Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More "flesh" musings.

I need to be fair to St Paul. I have often thought that Paul stuffed Christianity up. As he wrote his epistles often they seem to be rife with doctrine, rules and systems. But I now tend to think that it is our interpretations of Paul that have distorted the free flowing way of Jesus. What Paul did was use the language, idioms and metaphors of his culture and day to try to communicate the essence of what he experienced in Jesus. We have taken those "picture words", retained them and made them hard and fast "doctrine" and in so doing distorted Paul. Our task in reading Paul is to seek to understand the essence of his experience, to get behind his metaphors then transfer that experience into metaphors that suit our culture and age. So I am attempting to do that with "flesh" as he uses it in Galatians 5.

I argued in my previous post that in spite of what Paul seems to imply, "flesh" is not inherently evil. J B Philips translates "flesh" as "our lower nature". As I look at Paul's description of the "works of the flesh" I think that what he calls flesh is the "if-it-feels-good, do-it" attitude. This would apply to what he sees as sexual immorality. This would also apply to "party spirit" "envy" "dissension" etc. It is the attitude that is self-focused and does not think of the consequences long term for ourselves, other people, society or creation. It is therefore important to listen to what Paul has to say. I see this attitude so often. I will take revenge, pay back evil for evil, because it feels good. I will charge up private expenses on a government credit card because it feels good and I may get away with it. (like our politicians) I will drink too much, add incredible amounts to our national health bill, cause damage to my relationships, maybe even hurt others because at the moment "it feels good". I will endanger lives, cause havoc on streets with my boy racer car, because "it feels good". I will accept a ridiculously high salary even though I know there are many unemployed and it is essentially unfair inequality, because "it feels good". This "if it feels good, do it" attitude is rife in today's society and, I believe, is identical to the way Paul uses the term "Flesh" in Galatians 5.

Paul's anti-dote is two fold. He reminds them of the old command, "you shall love your neighbour as yourself" and calls us to commit to that. Secondly he says to be guided by "the Spirit", allowing things like "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" to grow in our personalities.

Here is where I go back to the follower of Jesus being more aware. The follower of Jesus is committed to the golden rule and in their inner being is always measuring his/her actions according to this wider awareness. What are my actions doing to others? When this sort of self analyses is allowed room, the fruit of the Spirit grow. The mysterious movement, the Great Spirit, the inner voice (God) that is part of this world, is given room in our lives to grow better, more whole, more wholesome functioning human beings. All I can say is that it works! I have seen changes in people, and sometimes even in me.

Looking at what ails our families, our countries and our world, we need this sort of change. Legislation, politics and education wont do it. Some sort of inner commitment to a better way of life on the part of individuals will. It really is a deeper, "spiritual" issue, and as archaic and out of touch as the church often is, it still is the place where I can raise a flag in the midst of our world and say, "There is a 'spiritual' dimension to life and 'spiritual' issues to attend to."

I found this quote when tidying up my office today. I loved the film called "The War". This returned soldier had been deeply shaken by his war experience and was struggling to fit back into family life is talking with his son. The son had got into a fight with kids from another family who were picking on him. The father broke up the fight then later gave one of the kids some candy floss when they yelled abuse at them. The son demanded to know why he did it? They were nasty people..... Why give them candy floss? As part of the answer the dad said this.... "I think the only thing that keeps people truly safe and happy is love. I think... I think that's where men get their courage, that's where countries get their strength, and that's where God grants us her miracles. And in the absence of love Stuart, there is nothing, nothing in this world worth fighting for."

The old song said, "What the world needs now is love." I guess that's why I do the job I am in, in spite of our secular age and the many distorted forms of religion, I still think the way of the golden rule, (the way of Jesus) makes sense.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Does Christianity like "flesh"or "human nature"?

One of the scripture passages set for today's worship was from Galatians chapter 5. In the RSV it reads "do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh: ...." The Good News Bible changes it from "flesh" to "human nature". It goes on to list off "the works of the flesh". There are all the juicy ones: "immorality, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness and carousing." (I recall a similar list from the book of Romans being read dramatically by an earnest Christian man at a Youth Club we had running at a Church in Australia. All these little adolescent boys were wide eyed and interested. Instead of putting them off these juicy sins, I think the reader was just feeding their curiosity.) Then there are also more run of the mill ones: "idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy" . You get the picture that "Flesh" is bad... naughty.... Something mysterious, not of this world, "heavenly" called "Spirit" is good.

The same sort of emphasis comes across in many songs. Let me quote two choruses. One chorus goes like this: "Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow
will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace."
Its a nice opening meditation type chorus but the implication is that there is something inherently wrong with "the things of earth". Is there?

Another chorus goes like this:
"Jesus take me as I am
I can come no other way
Take me deeper into you
Make my flesh life melt away.
Make me like a precious stone
Crystal clear and finely honed
Life of Jesus shining through
Giving Glory back to you"

Again "flesh" gets bad press by implication in this song. There are countless hymns I could quote also.

