Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Friday, July 30, 2010

"A B C"

I have had friends and colleagues go on overseas tours of Europe. Most of them tend to do the ready made bus tours, which I guess take all the tension and risk out of touring. Many, however, seem to come back and express a common theme about their european experience. They will say, “It was a bit A B C.” When I ask what on earth they mean by that, they sayAnother Bloody Cathedral”. In their tour they have been carted around Cathedrals until they are sick of them.

I chose on this trip not to do a set tour, though I know already that it will place extra hassles on us. It is hard to shop for food, to go to a restaurant or find your way when everyone speaks a different language. But one of the reasons I didn’t go for a set tour was that, if anything, I wanted to stay away from cathedrals and churches.

The difficulty is that, being a church minister, people expect me to be interested in religious things. Poland is full of old elaborate churches. You go into church after church and you see elaborately painted pictures, gold fancy bits, high elaborate pulpits and really expensive-to-look-after buildings. As an ex-tradesman who does building, and as a bit of a wanna-be artist, I appreciate the fine craftsmanship and artistic talent that has gone on in these buildings. They are fine works of art and certainly, from that perspective, good to see.

But as a follower of Jesus I find myself repulsed by these buildings!

Their very architectural layout, the assumed hierarchy and the guilt producing pictures seem to me to be a denial of what Jesus was all about.

The expense that was involved in their building and their continuing expense in their upkeep seem to me to not be something that Jesus would condone. Are they really, in their very essence glorifying the one who came as a servant?..... The one who said to one man, “Go sell all you have and give to the poor”?

As one who is concerned for a true representation of Jesus, I ask the question, “What sort of picture of Jesus do tourists go away with?” How do these buildings pass on the “Spirit” of Jesus?

In Brunei I saw Moslem Mosques built by successive kings that cost thousands of millions of dollars. Yet our tour guide and his family, on two incomes, lived in an apartment about as big as my lounge! (And I do not have a very big lounge!) The excess seemed a wrong expression of the God (Allah) who is meant to be about compassion.

If that inconsistency is true of Moslem places of worship it seems even more true of excesses spent on Christian places of worship. Are we glorifying God or just a cultural religion through these buildings? Are they truly portraying "the spirit of Jesus"?

I am totally conflicted about this. I appreciate the workmanship etc. but as a follower of Jesus, when I enter I also find myself repulsed. The people with me expect the opposite. They expect me to find these places special, sacred and inspiring of worship. Out of appreciation for their kindness and trying not to offend their religious sensibilities, I do not let on to them my inner sense of angst.

Then again I could be all wrong. A woman came, according to the Gospel story, with expensive ointment and anointed Jesus feet. When Judas suggested that the ointment could be sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus rebuked him. What on earth does that mean?

I am a minister of a down town church. Sometimes people, who have no interest in the Christian faith come in to see the stain class windows. I am even more convinced that our one and a third million dollar down town religious site will not be an empty-most-of-the-time museum to a religion of the past. I am sure Jesus would want it to be a place where people meet each other, a place used to enhance life and a place that is full of noise and life.

Anyway, I can let off steam with you, my mystery readers. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This sentence rang bells

The last couple of days have been recovery days. We have napped when we have felt like it and just blobbed out. I have been reading the book, "A life on Gorge River - New Zealand's remotest family." It is the story of a man who gave up medical studies and now lives in a remote part of South Westland with his family. I am enjoying the book, though, in my opinion, it has its weaknesses. It is also making me a bit homesick. I have been known to say as I led up to this holiday, "I'd rather be tramping!" This book makes me yearn for NZ hills, though I am getting so much out of the experience of another culture here. I still need to make time to go tramping at home! Grrr

It was not these pros and cons that prompted this post. One sentence in the book jumped out and said, "That's my experience too!" - even though in a different setting. He is discussing the isolation he felt during winters at his hut. (before his marriage) As part of that he writes these words;

"I never actually feel totally alone since the spirit of creation fills my being and is my constant companion."

I love it. It gives expression to an essential discovery of my spirituality or discipleship in Jesus. Richard Long finds the divinity in the bush, ocean, mountains, weather and natural life. He does also find divinity in the friendships he has with locals.

I too find the divine companionship in the natural world, when I am walking in the bush even on familiar paths.... the leaves, the birds, the roots of trees and the weather etc. all give me a sense of connection with "LIFE" and the Spirit of creation. I experience the same when I am jogging or walking hills and pushing my body to its limits. Companionship comes too when I am digging spuds, collecting eggs, planting cabbages or splitting firewood.... sharing in and connecting to the processes of life I can say..."I never actually feel totally alone since the spirit of creation fills my being and is my constant companion."

