helpful as a good starting point. He suggests that we pretend that we are at our funeral and think about what we would like people to be able to say about us when we are gone. What could they say about our values, the things we did and how we lived? Spell that out in our mind then translate that into how we are living our life each week. I think this is a practical start to find inner-meanings that fill the void we often experience and struggle with.

When I prepare to conduct a funeral I listen to story after story about the deceased, then allow that person's values and inner-directions to emerge. Then I will highlight these, using the stories to illustrate exactly who they were.  I often find myself at such times asking myself, "What values would I like to emerge from the stories of my life?" I should be finding ways to give expression to those values now. By spending time asking such questions we can end up with an undergirding direction for life which helps us respond in our living and gives us a compass point to aim for.

Anyway, that's what my mind has been playing with today, prompted by my reading of newspaper and various books. These are my half-thoughts emerging and revolving. I have often said that proper pastoral care is not just running around rubbing people's wrists, but also involves challenging people to become all that they could become. Anyway enough burbling... just my thinking out loud. 

This week's experiences...

Angry at a funeral...

I went to a funeral on Monday. It was for a lovely lady who was part of the catholic faith. I really appreciated the family tributes. But I got angry. Let me in love tell you why. I have been stewing on it all week since.

I know and work with lots of Roman Catholic people. Many seem to have a social conscience and desire to be involved in the community that we protestants lack. But I need to say as lovingly as possible, I found a catholic mass at the funeral deeply disturbing.

First I felt the whole thing, for an outsider to the catholic faith, to be exclusive and unwelcoming. It was just an assumed part of the service with no explanation as to why it is there. I am a protestant minister with some understanding of liturgy etc. but I found it hard to get my head around. For someone completely out of the faith it would be gibberish. I saw people looking at each other with questioning glances and uncomfortable grins. There were responses demanded that we protestants and unbelievers were not aware of and it was like we were just observers while the "true faithful" did their thing. 

The other disturbing thing was the realisation that we were not welcome to have mass. Just before the service I met Tom Lamb, a fellow workplace support chaplain. He belonged to that parish. He and I do the same sort of work. We are motivated by the same sort of faith and moved by the same spirit. I would consider him a friend. He was allowed communion, but I wasn't? We work for the same God together, but we cannot share the sacrament together. Sorry Catholic friends, I love you, but that is wrong!

The thing that was disturbing for me is that the church is meant to be the "Body of Christ", expressing in its very being the way of Jesus. As I read the Gospels, Jesus was all of the time breaking down the barriers between those who were considered "in" and those who were considered "out". He was in his parables, teachings and arguments always open and inclusive. His understanding of God was this open, welcoming loving accepting "Father".  The religious part of this funeral service did not communicate that! It was hurtful to me because it seemed to distort the Jesus I followed, even as it claimed to represent him. I am sorry, Catholic friends, but I see it as wrong. My brother told me to respect others' faith practices, but they claim to represent the Jesus that I follow and seek to promote, and in my view they miss the mark. It made me aware, however, that there are probably things I do and say which make people feel just as excluded.

Cold/flu bugs abound

During last Sunday's run/walk I realised that I was a wee bit wheezy. During the week, starting with a sore throat on Monday evening, I have been battling a cold or flu of some sort. It is interesting the things that wear you out. On Tuesday evening I went up and worked by myself on the Habitat house. I felt OK apart from the sore throat. On Wednesday I went to work, but came home an hour early, because I felt flu like symptoms. On Thursday morning I woke feeling not too bad and played soccer that day, surprising myself with how well I could run and keep going. On Friday, always a long day, I coped OK with taking cold/flu tablets. Saturday I did OK on the Habitat site, not a bundle of energy, but OK. Today was the most difficult. I struggled to get through leading the church service. Drugged up on the tablets, I was always pleased when the next song came around and felt totally bushed at the end. 

Physical play and work I managed with during the week, but the hardest to cope with, the most exhausting was the hour of leading worship.  

Habitat house...

The prospective home owners were asking me on Saturday how long it would be before we finished their house. I told them I thought we were about half way through. We are just starting the linings on the internal walls. It is such a lot of fun, but also an awful lot of work. I hope we do not lose our enthusiasm and draw the process out. I love doing it, but recognise that it means my weekends are totally overloaded. 

Photo: Rugged up against the cold working on the scribers on the windows of the Habitat house.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Steve is gone now too....

I got an email a night or two ago from a woman who informed me that her father had died. He was Steve. Steve and his family, then two young teenagers and a ten year old boy, were in the Palmerston North Church when I was minister there in the late 1970s. I remember we used to go around to the church hall on Friday nights so the kids could go ballistic. Steve was 20+ years older than I, but we used to play table tennis together. I think I would win more often, but he loved the game and we were fairly evenly matched. He worked for a government department and the family moved to the Wellington area. 

When ever we caught up on Steve, usually at church conferences, he would say, "Do you think you and I could sneak off, find a table tennis table and have a game?" I called on him in February in Lower Hutt, he seemed in good health. His wife had died about a year before and I recall in the conversation he said, "Do you mind if we talk about Edna. I'll tell you the story." And he told us of the last months of her life. I really appreciated his honesty, his openness and the warmth with which we shared together. It was one of those sacred conversations. 

He had asked his daughter last week to email us and tell us that he was weak and in hospital. Now she informed us he had gone. He suggested as much when we last saw him. As we said goodbye he said that this could be the last time we saw each other. He was OK with the fact that he was getting older and more frail.

I guess it's a sign that I'm getting old, another of my friends has gone the way we all must go. He was still doing a heap of volunteer work for a caring agency, even though he was in his mid-eighties. What a way to go.

"Goodbye friend, thanks for enriching my life with your relaxed warmth, humour and friendship."