Now I have a problem with this. I happen to like "Flesh". I think that to promote the concept that human nature or flesh is evil is to give people an inferiority complex, cause them to be sexually inhibited, or to have them perpetually guilty. I like J B Phillip's translation of "Flesh". He calls it our "lower nature". I tend to think the correct description would be something like "our nature when it is self centred". It is selfish living that he is talking about, and that is a distortion of human nature.

I like "flesh" and "human nature". In the myths of Genesis God created human beings (flesh) and looked at them and decided his creation was "Good". I enjoy sensuality. Now I hasten to add that the term "sensuality" has a much wider meaning than just the erotic. I have over the last two days gone for two walks up in the bush or hills around Dunedin. They were sensual. I loved the sights. There were little wax eyes on top of Swampy summit. I enjoyed their noise and their antics. I loved walking in the fog and having landmarks appear out of the fog. I enjoyed the physical challenge of getting up the hills without stopping.... the heavy breathing... the need to keep pushing my legs to work. I loved the sweat, the wetness of the drizzle, the joy of getting back to the vehicle before night fall, the brief conversations with other walkers and runners. I LOVED the FLESH! I love food. The taste of leeks, carrots and potatoes I have grown in my garden. I enjoy Ginger Wine, and Horlics and beautifully brewed coffee. Yes and even at my age I still enjoy an active sex life. When I have music on and I am alone, I love dancing around singing at the top of my voice. I enjoy the movement, the emotion the self expression. All of these things are "Flesh" and they are NOT inherently sinful! I think translations, teaching and compositions that imply that Christianity is "anti-flesh" are heresy and very damaging to people's lives. I know of a number of religious people whose lives have been stuffed up by such teaching. I have talked with earnest mental health patients who go to churches and hear such rubbish and come to me with such guilt and anxiety that they really don't need added to their difficulties.

I actually think that true spirituality, true openness to Jesus leads to a deeper awareness and appreciation of flesh. Because of the sense of connection you are in a very special way joined to all flesh. Like Francis of Assisi, people, animals, plants and trees are your brothers and sisters. The sensations we can enjoy in life are gifts of Grace... precious gifts we can savour. Because of my faith I believe I experience "the flesh" in a richer and fuller way. I also believe that Spirituality is not an escape from "Human Nature" but rather the ideal follower of Jesus is more fully human and more fully alive. They relate positively and harmoniously with creation, with others and with themselves. The whole point of Jesus based spirituality is the wholeness of the human being, "life abundant" is what Jesus called it in John's Gospel. The Jewish word "Shalom" is not about some after life, but things in their right place, in harmony here on earth.

Anyway... Flesh is OK and I am going to keep on enjoying the things of this world, I hope not in a selfish way, but in the way God intended.

Photos: Mt Cargill track on Saturday and Swampy Summit today (It is not snowing, its a black and white photo)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Friday feelings

Tired but pleased...
It is Friday afternoon and I have just taken a funeral and am getting changed to help out at our Drop-in centre. I am so pleased that the funeral (memorial service) went well. I put a lot of work into each one. I would imagine at least 8 hours, perhaps more. (My wife says at least 12 hours) The family were very pleased with it and it felt like I was doing something important for them. I am exhausted though with the beginnings of a migraine headache starting. I do seem to have an ability to help people remember the essence of the person. Looking back on when I first started at this church this man was not much older than what I am now! Time will pass quickly and I'll be ashes in a little box ready to be spread on Mount Cargill.

I have been sitting here Skyping (messages) with a friend who drove to the city of Christchurch. While I have been doing that the Church computer has been updating and installing updates. It asked for a password at one stage. My daughter knows the password but she is in Frankfurt airport on the other side of the world. I pick up my old cell phone and text her. Within a few seconds the answer comes back with the password and the fact that they are about to hop on a train. Call me old, but I love this modern technology and still find it a marvellous part of life! Chatting via Skype free to a friend sitting in a Christchurch hotel through a little machine on my desk! That is pretty good.... but texting through an even smaller machine to the other side of the world and receiving instant replies.... Wow! I still marvel. A man told me yesterday that when his daughter was on her big OE in Africa 30 years ago they did not hear from her for 3 months!

Drop-in centre here I come...
Headache, headache go away ... people will tell me I have pool to play... People will meet me with a lot to say... I can't tell them to go away! Drop-in people, please be nice to me tonight. I am tired.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Yeah right ??? Mr preacher."

I hate trying to cause people to grow in discipleship! Especially trying to do it via the expected form. I am expected to take a Bible passage and expound it in such a way that people will be entertained and helped by it. I am doing some preparation for Sunday's "sermon". The passages outlined in the readings set by the Revised Common Lectionary are very challenging. In Galatians Paul says "Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh." Which sounds scary. What it means is don't live a self-centred lifestyle, but live one guided by the purposes and partnership of God. The Gospel reading for the day is even more challenging... in it Jesus challenges people who say they will follow him, but want first to "bury my father" or "say farewell to those at home". He says, "No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."