I also find that same spirit in ministry, in sharing with people and in giving myself to compassionate, life-enhancing causes or causes that address the imbalances and inequalities of life. ... times of friendship at the drop-in centre, sitting talking at my chaplaincy sites, leading in a sad funeral, hammering till my arm aches on a Habitat site, sharing in life-enhancing experiences or listening intently as people tell of sad or triumphant experiences. Again and again I could say, "I never actually feel totally alone since the spirit of creation fills my being and is my constant companion." I sense a connection with the same spirit which has motivated and energised all compassionate and just actions.

It seems also my lot to find myself differing with the world around me. In Church circles, in Habitat for Humanity, at times in the chaplaincy organisation and in other places I am sometimes driven to a sense of despair, depression and questioning myself. I feel often that I am out of step with everyone else in my theology, values, perspectives, methods and goals. But even in these dark holes ... "I never actually feel totally alone since the spirit of creation fills my being and is my constant companion." Some how "He/She" is in the journey.

There are times too when I battle. Life is not always black and white, clear cut and I am often confused, tempted toward irresponsibility and failing or conflicted about the call of responsible, unselfish love. Even then my experience can be described as... "I never actually feel totally alone since the spirit of creation fills my being and is my constant companion." At these times I experience the divine compassion, an understanding, accepting and supportive presence.

Anyway I loved this sentence in the book.... just gotta tell someone... may as well be you.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Snap shots" from a Polish wedding