Now these are challenging texts. I can produce a good entertaining and challenging sermon on them but also I can already see my congregations' eyes glazing over. In their heart of hearts they are saying.... "Yeah right preacher. That's OK for you, but we have a living to earn and a family to look after... if we have some time, energy and resources left over we'll think about God's purposes. But first we have to live." I think, you see, that the way of discipleship only comes to life when you risk, and when you give it your all. When you go out of your comfort zone, then passages like this make sense. Most church people, however, will be nice, good living and religious people, but never make "the way" a central focus in their living. Because they will never be led by "the Spirit" or make "the Kingdom" their focus, they never get that sense of connection, integrated wholeness and partnership available to them. ... in fact my guess is that my readers' eyes have already glazed over.

The way Jesus grew people was to say first... "Come with me". ... and he went about doing good. Somehow in the doing they discovered the truth, then in words they tried to explain the truth they discovered. They used words like, "salvation" "deliverance" "freedom" "eternal life" and "Kingdom of God" for that experience that comes from participating in receiving and sharing God's love. In my experience that method is still the best.

Its like the difference between paddling in the shallows and diving into the water. The first is nice, you get a little feel for the water. But by diving in(a scary process to start with) you get the full feeling of freedom, of twisting and turning, of being swept along, of being enveloped and supported. But it is so hard to convince the paddlers that diving in is worth the effort.

Just at the moment, as I read commentaries and try to fathom what on earth I am going to say and how to lead in worship, I wish I was back plumbing! Pipes were easy to bend!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reflections from my stool...

My sore back makes me sit on a high stool while typing this. It is getting better... it is getting better.... I hope. I am off to see a physiotherapist tomorrow.
Lust is popular....
I have linked this blog to "MyBlogLog" which gives me an idea of what people read on my blog site. It is interesting that the post that discusses "lust" is the most read of all the posts I have put on. People must google "lust" so often and one of the options is my post. I really am not sure that "God" gets as hung up about our "perving", fantasy life and bodily functions as we think he does. Using and abusing people is another thing.
Another of the older generation gone...
There was quite a group of teenagers who attended Church of Christ Youth groups in Dunedin when I was a teenager. The movers and shakers in the Churches were our parents. We looked up to them and recognised their commitment. When I was an apprentice plumber I would never have guessed that I would be taking many of their funerals. I had a phone call from a lady in Christchurch. She was part of the youth group at the church I am at now when I was a teenager. We all went to camps and various youth events together. Her Dad was a deacon in the church here. He and his wife were in the church here when I started ministry. His wife died and a few years later he left to live in Christchurch near his children. Well today he died and I have been asked to lead a memorial service on Friday for him. He was in his nineties. For me it is another reminder of the passing of time. The older generation is nearly all gone. It is the way of life. The scary bit is that I am now even more definitely the "older generation". To be quite crude, I am part of the next group of people who will "fall off the perch". My mind is already in gear thinking of how I will word a tribute to Noel, and how we will remember his life. What will some poor celebrant find to say about my life when my turn comes?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Appreciate what you have got.

I have a sore back. I never get sore backs.... well hardly ever. I lift heavy things, move furniture and dig for hours enjoying a trouble free back most of the time. I am bulletproof. Other people are weaklings with sore backs! But every now and then when I lift even the lightest thing at the wrong angle my back, down near my tail bone, "goes out".

When I was among plumbing apprentices we used to often give each other a hard time just as we finished putting the tools away. We would chase, fight and wrestle one another often with few holds barred. They were quite full on battles. I once ducked a piece of four-by-two thrown at me which very narrowly miss my head. I pushed one guy through a wall! (We never told the carpenter how his wall fell down.) We really pushed the boundaries of safety, all in good fun. It was in one of these tussles on a big building site one day I was on top of a guy wrestling on the concrete floor. The end of day whistle blew so I sprang off him and ran for door and the stairway down to the ground floor. He chased me and just as I went down the first step his steel capped boot hit my tail bone. Ever since then, just every now and then my back "goes out" at that spot. Every time it happens I curse Robin Greer's steel capped boot.

On Wednesday I went to lift a light portable amplifier at the church and my back went out. I went for a jog at night and felt that it loosened it up and was confident that in a day or so it would come right. It was still there, but OK on Thursday morning, but as I bent to thread my leg through my underpants it "went out" again in a big way. I could not put weight on my legs without excruciating pain. I kept saying "It will be OK when I get moving" but discovered I could not really walk down the hall. This is the worst it has ever been. My wife finally convinced me that I had no choice but to take a sick day. The only relief happens after I go out to the workshop and grasping the roof trusses, hang from them and stretch my body out. On Friday I went to work but struggled. (Running and climbing up into a fire truck was "interesting" as was climbing out of it!) I also went to the Doctors. He has given me pain relief medication which is helping. It is getting better. I sat on my stationary bike and started to peddle this morning, but the seat broke and I landed on my tailbone on the floor. My first thought was, "Well that's going to help isn't it?"