We are in Moszczanka, a village near Prudnik in Poland. My son and his wife celebrated a Polish family and friends wedding here over the weekend. My children and their partners traveled from New Zealand to be here with their brother. This in itself, was some achievement (there is none among us you would class as rich) and a testament to the strength of family bond they have... I am proud of them for this. Here are some "word-snap-shots" of our experience.
Willing team...
My kids arrived in the village on Thursday night and from Friday morning they joined in helping the wedding effort. They sorted out place names for the tables. They blew up balloons and we tied them to the fence and around the door of the house. They decorated the "alcohol baskets" - baskets which were used to serve the copious bottles of vodka and beer to the guests. It was great to see them just working side by side with this Polish family to help make the wedding a success.
Team Father... & Ecumenical sharing.
Michal is Magda's father and he and I seem to get on "OK" (Poles use that term too) He has declared at various times that David (pronounced like "Daveed") and he will do various jobs together. So we delivered the alcohol to the venue, we sorted out a barbecue the other night, we decorated the car and put a notice on the door. At the service I was designated to take a reading... 1 Corinthians 13:1 - 8... but at the end of the reading I was to say in Polish.. "This is the Word of the Lord". It was a simple three word sentence I could have taught myself but knowing that Michal was involved in the Church locally, I suggested that he escort me to the lectern and he could say these polish words for me. This we did. The two fathers sharing in the reading. As we returned to our seat he nudged me with his elbow and gave me the thumbs up. It is quite a thing... A protestant New Zealand minister reading scripture in a Polish Catholic Church. After we returned to the house on the Sunday night when all the celebrations were over, Michal drove one of my sons and his wife around 50k to their railway station point of departure. We had early mornings so I knew he was tired. I declared I would go with him to keep him awake. He accepted the offer enthusiastically and we made the trip together. As we drove home through the rain late at night he showed me all of the electronic wizardry of his brother's fancy VW car. It would have made a great comedy film these two guys trying to communicate through the language barrier in the car. He was trying to explain what one dial was for. Then he stopped talking, twiddled the dial, "Un momento" he said. (I think he uses this like NZ'ers use "Hang on a minute") After about 30 seconds my seat got hot. "Tak! Tak! ... my bottom is hot!" and we both laughed at another successful communication. As we pulled into the drive at home I said to him, "Dziekuje" (Thank you) He responded by giving a big tired sigh saying, "Dzieki Boga" (Pronounced like "Dinky Boga" -Thank God!) and through gestures and laughter I had learned a new Polish phrase.
Getting to the Church on time...
In some ways the ceremony started at the house. Close relatives arrive and the couple accompanied by music kneel in the living room and the parents give their blessing. This involves a sprinkle with water and a blessing. Michal went first. Magda's God-mother second (Magda's mum died just over a year ago) and then my wife and I. Then very quickly, with an accordion playing the couple and guests leave the house, jump in cars and they head off to the Church.... but Polish tradition has them sounding horns to let everyone in the village know a wedding was taking place!
Church to reception.
As the happy couple come out of the church the guests do not throw messy confetti or rice on them, they toss coins! The couple with the help of children, gather the coins up. Then it is back in the cars, and away to the hotel where the reception is to be held, again with horns blasting in celebration. Down the road there is a road block set up and two (Friends) in fancy dress stop the convoy. The couple are invited to have a drink then a ransom is demanded before they are allowed to proceed. A bottle of vodka is handed over and the convoy continues. Down the road a bit there is another similar "hold up" with much laughter. We eventually arrive at the hotel at about 3:15 p.m. Each guest going in was given a glass of champagne and invited to greet the couple on their way to the tables.
The food was served even before the couple were seated. There were no speeches, nor sedate eating and waiting for the next course, in quick succession three courses of the meal were delivered to the table and eaten very fast. (I am a quick eater, but they left me for dead!) Then starting with the bride and groom the dancing started. Throughout the night more food was brought out... the last course was a special Polish soup served to us at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. The dancing was enthusiastic, involved old and young and just about anything goes. Throughout the night there were several spontaneous "crocodile lines" with old and young holding hands, dancing and singing around the tables. Several times the dancing would spontaneously be a circle of dancers clapping hands and dancing to the beat with some enthusiastic couples or the parents or others in the centre. There were dancing games and other games conducted throughout the night, with more "adult" ones reserved for late. (two guys ended up in underwear) It was "full on" but good fun. We decided to retire at 2 a.m. ... others partied on... the bride and groom got to bed at 6 a.m!
There are no speeches like in NZ weddings where people are asked to move "toasts" to the "parents", "the bridesmaids", "the bride and groom", "Absent friends", "the Queen" uncle Tom Cobbly and all. But there are endless spontaneous toasts. A group may be sitting talking and someone fills the vodka glasses and eyeballs you, lifting their glass saying "Zdrowie" (health) and you are expected to repeat enthusiastically "Zdrowie!" and empty the glass down your throat... with a chaser if you want. I must confess that sometimes I just sipped half the glass. Sometimes too I filled my glass with water and when yet another toast came I could participate enthusiastically. (Because I loved the spontaneity and the sentiment, though I am reluctant to get drunk) Michal took me around and introduced me to lots of lovely people (There seemed to be someone in each group who knew a little english) but at each meeting a part of the meeting-new-people process was "Zdrowie!" and down the hatch yet another glass of vodka went. I did not get drunk, but my dancing improved as the night wore on. It almost became annoying because they seemed reluctant to accept that you might not want to have yet another glass of vodka! Other options with less alcohol did not seem acceptable as appropriate for the ritual. The sister of the bride drove one of my sons and his partner to the train station this morning. When she returned she reported that as the train pulled out and they went on their way, possibly never to meet again, my son leaned out the train window, raised his hand as if holding a glass and yelled down the platform at her "Zdrowie!" ... Amen to that. (Pronounced "Drovia")
Proud host...
The party continued on the Sunday.... At the resort where all the guests were provided with a room, there was a further meal at midday. Conversation and dancing if you wanted continued until 6 p.m. At the end of the weekend I thought that I could walk back to the house. It was only a few kilometres and I wanted the exercise, also the time alone to catch up on myself, and I thought it would be one less person Michal would have to arrange transport for. I brought our bags down from our room and told Michal that I would walk. "Nei!" he said emphatically, "Nei, David, Nei!" As we took the bags to the boot of his car I persisted, "Tak! I want to walk! It's dobra - good!" "Nei! You walk tomorrow... not today! Nei!" As we walked through the car park he gave his reasons with gestures as well as words. "You walk.. people Moszczanka see you. They say Michal no good, David have to walk!" I understood. If I walked home and was seen walking back, from his perspective he would be seen as a bad host and he did not want that. His daughter said I should walk if I wanted to. But even though I disagreed with my host, (I would tend to say people can think what they like its their problem. Anyway, if we knew how seldom people thought about us, we would stop worrying what people thought about us.) out of respect for him, I let him give me a lift.
A new family.....
Magda's sister had been a tireless support helping her, her dad and our family. My sons were talking to her toward the end of Sunday and offering to help with anything that needed to be done. Somewhere one of my son's said to her, "Dziekuja" (thank you) "you have been so good to us!" She smiled, her eyes twinkled she shrugged her shoulders and said in a mixture of Polish and english, "I'm your sister now!"