It is a great learning curve for me. I have a tendency to get impatient with people with sicknesses and hurts. My approach has been essentially "get over it" and "get on with it". Such an attitude has worked for me most of the time. I was once diagnosed with "post viral fatigue syndrome" and with a doctor friend's help I started exercising my way out of it. But I have to remember there are somethings you can't work through or carry on in spite of. I recall having a bad dose of glandular fever and try as I might, I was useless, as weak as a new born lamb. On Thursday morning I was useless, I could not walk! So my sore back is teaching me to be more understanding. It is getting better, I think. My Doctor said, "I am not going to prescribe days off work, because I know you will ignore it anyway! ... but if it hasn't improved by Monday you come back here and I will tell you how many days you MUST have off!" The other thing that happens is that it knocks your confidence. Standing up from sitting in a chair was painful. But even as it gets better, you still stand carefully and reluctantly because you expect the pain. I am now scared to lift the smallest thing. People's confidence is knocked by illness or injury and this is true of physical and emotional injury. You just don't want to be hurt again, so you hold back.

If you have your health, appreciate it while you have it. There may be a time when you don't and lots don't have it at all.

"Tell me what love is?"
We have this guy who comes to our drop-in who has been deaf most of his life. Just lately he has hearing aids that enable him to hear. He speaks like a deaf person. Last year he was stabbed by his girlfriend/partner during a drinking binge they were having. She is in prison for it and they oscillate between wanting to be together after she gets out or not having anything to do with each other. I think if I was him (he's been stabbed twice) I would do the later, but its not my decision. I was talking to him and he was telling me of this on-again off-again relationship and wondering what he should do. We finished our conversation and he went his way. After a short time he came back. "You talk to me!" he said emphatically with hand gestures emphasising the point. He went over to a more private place and set two chairs facing one another. He pointed in a demanding fashion to one of them and said, "Sit - you talk to me!" I sat and he leaned forward. "You are married. You are a minister. You tell me what love is! I don't know. My mum and my dad never told me, never showed me. You tell me what love is. I want to know! Rose (his girlfriend) wants to know. You tell me! I write to her on Tuesday." So I set to to tell him. My wife handed me a pen and sheet of paper and said, "Write it down for him!" then she added, "This could be interesting?" She did leave us alone though.

If you have someone who tells you and shows you what love is (or has told you or shown you) appreciate them and the relationship. There are those who have never and will never experienced it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I had a dream?

I have a fairly active dream life these days. (There was a time when I was a teenager I could not understand people having "dreams". They were not my experience though I had an active fantasy life.) I am, obviously not going to tell you about all of my dreams. I often have nightmares with a common theme. I am in a train that is racing down rails out of control, headed for disaster. I am driving a truck that I cannot slow and it is coming to a sharp corner beside a big cliff. I am being chased relentlessly by bad guys with guns, and it seems that whatever I do I cannot escape. Usually I wake up with my heart pounding. I think that these themes come from the feeling I have that I am in ministry in a church that could fail and go out of business and I feel an incredible responsibility for that. Someone else claims that my bad habit of raiding the fridge and chopping off a slice of cheese as I go to bed causes the dreams. Cheese at night, they say, causes one to have nightmares.

Every now and then I have a "profound" dream where I am forced to expound my thinking on various subjects. In one I was at a church conference and I feel compelled to stand and make an urgent plea for the church to be a servant church. In another dream there was a similar scene, but I simply must speak out on the subject of a simple lifestyle, even though it was unpopular. In each of these I have woken terrified, but being surprised at my "speech" and the insights that came. Often I forget the details in the morning but had the sense of having been challenged in that area. Well the other night I had one of my "profound" dreams and I'll share the details with you.

I have no clue how I came to end up in the scene. I am in a chair, there are two intimidating men glowering at me and shining a lamp in my eyes. (The scene is similar to the scene in a Kiwibank TV advert where a woman is tied to a chair and questioned by mean looking dudes... though I am not tied.) They are ridiculing me for being a christian minister. They are ridiculing the superstitious faith in the age of reason. They are claiming religion causes wars. They claim religion is life denying etc. etc. They question me relentlessly and keep shouting at me is "Why are you a minister?" "Why don't you give it up? It is stupidity!" ... or words to that effect.

(Now I can understand why I have this dream with this theme. It is a question I continually ask myself. When I lead a Sunday service.... "Why do it? What good does it do?" When I see the ridiculous priorities churches have or read of scandals in the church I ask myself this question. I am also aware that my faith and stance is hardly orthodox anymore, and that many would call me a heretic. I am constantly having to word things carefully so as not to offend. I read many christian books, articles and commentaries and think "this is crap!" I hate choosing hymns because the same applies. So I often ask myself, "Am I being honest to still be in ministry?" So it is not surprising that such a question should emerge in my dream life. Also in the circles I move in as a chaplain, the church and faith is often ridiculed, though I am generally accepted.) But let me continue with the dream.

The two men pepper me with questions, challenges and ridicule. They keep shouting, "Why do it?" In the dream sitting in this chair in front of this barrage of shouting, I break down sobbing, and shout back, "I don't know! I don't know! What a waste of a life!" and I sob uncontrollably, finally sitting there head in hands breathing heavily. The men just glower at me, pleased that they have broken me. Slowly I stop sobbing and say, "Wait! I have an answer. Just listen... I have three things to say." Here is the guts of what I say.

Hesitantly I say, "I am a minister because Jesus makes a difference!"

"First by following Jesus, I believe people are better people. Jesus taught a path of generosity, of peace, of forgiveness, of love. If in my every day life I put into practice those sorts of values I am simply a better person. I am a better husband, because I am more considerate. I am a better father, because I value my children. I am a better workmate, easier to get along with and conscientious. My life will be lived more peacefully, more serenely and more constructively because by following Jesus I simply am a better person".

With growing confidence I continue, "Secondly, if I follow Jesus' way, I am a much wider thinking person. My circle of concern will not be just me and my family, but I will be concerned for the welfare of people in the wider community; the whole variety of people no matter creed, race, status or gender; I will truly be a citizen of the world. I will not get hung up about selfish issues, but will have this wider perspective. The world simply needs wider thinking people, willing to make a difference and Jesus can make people that way inclined.

More loudly now I almost shout, "Thirdly, it has been my experience, that when I follow the ways of Jesus, I sense a connection with 'the sacred'. I cannot define 'God' clearly, but when I follow Jesus' way in action, I sense a deep partnership with an unseen current of life, a friendship with that which is eternal. I feel a link to the past and the deep feeling that I am part of the future. I sense that my life is 'in' a movement, purposes and power that is bigger than me, and more important than the relatively superficial, shorter lived purposes of family, material possessions, career or nation "

I straighten up and eyeball the two men and say, "Yes, yes, that's it...It may not make sense to you two, but I am a church minister because by following Jesus people can live better lives; they are more likely to make a difference for good in their community and world; and they can experience a profound connection and partnership with God. The Church, with all its faults is still the place that presents 'Jesus', so that's why I am still a minister! It's NOT stupidity!" I shout at them.

At that point the dream stopped, I woke up and lay there surprised and pondering what it all meant. I like the argument and cannot figure out how in a dream my subconscious came up with it. I wondered if I was partially awake and stewing? I don't know, I simply share what I experienced. It speaks to me. It feels like a connection with "the sacred" stream of life we call "God".

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I want it NOW! ... and other stuff.

So little patience
I have been chuckling at myself. How easily I get sucked into the "instant gratification" mind set of the world around me. I have a desk top PC at my work office. It is a few years old and probably in need of some spring cleaning, but compared to my new Macbook Pro, it tends to run so slow. I click on an instruction, and the computer begins to "think" about acting.... "Come on! come on!" I am saying. In a matter of seconds it begins to load up what I want. I recall a time when there was no Internet. We thought fax machines were marvelous! I recall a time when if you wanted to make an international telephone call, you had to phone an operator and you had to book it in. ... Now I can connect with people throughout the world in a few seconds and I grumble about the speed! We are so impatient! I have a friend who often helps me do stuff at the church who is always telling me to "Wait! Have some patience! Let it do it's thing!" I click on something and start re pushing buttons when I don't have instant satisfaction... I often only end up completely confusing the poor computer

We are planning a trip to Europe. We fly via Heathrow to Prague and by car onto Poland. We added up the hours it will take us to get there. Virtually two days of traveling! Two days out of my life... we are grumbling about it! The stop overs... the time between flights etc. We growl... but REALLY! We are traveling around the other side of world in just 2 days! ... not that long ago it took months to travel that sort of distance and it was often done in very uncomfortable circumstances. Anyway.... I guess I am saying I need to have more patience.

Mary and Martha...
Last year I started to play soccer with a group of people. I loved it and I think they enjoyed having me around. This year I have not been near soccer... too busy. A group connected to the soccer started using our drop-in centre area on Tuesdays. I usually remember to open it, and set it up for them. At the start I would stop and play a few games of pool... lately I have pleaded "too busy" and not been around for a game. On Tuesday I forgot to open till I got a text from one of the guys. I opened the door and we set up together. I apologised for forgetting, I said that I was busy. As he set up the pool balls he said, "I suppose you're too busy for a game with me?" then he went on... "Have you heard of Mary and Martha? One of them was too busy, made the wrong choice. Perhaps you are too busy?" I stopped and played three games with him. "It's alright for him!" I said to myself, "He's unemployed. Needs to fill his time up. ... I have deadlines!" .... but his comment hit home. Am I too busy for people!? Maybe he has a point? But I do spend lots of time with people.... I don't know the answer, it's just an issue.

What's the use? ... how come?
Today I led our Church service. Yesterday I was saying to my wife... "What the hell's the use?" I put hours of reading, thought and creativity into it... I generally lose sleep on Saturday night. I am not much company all day Saturday. I am nervous after years of doing it. I ask myself... why do it? What do I accomplish? Today for me was not all that it should have been. I did a lot of research. I knew the reading inside out. I had a good take on it. I wrestled with it. I did all the power points on Saturday night.... got up on Sunday and changed them around. I usually scribble out a "sermon" several times... but do not take any notes into the service. Today things didn't go right in the office prior to the service... some technical hitches with the power points had us nervous. I took time out to go over in my mind what I wanted to say and two "illustrations" I had thought of and written into my notes just would not come to mind... my scribbles were still at home. During the service a sound item did not go right. ... I did not feel I communicated as clearly as I wanted to. .. I remembered one illustration and another came to mind to fill the gap. .. but I felt I had mucked up and was quietly relieved when we sang the "amen" at the end of the service. But... after the service I had so many positive comments. Some of them were "thoughtful" ones, not just slick throw away phrases. People were helped and I think others were challenged. What a weird job? What a mysterious process? I guess I will do it all again next week.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Powerful people.