I guess that sums up the experience... while there have been difficulties, differences of tradition and big language barriers, we have been made to feel like part of a family though we come from the other side of the world. "Dzieki Boga" ... Thank God

Michal tells me another Polish tradition is that the fathers get drunk together on Monday night... he's calling me as I write.. wedding cake and vodka..... help!

- The Brown mob decorate the fence
- Enthusiastic dancing
- The extended "Brown mob" at the Sunday part of the reception.
- One of the dance-games ... this was a "kissing" game... you danced around and had to kiss the woman you ended up in front of.
- Me, Michal (father of the bride) and Daniel (groom)
- The blessing at the home.

Friday, July 23, 2010


We are in Poland staying at my son's father-in-law's place. Now four of my children are here with their partners. (Our severely handicapped foster daughter stayed at home in NZ) We had a reunion last night sitting out on the deck tasting Polish beer, vodka and mead after a pork sausage barbecue. My children are delightful and are enjoying catching up with our Polish hosts. We are here for a local family wedding ceremony tomorrow where my son and wife (they were married in NZ last year) will share in a Polish Catholic ceremony with his Polish wife. We have been labeling vodka bottles, blowing up balloons and polishing the car in preparation, and as is normal, people are getting a little stressed. It is quite neat the two families, with incredible cultural and language differences, working together for this special day. It really is a very positive experience having all the kids make the effort and expense to travel here to be together to support their brother.

But before every wedding I go to or am involved in, I find myself in a reflective, often melancholy mood, asking myself "What will be their future?" A wedding opens up possibilities for happiness, partnership and friendship, but also opens up the potential for incredible hurt.
I have been married for 41 years and have concluded that each marriage is very different and that the whole process requires an incredible willingness to adapt, to give and to work with each other. There are no quick and easy "how to's" for marriage, no easy answers for what life can throw at you and nobody can be totally confident that they wont stuff it up.

I do think that it is a lot harder to stay married than it used to be. There are lots of reasons for this and I raise them as considerations.
  • In earlier generations there were clearly defined roles for the husband and wife. These days these roles are freed up. This is a good thing, we would not want to wind back the clock, but it did mean that in earlier times there was a clear path to follow. The marriage partnership was supported by clearly defined "job descriptions", you knew where you were and what was expected of you. In today's much more free society each couple has to plan their route by themselves. It's like the difference between driving in the Australian desert on a sealed highway or driving across country. On the sealed highway there is a map showing where you are going, road signs that warn you of dangers and signs that give you directions. Driving across country you have to choose where to go and find the way. You have to discover the soft sand and workout how you will work through it, though you are completely free of fences and limitations. Today's married couples have greater freedoms, but a much more difficult job of working out, negotiating and navigating each partnership. There simply are more opportunities for heart breaking mistakes, though greater freedoms for different sorts of creative partnership.
  • Secondly we live in a highly sexualised society. There are regular suggestions that life should be this ongoing romantic, experience of a hot, sensual and electrifying relationship. Media from women's magazines, chic flicks to porn all raise our expectations of the male-female relationship. It has to have, according to "popular media", the mysterious "spark" at all times. Well it is simply quite difficult to live up to those expectations with the need for two incomes, busy child raising schedules and all of the other expectations of life. (I have been relatively lucky in my 41 year old partnership) But no long term relationship will always be the ideal "Women's day" magazine joy ride day in day out, year by year. ... we know this, but again and again these high expectations are thrust upon us and it is easy to feel inadequate, especially during "flat" times. (It is interesting in Women's magazines... they will have close up interviews with "loving superstar couples" who will rave on that they have found their "soul mate", that this person "completes them" and that there is "so much love in the relationship". Give the magazine a few years [the next time you are in the Doctor's waiting rooms] and they will be doing an interview with one member of this "ideal" couple who will discussing how they have "moved on" in their life, and are on this exciting new adventure, free from the shackles of their former relationship, or discovering their new "real soul mate".)
  • Thirdly we live in an individualistic age. At one time you found yourself according to how you fitted into the goals and directions of the family, the tribe, the nation. Now we are much more on an individual journey trying to find our own sense of fulfillment. Whether we are right or wrong in this sort of value it is just a part of the values of our society.
  • Fourthly we live in a time when it is much easier to stray. These days we have untold opportunities to form relationships (we may never have intended) with members of the opposite sex. Workplaces are no longer male dominated. We spend more time at work, at the gym or at other places often than we do at home. Many of today's jobs involve periods away from home. There are countless, essentially private ways to communicate in this IT age. One man I know who was doing a study on infidelity (starting from his own experience) said that there are three leading factors... (1) things are a bit flat at home. (2) there is freedom from discovery and (3) the use of alcohol relaxes inhibitions. He pointed out that in today's society these things are much more prevalent than they used to be. Many marriages from earlier generations may have been faithful simply because there were not the possibilities that are available today. It simply was much more difficult to fall into an intimate friendship with someone else. It means that today's couples have much more of a temptation to resist than older couples may have had. (Though years apart during the war must have been tough?)
  • Finally a marriage has to last a lot longer. We simply live longer and are more active for longer than we used to be, so instead of 40 years, a marriage has maybe 60 years. Some people have asked the question, "Is it reasonable to expect a relationship to last that long?" I am not suggesting that is legitimate, but just raising it as an issue. There have been long term, seemingly happy celebrity relationships that upon retirement, or changes in circumstances, the couple have decided to break up and amicably go their separate ways. All their friends are lefty wondering "Why?"
I may sound totally negative about marriage. I am not. I do, however, wish that more couples contemplating this big step in life were more aware of the difficulties. I also wish that we who are married, would be more aware of the issues facing us and that we in the journey of our relationship, give attention to those things that would help us negotiate successfully, creatively and with joy the difficult "cross-country" adventure we are on.

I have no answers, no assurances and no superior knowledge. It's a journey each person who says "I do" must negotiate "with due care". If you are a praying person, please drop in a sentence for my kids... I so wish that they will enjoy good partnerships in life and that they wont be hurt..... also there are a whole heap of other couples I would like you to pray for... because in my job I know of many who are hurting in what should be supportive, health giving and healing partnerships. ... bless them all.

Photo: Four from my extended family blowing up balloons which, according to Polish tradition, will be tied to the fence of the house.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Heart and heart unite together...

Polish Church experience...
On Sunday we went with the family to the local Polish Catholic Church. I understood virtually nothing of it. It was Catholic and I am a protestant "progressive Christian" (I prefer that "classification" than "liberal" ... there is a difference in my mind.) I heard words I knew like "dobry" (good), the Polish words for Jesus Christ, "dziekuje" (thank you) and of course "Ameine" (Amen). The only singing I could do was when an "Alleluia" refrain was part of the song. I sang this enthusiastically. But strangely enough, it was good to be there. There was a devotion, Spirit and energy among the people and even though you could not understand nearly everything that was said and done, this rubbed off on me. I remember when I was in Palmerston North a regular visitor to our congregation was a blind and deaf lady. To talk with her you wrote the words in letters on her open palm. I wondered why she came to church? She told me that she could feel the "vibrations" of the service during singing, during prayer times and in the sermon time. She said it was good to be there.

A Religious Society...
New Zealand is a very secular country. It is very different here. In NZ often the oldest buildings in a town are the churches. On my run in this Polish township this morning, I noticed that the most modern looking building in the town was the church. The church had car-park space but also heaps of bike racks! The congregation was made up of young and old. I think in my NZ congregation we have one man who rides his bike to church.

On my run I noticed many houses with religious symbols and shrines in their front yard. ... I've never seen any in NZ. Around the town of Prudnik I visited today there were shrines and crucifixes around the streets of the centre city.

We were told that "Religion" was a compulsory subject in school. The rationale given was that in school you learn about every other aspect of life so it is seen as a legitimate expectation that the government should encourage the teaching of religion also. The communists had classes in schools debunking religion, now that they were gone it makes sense to have classes in schools discussing this part of life. It is interesting to be, for a short time at least, in this very different setting where faith is assumed and accepted. In NZ church-going and faith are not a "normal" past time.

When I came home my host was keen to see how I felt about the Church service. I told him and he showed me his fortnightly catholic magazine, pointing to the articles and communicating (somehow) what they were on about. He showed me the set readings that were read in Church that day. Then I said that in all probability the same readings were read and discussed in my church (we follow the Revised Common Lectionary). I turned the pages to last week's readings and said, "The same! I spoke on that last week in my Church in NZ." When I had managed to get my sentence across the language barrier, his eyes widened in amazement and he grinned from ear to ear. "Tak?" he asked. ("Yes?") "Tak" I responded. I got my computer and showed him where I get my readings from. "Dobry, Dobry" ("Good Good!") he said with enthusiasm. I was pleased that on the other side of the world, in a different denomination there was still this expression of unity that we participated in.