I am currently Workplace Support chaplain to Allied Press in Dunedin. They produce the Otago Daily Times, the Star Community paper, various other community papers and have a TV Station linked to them. I met the "top man" in the corner office today. As I talked to him briefly I thought that this man is POWERFUL!

I was talking to another man from another country where there is unrest recently. We were talking about elections, democracy and such things. He is a very clever University graduate and he talked about the wide range in the population of his country. There were rich people, successful corporations and universities. But then there was a large part of the population who were subsistence farmers, fishermen, or very poor people living in very basic conditions. He pointed out that for democracy to work properly, these people, often relatively poorly educated, had to some how become aware of the issues. He said it depended very much on who was informing them.

As I talked to this Media big wig today and as I see the reporters, sub-editors and others doing their job, I recognise that they have a very important part to play in our society. They inform us. Their slant on things can have an incredible impact. The things they report about and the things they leave out can set the tone of our society. They can make or break elections. Professor Andrew Bradstock in his inaugural lecture on Public Theology commented how in New Zealand there is not much very serious public debate about the big issues that face our society. TV tends more to entertain in short sound bites rather than delve deeply into issues. There are few magazines or newspapers (though he thought the local paper was an exception) that really explore deeply the topics they discuss. He felt this was a serious limitation in our national life. Some reporters have told me of the word limits for articles. I realise how difficult and frustrating it must be for them to give full and serious treatment to the issues they write about with relatively small word allowances. I guess too, those limitations are governed by what we, the public are prepared to read and pay for. It is a vicious circle.

Anyway, if you believe in prayer, pray for our media people. They have a big responsibility and are in very powerful positions in our society. I hope they realise their importance and their awesome responsibility.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

People talking with people.

There are a few books written by John V Taylor that I enjoy. One of them with quite a lot of insight is "The Go-between God". The subject of the book is what we traditionally call "The Holy Spirit". I want to share with you the story he finishes his book with.

"A colleague has recently described to me an occasion when a West Indian woman in a London flat was told of her husband's death in a street accident. The shock of grief stunned her like a blow, she sank into a corner of the sofa and sat there rigid and unhearing. For a long time her terrible tranced look continued to embarrass the family, friends and officials who came and went. Then the schoolteacher of one of her children, an Englishwoman, called and, seeing how things were, went and sat beside her. Without a word she threw an arm around the tight shoulders, clasping them with her full strength. The white cheek was thrust hard against the brown. Then as the unrelenting pain seeped through to her the newcomer's tears began to flow, falling on their two hands linked in the woman's lap. For a long time that is all that was happening. And then at last the West Indian woman started to sob. Still not a word was spoken and after a little while the visitor got up and went, leaving her contribution to help the family meet its immediate needs."

John V Taylor then comments;

"That is the embrace of God, his kiss of life. That is the embrace of his mission, and of our intercession. And the Holy Spirit is the force in the straining muscles of an arm, the film of sweat between pressed cheeks, the mingled wetness on the backs of clasped hands. He is as close and as unobtrusive as that, and as irresistibly strong."

Imagine that? "God" is in the muscles! "God" is in the salty wet tears and the sweat! I like this picture of God. The compassion and the "realness" of it rings bells with me.

Some years ago my wife and I one Sunday afternoon went on a mission. We went around the shut in elderly folk of the congregation offering to have communion with them in their homes. We had a couple of visits with little communion services at each then we went to a third lady. We offered communion and she said, "Nah.... that doesn't trouble me... but will you have a cup of tea and, Oh yes, I got given some cake the other day," she said with a glint in her eye, "we'll have a bit of that as a celebration." Together we prepared our afternoon tea and then we sat and talked of family and friends, and frustrations and feelings. Then we left. As I sat in the car I asked my wife, "Which was real communion? The little 'religious' services we had with the others or the "cuppa", cake and conversation we had with Betty? Which was truly sacred?" I had to admit that the cup of tea and cake was truly "communion" and felt more real and sacred.

Today in the back of the Church at what we call Space2B we had 20 people call. It was full-on! An eighty something year old brought his lunch and ate it while telling us about composting sea weed and vegetable gardening. Another couple talked to me of having to put their cats, pets for over 17 years, "to sleep", and the grief of that decision. People shared resources. New settlers talked about language, employment and visa difficulties. We talked about sustainability things, about exercise and about jobs. Another older bloke donated some wire puzzles he had bought. Someone brought sushi to share, and another had brought pop-corn that we cooked in the micro-wave.... and so it went on. It was a busy few hours as people came, talked and had food and drank coffee. But it felt "important", sacred and life enhancing. The only thing "religious" was that it was in a church. There was secular background music. None of the conversation was about 'religious' things, but about real "life" issues. I went back to my office after washing the mugs feeling like I had just participated in something truly sacred. "God" was in the listening ears. "God" was in the empathy shared! God was in the laughter and God was in the "See you next week, have a good week." Washing the mugs felt like washing the communion cups.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

True words spoken by a lady I admire.

Many years ago our severely handicapped foster daughter needed to find a secondary school to attend. We took her to the various options and our final visit was to Queens High School in Dunedin. We waited in the foyer and watched girls going to and fro. In due course a friendly lady (the school principal) came down the hall and ushered us into her office. Two little dogs were sniffing at our feet as we settled into our seats. Pania our daughter was quite delighted and beamed all over as the principal introduced her to the dogs. We sat and talked. This lady talked directly to Pania, not just about her. She told us about a "pastoral care plan" and showed us the details. She spoke of the possibilities and was keen for Pania to relate in normal classes. The whole atmosphere, values and enthusiasm this lady created made the choice of schools a "no-brainer". Queens High School was Pania's secondary school and she loved it. This lady's name was Pat Harrison, she is now Dame Pat Harrison. She is well retired from teaching now but the local paper had a piece of her writing in Saturday's paper. I share with you a paragraph which I find puts into words what I often find annoying and disturbing about perspectives and directions in today's world. Dame Pat writes: -

"I've got to wondering if we have ideals now. If we do they have to be polished up into cost effectiveness and measured if they are to have any value. I think that something called outputs determines the worth of an ideal now, and because you can count outputs, ideals get in the way. Anyhow, how can we measure improving a human condition? Or making a kid feel good about achieving, when for some a big achievement looks positively minute in the scheme of things? With this fetish for measurement, a new language is abroad now. I have not mastered it; nor will I. That language is raw and passionless and without humanity. It seems to be bred from imposition, control and restriction, three pretty damning elements."

In my experience, in Churches, Government departments, local politics, Social work agencies, industries, and even in groups like Habitat for Humanity, "outputs" distort our human journey, our priorities and our perspectives on life. These comments have a ring of truth about them. I say "Amen! Dame Pat! You tell them!"

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Another week has gone...

Thought I would share some things from my past week.
Computers, Internet and stuff....
My wife was going to throw out a whole heap of old National Geographic magazines that were hanging around the Church. Being the hoarder that I am I declared that they would make great bed time reading so they are now in a pile by my bed. I was reading the October 1982 issue. There is an article there entitled "The Chip - electronic mini-marvel that is changing your life." It is so interesting reading the article from the 2010 perspective. Here are some gems from it.

"... a silicon flake a quarter of an inch on a side can hold a million electronic components, ten times more than 30-ton ENIAC, the world's first electronic digital computer. ENIAC was dedicated in 1946, the ancestor of today's computers that calculate and store information, using memory and logic chips. But ENIAC's most spectacular successor is the microprocessor - a 'computer on a chip.' This prodigy is 30,000 times as cheap as ENIAC, draws the power of a night-light instead of a hundred lighthouses, and in some versions performs a million calculations a second, 200 times as many as ENIAC ever could."

"The chip's condensed brainpower nourishes another phenomenon - personal computers. Last year more than 800,000 were sold, ..... the chip makes them increasingly easy to use."

"Piggybacking on personal computers are dozens of new services. Exotic now, computer conveniences such as electronic mail and newspapers and home banking and shopping could in time become as universal as telephone service."

"...a great computer, ILLIAC IV, which cost NASA 30 million dollars in 1972, .... ILLIAC could perform millions of aerospace calculations per second - and simultaneously. But it consumed enough power to light a small city and needed a maintenance crew of 20"

Compare these 1982 statements with today's world. I am not sure of all the amazing electronic advances since then, but the world has changed profoundly.

I am sitting here in my home office typing on my new "Macbook pro" laptop. I have two old PC's sitting here yet to be sorted out. I am listening to a sixties music CD I purchased today being played on an old laptop set up with good speakers as an office sound system. I had a brief chat via skype with a friend who lives about 15 k away. I read as I turned on my Mac that Apple had sold 2 million ipads in less than 60 days........ compare that with 800,000 personal computers in 1982! I am a relatively old man not very much tuned into the world of the Internet and technology, but look at the incredible advances and changes since 1946! Then look at the mind blowing changes in this whole area since 1982! In one of my chaplaincy sites the IT people tell me there are 350 computers in the building! (About one for every employee) I was blown away by an incident that happened to me last year. Out of the blue a stranger, a young man from the United Arab Emerites Skyped me. He was a Muslim, and we had several sessions talking about our respective countries and cultures. Then he encountered a problem in his life with the death of his grandmother who he was looking after. He came on line and told me about it and asked my advice about some stuff. How weird is that? Here I am a NZ christian minister and I am listening to, supporting and guiding a grieving Muslim young man living around the other side of the world?? But that is the nature of today's technology. I just find the rate of change to be amazing.
A beautiful event...
If you are a regular reader you would know that my friend Terry, who came to our drop-in centre, committed suicide a few weeks ago. On Friday evening Terry's brother with his wife and young son came to our drop-in with extra funeral service sheets for those who wanted them, a plate full of delicious food and a large cake. It was a privilege to show them where Terry had shared so many Friday evenings with friends and so nice to see drop-in centre people going up to him, expressing sympathy and chatting about their memories. Some of the drop-in folks taught Terry's young nephew how to play pool. It was a special gesture which made for a memorable night of friendship. Even in the dark times, good emerges.
Brother's birthday dinner...
One of my brothers turned 60 in May. His daughter and wife organised a surprise birthday dinner for him yesterday, Queens Birthday weekend in NZ. Murray lives 235 kilometres of fairly windy road from where we live. The dinner was at 6 p.m. yesterday. I had to be back in Dunedin to lead a church service this morning, so we drove up yesterday afternoon, shared in the dinner with family and friends, then drove home again. I caught up on Murray and his wider family, another brother Stephen and my sister Katherine. It was a great evening and worth the late night driving. I used to annoy my mum because she thought I was not family orientated enough. I choose to see "family" as having very wide application, (All are my brothers and sisters) but I must admit there is something about shared memories, life time connections and shared journeys in a family that make spending time together special.
I am not getting as much running in as I want to but generally run Saturday, Sunday and Monday each week. It is nice now to run without a hurting hamstring and a painful knee. I enjoyed a run in the rain tonight.

Photo: My new toy... on my messy desk.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Happy talking....

I went to a lecture last night. It was entitled "Public Theology? No thanks I'll stick with the normal kind." I was disappointed. I was hoping to be stimulated by new thinking or different ideas. The lecturer when he was opening the lecture said he was going to do some controversial stirring. I waited for it but never sensed it. It was not different or new thinking for me. He was in an awkward setting to lecture and did not seem to connect with the audience. So I was disappointed.

I mentioned it to my daughter who agreed with me about it, but then went on to say, "You have to realise that not everybody is where you are at. Unfortunately that may have been new thinking for many people there".

He mentioned the "Liberation Theology concept that God has a preference for the poor". That according to the prophets of the Old Testament the measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. That was one point where there were nods of approval from the audience. (May be they were asleep?)

Let me let off steam a little bit. Down through the years I have been involved in different groups studying the Church's social responsibility. Liberal thinking people have reiterated the prophets' call for justice, a fair deal for the poor and looking after the needy. I have heard liberal after liberal waxing eloquently about the Church needing to be involved in society, about Christian responsibility toward the vulnerable etc. etc. Now I may be being very judgemental, but it seems to me that we in the Churches love to talk. We will hold discussion groups, retreats, and seminars on such subjects. We may even preach sermons on it. But I really see little action.

Take last night. I looked around and knew many of the people. There was a fair representation from the leadership of main line, establishment churches in our city. I recognised people there also who I had seen attending ecumenical services in our city, and while I did not know their names, knew that they were church members of various mainline city churches. My concern is that they will go to such a meeting as last night and nod approvingly. They will wax eloquently about social responsibility and such things. But... when we want to build houses for low income people in the city (as in Habitat for Humanity) where are these lovely church people? I have over the years as a promoter for Habitat for Humanity tried to encourage Church involvement at various levels. I suggested Church ladies providing morning teas or helping with lunches. I have encouraged people of both genders to be involved in building. I suggested once a ministers' building day as a fun time of fellowship for the city ministers. (The ministers agreed, but one minister apart from me turned up) I have been deeply disappointed by the response from the established churches. It is great to talk about such things, but involvement is another matter. In 2003 a group of us involved with needy people recognised a need for emergency housing in the city. We called a public meeting. Where were the good Church people? (I have to admit a very good group of catholics have been involved.) We need Trust Board members for the Night shelter Trust Board. We need volunteer supervisors. But where are these liberal minded Christians? They are few and far between. I think we often think that because we have talked about such issues we have done something about them. There must be talk and discussion and "consciousness raising", but it must be followed by or even preceded by action. Now I have to admit that many denominations have "Social Service agencies" run by professional social workers etc. But few actual congregations or congregants seriously engage with the vulnerable and poor in their communities.

How can Christianity gain a hearing?
One of the questions the lecturer raised last night about "Public Theology" is if we agree Christianity has something to offer in the public domain, if Christianity is to contribute to public debate on current issues, "How can it get a hearing in a secular world?" He went on to talk about the nature of the dialogue and the language we use in such a dialogue. Let me say that what is needed is for the Churches to gain credibility in these areas, then its voice may be listened to. When Churches are seen to be compassionately involved in community needs then "the public" will sit up and listen to what they have to say. They have earned their credibility. I don't think the issue is one of just the language used to communicate.

Two more quotes from my graffiti board poster... (They relate to the topic of this post)

"Preach the gospel in season and out of season,
at any opportunity that you are able....
... if necessary use words." ..... Francis of Assissi

"If you preach the gospel in all aspects
with the exception of the issues
which deal specifically with your time
you are not preaching the gospel at all." ...... Martin Luther